Hope Bourne: A Wild Woman of Exmoor

This is the first blog in which I’ll celebrate ‘Wild Women of Words’ – women who lived unconventionally, close to nature, and wrote about their own special pursuits. Here I’ll introduce you to Hope Bourne, whose writing was primarily about the wild landscape that she lived in.

Hope Bourne – reproduced by kind permission of Chris Chapman photography

A Personal Recollection

In the 1980s, when I was living near Dulverton on Exmoor, we used to buy the West Somerset Free Press newspaper. It was an all-purpose local newspaper, with the kind of headlines that didn’t shake the world. (The one which sticks in my mind was: ‘Rainfall breaks all records!’ Amazing, I thought – but reading on, I discovered that for the first time ever, it had been exactly ‘average’ for the last month. And ‘Hit and Run Driver’ was the villain who’d left a slight dent in another car and not left their details. But perhaps we should be thankful for such mild dramas in local life.

However, the newspaper also contained something unique – a column by one ‘Hope Bourne’. Was it a pseudonym, I wondered, as ‘Patience Strong’ had been a generation earlier, a pseudonym for Winifred Emma May who wrote morally uplifting, often cringeworthy poems for magazines. But I soon realised that Hope Bourne was indeed the genuine name of a woman who lived a very unusual life, immersed in the wild nature of Exmoor. At this time, Hope would already have been in her 60s. She lived remotely, more or less what we’d now call ‘off grid’, and walked miles over the wild moorland every day, sometimes shooting and fishing to catch her food. She was very knowledgeable about history and landscape, and not afraid to speak out from her own values, whether they were the popular ones or not.

Withypool, Hope’s nearest village

I learnt more specifically that she lived alone in a caravan on the site of a burnt-out farmhouse at Ferny Ball in the wilds of Exmoor. She had no transport, but would regularly walk the four miles to Withypool and back, to pick up essential shopping. She observed the changing seasons and the life of the moor in detail, writing and ruminating over the changes and sometimes painting or drawing what she saw – she was a skilled artist who had had professional commissions in her time. All this was the basis for her regular newspaper articles. And she shot rabbits for the pot, a firm believer in the old ways of the countryside. In this way, she was somewhat like the poet Ted Hughes, who hunted and fished as part of his immersion in the natural world, not backing away from the realities of where food comes from.

At this time, we lived in an old Devon longhouse, called Hawkwell Farm. It was no longer a complete farm with all its land, but we still had 10 acres – enough for me to fulfil a dream of owning a horse (or two), and keeping chickens, something which I’d loved as a child. Hope kept bantams around her caravan pitch in the abandoned farmyard. And according to her newspaper column, these bred freely and she often had more bantam chicks than she knew what to do with. So I plucked up courage and wrote to her. We could offer a home for one or two, if she liked?

Hawkwell Farm, a more recent photo, looking rather more well-kept than in the days when we had it. Below are a picture map of its old field systems which was painted on our dining room wall at the time, and the nearby Hawkwell Cross.

Hope did indeed like the idea. She had a couple of spare bantams looking for a good home. She invited me over to visit her and I in turn invited her to come back in the Land Rover with me to lunch, and see where the two bantams would be living. She accepted with alacrity – she was keen to see corners of Exmoor that she hadn’t visited before.

All this happened forty years ago, so my memory is a little hazy, but I remember being somewhat shocked when I drove up to Ferny Ball, to see the ruinous state of the farm surrounding her caravan. And we chatted easily – I was left in no doubt that she was a sharp-minded, lively woman with strong views. I do remember in particular her opinion of the stag hunt on Exmoor, already contentious at that time, and later banned. ‘You see,’ she said, ‘I view it as one of the last remnants of medieval pageantry.’  I had never thought of it that way before, but I mused on her perspective. The deer do need culling, as they have no natural predators such as wolves in this man-managed landscape, and the debate is usually over whether it’s better to hunt or shoot them. There are many articles about deer on Exmoor, and their welfare, such as https://wildaboutexmoor.com/exmoor-deer/ and, in my old friend the West Somerset Free Press. But for Hope to see it as part of the old ways of the countryside, and its rich traditions, certainly gave food for thought.

Red deer, as I photographed them on Molland Common, at the full extent of my zoom lens
An Exmoor pony, on Anstey Common

Hope had arrived on Exmoor as a child. She was born in Oxford in 1918, the illegitimate daughter of a school teacher; her father was an Australian soldier, who she never met, but thought that she probably inherited her ‘love of guns and horses’ from him. Hope and her mother moved to Hartland in north Devon in 1927, and eventually in 1951 to a cottage on Exmoor. With just a short absence after her mother died in 1955 (when Hope tried out life in Australia on a sheep farm), Hope then lived on Exmoor for nearly fifty years. It was a singular life, but not a reclusive one. She loved her life alone, but also welcomed company – remembered by others as a kind, helpful woman. She often helped out on the farms where she was skilled with haymaking, harvest, and working with cattle and sheep. Horses were also her love, and she created beautiful paintings of the Exmoor ponies, who roam semi-wild there.

For many of these biographical details, I’m indebted to Chris Chapman for his video ‘How many people see the stars as I do?’ You can watch a trailer for the film (see below) and purchase it from Chris Chapman directly, an account of Hope’s life and his friendship with her. I’m also grateful to Chris for permission to use his stunning portrait of Hope to open this account.

The Bantams Arrive

Hope and the ‘banties’ thus arrived at Hawkwell, and we gave her lunch and chatted – I wish now that I’d recorded or noted down more of our conversation. Sprite, the female bantam, along with ‘Cocky’ (a male surplus to Hope’s own flock) settled down nicely with our assorted flock of free range hens, and a few more bantam companions. Then a little later, I received a further letter from her, offering me another growing bantam.

Dear Cherry,

Many thanks for letter – it is so kind of you to let me know how ‘Sprite’ is getting on – I’ve thought about her so much. Thank you for being kind to her, and finding time to talk to her. Of course, everything must be very strange to her, but I’m sure she will settle down. I think your idea of making a little temporary enclosure for her and Cocky a very good one – it would keep them in each other’s company so that a ‘bond’ would form.

Now this brings me to say, amongst a lot of troubles I have had one bit of good luck: of the youngest small brood of this year’s chicks, all of whom I had assumed to be cocks, one has turned into a pretty little lightish-coloured hen, like the ones in the photo you showed me. So I am a little hen to the good. Would you like to have her? You would then have a trio again, and she would be company for Sprite – one of her own kind.

If you would like her, I suggest about Christmas time would be the best time to have her, as she will be fairly well grown then, and able to hold her own with the others.

Thank you too for my visit to Hawkwell, which I loved. I think it is a most beautiful place, and I hope that I may one day come again. Looking through some of my notes, I see that it is ‘Hawechewelle’ (?) in the Domesday Book and had land to 3 ploughs, with three ploughs there, three villeins, 4 bordars [smallholders] and one serf, (the villeins were the peasant farmers, so look around for three other farms nearby. The bordars were smallholders. The serf would be just a slave attached to the home-farm. The area of land is not so easy to assess, since early medieval land measurements and categories are complicated and often difficult to interpret.

Hoping to hear from you again before too long,

Hope L. B.

The early days of our hens at Hawkwell, while still youngsters, before the bantams arrived.

After that, I didn’t meet Hope again, which is much to my regret now. Our own country dream (more romantic and less committed than Hope’s way of life) came to an end when we moved up to Bristol in 1987, and we re-homed our menagerie. Schooling for the children, work in London for my husband, my growing involvement in singing early music– all these prised us out of our Exmoor idyll. Plus it was very hard work. We were not made of the stern stuff that Hope was.

Her letter to me, below:

I kept up with news of Hope through mutual friends from time to time, and eventually heard that she had had to give up her ‘wild’ existence. She was getting older, less healthy, and no richer either – the Poll Tax imposed by Margaret Thatcher, money to pay simply for being alive, was one of the final straws. She had been a fierce resister in refusing all State aid for all those years, and now she was to be penalised for this. As we now know, this hugely unpopular tax was abolished a few short years later – but by then it was too late for Hope. She thus moved into sheltered accommodation with the financial assistance of kind friends.

Hope’s Legacy

I have three of her books on my shelf: Living on Exmoor, Exmoor Village, and Hope Bourne’s History of Exmoor. Apparently Living on Exmoor was put together out of scraps of paper, packed up in a cow cake bag and sent on spec to the publishers! Luckily, they recognised it as something quite unique, and accepted it. Her writing can be a little on the effusive side, but I’m not surprised that it does sometimes go a little over the top – it is astonishing how she manages to sustain descriptions of nature and the landscape page after page. There are some truly beautiful passages, marked with sharp observations. From the chapter on May, therefore, in Living on Exmoor, which is particularly appropriate to the moment that I’m writing this, with the first of May in a couple of days’ time.

Everywhere the beech has burst into such a glory of living green as bewilders all the senses. Translucent, soft as silk, delicate as fluttering wings, holding the light in showers of pure green-gold – the beech leaves break over the harsh moorland landscape like a benediction, like a voice proclaiming life. Over hill and combe, all round the fields and about the grey-roofed farms the green tide flows and tosses, life from the brown shucked bud, life from the dead wood, life reaching out to the mounting summer sun. How lovely is the beech! No foliage is there more delicate in spring, no leaves so fiery in autumn, nor yet any tree stouter to face the winter gales….Now I walk home in the evening hours, with all the sky an ocean of endless radiant light…and see the hills dissolve in molten space, and all the leaves, each one a green translucent thing, a green light against the light. The sun sinks down and is gone. The horizon grows dark with a line of wind-twisted beech marching along its rim, far off and distant like a drawing. The sense of space and distance is enormous, infinite. It is like looking at a country far off in space and time…The dark sky-line against the light seems to draw one’s soul…Suddenly all things seem possible, for one feels a power that is more than mortal all around. It Is an awareness that is something beyond all human understanding.

The hollow drumming of a snipe comes strange and vibrant in the silence. I turn through the first field gate int the twilight, and the last sound of the night is the croaking of the frogs like inane laughter in the labyrinth of the bog below.

Hope became an esteemed figure in the landscape during her life on Exmoor. In 1978, Daniel Farson made a film about her. She thus became a ‘star of self-sufficiency’ for a while, but didn’t enjoy the attention – she didn’t want to be seen as a ‘back to the land’ hippy, but empasised that lived her way ‘out of necessity’. She never had much money; her grandfather’s will cut off any possible inheritance from her mother.

Since her death, her renown has grown year after year, and she is now a legend. Regular walks for visitors are conducted down the tracks that she walked, she features in Exmoor exhibitions, and has become part of the heritage of Exmoor itself. Our lives only touched each other for a short while, but I’m proud to have known her, and wish it had been for longer. Exmoor itself is imprinted on my soul, and now that we’re back living in Devon, I try to visit it regularly again.

The wild Exmoor uplands of Dunkery Beacon and the beauty of the beech trees in old Exmoor woodland.

The Naming of Flowers: A spring musing

Our garden in spring

As I approach my 100th post on Cherry’s Cache, I’m taking a spring break. So I’m now posting one of my occasional ‘interludes’ which I hope will provide some gentle interest and amusement for a while. And meanwhile, behind the scenes, there are new posts in preparation. I never know exactly which ones will succeed and make the light of day, so I shan’t give away anything just yet! But I’m hopeful to have a few more to share with you through the changing seasons. To give a clue or two: a feisty lady whose invention was sought by royalty – an ancestral hero who was hanged for treason – and the story of a bridge which housed an illegal match factory. Let’s see how it goes!

The Magic of Common Names

For now, it’s the spring itself which prompts this post, about the names that we give to flowers. Those names which I learned in my childhood still cluster brightly in my mind. Meadowsweet, foxglove, deadly nightshade, celandine. Bluebell, speedwell, old man’s beard, and ragged robin. Scarlet pimpernel, Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, and marsh marigold. All these are old familiar friends to me, and I have no trouble identifying them in fields, woods and hedgerows, in the way that my parents taught me on our country walks when I was a little girl. I imagine that in my mother’s case, they were handed down to her by her parents too –my grandfather, taught me that hawthorn leaf buds were called ‘bread and cheese’, and that they were tasty to eat. (They are, too!) He also said: ‘When the gorse is out of bloom, then kissing’s out of season’. Something I’ve trotted out regularly, to the boredom of my own family. A botanist later explained to me that they have identified two different species of gorse, which bloom at different times of year, hence the impression that they’re perennially in flower.

The gorse which proves that ‘Kissing’s never out of season.’

I loved leaning these names, and must admit that I haven’t progressed hugely beyond my childhood lists. (I have added though, for instance, Bog Asphodel, Yellow Rattle, and Star of Bethlehem. Plus Lousewort and Feverfew, Angelica and Yellow Archangel)

Left: Bog Asphodel, photographed on Woodbury Common, East Devon.

Right: Yellow Rattle and Star of Bethlehem, photographed on Minchinhampton Common, Gloucestershire

I will never be a proper wildflower specialist, because above all else, I love the ‘common’ names and resist learning the Latin ones. They may be far more accurate in differentiating species, but they lack the character of our common ones, which are often steeped in folklore, healing lore and bawdy jests. (see below, for Cuckoo Pint).  Last summer, in 2022, writer Michael Rosen broadcast a radio programme about these names, in his BBC series ‘Word of Mouth’. If you can access iPlayer, it’s available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0019m7c

The programme description reads:

Snotty Gogs and Moggie Nightgown may not immediately mean a lot to you but as common or folk names for the Yew berry and Wood anemone they reveal a fascinating social and cultural history of the countryside. Michael Rosen talks to the natural history broadcaster Brett Westwood about the informative, often funny sometimes bawdy names given to British plants and flowers.’

