To round off my current series of blogs about Topsham, I’d like to take you on a wander heading out of town up the river Exe, towards Exeter.
Sir Alex’s Walk This riverside path is far less popular than the Goat Walk at the other end of Topsham. Perhaps the warning sign gives a clue as to why this should be.
Apparently, this wasn’t always the case. Even as late as 1968, D.M.Bradbeer wrote, ‘This pretty riverside walk is much frequented on fine summer evenings, when it is pleasant to loiter on the bank and watch the fishermen at work with their nets, and the sailing boats criss-crossing on the tide’.
The vista from the path today, however, is slashed by the M5 motorway bridge, and the fishermen are gone. Seine net fishing (stretching a net across the river) is now illegal, and in any case the practice had dwindled to a final few licensed boats as the salmon stocks had all but disappeared in the last twenty years. But the river bends, beds of rushes, overgrown landing stages, muddy creeks and boats in all stages of repair give this stretch of water an eerie charm. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how so many strollers ever did manage to walk along this narrow path, as it’s like navigating a narrow Devon lane where you need to keep an eye out for passing places.
Rats, robberies and the scenic route
Before we get to the path though, the walk first takes us down Ferry Road, passing the Recreation Ground on the left hand-side. With its children’s playground and open grassy spaces, the ‘Rec’ is well-used in a town which doesn’t have all that much public land for community use, apart from the Goat Walk fields which I described earlier. The Rec might look rather flat and featureless, and that’s because it is largely an artificial plot, created on land reclaimed from the marshes. This happened over the years by very pragmatic means, since the site was used as the town rubbish tip.
In his memoir, John Willings (b.1923) recalls how in his boyhood the site was still evolving and was certainly what we’d consider hazardous today. At one end there were the Lime Kilns where ‘children used to play in and out of the caves which, even when empty, had plenty of lime dust on the walls and floor’.
I searched for more information about Topsham Lime Kilns, and lime kilns in general. There were several sets of kilns around the town, where limestone was calcinated at high temperatures to produce quick lime. This was used for making cement, and as a soil improver in agriculture. Stone-built kilns left to fade into gentle ruins appealed to artists of the 19th century, as a romantic backdrop, as these paintings show.
But they could also be the scene of high drama. On Nov 27 1908, The Western Times reported that a daring robbery had taken place at the Topsham lime kilns situated near the River Clyst. A young man, named Leonard Johns, who was employed at the Odam’s Manure Works nearby, had just been to the bank, and was walking back with a bag containing £35 for the payment of the company’s weekly wages. ‘His assailant sprang upon him suddenly from tunnel in the old kilns, and, throwing a sack over his head, stole the bag and made off on a cycle towards St Mary. Our picture shows the boy Johns with the bag, and a well-known amateur actor who, to enable the scene to be reconstructed, impersonated the character. The masked robber is still at large.’ Does this grainy photo perhaps show one of the earliest ‘Crimewatch’ re-constructions? Later, the empty bag was found under the bridge at Winslade Park.
Returning to the lime kilns at Ferry Road, these would certainly have been a potential health and safety hazard for the children who played in them, both because of any residual heat and the very real possibility of the lime dust irritating or even burning the skin. The Wikipedia article which cites this risk also contains the surprising information that we may be eating it in our bread and cakes: ‘It is known as a food additive…as an acidity regulator, a flour treatment agent and as a leavener. It has E number E529.’
If Topsham children of the 1920s and 30s survived their encounter with the lime kilns, they could skip a little further along a rough track, (now the continuation of Ferry Road) to watch Mr. Punch Miller driving his horse and cart full of rubbish down to the tip several times a day, fulfilling his role as town dustman, and little by little building up the land which would become the playground of their future grandchildren.