Some are a kaleidoscope of interchangeable names: Eggs And Bacon may also be called Birdsfoot Trefoil, Cuckoo Flower can be Lady’s Smock, that sticky grass which you threw at when you were little) can be referred to Cleavers, Goosegrass or Sticky Willie. And in my mind, Eyebright, Speedwell and Traveller’s Joy are all the same thing – small, bright blue flowers. Though either I telescoped them or was taught erroneously, as on further checking it seems that Traveller’s Joy should really be identified with Old Man’s Beard, growing in the hedgerows and seen most clearly in winter. Listening to Michael Rosen’s broadcast I was taken aback to hear that Cuckoo Pint, which is what we used interchangeably with Cuckoo Flower, actually relates to Lords and Ladies, ie Arum Lilies. However my shock is not at the casual transference of names, but the fact that apparently Cuckoo means Cuckold, and Pint is an old word for penis – you can work out the implications I am sure.

The same radio programme also mentions flower games, such as making daisy chains, which reminded me how my Auntie Maisie taught me to make Poppy Dolls. You carefully fold the scarlet petals back, exposing the black frilled seedhead at the centre, then tie the doll’s waist with a soft piece of grass, and poke a stiff piece of grass through the upper area of the petals to look like arms. Could I find an image of these on the internet? (It not being the poppy season to give me a chance to revive my skills.) Hooray, I could! These ones have two legs rather than our single stem ‘leg’. I wonder how they did that?

Old Man’s Beard or Traveller’s Joy, Marsh Woundwort, and Forget-me-not

The pandemic project: listing names

So to conclude, here’s a list of ‘common’ names which I copied out of a book of flowers. It was an afternoon-idling kind of activity that I turned to in lockdown, and now it can find a place here. I wrote out all that appealed to me for the ring of their names, the humour and the stories that must go with them. The book was ‘Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain’, published by the Reader’s Digest in 1981, and as well as an identifier, it’s a treasure trove of information on plant names, uses and folklore.  Some are well-known, some unusual or regional. And rather than call them common, I’d use the word ‘magical’. See what you think.


Marsh Marigold

Stinking hellebore

Traveller’s Joy



Lady’s Smock –

Cuckoo Pint




Treacle mustard



Shepherd’s purse –

Mother’s heart

Lords and Ladies

Ragged Robin

Bachelor’s Buttons



Hottentot fig

Good King Henry

Fairy flax

Herb Robert

Goat’s rue

Lady’s Mantle

Biting stonecrop



Enchanter’s Nightshade

Rosebay Willowherb

Shepherd’s Needle

Sweet Cicely

Common dodder

Lady’s Slipper

Aaron’s Road


Monkey Flower

Red Rattle


Marsh Woundwort

Yellow archangel

White Horehound


Lady’s bedstraw

Sheep’s fescue

Yorkshire fog

Creeping Bent




Hound’s tongue




Devil’s bit Scabious


Colt’s foot


Common cudweed

Golden Rod

Mountain everlasting



Smooth hawk’s beard

Cat’s Ear


Solomon’s Seal

Butcher’s broom

Star of Bethlehem

Field Wood-rush

Stinking Iris

Dragon’s Tongue

Blue Devil

Autumn lady’s tresses

Bird’s nest orchid

The Queen of the Night resides amongst Wallflowers: taken in our garden in a previous Spring, and appearing again soon

The Coming Coronation: Part Two

I introduced the first part of my ‘Coronation’ post with very few details about the author known as ‘Charles Tetworth’. So here are a few more: He was born at the end of the 1920s, came from a working class home in South Wales, and was brought up in Somerset and Wales. He left home young, at the age of 16, to join the RAF where he (surprisingly!) discovered the tradition of knowledge known as ‘Cabbala’, in its Tree of Life form. For the rest of his life, he dedicated himself to passing on this knowledge, and developing new forms of it which might serve in the future. In his professional life, he was versatile, working variously as an accountant, a babywear sales rep, and a jeweller among other things. He died in 2006. There is no great secret now as to who he was in ‘real’ life, but as he preferred to use this pseudonym for this particular book, I’m following his wishes.

So now the concluding section of Chapter Ten of Wielding Power by Charles Tetworth, on the subject of the British Coronation. As before, the transcription is exact but sub-headings may be mine, for ease of reading. Eithr I have supplied the illustration captions or the source for these is given.

Extract from: Wielding Power: The Essence of Ritual Practice, by Charles R. Tetworth

Enter the Monarch Elect

All the regalia have been placed in the Abbey. Now the monarch enters the Abbey, clothed in the Crimson Robe and Cap of Maintenance and proceeds to pray privately. Then the Archbishop together with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord High Constable and Earl Marshall present the monarch to the four quarters – east, south, west and north – asking all to recognise the true monarch and to pay homage. With trumpets and loud acclamations of “God save the King/Queen”, the ceremony proceeds to the Litany when all the regalia (except the swords of the nobles) are placed on the altar. We then start the communion service and after the homily the monarch takes the Coronation Oath. With Bible in hand he promises to govern the people, to execute law and justice in mercy and to maintain the laws of God.


The monarch is disrobed of the Crimson Robe and the Cap of Maintenance. While the Archbishop is blessing the oil, the monarch sits on the Chair of Edward. This is built around the Stone of Destiny from Scone Abbey in Scotland. The Scottish kings used to be crowned on it until Edward I took it from them in 1296. Ever since, it has been used for the crowning of English monarchs. The monarch sits on the Stone of Destiny, under a canopy of cloth-of-gold which is held by four Knights of the Garter. The Archbishop then proceeds to anoint the monarch with the Holy Oil taken from the Ampulla using the Spoon. The monarch is anointed first on the crown of the head “as kings, priests and prophets were anointed”, then on the breast and the palms of both hands. The palms represent the physical, the breast symbolises the heart, and the crown of the head represents the intellect. The oil is a symbol of grace and benevolence. It impresses the gift of the Holy Spirit.

(A Note on the The Anointing Spoon, which is described thus by the Royal Collection Trust and pictured above):

The silver gilt spoon has an oval bowl, divided into two lobes, engraved with acanthus scrolls. The bowl is joined to the stem by a stylised monster’s head, behind which the stem flattens into a roundel, flanked by four pearls, and a band of interlaced scrolling, with another monster’s head; the end of the tapering stem is spirally twisted, and terminates in a flattened knop.

The spoon is first recorded in 1349 as preserved among St Edward’s Regalia in Westminster Abbey. Already at this date it is described as a spoon of ‘antique forme’. Stylistically it seems to relate to the twelfth century and is therefore a remarkable survival – the only piece of royal goldsmiths’ work to survive from that century. It was possibly supplied to Henry II or Richard I.

In times past monarchs were also anointed in the middle of the shoulders, the shoulders themselves and the inside of the elbows. This was symbolic of the wings of the spirit. Unfortunately, this is no longer done. This part of the service is the actual empowering of the monarch, and is accompanied by the words: “And as Solomon was anointed King by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be you anointed, blessed, and consecrated King/Queen over this People, whom the Lord your God hath given you to rule and govern, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

This recording of Zadok the Priest is sung by the Choir of Westminster Abbey

Then the canopy is taken away and the monarch is dressed in the vestments of a bishop with the Colobium Sindonis, the Dalmatic, the Pall and a girdle. Thus robed, the Golden Spurs are presented. The custom now is to touch the king’s heel with the spurs, but they used to be buckled on. A queen only touches them. The spurs signify that the monarch is head of all orders of knighthood. The Jewelled Sword of State is next given to the monarch (a king will gird the sword, while a queen touches it only) and is described as a “kingly” sword with which to “restore, maintain, reform and confirm” order. The sword is then taken by a peer and redeemed for a “hundred shillings”, and drawn out of the scabbard and carried naked in front of the monarch for the rest of the ceremony. The monarch is then invested with the Bracelets of sincerity and wisdom and the Pall or Imperial Mantle. The monarch has now been established as the nation’s priest or priestess.

The Coronation of George IV in 1821


Now begins the investiture of the monarch, dressed in the “Robe of Righteousness”, with earthly power. He or she receives the Orb with these words: “And when you see this Orb thus set under the Cross, remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ, our Redeemer.” Next, the monarch is wedded to the spirit of the land with a ring. The Orb is laid aside, and the monarch is given the Sceptre with the Cross, the ensign of royal power and justice, to hold in his right hand, and the Sceptre with the Dove, the Rod of equity and mercy, for the left hand. Now the monarch is crowned by the Archbishop with St Edward’s Crown and everybody shouts, “God save the Queen/King.” The Peers and Kings of Arms all put on their coronets, trumpets sound and the guns in the Tower of London fire their salute.

The Imperial State Crown is formed from an openwork gold frame, mounted with three very large stones, and set with 2868 diamonds in silver mounts, largely table-, rose- and brilliant-cut, and coloured stones in gold mounts, including 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 269 pearls.” (Royal Trust Collection)

The clergy then present the monarch with the Holy Bible, signifying wisdom, and bless him or her. The monarch leaves King Edward’s chair and goes to the Throne which is lifted up by the clergy and the peers, officers and nobles. This is a relic of the monarch being raised above the people on his shield so that all could see. All the relevant persons present pay homage to the monarch publicly. Individuals from the clergy, royals and peers come up to the monarch, swear fealty and allegiance, and kiss the monarch’s cheek. After this the monarch descends from the throne and goes to the altar where the Crown, Sceptre and Rod are delivered to the Lord Chamberlain. The monarch offers the bread and wine for communion to the Archbishop, and also makes an offering to the Abbey of an altar cloth and a gold ingot. The service continues, and when the bread and wine have been administered to the monarch, he or she puts on the Crown and takes up the Sceptre and Rod again. At the end of the service the monarch retires to be disrobed and puts on the Royal Robe of Purple Velvet, the Imperial Crown and takes the Orb in his left hand and the Sceptre with the Cross in his right hand for the long procession in the state coach back to the palace, through the waiting and cheering crowds. Once at the palace, the monarch must make a statutory appearance on the balcony to wave again to the crowds.

The crowning of King William I after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, as imagined by the Alderney Bayeux Tapestry Project, which set out to complete the missing sections of the original Bayeux Tapestrey.

The Author’s Conclusions

Since the overall aim of the book is to unfold the significance of ritual, whether everyday, of magical intent or national importance, Tetworth concludes here by taking a step back and suggesting that a combination of ‘order’ and ‘joy’ are both essential for effective ritual. At the other end of the spectrum, chaos does not channel the intention successfully and unmitigated solemnity can become oppressive.


When people assemble in procession in large numbers the spectators are affected by colours and by feeling. If the paraders are all dressed in different colours and clothing, there is plenty of stimulation for the eyes and ears, but, like Brownian movement, there is no order in it. When there is no order, there is excitement but no satisfaction. Each new stimulus starts off a train of associations in the perceiver and is replaced by another train, but there is no connection between the two. There is nothing for the feelings or the mind to rest upon. If there is order in the procession, with uniforms and bands and cavalry and coaches, robes and coronets, there is sufficient difference for the eye not to be bored. There is a theme running through the parade. The feelings can cohere, the mind perceives order, continuity is established. Unconsciously one is reassured – there is order in the world. The coronation is a drama where the order of the state is publicly enacted. Rightly or wrongly, the spectator feels that things are all right, that someone is looking after the state.

Although Hitler and all the fascist dictators ensured that their public rituals were massive, they did not imbue the rituals with enough fun and enjoyment. They impressed strangers with the danger of the situation, not with delight; they were not the summation of centuries of different experiences. All state displays are an enactment of the structure of the society. Those states who consider all their members as being basically the same tend towards mass displays of gymnastics, weaponry and sheer weight of uniformity. For me, the spectacle of 10,000 people all performing the same actions on some great celebration is terrifying. I feel that they, the people, have been reduced to the activity of worker ants. But so be it. No doubt, that is how that particular state is happy to perceive itself.

As for the coronation, the whole procedure evokes in the mind of the British people their history and the continuity of the nation. It invokes the aid of God and Christ, and the monarch, the clergy and peers, all the guests and the crowds participate in these events. The coronation itself provides a ritual of defence. The armed forces are represented by their senior officers. It commemorates the monarch by the historic allusions and the age of some of the items involved. It initiates a reign – that is, it recognises that a new beginning has been made. It empowers, in that the symbols of monarchy are bestowed; and the handing over of the weapons acknowledges mastery. The monarch is confirmed in status when he is placed on the throne and acclaimed by the clergy, the peers and the people. Becoming a monarch means giving up a private life. It may not have been so drastic in the days before television and radio, but now it certainly is so. Even Edward VIII found that he was forced to abdicate because of his private life.

It is not easy to relate and know with certainty the result or consequences of any one action. How can we possibly judge the consequences of the great ritual act of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation? Was it a successful ritual? History will judge the political, philosophical and social results.

Queen Elizabeth II’s appearance on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after her coronation in 1953

And for my own conclusion…

Since these final words were written, we have of course said farewell to Queen Elizabeth. And at the time of writing this, we are awaiting the next coronation, of King Charles III on May 6th 2023. I’m grateful to historical novelist Deborah Swift, for pointing me to an article which reveals that there may be more to this choice of date than meets the eye – potentially,the date selected relates to both Islamic and Celtic traditions on this (hopefully) auspicious day. King Charles himself has been a keen student of different religious and spiritual tradiitons, and a patron of the Temenos Academy where he says:

The work of Temenos could not be more important. Its commitment to fostering a wider awareness of the great spiritual traditions we have inherited from the past is not a distraction from the concerns of every-day life. These traditions, which form the basis of mankind’s most civilised values and have been handed down to us over many centuries, are not just part of our inner religious life. They have an intensely practical relevance to the creation of real beauty in the arts, to an architecture which brings harmony and inspiration to people’s lives and to the development within the individual of a sense of balance which is, to my mind, the hallmark of a civilised person.You can read his full message by clicking on the link above. I myself was privileged to give a series of three lectures to the Temenos Academy on the significance of Russian mythology.

We don’t yet know how much the ceremony will be slimmed down, but it’s likely that most of the components of the ritual itself will be preserved. Once again, the import of his reign will emerge over time. I hope these two posts may be helpful and illuminating in understanding the prime rituals of this ‘Ancient Nation’, as Tetworth referred to it. Once again, I’m grateful to his family and editor for helping me to extract and post this chapter of his book.

Forgotten Images from the Silk Road

Sitting on top of the world…en route from Pakistan to Uzbekistan

Just recently, I discovered a cache of photos taken from a second Silk Road trip that I made. The first trip, in 1995, lasted around a month as with a group I travelled from Bejing to Rawalpindi, across the West of China to Kashgar and Tashkurgan, then down the Karakorum Highway – a narrow road hewn out of the rock at great cost to the workers who built it, and replacing the old caravan trail barely big enough for pack horses. Around a year later, my(former) husband decided that he’d missed out, and would also like to see something of this ancient trade route, a branching network of roads traverses the terrain from East to West. The Silk Road network extends north and south into countries such as India and Pakistan, Russia and Syria. In the heyday of the Silk Road, from the early centuries AD until the 15th century (when new sea trading routes largely superceded it) it was the means by which exotic, innovative goods were traded from one part of the world to the other – silk of course, but also gunpowder, paper, rhubarb and exquisite carpets and ceramics. It was also the route for transmission of stories, art, and religious beliefs. You can read more about this in my previous blogs – Bazaars of the Silk Road and Suzani from the Silk Road.

My second trip – my husband’s first – was much shorter, and this time we began in Islamabad (next door to Rawalpindi in Pakistan), and flew up to Gilgit. From there we would travel up through Pakistan and onwards north to Kashgar in China, over the mountain pass into Kirghistan and to our final destination of Uzbekistan. The plane from Islamabad to Gilgit actually flies between the mountains, rather than over them, so if there’s a cloud in the sky, the flight doesn’t go. If it does go, you hope that a cloud or two doesn’t appear en route, and thicken into mist, since that could be a recipe for disaster. Our flight took off successfully – the alternative was something like a three day drive through unspectacular scenery. It also landed successfully, I’m pleased to say.

Arrival at Gilgit, at the time of a sombre religious festival. Some of the men standing on the rooftops were army snipers, on the lookout for any trouble

I had visited Gilgit before, and enjoyed its (then) fairly relaxed attitude, which welcomed foreigners. This time, however, there was a different atmosphere since it was just after the festival of Ashura when according to the BBC website:

For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a solemn day of mourning the martyrdom of Hussein in 680 AD at Karbala in modern-day Iraq. It is marked with mourning rituals and passion plays re-enacting the martyrdom. Shia men and women dressed in black also parade through the streets slapping their chests and chanting. Some Shia men seek to emulate the suffering of Hussein by flagellating themselves with chains or cutting their foreheads until blood streams from their bodies.

There had been lashing, and many men strode past, wild-eyed, with open wounds on their backs. A tense atmosphere prevailed and army snipers stood on the rooftops, alert to any outbreak of trouble. This was not a place for tourists, and we kept our heads bowed and scurried on, pleased when we could set out on the next stage of our journey, up the Karakorum Highway and up into Kashgar, a place dear to my heart, with its huge Sunday market. From there we’d travel over the Torugart Pass into Kirghistan – new territory for me.

These gloriously painted trucks and buses are the norm for transport in the area. Our minibus was a lot less colourful, however!

The Hunza valley, up the Karakorum Highway is truly beautiful, and a stopping off point for mountaineers. The fiendish Karakorum mountains lure those who seek the ultimate challenge – ultimate in the case of Alison Hargreaves, an accomplished mountaineer who sadly died there in 1995 as a young mother in her 30s. These mountains have jagged, threatening peaks which loom darkly above you, and its hard to imagine anyone scaling them. But in Hunza below, apricot trees are laden with fruit, wild cosmos flowers bloom in the grass, and the terraces on the lower slopes are bright green with crops and grass fodder, grown with care and great industry by the local inhabitants.

Here too are the ancient forts of Altit and Baltit, presiding over the lost Silk Road kingdom of Hunza – other such kingdoms which you may never have heard of include Kashgaria and Sogdiana. Whole dynasties have risen and fallen in these regions and modern maps are sadly inadequate for understanding the layout of old Silk Road territories.

Relaxing in the ancient fort of Altit – or was it Baltit? Part of the Hunza valley is spread out below, although you cannot see here the full extent of the imposing Karakorum mountains

As it was my second Silk Road trip, and a shorter one, I documented it in less detail than the first, when I was eager to write a complete travel journal. Thus the pictures I have of mountains and nomadic people are somewhat loosely defined geographically now in memory, and I’ll share them without attempting to be too precise about their location. And what I’ll miss out here is our visit to the fabled city of Kashgar, now sadly with its Uighur and Silk Road culture diluted in recent years by Chinese domination and suppression. I took many pictures on my previous trip there, and perhaps because of that, I focused entirely on enjoying the vast Sunday market the second time round. But you can see more of Kashgar in my previous blog Bazaars of the Silk Road

But first the border crossing, from the far West of China through the Torugart Pass into Kirghistan. This was a prolonged affair, leaving one country and travelling several miles before entering the next. On the Kirghiz side, it was still the border post of the old Soviet Union, and guarded with maximum formalities. Although, as I speak Russian, I was able to chat to the officers who were delighted that someone, at last, spoke their native tongue!

Making new friends at the Chinese border! Always as well to have the guards on your side.

The peoples of this area mingle too – Tajiks, Kirghiz, and Uzbekis, for instance.There are still nomadic tribes or families, using traditional yurts, and perhaps migrating to town houses in the winter months.

Ever curious children (these ones probably from Hunza) above, and below a nomadic family, probably Tajiks who often have rosy cheeks and flashing black eyes.

The family below were yurt dwellers, at least for the summer months when they can graze their animals on mountain grass. The white felt hat which the man on the left is wearing is the traditional Kirghiz headgear. In the second picture, you’ll see that I took the chance to try ‘kumis’ which is usually made from mare’s milk, and tastes like kefir. It was delicious! Some swear by it as a cure for chestiness and other respiratory ailments.

Tasting kumis – fermented mare’s milk! Note that it comes out of an old goatskin (?) bag.

The yurts are easy to transport and put up again; they’re constructed on a pattern representing the cosmos, with the central crossing symbolising the four directions. You must always walk round sunwise inside a yurt, starting from the left hand side, even if what you’re coming in for is close to the right hand side of the entrance. Inside, they are cosy, and infants sleep snugly wrapped in their cradles, which can also be transported intact.

The cross poles of the yurt in the centre of the yurt, the heart of the universe
A Kirghiz baby in his or her bed, strapped and wrapped for safety

It was also an opportunity to try my skills on a horse again. The Kirghiz particularly love their horses, and on my previous Silk Road trip I’d also managed to blag my way onto a steed! They specialise in decorated felt and embroidered saddle cloths.

In the higher regions of Central Asia and Western China, yaks are useful for their meat, milk and as beasts of burden. They are also known as the ‘Tartary ox’.

Yaks, domesticated and hardy in the kind of extreme terrain seen below

Kirghistan has its own national hero – Manas. He is perhaps what Genghis Khan is to the Mongolian civilisation, a warrior king who fought battles for his people. The Epic of Manas in its present form dates from the 18th century, but was passed down orally before that, and is believed by the Kirghiz to be much older – they celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 1995! Its provenance is complex, but it seems to be based on historical facts much mythologised to celebrate the prowess of the superhuman hero.

A vast statue of the Kirghiz warrior king, Manas, which stands in Bishkek

If you’d like to watch this short video, you can see marvellous shots of the Kirghiz way of life, along with listening to plangent Kirghiz music, hearing a clip from the epic of Manas, and watching those curious white felt hats.

Kirghiz Music and Culture

Descending eventually down into Uzbekistan, a hotter and flatter country, we visited the astonishing cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Later, on a subsequent trip, I also reached Khiva, which is a renovated Silk Road city of magnificently tiled buildings. Buhkara has been a melting pot of different dynasties and peoples, and the Samanid mausoleum built in the 10th century includes influences from Byzantium, Persia along with Sogdian and Sassanian styles, plus, we were told, hints of the ancient Zoroastrian religion.

Here in Uzbekistan, the produce is lusher, the clothes made of lighter fabric. The famous ‘rainbow silk’ is still worn by the women. There’s a legend about how it came into being – it can be found in a blog from my original website: Images from the Silk Road – Rainbow Silk

The second girl from the left in the back row is wearing rainbow silk, a nationally-celebrated fabric

And so we rounded off the Silk Road trip in Samarkand and Bukhara, where I’ll round off this post with images, rather than a discourse. First of all, here is the Uzbeki style of building grand houses and palaces. Even smaller-scale, more domestic houses often have these charming decorated alcoves.

And then, the wonderful tiled mosques, perhaps even more magnificent than those I had already seen in Istanbul. Some have been restored to their full glory after becoming dilapidated in earlier years.

After the second silk road trip, I did follow up with separate visits to Syria, a more complete tour of Uzbekistan, and futher visits to Turkey, where I’d been travelling since I was a student. With images and source books, I looked further into the history of the Silk Road, its legends and its cultures, and from this came my children’s book Stories from the Silk Road, and illustrated lectures which I gave for NADFAS (now the Arts Society), and at various other venues including cruise ships. Some of the ports in the Black Sea, for instance, are old Silk Road ports, so it was more relevant to the passengers than you might think. And, of course, I can enjoy writing blogs such as this one, to share the images with you.

Thanks for joining me on my travels!

Blogs of further interest

Bazaars of the Silk Road

Suzani from the Silk Road

Laurie Lee – Stories and Serendipity

Laurie Lee at Sheepscombe, photographed by Chris Chapman, and reproduced here by his kind permission. (More about this occasion below)

Whenever I pick up a book of Laurie Lee’s poetry, I fall under its spell. This first happened when I was an impressionable teenager searching for something that would resonate with my own experience of the countryside. The pull of nature had been a part of my life since my early years, occupying a place in my heart which I couldn’t really express, but which Laurie Lee could. It touched me in a way both visceral and emotional. As a child, in an era when it was possible to roam safely, I would sit in a favourite tree for hours, or cross fields to reach a stream fringed with pink campion and bluebells. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with a friend or my older brother. (It was more powerful, I discovered, without the grown ups.)

But at the time I began to read his poetry, I sensed that this instinct for nature was something which might slip away from me as I moved into my mid-teens. Another great nature poet, Wordsworth, was able to express that potential loss:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
       The earth, and every common sight,
                          To me did seem
                      Apparelled in celestial light,
            The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
                      Turn wheresoe'er I may,
                          By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

(Ode to Immortality)

Laurie Lee’s verse played a different part, in that it took me right into the heart of that experience, rather than just ruminating on how it once was; it gave me a way of holding onto that instinctive bond with nature, and also brought a special poignancy with it.

If ever I saw blessing in the air
I see it now in this still early day
Where lemon-green the vaporous morning drips
Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye.

Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round 
Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod
Splutters with soapy green, and all the world
Sweats with the bead of summer in its bud.

If ever I heard blessing it is there
Where birds in trees that shoals and shadows are
Splash with their hidden wings and drops of sound
Break on my ears their crests of throbbing air….
(From ‘April Rise’)

A view across the Slad valley in Gloucestershire to the village which was Laurie’s home.
(Landscape and all other non-portrait photographs in this blog © Cherry Gilchrist)

I still have the edition of his work in the ‘Pocket Poets’series, which I bought when I was at school, complete with the marks I made to indicate my favourite verses.

In these poems, I found a deep understanding of the magnetic pull of the English landscape – the fields, woods, rivers and villages which have especially captivated me. I may be fond of Wales, Scotland and Ireland too – and have plenty of Celtic ancestry – but it’s the English countryside that I have been immersed in all my life. Even though I have always had the travel bug, roaming the world when I could, England is home, and I can’t give up the primroses smelling delicately of hazelnuts, the ancient hedgerows, and the village fetes enjoyed on a hot summer’s afternoon.

When I first encountered his poetry as a teenager, my travels abroad were limited to trips by boat and train to Europe. So when I read what Laurie Lee wrote about returning home across the Channel, I recognised what he was talking about. I, too, had fallen back in love with the English landscape on the boat train after what seemed like very exotic adventures abroad.

Cowslips on Minchinhampton Common, a few miles from Slad
Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways,
My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant,
I set my face into a filial smile,
To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent.

But shall I never learn? That gawky girl,
Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts,
Becomes again the green-haired queen of love
Whose wanton form dilates as it delights….

So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home,
And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows,
And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.

 (From ‘Home from Abroad’)

‘Everyone has a Laurie Lee story’

I first wrote a blog about his poetry on my author’s website, at the time when we were living near Stroud, in Gloucestershire, from 2007-2014. It was barely a fifteen minutes’ drive from Slad Valley, Laurie’s old stomping ground, which he celebrated in his popular poetic memoir, Cider with Rosie. And talking to locals in the Stroud area, I was excited to find the living proof of his existence, even though he’d died over a decade ago in 1997. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Laurie Lee’s old cottage

The First Laurie Lee Blog: written in Amberley, near Stroud

It often seems that he’s not quite gone from there. We are relative newcomers to the area, but practically everyone who’s been around Stroud for longer has a tale to tell about him. Just recently we watched the play of Cider with Rosie at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Two well-dressed middle-aged ladies behind us were discussing him.