In John Willing’s day, it was still very much a work in progress. Sport and rodents flourished together: ‘Enough of the wasteland at the “Rec” had been recovered, levelled and laid with turfs to provide a football pitch, which became waterlogged after every spring tide – and a part for swings and see-saws. Most of the area was still an ‘open’ dump where flocks of screeching gulls would pick at garbage and dozens of rats would scurry among the rusting tins and decaying waste. At one time the rats became so numerous that a hunt was organised which turned out to be a great sporting event for the town. The local fire brigade had been called in to pump water down the rat holes and flush out the rats who were than chased by packs of dogs and men and children armed with heavy sticks. Over 300 rats were killed…’
At the end of the Rec and beyond what is now known as ‘the dog walking field’, Sir Alex’s Walk begins in earnest, winding its way past the gardens of the houses built on higher land in Riverside Road. This is where D. M. Bradbeer’s vision of a ‘pretty riverside walk’ begins to hold good.
Again, John Willing lights up the less pretty realities when he recounts his cycle ride along the highest and narrowest section of the path. His father had given him a hand-me-down, heavy old bike, and John was determined to take it out on what was probably the most unsuitable track in the town for a trial run: ‘Being rather unsteady on my new acquisition I accidentally rode right over the edge and landed in the thick oozy mud – bike and all! I had to wade along the mud dragging my bike until the bank became low enough for me to clamber out. Covered from head to foot in the black stinking mud I dare not go back along the path where lots of people were taking their Sunday evening stroll…So I went on to the Newport fields and hid there until it became dark!’
On the right Retreat House comes into view, a much more beautiful landmark than the motorway bridge which is now alarmingly close by. Retreat House is a grand mansion re-modelled in the early 1790s by Sir Alexander Hamilton, merchant and High Sheriff of Devon. Earlier in the 18th century, it had housed French prisoners taken in the Napoleonic Wars As you may guess, Sir Alex also gave his name to the walk. The name has been modified in popular use, and sometimes still appears on maps as ‘Serrallick’s Walk’. Sir Alex was apparently knighted simply for congratulating King George III on surviving an attack by a madwoman who tried to stab him.
Beyond here, it looks at one point as though the path ends in a sharp drop, but when you get closer, if the tide is low enough, you see a set of steep, muddy steps leading down to a concrete path which continues forward, skirting the Retreat Boatyard. This is a fully working yard with expert boatbuilders.
And this is as far as I’m going up the river today, although you can continue beyond the bridge, skirting the Newport Homes site and heading…well I don’t know how much further! One day I will find out.
Names of the River
I’d like to end though with a mention of the old names for parts of the river, which have their own mystique. These were used not so long ago by the seine-net fishermen, as useful markers, guides to the spots to be fished: Clock, Black Oar Hard, The Drain, Cupboard, and Ting Tong, for instance, refer to places further downstream, but perhaps there are corresponding names for this upper stretch of river too? Please do leave a comment if you know of any!
I’d particularly love to know where the name ‘Ting Tong’ comes from. There are Inner and Outer Ting Tong Lanes a few miles away in Budleigh Salterton, but I’ve found little clue about their origin, apart from the fact that Ting Tong means ‘a little crazy’ in Thai. Wikipedia suggests: Possibly related to Thing (assembly)#Viking_and_medieval_society’. I can’t see an assembly being held in or on the far side of River Exe, but who knows? My Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (excellent for Call My Bluff party games!) is silent on ‘Ting Tong’, but does have ‘Ting Tang’ as meaning ‘the saints-bell’. The ferry from Topsham across the Exe used to carry monks heading from Sherbourne Abbey to Buckfast Abbey and points west in medieval times. Ting Tong lies on the opposite side of the river from Topsham, not too far from the present ferry dock, so perhaps the monastic travellers would ring the bell to alert the ferryman when they needed a return ride?
A History Little Known: A Topsham Childhood of Yesteryear John Willing (1984)
For details of Retreat House: Topsham: An Account of its Streets and Buildings, Caroline Obussier & contributors (The Topsham Society, revised edition 1986)
River names and map in Talking About Topsham, Stories of the Town Recorded by Sarah Vernon (2007)
Topsham Museum is closed until Spring 2021, but offers an excellent ‘Walking Trail’ map, which you can download here. The Museum is staffed by knowledgeable volunteers who may be able to help with individual enquiries too, about the history of the town and its families.
All photos except illustrations, or where stated, are by Cherry Gilchrist
This time, I’m going take us to some Topsham hot spots of hidden stories and unsolved puzzles, between the church and the riverside at Ferry Road. We’ll also meet two female saints who came to an unfortunate end, view some railings, and encounter some Topsham Cats.