‘So did you see Laurie Lee often, then?’

‘Oh yes! I used to meet him about twice a week, at the Imperial.’

(Hmm – interesting!)

My acupuncturist mentioned casually that he used to be her landlord, a musician friend related how he once gave performances with him, and a local, now well-established writer, revealed that she’d marched up to his front door when she was still a teenager, asking for advice on how to become a writer. Should she go to university or not? ‘You don’t need all that,’ he told her. And she didn’t, it seems.

So, as one who is often late to the party, metaphorically speaking, although I never met Laurie Lee, I can still revel in the legacy he left and the landscape he inhabited.

Yesterday, in brilliant sunshine, we walked up Swift’s Hill which lies on the other side of the steep Slad Valley. Ponies were basking in the sun, a buzzard or two soared overhead, and the primroses were out in the hedgerows.

Ponies enjoying the sun on Swifts Hill

We looked across to Slad, picking out the phone box, the pub, and the cottage we thought Laurie had lived in. There was woodsmoke – ‘having a bonnie’ as the garden owner told us later, when we chatted over the wall. The wonderful, steep-gabled grey stone cottages appeared along the route of our walk tracing the contours of the valley, ranging from charming but tiny abodes like something out of a folk tale to grander dwellings with many eaves.

When we drove back to Slad later, we paid a visit to the Laurie Lee bar at the Woolpack pub, Laurie’s local, hoping we wouldn’t get mistaken for tourists. Which in one way we were, of course – but maybe we were more pilgrims for an afternoon, on the L.L. trail.

We were not alone, but the atmosphere was relaxed, the bars uncrowded. We then visited at his tombstone in the churchyard, and later I looked up the poem ‘The Wild Trees’, which begins with the following lines:

O the wild trees of my home,
forests of blue dividing the pink moon,
the iron blue of those ancient branches
with their berries of vermilion stars

and ends:
‘Let me return at last….to sleep with the coiled fern leaves in your heart’s live stone.’

Present Memories of Christmas Past

Writing now, in December 2022, I recall with pleasure how when we lived in Gloucestershire, we often attended Johnny Coppin’s annual Christmas concert, ‘All on a Winter’s Night’, held in the Stroud Subscription Rooms, and always packed out. (Once it was so much of a ‘Winter’s Night’ that unfortunately we couldn’t even get there, down the icy hill from Amberley.) It was an evening of music and poetry from the ensemble, plus favourite readings from Laurie Lee, as Coppin had collaborated with the poet in the years before his death. I have a copy of their ‘Edge of Day’, a CD first released in 1989, which includes this poem, ‘Christmas Landscape’. It opens thus:

Tonight the wind gnaws
with teeth of glass,
the jackdaw shivers
in caged branches of iron,
the stars have talons.

There is hunger in the mouth
of vole and badger,
silver agonies of breath,
in the nostril of the fox,
ice on the rabbit’s paw.

Tonight has no moon,
no food for the pilgrim;
the fruit tree is bare,
the rose bush a thorn
and the ground is bitter with stones…

You can also find the full recording on You Tube – but please support Johnny Coppin’s albums if you can.

At Swift’s Hill, above Slad – a steep climb!

The Laurie Lee Journey

There is something about Lee which has inspired people to seek out his haunts, both in Gloucestershire and further afield. Adam Horovitz, poet and author, lived in the Slad Valley too, and found his own childhood entwined with that of the Lee family. He himself has been drawn back to live here later on in life. After Laurie’s death in 1997, he witnessed others taking their own Laurie Lee pilgrimage around the area, and even a ‘Night of a Thousand Laurie Lees’ when a bevvy of tipsy cyclists, dressed in Laurie-type gear, careered from Miserden down to Laurie’s pub, the Woolpack at Slad on the first anniversary of his death. ‘More Lauries enter, all signing books, adjusting their hats and husking out requests for beer, their tongues parched with the effort of song and cycling….’ And when Laurie’s widow, Kathy, enters the pub, ‘Laurie suddenly seems alive and well and living on in the valley’s dreaming, in the moths and minds of everyone who lives there or passes through…’ It seems that people not only want to honour the poet, they want to be Laurie Lee.

The opening of ‘As I walked out one Midsummer Morning’ has acted as a call to other young men to follow in Laurie’s footsteps:

The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world. She stood old and bent at the top of the bank, silently watching me go, one gnarled red hand raised in farewell and blessing, not questioning why I went. At the bend of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life for ever.

Then follows his epic journey on foot from his Slad valley home to Spain at the time of the Civil War. It has inspired others to tread that path too, and then write about it likewise. Benedict Allen – the well-known TV traveller – set out to explore Lee’s journey in a programme which can be seen via the link below:

And very recently, I watched a documentary – Laurie Lee: The Lost Interview, described later. The morning after, I sauntered across the road to a charity Christmas sale, and on the second-hand book stall found a copy of As I walked out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee by P. D. Murphy – yet another young man setting out to repeat Laurie’s journey. What are the chances of me finding that book straight after viewing the film and deciding to write a new blog about Laurie Lee? But serendipity often occurs, when I’m writing these posts!

And today…

My own connection to the poet ebbs and flows, as the years proceed. As mentioned, the recent broadcast of ‘Laurie Lee: The Lost Interview’ has set me going again, and provided the direct inspiration for this current post. Here in the carefully compiled documentary, you can see Laurie himself, filmed in the late 1980s walking through the countryside, and coaxed into talking about his early life by David Parker, a BBC producer who’d gently persuaded Laurie to open up to a microphone and a camera, in a way that he usually avoided. (It may be accessible through Now TV, or try for other online options).

In this film too, the ‘Who is Rosie?’ mystery from his other well-loved memoir, Cider with Rosie, continues…was she a real person, who became Laurie’s first tentative girlfriend, with a foray into love and cider drinking under the hay cart? Or was she a composite character, the essence of those first awakenings he had with the cuddlesome village girls? We may never know for sure, but we find out a little more here.

A bonus for me is that this documentary also links our former Gloucestershire home with our current one in Devon, through the presence of photographer Chris Chapman. Chris is a Dartmoor-based photographer par excellence, but he spreads his net wider, and had an earlier career in television as a ‘reluctant presenter’, as he puts it. In this current film, he appears with some of his own iconic shots of Laurie Lee, having collaborated on the original project with David Parker. I am very grateful to him for giving me permission to use one of the most touching and interesting portraits of Laurie ever taken. When Chris sent Laurie a copy of the photo, he wrote back to Chris:

Girl looks at horse, horse looks at me, I look at you, You look at us. Perfect.


© Chris Chapman photography

How does he do it?

But before signing off, I can’t resist sharing Roger McGough’s question which many of us may ask – just how did Laurie Lee create his magic with words? Well, there might indeed be a spell involved…

I love the way he uses words.
Will they work as well for me?
Sorry, said the words.
We only do it for Laurie Lee.
But words are common property – 
They’re available and free
Said the words, ‘We’re very choosy,
And we’ve chosen Laurie Lee.’
I want to write like he does,
But the words did all agree,
‘Sorry, son, we’re spoken for,
We belong to Laurie Lee.’

(Roger McGough - Transcribed from Laurie Lee: The Lost Recordings )

Yes, well, some of my early poems were also influenced by Laurie's! But if Roger McGough can’t emulate him, what hope had I?
‘Living in our valley was like living with broad beans in a pod – it was so snug.’ – Laurie describes the connection with his landscape

Laurie’s poetry remains an inspiration for me – and helps me to reconnect with the landscape which I feel is in my blood, whether Gloucestershire, my childhood in Kent, or time spent in country lanes, bluebell woods, pasture, moorland, and river banks. The older I get, the more powerful I find the magic of our natural landscape again. What was discovered in childhood returns – and perhaps had never really gone away.

And if I am feeling a touch melancholy at the passing of time, then these words of his strike home:

Slow moves the acid breath of noon
over the copper-coated hill,
slow from the wild crab’s bearded breast
the palsied apples fall….

Slow moves the hour that sucks our life,
slow drops the late wasp from the pear,
the rose-tree’s thread of scent draws thin – 
and snaps upon the air.

(From 'Field of Autumn')
View from Painswick Beacon, further north from Slad – and a shot of Painswick village, also in Laurie’s area, as we arrive from an energetic walk with friends along the Beacon (they are the two closest to my camera). Perhaps the name ‘Golden Heart’ tells us something about this special part of Gloucestershire, and the poet it gave birth to.

Further Resources

Interviews with Laurie Lee can be downloaded on the BBC website

A description of the Lost Recordings project

An illustrated talk by Chris Chapman on the theme of his ‘Photographic Friendship’ with photographer James Ravilious.

Blogs from Cherry’s Cache on travel, landscape, and Gloucestershire

Travellers along the Silk Road

Bazaars of the Silk Road

Sweet Chance: Spring on Minchinhampton Common (which also celebrates the life of another local poet, W.H. Davies the ‘supertramp’. He famously wrote: ”What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare.’)

A Real Life ‘War Horse’

Dartmoor Ponies

‘The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding’ by Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman (photography), a fascinating study of the Three Hares symbol, found from the Silk Road to the churches of Dartmoor. (no longer in print but copies may possibly be found second-hand).

Angels in the Roof

An angel in the roof of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (photo by Michael Rimmer)

Next time you’re in a medieval church, look up. Do you see angels? Are they gazing down upon you from the heavenly firmament, forever flying forward from the roof beams? If so, then the chances are that you’re gazing at an ‘angel roof’. Or else perhaps you are a close ally of the poet William Blake, who saw angels in many places on many occasions. Scorn not – he was a man of vision. See William Blake and the Moravians. Either way, ‘angel roofs’ are a fascinating but little investigated feature of British medieval architecture.

Angels at the Lying-in-State

When Queen Elizabeth II died in September this year, her body lay in state at Westminster Hall from Wednesday 14th to Monday 19th September. Thousands filed past her coffin, and the whole event was live-streamed on TV. Most of us have probably never viewed the interior of Westminster Hall before, and still fewer may realise that its construction back in the 14th century marked a special moment in English architecture: the creation of an ‘angel roof’. Take a look at the photo below, and you’ll see that there is a carved angel on the end of each roof beams.

Why Angels?

Why was the positioning of carved angels in a roof be so significant? You might after all expect to find them in churches and state buildings, given the importance of angels in Christian theology. But this kind of representation of angels was not a part of our architecture until the time of King Richard II. For his coronation procession in 1377, he decided that angels should be on hand to confirm his new status, which included a mechanical moving angel who bowed down and offered him a golden crown. Many angels appeared subsequently in other royal pageants and state occasions of his reign, either human players dressed as angels or further inventive mechanical versions. And then the carved ones were brought into play, when the angel roof of Westminster Hall was built in about 1395, leaving a lasting testimony to Richard’s urge for angelic recognition. Angels in general stayed in fashion too, and their evocation spread to the provinces too; in parish churches, it became common for ‘angel’ characters to appear in the Mystery Plays and other ecclesiastical ceremonies. And as beams decorated with angels began to be built in some of these regional churches, certain styles of angel became common – both the carved angels and individuals acting as angels tended to wear the same kind of ‘feather suits’!

However, despite Richard II’s endorsement of angels, an angel roof in a parish church was something of a luxury, not do-able everywhere in the country. The chances of seeing an angel roof in East Anglia are relatively high – elsewhere in the UK, they are low to zero.

But there is one here in Exeter, where I live, and rather surprisingly, it’s not in a church. Exeter city was once filled with medieval buildings, many of them blown to smithereens by wartime bombing raids, and many more demolished as a consequence of ill-judged re-development plans by the Council. The building does however stand in close proximity to the Cathedral, in the Cathedral Close, and inside Number Eight is the remarkable feature of an angel roof.  It is a hammerbeam roof, dated by dendrochronology to between 1417-1422,  with carved wooden angels stretching out from the beams. It is also, seemingly a copy in miniature of the roof at Westminster Hall; this was built by Hugh Herland, master carpenter to Richard II , and constructed as mentioned between 1393-1398.

No 8-9 The Close is the central building; the little passageway on the side leads to the entrance of the medieval hall with its angel

The Mystery of Number Eight

But how did this come about? It’s tucked away down a side alley, largely unknown to visitors and residents alike, unless they visit the ‘Helen of Troy’ boutique which presently occupies it. The building is also known as the former Law Library of the university, but this only dates from recent centuries, and tells us nothing about its origins. The mystery and provenance of this extraordinary roof has long been argued over by historians, but now some light has been shed on this by Cathedral archaeologist and historian, John Allan. I’ll reveal his conclusion a little later on!

The angel roof at no. 8 The Close, Exeter

The Angel Roofs of Britain

So what is an ‘angel roof’ when it’s at home (or in heaven)? To pursue this further, I consulted an excellent study The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages by Michael Rimmer. Many of the details given below are taken from this book, as I fully acknowledge.

Angel roofs date from the medieval period, a time when churches were shaped, decorated, carved and painted to represent the spiritual world. As you stood in a church service (no pews then!) you would be immersed in the Christian cosmos, and seeing representations of its stories through the statues, vivid wall paintings and ehtereal stained glass windows. Mystery Plays were also performed in the churches at appropriate times of year, bringing alive the Bible narratives, and acts of worship were felt to be within the presence of Christ and the Virgin Mary, plus at least some of the saints and – in this case – angels. There was drama, passion and beauty all around. Looking up to the roof and seeing angels there would be like getting a glimpse of heaven itself.

Angel roofs, therefore, were in keeping with the general religious experience. Once, there were probably several hundred ‘angel roofs’ in England and Wales, some on hammerbeam (short beam) roof supports, some as non-supportive elements of the roof. They were built in the years following on from that first one in Westminster Hall, until the Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century put a stop to such ‘idolatry’. One of the final angel roofs was built in about 1540,at Llanidloes church in Wales, according to Rimmer, and I would also include Cleeve Abbey in North Somerset, which dates from the same period.

The roof of the refectory, Cleeve Abbey, N. Somerset – left with a little section unfinished due to the onset of the Reformation, which denounced such idolatry

Locations of angel roofs

Around 170 angel roofs survive in Britain today, and the vast majority of them are in East Anglia. (A map from Rimmer’s book can be accessed at https://www.angelroofs.net/map.) There is also a smaller pocket of them in the West Country, with just two in Devon, of which 8 The Close is one. (I’ve not yet been able to identify the second angel roof in Devon. Rimmer’s map seems to point to the Great Torrington area, where archaeologist John Allan singles out Orleigh Court and Weare Giffard Hall as the two most notable medieval roofs there, but, as he says, these seem to be more adorned with beasts than with angels!)

Why do these two areas of East Anglia and the West Country host the most? The answer, as with many things, lies with the resources available: primarily money, timber and skills. Building angel roofs required great expertise, plus a lot of good timber and generous amounts of money to pay for it all. There were renowned master carpenters in both these areas, the far East and far West of England, and both areas too became wealthy from the medieval wool trade. Additionally, the required timber for the roofs was best transported by water, if it wasn’t to be found in the immediate vicinity, so again these two coastal areas had the right conditions. It’s probably no coincidence that these regions also boast the best carved church bench ends in the country, a testimony therefore to the presence of master carvers, and the money to pay them.

An angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter

What about the Reformation?

In the English Reformation of the 16th century, the new wave of Protestantism endeavoured to get rid of decoration which might be considered distracting and even idolatrous. Away with worshipping the Virgin Mary and the Saints, and all the statues and images which took attention away from purer forms of prayer! (Church music might have gone too, were it not that Elizabeth I was very fond of choral music, apparently.) But whereas it was easy enough to smash stained glass windows and break statues, it was actually very hard to take away angelic roof supports. Moreover, they were high up and thus almost inaccessible. So given that the Reformers generally wanted to keep the outward shell of a church, it would have been foolish to start knocking the roof about. On a recent trip to North Somerset, I was delighted to discover the angel roof in the refectory of Cleeve Abbey, (well worth a visit) which, as I mentioned earlier, was begun later than most, in the mid-1500s. This has been left intact, but there is a little stretch left unfinished, probably because the Reformation had just started to take hold, and the monasteries were dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII. But we need to remember that not everything happened fast in those days; in his book, Rimmer considers that the Llanidloes angel roof of 1540 may have been completed after the Reformation began simply because Wales was a long way behind in catching up with the news!

The carvers

The actual creation of the angels, as opposed to the erection of roof timbers, was carried out by master carvers rather than carpenters. These specialists were highly skilled, highly paid, and tended to be peripatetic, and sometimes even brought in from abroad. Records show that the going rate was about 15 shillings an angel, equivalent to 30 days pay for a master carver of the period. There was scope for creativity, and angels often hold other objects and emblems, such as musical instruments, symbols of Christ’s passion,or the coats of arms of benefactors. Some angel figures may even be carved as ecclesiastical role-players – examples include a chalice bearer, a celebrant or a choir master in one church.

Keeping it pure and simple

But a surprising fact, in the face of such imaginative representations, is that nearly all of the roof angels were left unpainted. This is in contrast to the medieval habit of painting the interior of churches and their contents in bright colours. It may have been just too difficult to paint them, or to keep up their maintenance. Occasionally some angels, for instance those nearest the Chancel, might be painted, or coats of arms might be picked out in colour. But the natural look was the general rule.

A further angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter, above. Arguably, the one below from Cleeve Abbey is finer, but the overall effect of the Exeter angel roof is imposing.

Not a church!

But despite the predominance of angel roofs in churches, very few are found in other contexts, and one of these is the Exeter angel roof . Indeed, only a handful exist outside parish churches – Coventry Guildhall, as well as Westminster Halll, for instance. What was Number Eight, Cathedral Close, therefore? It is, after all within the Cathedral precincts. John Allan, Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, has come to a conclusion after many years of research, and wrote to me as follows: …. The purpose of the fine late medieval building containing the Law Library has been much discussed; it has been claimed as the chancellor’s house or as a building accommodating a notarial bureau. It was in fact simply a canonry. In other words, the house or complex of buildings inhabited by a canon, a cleric of the Cathedral.

On a tour around the Cathedral Close, John also told us something about the life of these medieval canons, which I’m paraphrasing here. Once again, quite a lot of it was to do with money! ‘In Exeter, canons had to be resident to benefit from the ‘Common Fund’(their source of a living), whereas in other areas canons without this obligation often stayed in their country residences. Although living humbly was in the basic ‘rule’ for canons, they were required to give generous hospitality, and so were expected to provide meals to all and sundry. Originally canons were required to live in humble abodes, but the argument they could muster to build something grander was, therefore, that while in residence they needed a big hall to do their duty of hospitality! Guests would regularly arrive at the door, and include choirboys, Vicars Choral, and so on.‘ So a canonry was also a kind of drop-in diner, and perhaps here the Canon concerned had a nice inheritance that he could spend on something lavish which would be admired, especially at times of feasts and gatherings. Bishops too were often judged favourably according to how much money they could spend on appropriate buildings, hospitality and city improvements.

Remains of another medieval canonry in Exeter, close to the Cathedral. The large fireplace can be seen, and there would have been another large-scale dining room to accommodate guests. (Site of St Catherine’s Almhouses)
Another dizzying view of Exeter’s angel roof

We have a building, and an angel roof, to treasure, in no. 8 Cathedral Close, Exeter. And I will be craning my neck now every time I visit a medieval church – or indeed a medieval hall! – to see if there is another roof full of angels to marvel at.

The angel roof at Westminster Hall, designed by Hugh Herland – the roof that started the trend! And has recently come into prominence, with the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II.


The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages Michael Rimmer (The Churches Conservation Trust 2015)

Red Coat Guided Tours – I was introduced to No. 8 The Close as part of my training as a Red Coat Guide for Exeter, which whetted my curiosity to investigate further. The wide range of tours are offered free throughout the year, with themes such as ‘Medieval’, ‘Introducing Exeter’, and ‘Cathedral to Quay’. Please click on the link to see these.


The Ship of Night – Part Two

This is the second part of my story, written on request for the anthology ‘Tarot Tales’, and based on the drawing of five cards from the Marseilles Tarot pack. The first part (read here) brought me from a city garden invaded by foxes down to the old quayside, and onto a boat setting out on a mysterious ‘Moonlight Cruise’:

I took my place at the prow of the boat, where I found myself sitting next to a stout middle-aged lady in a buttoned-up navy mackintosh. She was a warden, she explained, in an old people’s home, and had to work some very awkward shifts. She’d taken the cruise before, and it covered those difficult in-between hours very nicely, particularly when she was transferring from day to late-night shift, and needed something to keep her going until she started work.

‘There’s one or two other regulars here,’ she said, nodding over at the other side, to a hunched-up man in black, who sat fingering a straggly grey beard. Next to him a young couple sank blissfully into each other’s arms. To my unspoken question she replied, ‘Once you’ve seen it by night, you want to do it again. What you see by day seems rather tame by comparison.’

The boat was filling up now, with some twenty to thirty passengers. The captain decided that this was enough, and turned on the engines; with that quiet chug chug chug noise we left our moorings and set off through the docks. Little flickers of light caught on the rippling, slapping water, and indeed the water was brighter than the surroundings, for we quickly left the populated quayside and turned off through waterways flanked with heavily built warehouses and derelict yards. Where there were windows, they were barred, and where there were boundary walls, they were topped with barbed wire. On the paths which ran by the water, once unloading bays, I could make out grass and weeds, and it looked as though this part of the city had been deserted for a hundred years.

In fact, said our captain, a cynical and amusing commentator, it still had life in the day, and might in time have more. The usual planning disputes were raging between industrialists, conservationists, and city council officials.

‘I’ve not time for age for its own sake,’ said Rita (my companion) darkly, which I thought was strange, given her profession.

‘If you look over to your right,’ said our gallant captain, ‘you will see that Webber’s Bank has won its appeal to rebuild, and that demolition is already in progress.’ All eyes turned to gaze upon a half torn-down building which looked, in this dim light, like something out of a craggy Romantic landscape painting.

But as we turned the corner by the side of it, this image was rudely shattered by the rubbish we encountered. In the water itself, bits and pieces bobbed up and down – plastic sacks, old bottles, screwed-up paper bags. On the edge, where we could now see behind the ruined façade, were dusty piles of bricks and rubble, and perhaps twisted pieces of iron and broken planks, though it was hard to make anything out clearly. The female lover gave a little scream: ‘Aah! Rats! I saw them move!’ But, before anyone in the boat could react, came the sound of a sniggering, husky laugh from the darkness of the shore. We all turned sharply, and as the boat slid gently past, I could make out the stooped figure of a man, raggedly dressed, looking towards us with a mocking grin before bending back to his task. A sack lay near him amidst the rubbish, and with a long pole he turned over the piles around him, picking over the debris and putting choice finds into his sack. The captain waved to him as we passed; he was obviously a familiar character in these parts.

Now we passed into a kind of leafy tunnel. I had lost track of direction, and could only guess vaguely what part of the city we were in, but I reckoned that we were still fairly central, and that somewhere above us busy roads stretched away, and that the people who frequented them probably had little knowledge of what went on in these watery depths below. I think the trees were willows; it was hard to see, but I detected a gentle brushing of the water with their drooping branches. The two path was grassy now, and the captain told us stories of how the barges came into the city from the furthest parts of the country, patient horses plodding, dreaming of a full nose-bag at the end of the day, brown, monkey-faced bargemen with robust wives, washing strung out along the bow, and a couple of kids playing with broken pottery shards picked up as treasures along the way. It was as if the waterways themselves had not forgotten, and here, submerged below street level, there was nothing to interrupt the old dream that resounded day after day.

The old dream of the river, near Bristol

There was a child on board now; probably about six or seven, leaning against his mother and curled up into sleep, thumb in mouth She smiled when she saw me looking. ‘It’s his birthday,’ she said. ‘He was determined to stay up and see it in at midnight; he loves to try and stay awake. I promised him he could come, even though I knew he wouldn’t manage it. I’ll tell him in the morning that he did the whole trip. It’ll make him happy.’

Most of the company were lost in their own thoughts, or, in the case of the lovers, in each other. The bearded man that I had noticed at the start of the voyage seemed restless though, muttering to himself and looking anxiously at a tattered paperback book that he held. Perhaps it was just a collection of pages, because I couldn’t see any cover, only torn pages which he thumbed feverishly, as if he were trying to find and then memorize his favourite poems. But there was no hint of enjoyment in his face, only a driven, haunted look.

‘You say he comes here often?’ I asked Rita, as discreetly as I could.
She nodded. ‘Yes, a few times.’
‘For pleasure, do you think?’
She shrugged, in a dismissive kind of way. ‘Perhaps.’
‘I wonder if he has a home to go to? But then I suppose if he was a down-and-out, he wouldn’t have the money to come.’

She clearly did not want to follow this up, and I stayed silent, ashamed of passing comments on my fellow passengers of which she plainly disapproved. ‘Do you enjoy your work?’ I asked her, in a feeble attempt to remedy the situation.

She smiled at me unexpectedly, a warm, beaming smile. ‘Oh yes. Oh very much. Old people are so rewarding. Very special. They are the perfection of a whole life-time. Unless you can understand that, you don’t know them at all.

By now, we were floating down a broad stretch of water at ground level.

‘This is the main waterway out of the city,’ the captain announced. ‘The motorway of dockland. We shall be going a little further. And here we’re taking a swing to the left, to avoid the weir. All marked out and perfectly safe, even at night.’

I could hear the rushing of the river weir. I suppose we must have emerged from the completely artificial canal and dock network into a natural but structured watercourse. I wire rope and a string of fluorescent flags showed up on the right, and the boat veered away from them. But just as we turned, there was a movement from the other side of the boat. The hunched man’s mutterings had grown fiercer. He stood up, and in the space of what cannot have been more than a few seconds, hurled his book, then his overcoat, and then himself into the water. I gasped, and stood up to cry out, then found myself yanked firmly back to my seat, with a warm hand pressed heavily over my mouth. I struggled, but Rita held me firm.

‘Be quiet!’ she hissed.

I looked around, and up at the captain, but he and Rita were already exchanging glances. He raised an eyebrow to her, and she nodded with assurance. Satisfied, he straightened the boat into her new course, and delivered a few more comments into the microphone about features of the landscape. I couldn’t believe it. And none of the other passengers seemed to have noticed. The lovers, who had sat next to the man, were by now at the whispering, tickling and giggling stage of their embraces. Everyone else looked vacant, as if the slow flow of the water had glazed over their minds and eyes.

I turned sharply to Rita. ‘Why don’t we stop? Why don’t we rescue him?’ Not that I could see him any more – he was gone with barely a splash, swallowed up by the racing waters that swept down in torrents to the river below.

She pulled out a package from her brown plastic shopping bag and calmly unwrapped a selection of sandwiches. ‘Eat one, my dear. The egg ones are the nicest – the ham wasn’t up to much today.’ Almost hypnotised by her assurance, I took one.

When she saw that I had bitten into it, she said, ‘It was his time, dear. The way he wanted to go.’
‘What do you mean?’
She sighed. ‘For a writer,’ (had I told her that?) ‘you don’t look very far, do you? When one of my gentlemen, or ladies, is ready to go, and I am as sure as I can be that the time has come, then I will be there to see them off.’
‘You mean – suicide?’