Beast or Dragon?
The parish church of St Margaret’s set up high above the river’s edge has one of the best views in town, looking across the river to the Haldon Hills. It is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, which could indicate that the original donor had taken part in the Crusades, according to an archaeologist friend. The old Norman church was, however, largely demolished and rebuilt in the 1870s. A pamphlet circulated at the time offers compelling reasons in favour of this renovation, including: ‘Because it may improve the voice and lungs of the Vicar, and induce him to remain more at home and attend to the duties required of a Clergyman.’
But there is still one treasure inside the Church dating from early times – the ancient font. This has a mystery of its own: what are the symbols carved on it? Some say that they are a dragon and a moon, but ‘Historic England’ begs to differ slightly: ‘The Norman font has a circular bowl with big conical flutes, and on one side a large standing beast or dragon holding an apple (?) in its mouth.’ The question mark is theirs, not mine.
I put the question to the British Medieval History Facebook group, in 2018, along with a photo, and here are some highlights from the discussion that followed:
Debbie Worden St Margaret of Antioch was supposed to have been swallowed by the devil in the shape of a dragon, wasn’t she? Thanks for the fab photo!
Cherry Gilchrist Yes, you’re right – maybe it has something to do with Margaret’s ordeal by dragon-swallowing. Some nice images of her here.
Sara Bicknell All of the images of St Margaret I can find show her coming out of the dragon, not going in. Unless, thinking on my feet, this is a lion….It’s got a mane…
Marcella Normanno Poor dragon, he may not be the scariest or the most powerful, but fat… and a round object? Some people have no imagination.
Colin Torode put up a photo of the Topsham church seal, from the RAMM collection
Colin wrote: ‘The seal of Topsham Church (in Exeter Museum) shows St Margaret of Antioch emerging from the Dragon. The dragon on the font is slightly strange, but it’s not that unusual to find dragons and other beasts on fonts – especially on early fonts. They could be telling a story or they might have an apotropaic function. It’s been noted that the area around fonts is often high in apotropaic marks, put there to ward off evil spirits. Fonts tended to be placed to the north of the church, near to the “devil’s door”, so it would be natural to decorate them with protective imagery.’
Susan Morrish It looks slightly Viking influenced
Sara Bicknell Further research dates the original church to Saxon times, I’m wondering if the carving might be preserved from even earlier. See, I looked up Norman lions (and dragons, I’m open minded) and it looks nothing like but it does have a chunky, late Saxon/Viking look about it, as I say. Please excuse my tenacity but I was an Anglo Saxon archaeological specialist in a previous existence.
Perhaps you might have something to add? Please submit your comments!
Here’s an unassuming little plaque, placed almost out of view, high on a terrace of red-brick houses on Topsham’s High Street.
So how did this idyllic island, far away in the Pacific Ocean, give its name to a street in Topsham? The answer lies in guano, better known as bird poo! The terrace was built by John Potbury Cridland (1849-1930), who made his money by shipping tons of the ‘product’ from Samoa back to Britain.
David Bewes, whose wife is a descendant of the Topsham Cridlands, tells the story of this man who had an unusual career: John Potbury Cridland, (1849-1930) was born in Topsham. He started out as a mason, but then became a shipwright. However, in the 1871 census, he is listed as a ‘light keeper’ at Dungeness lighthouse in Kent, and is believed to have worked on a number of lighthouses before heading off to the islands of Samoa in the Pacific Ocean. Here he ran a guano business for some years, and also founded a Masonic Lodge. When he returned home, he started to build “Samoa Terrace” in Topsham. He had to stop building, though, when he ran out of money, so he returned to Samoa to generate more funds before returning to Topsham and finishing the terrace of about six houses. (Email correspondence with Cherry Gilchrist)
This article gives you the low-down on the properties of guano as a fertiliser, which was so prized that it went by the name “white gold.” In 1856, America even passed a law permitting itself to take over any unclaimed guano territory anywhere in the world. Who would have thought such a far away saga could have had a direct influence on the town of Topsham? Imports of guano were sometimes stored in warehouses in Topsham, which must have been a smelly business.