‘Not exactly. Oh, no, I wouldn’t hold with that. That’s a war against yourself, isn’t it? No, those who know that their life is drawing to a close. And that’s the greatest perfection, you know. And quite natural, too. You look at animals – they know when it’s time. Well then. Some of my clients don’t want to catch lingering illnesses and have doctors prodding them and all their relatives weeping over them. How would you like to die like that, in a home or a hospital? Not much, I expect. Not a pleasant last memory to take with you, is it? So I make sure they can get out and about, and find it as they want it. By water this time. He loved the sea, that one…Used to be a writer, once, like you…Took him several trips before he felt familiar with this place and knew just where he wanted to go.’

I made as if to get up and look over the side of the boat, but she pulled me back. ‘don’t be foolish, dear. That’s one thing you must never try to do, try and follow them – they’ll go clean and quiet if you let them.’

I was shaking. ‘I’ve witnessed a death, then. Something I haven’t seen before. I might have seen more – I might have learnt more.’

Charon: the ferryman of the dead

Rita shook her head kindly. ‘That’s not the way to know more, half going with them. That’s the way to do yourself a mischief and maybe them, too. There’s plenty more to learn and to see if you’ll be patient.’
I was thoroughly jolted now. Was this a sleeping world, or a waking one? Was it night or day? What did she and the captain know that I didn’t…? We were approaching a barrier. Heavy, steel doors loomed up before us in the water, dark water slapping against them as the boat dropped speed and came to a pause at the place where they blocked our way, tightly closed. On a short quayside to our left, a little cottage snuggled into the high guarding walls around, and one light still burned in an upstairs window.

The captain whistled, then called, ‘Diz! Diz! Open up! – Short for Disraeli’ he told the now stirring passengers, provoking a few titters of disbelief.

We could hear the sound of footsteps in the cottage, then a few grumbling noises as the front door was unbolted and opened. A dark, squat little man moved out towards us. Though his movements were slow, I sensed tremendous physical power in his presence, something of the wrestler’s strength in his body.

‘Come on, Diz. You’re supposed to have had these open for us.’
‘You’ll have to pay.’
‘You must be joking! We’re regulars.’
‘Everyone has to pay. Double rates at night.’
‘They’re always like this, Rita told me. ‘He’ll have to pay, he always does in the end.’
‘Extra levy, I’m afraid,’ said the captain. ‘Fifty pence each.’

There was some complaining, but he was firm. No, it wasn’t on a per boat basis, but was per head. And yes, the child too, even if he was under sixteen and asleep. He was sorry, but there it was. As I turned towards the moonlight to see the contents of my purse better, the coins that I was taking hold of slipped from my fingers and fell into the water. By this time, the great steel doors were opening, making surprisingly little noise, and the boat was sliding gently through into a dark stretch of water beyond. The captain’s mate came towards me with his leather bag to collect my fare.

‘I’m sorry, I’ve just lost my money overboard. I haven’t any more.’
He shrugged, and grinned unpleasantly. His teeth were yellow and pointed, and he reminded me, for the first time since I had stepped into the boat, of the foxes at home.

‘Well, you’ll have to get out, won’t you?’
I looked at him in disbelief. ‘That’s ridiculous!’
‘Oh no, far from it. Them as doesn’t pay gets off. We don’t wait, and we don’t accept any debts. Out.’ He jerked a thumb towards the bank and nodded at the captain, who steered in closer to the shore.

I glanced around, but no one seemed interested in my plight, any more than they were in the man who had jumped overboard. Rita had disappeared too. I would have shouted, I think, but before I had a chance to do so I found that I was being heaved ashore by the captain and his evil-mouthed assistant. It could have been funny, or at any rate, ridiculous, but it wasn’t.

And then the boat was gone, and I was standing on a narrow path, with nothing but darkness ahead and steel doors, firmly closed again, behind me. Then I really did shout. I bawled, and hollered. Surely the gate-keeper would hear me and come out. But he didn’t. I began to grow hysterical, I am ashamed to admit, and was beating my fists against the metal, making a noise fit to wake the dead, when I felt a quiet tap on my shoulder. I spun round. It was Rita.

‘Well, dear, you’re one of the lucky ones, aren’t you?’ She seemed amused.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m sure you didn’t really want to go any further, did you? Wouldn’t you rather be getting home now?’

And indeed, I suddenly realised that I was dead tired and would like nothing better than to be back in bed. ‘I always get out around here myself. It’s not much fun further on.’ Her tone somehow gave me the impression that this was a great understatement.
‘How do we get out?’
She gestured. ‘Put your hand over there, to the right. You’ll find a little metal ring that hangs loose. It’s set into a lion’s head, actually – very pretty, if you could see it by daylight. Reminds me a little of Venice. Lions everywhere there. Just feel for it, and turn it very gently.’

I could feel the lion’s head all right, and the metal teeth and jaws that I had to reach into to grasp the ring. I did as she said; the ring turned, and a small inner door set into the great doors swung open. We stepped through it, back onto the little terrace in front of the cottage. There were no lights at the windows now.

‘What do we do now? It must be miles back. And I’m not sure I could find the way.’
‘Oh, nothing to worry about. Just take that path up there – ‘ she pointed to a narrow track that I hadn’t noticed before, leading up steeply behind the cottage. ‘It’s a bit of a scramble, but you’ll come onto the road, and there’ll be a bus coming along shortly.’
‘I’ve no money.’
‘There are free late-night buses.’ She chuckled. ‘Part of the council’s attempts to make life safer at night. They never think who they might attract onto the buses this way. But you’ll be all right.’
‘Are you coming too?’ I asked.
‘No, I’ve my own way back. I’m due to start work soon, not too far from here. Well it’s been pleasant meeting you.’
‘Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime.’
She smiled, ‘I wouldn’t count on it. Night encounters, you know, quickly forgotten. I expect you’ll sleep well enough tonight, though. Pleasant dreams!’

I took the path she indicated, and scrambled up to the top. Although bushes scratched at my clothes, and the earth was dusty and slippery, I made it without mishap. On the level high above the water, which was now well out of sight, I came out suddenly into urban life again. The track emerged between two houses, and in front of me was a main road, still lit, with a few late-night dog-walkers about and a bus stop close to hand. The shop windows, garishly illuminated and full of electrical goods, cheap clothes and furnishings, looked unreal. Was this the everyday city I was so familiar with?

I did not have to wait long, although it was no ordinary bus that turned up. ‘Party Special’, its indicator proclaimed. Not, it appeared, a party as in an outing, but as in party – good time and knees up. The driver stopped for me. He was merry, but sober, which was more than could be said for some of his passengers.
‘Welcome aboard, madam! Seats for singles on your left, couples on the right, dancing in the middle, bar at the rear. No charge, you’re welcome.’

The inside was decorated with balloons, and twirled silver festoons, and all around a couple of dozen partymakers were obviously having a wonderful time. Music blared out, and the standard of dress was more like a trendy disco than a city transport bus. A young man, a little drunk, but good-humoured, tried to pull me into a dance. I resisted, feeling boringly sober and out of place in my trousers and warm sweater. Then – oh, what the hell – I thought, and let him lead me into some kind of exuberant dance. I let the rhythm of the music sweep through me. It had been a crazy enough night – let it become a little crazier. At the end of the number, he put his arm round me and grinned.

‘City centre,’ called the driver. ‘Your stop, madam. It’s been a pleasure having you aboard. Mind how you go.’

Five more minutes, and I was home. The city looked quiet, unperturbed, nothing different from usual. What had I expected? There was no noise from the garden either. Rita was right; bed was very welcome.

Just before I drifted off, just before the images started to flow, I seemed to see her face bending over me, and heard her voice saying:
‘Drops, dear. Little drops. That’s what a really satisfying dream is like, isn’t it – the kind that tells you everything without needing to go through it all.’

Yes, I thought, that’s what I would hope for now. If she bade me sleep well, I certainly did.

17th century painting by Bernhard Keil (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing a Tarot Story

Here is how the cards appeared to me, for the weaving of this tale. And would a different order for these cards might perhaps tell a different story?

You might like to try your own version of this; pick a set of five cards (five is the number of creativity) sight unseen, from a Tarot pack of your choice. My own view is that a traditional set like this, honed and smoothed over the centuries, has more potetntial and fewer distracting details than most modern, individually-designed sets. You could also try with just three cards, for a ‘flash fiction’ story.

Tarot writings

My writings on Tarot have focused on the research and interpretation that I’ve carried out for five decades now, investigating its history, and practising Tarot divination. It has also run alongside the task I inherited of writing and presenting The Tree of Life Oracle. My task with Tarot may be done – or it may not! Recently, I found myself drawn to the inspired art work of Pamela Colman Smith, who designed the Rider Waite Tarot pack. You can read more about this in my blog ‘A Pixie in Bude’. Perhaps there are yet more fascinating pathways that will open up in the mysterious world of Tarot.

The Ship of Night

Some time ago, more years ago in fact than I care to count, I was asked to write a story for an anthology called ‘Tarot Tales’ edited by Rachel Pollack and Caitlin Matthews. We were to draw five cards at random from a Tarot pack of our choice, and construct the story around these. Using the traditional Marseille pack, the cards that I turned up were Death, Temperance, Strength (Force), The Moon and Justice. The story which emerged, weaving itself around these images, was partly based on real events, partly on an imaginative journey which took me from the waterways of Bristol right to the gates of life and death. Here is the first part – the second follows in two weeks’ time.

August will be a narrative month, as the conclusion of this story is followed by an old but spirited dialogue between Mercury and the Alchemist. Perhaps it is not your usual holiday reading, but why not give it a try?

Part One – The Little Foxes

You won’t believe me, but it was in fact Friday the thirteenth when I laid out these cards. Friday 13th May, at 10.30am, to be exact. I rose from my chair purposefully to fetch my pack. The dog looked at me warily; perhaps I was about to do some singing practice, which she loathed. She slunk out of the room to be on the safe side. Five cards, the rules said. I shuffled them, and shuffled again. Five to be drawn: one for me, three for the story, and one, perhaps, for you, the reader. Out they came. Temperance * Justice – Death – The Moon * Strength. Well, how corny can you get? Friday the thirteenth and a central triad like that. Surely there was an element of mockery here. Should I start again?

Wait. A little whisper of realization ruffled the back of my neck. This was a story that had already been told, a situation that had just unfolded. The lion with open jaw, held by the lady, the two dogs baying at the moon – this was the tale of the foxes and me, a little saga that had been under way for several days now. Ah, but then it won’t count, will it, because I’m supposed to be creating something new? But I’ll start to relate it anyway, because the cards seem to be issuing a kind of demand that I gather the threads together, look for its essence. And it’s also true, isn’t it, that every little story is part of a greater one? Perhaps I might get a glimpse of this if I follow what is in front of me.

This foxy tale is no saga of country life. I live, in fact, in the heart of the city, the centre just a few minutes walk away down steep stone steps. But it is quiet here. Our little area is old, eighteenth century, with walled gardens and cobbled streets, laid out where there were once orchards and pleasant pastures for the inhabitants of the smoky city below to stroll on a summer’s evening. There are still mulberry trees, fig trees, and an old sacred spring at the back of someone’s house. Not that the foxes are left over from those balmy days of pre-urban living. No, they’ve crept back along the railway tracks, the river banks, the old gullies and conduits that run forgotten under busy streets. Opportunists to the last, they scavenge for food and live under garden sheds. I didn’t know about them when we first moved here, not too long ago, but I sound found out.

At first I was enchanted with this secret city wildlife. I loved the thought that, come the night, another form of life was taking over. While we humans lay cosily in bed, wild beasts came out, mated, fed, played, but in the morning were gone, leaving little trace of their presence. So little in fact, that much of the population round here still does not know that they exist. It is a little like those tales you read as a child, where there is a fairy market at night, where shadowy, moonbeam creatures sell their miniature treasures in a world which is like the one you know, but infinitely more magical. If you could only wake up at the right time, you could step into that elusive world and take part in it…

I suppose, with the foxes, it was as if this started to happen. And, like those reckless mortals in legend who venture out to join in with fairy dancing, commerce, revels or anything else, I found out that it was not quite so delightful as I had expected. There was a price to pay for going into the world of night.
Just recently, a family of cubs had been born close by. I didn’t know they were there until the time came for them to be taken out by their mother for night romps and education in the gentle art of pillage and theft. The first crisis came when she abandoned one of them in our garden. I heard this terrible, desperate calling, which shattered my dreams and roused me from my bed. It’s strange, isn’t it, that universal cry of help from the young? Whether it’s a bird out of the nest or a child lost in a supermarket, the tone is the same. There’s an insistency, an urgency that you recognise, which goes straight to the centre of your being and tugs at you.

I got up, and looked out of the window. Dawn was sullenly approaching, and I had to concentrate my vision to see anything in the cold, smoky grey light. Finally I could make out a vixen in next door’s garden, moving low and rapidly with a cub close behind her, while in ours another cub raced up and down, unable to climb the high stone wall that separated him from his mother. She would come back and rescue him, I thought, and left them to it.

But the next night, soon after it grew dark, the cries began again They sounded a little like a dog, or, to be more precise, like a Jack Russell terrier with a sore throat. They had a strange, husky penetration, though, like one of those alarm calls in your sleep, a voice that breaks into the comfortable unfolding of your current dream and rouses you, calling your name, perhaps, or speaking just one word that resonates through your body from top to toe. It was terrible. The cub called, cried and wailed the whole night through. It went through every range of emotion, uncannily human in its piteous calling. At times it became exhausted, and could only give faint, despairing groans. At others it worked itself up to a pitch of hysteria and grief which would have torn at the stoniest heart. I felt there was nothing I could do, not at this point anyway. I had to give the mother a chance to find it and take it back. Even if it was starving, what could I do if I did retrieve it? I couldn’t take over from the mother, I couldn’t rear a cub. I had to leave it to its fate. If it had to die, then so it must be.

Well, the following night, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Maybe I could catch it, and maybe, if I put it over the wall into next door’s garden, it could find its way back to the earth, even at the risk of its mother rejecting it. Out of bed, slippers and dressing gown on, dog safely shut up and torch in hand, I went out to see what I could do. As soon as it heard any movement outside, of course, it became absolutely quiet and still, so I think it was my determination to put a stop to this suffering (for both of us) that allowed me finally to track it down in a corner of the garden, crouching under some old planks. I picked it up by the cruff of the neck, as one would a puppy, although it looked more like a small piglet with its long nose. We had a good look at one another, the cub pissed itself with fright, and then I took it to the wall where I could just reach high enough to put it on the top and give it a gentle push off the other side. Back I went to bed, and sleep – glorious, undisturbed sleep.

So, my mission successfully accomplished, I went about in a sentimental haze for a few days. There was no more noise, and I was convinced I had saved the cub from death, from perishing miserably. But this was not to last. Come twilight one evening, I heard the dreaded ‘Yap, yap, yap’ again. I suppose if you’re a doctor, and you work hard to set a nasty break in a patient’s leg, only to have him come back a couple of months later with the other one broken, you’d be bound to be less sympathetic, ‘Not you again!’ It detracted from my sense of achievement, too – why must the creature be so stupid? Only in the morning was I prepared to make another effort, motivated more by loss of sleep than anything else. I found the cub in a little hole that it had dug for itself in the vegetable garden; just big enough to hide in, for as I peered into the dark space two glowing, cross eyes looked out at me.

I guess it was not sensible to plunge my bare hand in and grab it. In retrospect, it was really very stupid. Its teeth, needle-sharp, went straight to the bone. With my free hand, I prised open its jaws, and it promptly grabbed that one instead. Two hands savaged. When I managed to get a grip on it, I chucked it over the wall with no more ado, and went inside to plaster my wounds with remedies.

At midnight, under a full moon, just below the bedroom window, it started up again. It was then that the penny dropped. This wasn’t an abandoned cub. This was a deliberately dumped cub. After all, it hadn’t starved, had it, despite several nights of miser on its own? So it could dig a bit deeper and make a proper earth. Plainly, its mother had been going round doing the neighbourhood drop: ‘You stay here, Charlie; this garden’s for you, Flossie, I’m leaving you here.’ And so on, and so on. What I had thought were the death cries were in fact those of a creature having to face a new life. And I, like a fool, had tried to return it to its old life. Well, as we all know, that never works, does it?

The final ridiculous scene was about to unfold. I can’t help but go back to the analogy of dreams, where an epic that starts off with deep emotion and cosmic overtones ends up in absurdity. I was very tired – it had been a trying day. All I wanted to do was sleep. The yelps I could cope with, but suddenly there were loud scrabbling noises close to the house, followed by ‘splish, splosh’ sounds. Up, open the window, and all was revealed. The cub had climbed up the water butt and fallen in. I admit I must have stood there for several minutes, wondering if this was the answer to my prayers. But the thought of fishing a drowned cub out of a barrel of dirty water in the morning was far, far worse…

Quickly dressed, cursing loudly, I went out. I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so angry. The cub’s snout was stuck bravely up into the air, and with his two front paws he paddled frantically to try and stay afloat. I put on leather gardening gloves this time; I wasn’t going to be caught twice. Even in its desperate plight, it still tried to bite me. It is true that Nature has no gratitude; why should it? But then I wasn’t going to have much sympathy either. I found a plastic washing-up bowl and heaved out one black, stinking, slimy fox cub onto the grass. It glared at me angrily and scuttled away into the bushes where I left it to recover.

You think I’m making this up, but no, I couldn’t. My inventive powers don’t run to this kind of absurd scenario – I always try to pitch my imaginings on a grander scale. But when I had drawn the cards and found the story of the foxes written plain there, it niggled away at my mind, and I wondered if I could use it as a key to something with a bit more depth. Nothing came; I tried this idea and that, but they all fizzled out. Come night-time again, I was wide awake, restless, unable to let go and relax. Perhaps a walk through the late-night city would help – it would prove some sort of a distraction, at least.

I clattered down the familiar stone steps, holding the old metal handrail since they are pitted and tricky to negotiate in the uneven light of the street lamps, which are picturesque, but ineffective, like something out of Dickens. At the bottom, I struck off into the city, through the commercial quarter where once merchants had traded cargoes of cloth and sugar, down to the docks from whence their riches came. I am always attracted to water, especially to water where there is the coming and going of boats. It’s a long time now since these docks have been used extensively for trade, but they have plenty of life. There are now marinas for private boats, smart waterfront cafes and new housing developments along the old quays, and the docks themselves are an intricate network of waterways, through routes and blind alleys winding away into the lesser-known quarters of the city.

I’m not sure what I had in mind to do, but when I saw the boat pulled up I had no second thoughts. ‘Moonlight cruise’, the board announced. Hadn’t heard of such a thing before, but then it was the tourist season, and all sorts of novelties were on offer. ‘One and a half hours – see the city by night. £10 only.’ A dozen or so people were on board already, and the captain stood by the gangplank ready to welcome any hesitant participant.

‘Coming?’ he asked cheerfully. He was a big man, with a florid face but a curiously sardonic, thin-lipped smile. ‘You won’t regret it. Not long to wait, we’re off in five minutes.’

Part Two follows in two weeks’ time, on August 14th

My Life with Tarot

I first came across Tarot cards in 1968, as a young student on vacation in America. The pack was the Rider Waite set, beautifull painted by Pamela Colman Smith, whose artistry and insights I’ve shared in an earlier post. The Rider Waite pack enchanted me – and sometimes disturbed me! – and I also acquired a more traditional, Marseilles pack some months later. There began a life-long fascination with its images, resonant and honed through centuries of use, the oracle, game and plaything of both nobility and common folk. I was drawn into historical research, into scrutiny of its symbolism, and into the practice of working with Tarot for insights, both for myself and others. After many years, I was finally able to distil this into a book: ‘Tarot Triumphs’, published by Weiser in 2016.

Sweet Chance: Spring on Minchinhampton Common

Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad, 
Beyond the town, where wild flowers grow -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, 
How rich and great the times are now! 
Know, all ye sheep 
And cows, that keep 
On staring that I stand so long 
In grass that's wet from heavy rain -- 
A rainbow and a cuckoo's song 
May never come together again; 
May never come 
This side the tomb.

'A Great Time' by W. H. Davies (1871-1940)

I recently re-visited Amberley and Nailsworth, the area in Gloucestershire where we lived not too long ago. We were there for seven years, in fact, and it’s seven years now since we moved. Although it’s not too far from our present home in Topsham, Devon, I’ve only once before made the 100 mile journey back there in the intervening period. This time, in glorious May, I rejoiced in the profusion of the local flowers of the woods, upland commons and meadows: starry wild garlic, ethereal cowslips, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn blossom.

I’m forever interested in our experiences of ‘place’, and how they lodge in our memory as touchstones of emotional succour – or sometimes as the opposite, as places of doom or of energy drainage, best avoided in the future. For myself, this refers mostly to places where I’ve lived, and which have time to seep into the soul. That’s around twelve different places, plus one in Russia and one holiday home in Turkey. It’s a somewhat indefinite number as on more than one occasion I’ve lived in the same area but in different houses. Anyway, without getting too involved in intricate analysis here, I’m going to call it the round figure of twelve.

On Minchinhampton Common, it was – and still is, writing this a few days later – a time when the long grass is studded with flowers in the days before the cows are let loose to tear at the new fodder. Commoners have rights to graze stock – our house deeds there allowed us to graze ‘two beasts’! So in mid-May, farmers with similar rights drive their cattle lorries up there, and unload them. We witnessed it once, and laughed at the clumsy exhilaration of the cows as they kicked up their heels, snorted, then set off at what passes for a bovine gallop, stampeding and wheeling in circles, like something from a Western. Most had probably been confined to their stalls over winter, and their joy was a pleasure to behold. It wouldn’t take long before buttercups and cowslips were munched and you’d need to go to the margins of the common to find orchids, Solomon’s seal and other wild flowers not yet discovered by the herds.

Below: Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, and the much rarer Bee Orchid, all of which I photographed on Minchinhampton Common

The cows themselves were mainly a motley crew of mixed brown, white, black and even a curiously sort of striped one, who we nicknamed Tiger. The National Trust kept a herd of belted Galloways, black and white like striped humbugs, and an elite herd of a few little Highland cows, with woolly coats and long horns, kept their own company away from the madding crowd. All the cows roamed as far as they could until stopped by cattle grids, and it was a frequent sight to see one leaning over our back wall, wondering what she might be able to reach in our vegetable patch with her rasping tongue. Or strolling through the village past our front gate, snatching at grass from the so-called village green.

‘Tiger’, and fellow cows munching their way along our lane and the village green

And on my visit this time round, it happened to be the day of the annual ‘Cow Hunt’. No, not taking pot shots at innocent animals, but a kind of Cow Scarecrow event, with named cows dressed up and dotted around the village, such as Emma Radu Cow Moo or the like.

One of the many imaginative cows (or bulls) making up the Cow Hunt trail in Amberley (Stroud News & Journal)

Hordes of families spread out through the village and over the common, parents diligently ticking off discovered cows on their lists, while excited children scampered ahead, trying to spot them in fences, gardens and the wilder spots. After which, it’s tea and cake for all on the aforementioned village green.

On the lower slopes of Minchinhampton Common, looking towards Burleigh

I began this piece with the poem by W. H. Davies, which wonderfully evokes the kind of ecstasy of a moment when impressions flood our consciousness – sights, scents and sounds arising simultaneously from the natural world around us – in his case, a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song. In my case, the sweetness of spring flowers, the silvery stone of the villages I know and love – Amberley, Box, Minchinhampton, and the leafy ancient woodland, all brought joy. For me, too, the open common and its free-ranging beasts has always carried a resonance of an older, freer way of life in the English countryside, which has now largely gone from our land.

A beautiful rendering of ‘Sweet Chance’ set as a song by composer Michael Head

But – and here’s the thing! – it’s also ‘sweet chance’ that W. H. Davies himself lived in this very area, and was a native of Nailsworth in his later years. He was a self-styled ‘super tramp’: born in Wales, he roamed far and wide across the world, living as a hobo. He travelled round Canada and America, trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the gold rush, and losing his leg in a freight train accident. But being something of a genius too, his writings took the more bohemian elements of literary London by storm, and he became an established poet, as well as publishing his autobiography. Notable figures such as the Sitwells, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Edward Thomas became his friends. It was not a simple outcome, as you might imagine, given that a rough life and the sometimes genteel expectations of his behaviour did not always sit well with his upper class admirers. But his status as a ‘super tramp’ helped to kick start a kind of vogue for ‘tramping’ so that even much later, in the 1950s, writer Colin Wilson and his circle took to sleeping out in the rough – though in Wilson’s case, just as far as Hampstead Heath! And a well-known Soho character, ‘Ironfoot Jack’, wrote an entertaining memoir about his time on the road, and as a showman. Tramping became almost respectable.

In later years, W. H. Davies settled in a little cottage called Glendower, in a hamlet called Watledge, I used to walk past it often, if I was taking the scenic downhill route into Nailsworth, and admire its picturesque look. This was his last home, after he and his wife had inhabited several other houses in the area. His wife was much younger than him, and a former prostitute, but it was apparently a happy, settled union. His novel ‘Young Emma’ shows his sympathy for young women who got into trouble on account of their poverty and innocence. It was a close-to-life account of his wife’s beginnings, and not published until after his death.

W. H. Davies’s cottage, ‘Glendower’, in the hamlet of Watledge just outside Nailsworth

There is much more that could be said about W.H. Davies, Nailsworth, our time in Amberley, free-ranging cows and common land, but I’ll just let this short tribute stand as a kind of marker of those special moments which can come when we revisit old haunts. A rush of memories can fuse with current impressions – for me here, ‘sweet chance’ was the scent of wild garlic, the delight of meeting with old friends, the sight of the steep valleys and tender green of the woods in May. I may experience this alchemical elixir, as indeed all of us may, but perhaps only a poet or writer of genius such as W.H.Davies can express it

Poet and tramp, W. H. Davies

The next post will stay with a literary theme, exploring the connections between William Blake and the Moravian Church. Are Blake’s visions, poems, and even his views on love, shaped by this unusual Christian church with its emphasis on visualisations, the feminine spirit, and delight in music? Join me in a different setting, but with another wild, independent genius!

The Bazaars of the Silk Road

Ladies of Tashkent with their produce


During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a number of trips to the Silk Road, travelling both along the ancient trade routes and to individual countries such as Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey. I felt instinctively that this period offered a golden opportunity to visit Central Asian and Silk Road countries, while borders were largely open, and political upheaval was minimal. I also had the time to do this, and travel was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to seize the chance while I could. And so it proved – sadly because of radicalism, civil war and political upheavals it would be very hard to do all of the same trips today.

However, it has ever been thus on the Silk Road. Only during the reign of Tamerlane (Timur) in the late 14th century was it possible to travel through his vast empire without impediment from beginning to end – and that was because he was a tyrant who imposed complete control on the routes! So I relished my journeys along at least part of the Silk Road, and studied its history and culture further to fill in the background. The talks and lectures I was able then to give were popular; everyone, it seems, wants to be an armchair Silk Road traveller, if they can’t get there in person! And who doesn’t love the colourful pictures of its remote mountains and lively markets?

In today’s post, I’m exploring the magic of Silk Road bazaars, and in a couple of months’ time I’ll publish a post on Travellers and Traders along the Silk Road. And more may follow – so watch this space!

Selling skeins of silk in the bazaar at Damascus, Syria

Times of Change

There have certainly been changes in the last fifteen years, since I visited the Silk Road and its countries, like the Chinese policy of aggression in the Uighur province, which has affected the historic town of Kashgar, with its enormous Sunday market and charming houses with painted balconies. I am not sure that I could bear to go back there now – I’d rather remember it as it was. But nevertheless, most of what I write and the pictures I show still tell a tale of Silk Road countries in general, even if some specific locations have altered.

The painted houses of Kashgar

The Life of the Silk Road

The enchantment of the bazaar

Bazaars cast their magical spell over me, every time. In Silk Road countries, I have shopped in bazaars in Istanbul, Damascus, Kashgar, Samarkand, Tashkent, Marrakesh, Fez, Cairo, and Rawalpindi, to name but some of that I have visited. They are more than markets, glorying in flamboyant display, and creating a sense of opulence. Even humble sacks of spices are arranged in a palette of pleasing colours, metal teapots are set in towers to create a dazzling array of silver, and piles of slippers with striped silk and pompoms suggest the floors of a Sultan’s palace. I love nearly all markets but the Silk Road bazaars with their exuberant offerings, turning all their goods into exotic treasures, are irresistible.

Turkish slippers for dainty feet piled up in the bazaar

The Story of the Silk Road

The Silk Road flourished between the 1st century AD, and the 15th century, after which time better trade routes and shipping routes opened up between East and West. However, despite its romantic sound, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself was only coined in the 19th century. The Silk Road was also not just one road, but a network of branching routes connecting countries from China and India in the Far East through Central Asia and into the Middle East, with final routes into Italy, Greece, and even Britain. Silk itself had been discovered in China by at least as early as 3,600BC – the legend has it that a Chinese Empress accidentally dropped a silkworm cocoon into her cup of tea, and as it unravelled in the hot liquid, she teased out the thread and was struck by its possibilities! Sericulture, the making of silk, became de rigeur for all Chinese ladies in the centuries that followed, and much time and effort was lavished on their silk road ‘houses’ to rear the worms which spin those cocoons. Soft, strong, lightweight silk became a precious commodity, its secret guarded for centuries by the Chinese until it was spotted by the Romans and export finally began. (One bargaining chip was that the Chinese were especially eager to acquire decent horses such as bred by their neighbours over the border in what is now the Kirghystan area.) But the trade routes were used for many, many other goods sent from East to West, and West to East, including ceramics, rhubarb, gunpowder and paper.

The Eastern end of the Silk Road, which extends into the Middle East and even into Europe

The old trade routes of Silk Road with their caravans of camels, yaks and horses still persisted to some extent in terms of travel, right though into the early 20th century. In their final years these were documented by a duo of Christian missionaries, Cable and French, who described them in their atmospheric book, The Gobi Desert (details below). But even today, the legacy of Silk Road bazaars is still thriving, as celebrated here.

A traditional seller of sherbert drinks in the bazaar in Damascus

The language barrier

‘I’m talking about camels -CAMELS!’
Many nationalities of travellers and merchants have travelled up and down the Silk Road for at least two thousand years. How did they manage to communicate with each other, given that they spoke dozens of different languages? They developed a simple, but cunning way of getting round this. For much of the Silk Road, either Chinese or Turkic languages were the main ones spoken, and these all have some similarities even though they are significantly different from each other. Only very rarely did traders travel from end to end of the Silk Road, so the chances were that the other travellers and traders that they were meeting came from just a few countries away. Thus to exchange information, the merchants would first of all state what the subject of the conversation was going to be: ‘My words are going to be about woven silk – camels – porcelain bowls – bandits up ahead…’ or whatever the vital topic was. You can imagine that this might have been protracted on occasion – ‘C-A-M-ELS – got it??’ and perhaps with some pantomime or gestures: ‘BANDITS – I’m dead!’ (enacting stabbing chest with knife) That way, each could pick up enough to give a sense of the potential deal or danger, and further conversation could now be exchanged within the framework of the subject.

In the huge Sunday market at Kashgar, once in the kingdom of Kashgaria and now in Western China, Uighur traders bargain fiercely over their donkeys and other livestock. I captured these images in the mid-1990s; sadly the Uighur culture is now being repressed, along with the beards and traditional forms of dress.

Exotic Goods

Goods came from far away lands, so buyers at Silk Road bazaars could expect to see some items that were new and strange to them. Even today, some exotic-looking items in a bazaar can be mystifying – the pictures above are actually of sugar, as sold in the bazaar at Samarkand! And I’ve noticed that in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, it seems that every time a new exotic design comes onto the market, it’s presented in dazzling displays, alerting buyers to something new and glamorous. One year, for instance, it was coloured glass lanterns, and the year before that, embroidered wall hangings. You can see examples of these below.

Hats, Caps and Headgear

Another way to do a quick check on the home country or region of another merchant or dealer was – and still is to an extent – by checking their headgear. Even today, in Uzbekistan and in Kashgar market, a whole variety of caps and hats are on offer. (You can see some of them in the photo above of the men arguing over their donkeys.) Pointed felt caps for the Kirghiz can easily be distinguished, for instance, from the round flat hats for the Uzbeks.

A Kirghiz felt hat, which I brought home from my travels

Another frequent sight in the bazar is the Kirghiz, wearing a pointed cap of bright chintz bordered with lambskin, and a heavy fur coat even when the day is hot. His boots have high heels…he sometimes carries a hooded falcon on his wrist…’ (The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French, a fascinating account of life in Central Asia by missionaries who saw the last days of the old Silk Road trading routes in the early 20th century.) Indeed, I did manage to buy some Kirghiz riding boots of black leather. I showed them to a shoe mender back in the UK – he marvelled at them, as no nails at all were used, only tiny wooden pegs, in a style that he hadn’t seen since boots made before WWII.

Selling Uzbeki caps in Samarkand

Immersion in the life of the bazaar

My first experience of bazaars was as a student of 20 years old, when I elected to spend the summer vacation in Istanbul. I enrolled in a scheme to match up British students with Turkish families, a homestay in return for helping them to speak English. The journey was epic – 3 days packed into a hot train with a group of fellow students, no bunks, working toilets or refreshments. We ground to a halt somewhere in a barren plain in Yugoslavia. (This was not the Orient Express, but the unglamorous version via Munich and northern Greece.) The train arrived 24 hours late, and I was met by my Turkish family, waving frantically to me from the platform, having recognised me from the photo I’d sent. I hadn’t received the one they’d sent me, so was wondering who the ‘housewife’ was that I had been asked to tutor. It turned out that the agency had got it wrong, and fixed me up with a 33 year old bachelor who fancied marrying an English girl! I was too shy to admit to the mix-up, but luckily he lived with his aged mother and father, and spent most days working in the family pharmacy with his father. So by day I was free to roam the city streets, crossing over on the ferry to Old Istanbul and its fabulous bazaar. As a long-haired, mini-skirted wearing student, I was lucky not to get into trouble! In the bazaar, I learnt how to bargain, and was entranced by the huge building, with its arches and painted ceilings, and labyrinthine layout. I’ve been back many times since; the spell was cast in those early years, and has never been broken.

The Bazaar of Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is known as Kapali Carsi, and is probably the most famous bazaar in the world. It’s also often regarded as the most perfectly constructed and best organised one too. Like other major bazaars, it began as a complex of strong rooms where valuables could be stored and protected, offered as a commercial service, and shut up tightly at night. This turned into the first Bedesten, or covered market, in Constantinople, created around 1461 during the Ottoman period. Its jewellery section today still remains at the centre, a traditional placing in the best-protected area of the bazaar. (Though today more modern, securely-guarded gold jewellery stores can be found at the perimeter of the bazaar.) Like other bazaars built from late medieval period onwards, it was given a domed roof, in this case with fifteen large and eight small domes. Over the course of time, it expanded; the Sandal Bedesten was built around the first Bedestan, and other side streets grew up too, ringed round with 30 caravanserais, as lodging houses for merchants. Today’s bazaar still covers 100 acres, with some 18 gates and 4000 shops. It was badly damaged in an earthquake of 1894, and by the1950s was in serious decay and decline . It was a close call as to whether it would survive, but now it is restored, and buzzing with life once again.

Gorgeous lamps create an air of oriental splendour in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Not all bazaars are as grand or splendid, of course. Sometimes a small town bazaar might offer, say, predominantly water melons, hunting knives and bread for sale, depending on their local specialities. And not all are picturesque. Visiting Morocco in the 1970s, I shrank from scenes of horror in the butchers’ quarter, where stalls were hung with blood-dripping meat, darkly encrusted with flies. I also spied fascinating but sinister ‘witchcraft’ stalls selling ingredients for potions and magical spells, who knows whether to cure or curse. But I remember too the enchantment of arriving by bus at a little Moroccan town one evening, and stepping out straight into a street market lit by lanterns in the dusk – no electricity in those parts. An enticing scent of grilling kebabs floated on the air, stallholders called their wares, citizens bustled about, looking for the final purchases of the day. I felt I had entered a magic realm.

On the question of security for traders, I was reminded of the effect of Timur/Tamerlane on the safety of goods and travllers when I visited Damascus in the early 2000s. Bashar al-Assad was already President, some would say dictator, with a tight control over the city. In the bazaar, I bought a gold chain from an Armenian jeweller. He told us that he had no fear of anyone robbing his shop; he could even leave it unlocked and walk away, and nothing would disappear. This is one of the ironical effects of a tyrannical regime.

Ceramics traditions and servicing

Below: Ceramics have been part of Silk Road trading for about a thousand years, with Chinese porcelain a valuable commodity sent with great care to the West. Something of that tradition is carried on today with the exuberant pattternings of Turkish ceramics, proudly displayed for visitors and locals. I have lost several impulse purchases in breakages over the years – they don’t travel well in luggage! In Silk Road days, the porcelain could be mended at Tashkent en route if it had got damaged in transit.


Bargaining and bazaars go together. And there’s a fascinating range of customs relating to bargaining across different Silk Road countries. In the Yemen, they have a practice of using hand gestures under a cloth held over the hands of buyer and seller, so that no one else can see the deal that is being done. Fingers symbolise numbers, and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses are signalled with the eyes. Perhaps this too relates to the need to overcome language barriers, the old challenge of the Silk Road. In the Levant, it’s common for the stallholder to state too high a price, then walk off in disgust when the buyer refuses. His son then magically appears, takes over the process and offers the customer a special discount to make up for the disappointment – the seller re-appears and berates his son for being too soft, and so the performance goes on. Somewhere along the line, a bargain may be struck.

If you enter a bazaar, be prepared to bargain. It’s expected of you. Aim at a price of about half what is initially stated, though I often feel in fact that about two thirds is fair. Bargaining is part of the game, and merchants have practised it over hundreds of years. The pantomime of expressing shock at the seller’s opening price, the gambit of walking away when an agreement seems out of reach, are all part of the ritual of the bazaar. (‘Come back, lady! Ok, for you special price…) I’ll just add a quick rider that of course there are variations, when bargaining hard is not the right etiquette, for instance for food, or in countries which may have their own accepted limits of discount (generally about 10-20% reduction in countries of the former Soviet Union).

Above: Superb wooden boxes, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and made by craftsmen in Damascus. At the time when I bought a few, the prices were absurdly reasonable. I wonder what has happened to the makers and the trade now? The civil war erupted just a couple of years after my visit.

Tips for the bazaar

Learn the basic numbers in the language of the country. I only have a little Dutch and much less Turkish, but by learning numbers to understand prices and make offers, I was able to bargain in the flea markets of Holland and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Be polite and friendly. It goes a long way.
Don’t feel pressured into buying something if you’re offered a glass of tea or piece of Turkish delight. It’s part of the ritual, and the seller knows full well that not every interaction leads to a sale.

Be ready to walk away if you can’t strike an appropriate deal. If there’s more room for negotiation, the seller will call you back.
Only start the bargaining process if you really do intend to buy something (at the right price). It’s offensive to make a game out of it.
Beware of self-appointed ‘guides’, especially those who offer to take you to their uncle’s/cousin’s/brother’s shop…But you probably know that already!

All the contemporary photos of Silk Road scenes are copyright Cherry Gilchrist


My own book Stories from the Silk Road is a re-telling of traditional stories from the Silk Road area for children. Most of these stories were gleaned while I was on my travels, either by hearing them or finding them in books with local collections of stories. They are narrated here by the Spirit of the Silk Road, who also describes the its wonders as we travel down it. It is illustrated with stunning pictures by Nilesh Mistry, who carefully studied photos and historical pictures that I assembled for him, to ensure authenticity. (You’ll find different editions of this book, some with another cover; it is currently out of print, but copies are usually available on Amazon.)

There are plenty of books about the history of the Silk Road, but those most relevant to this particular post are:

The Gobi Desert – Cable, Mildred & French, Francesca, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942) – Recording at first-hand the last traces of the ancient ways of travelling and trading on the central stretches of the Silk Road, as experienced in the first half of the 20th century. You can read about the authors’ extraordinary lives here, women who eventually received the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The BazaarMarkets and Merchants of the Islamic World – Weiss & Westermann (Thames & Hudson, reprinted 2000)

Below: Old markets in Samarkand, where the magnificent buildings have since been restored.

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Suzanni from the Silk Road

Tigerlily down Brick Lane

Tigerlily at the Posh End