‘Johnny’ Cridland and the Goat Walk
John Potbury Cridland also wanted to re-shape the river foreshore at what is now the Goat Walk end of town. (Mentioned in Hidden Topsham Part Two.) ‘Mr Cridland’s Plan’ was for a four and a half acre recreational area, and he despised the alternative version of the raised river path, which we have today. He wrote indignantly to the Board of Trade in 1909:
‘The Shipbuilding trade having been destroyed here and there being no other works of any kind carried-on, the inhabitants are now trying to improve the town in order to attract visitors and to make it a residential centre.’ The plan for the path, he told, was absurd: ‘As a Freeholder and an inhabitant of Topsham I strongly object to this path being made. It would be an unsightly encumbrance on the foreshore and a laughing stock for all visitors to this town.’ (Letter in possession of David Bewes)
We can catch a glimpse of this plan in a photo from 1909, as a poster stuck up in a shop window. On it is written: Mr Cridland’s Plan – The Improvement of Topsham – The rents of the Bowling Green Marshes will pay (for the) Improvement.
John Potbury Cridland’s family has had a history of entrepreneurial development. When we moved into our house in Fore Street, we found this plaque propped against the ivy-covered garden wall, inscribed: ‘This part of Great Paradise rebuilt A. D. 1845 Richard Cridland’.
Richard Hunt Cridland (1788-1855) was John Potbury’s grandfather. He was born in Topsham as the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Cridland and (probably) Daniel Hunt. He was a mason, carpenter, joiner and also the parish sexton. He married Mary Wills and his own son Richard (one of their 11 children) became the father of John Potbury Cridland, of guano fame. Richard junior (John Potbury’s father) was also a stone mason and he became sexton in his turn, although there was a mild scandal when he took over the post:
Some excitement exists in our parish in consequence of the irregular appointment of the current sexton. It appears that Richard Cridland the elder vacated the office of sexton in 1838 and the church wardens and minister nominated and presented Richard Cridland the younger at the visitation – the appointment being vested in the parishioners by immemorial usage. This innovation having been discovered, the appointment has been set aside, and the election of sexton is fixed for Monday next, at 11 o’clock, there being two candidates for the office. Western Times – Saturday 09 October 1841
However, to return to ‘Great Paradise’, Richard Hunt Cridland also built and bought up properties. Our house on Fore Street was one of them. It was originally a medieval cross-passage house, added to over the centuries and standing as one major dwelling until Cridland divided it up into three in 1845. They shaved off part of the magnificent Beer Stone fireplace (now in our sitting room) in order to squeeze in a central, tiny front door, which we’re tempted to nickname ‘The Needle’s Eye’. The name ‘Great Paradise’ (paradise originally means ‘garden’) may signify that the land was once held by an abbey, but we’ve yet to find any historical record of this.
Richard Hunt Cridland left a detailed and complex will in 1855, dividing up his property and cottages among family members. He also built workers’ cottages in Follett Road, then called Higher Passage.
‘A costly nest of vice’
Follett Road is our next stop. As our previous stroll down White Street showed, innocent exteriors may conceal notorius pasts. Here, the respectable white facades of Clara Place were intended to obliterate the traces of a far more disreputable building which once stood her. This was the town workhouse, institutions known mainly for their harsh treatment of paupers, but was condemned for immorality when its female inhabitants began to offer special services to to supplement their meagre means. It was described as ‘a costly nest of vice and dissipation’ by Robert Davy (Topsham: An Account of its Streets and Buildings). A local developer, William Clapp (an unfortunate name in the circumstances) finally pulled it down and rebuilt it, naming it ‘Clara Place’ after his most virtuous wife. Now it’s divided up, with charming cottages, with a central garden.
Follow Follett Road down to Ferry Road, and turn left towards the Passage Inn and the Underway, where fishermen not so long ago hung their nets on the steep walls there to dry and be mended. The Underway today is a popular spot for people to sun themselves on the benches, picnic and even play chess.
But there is also a small, sad feature which is partially hidden today. At low tide, stone footings are revealed in the mud.These are the remains of Jubilee Pier, a white painted wooden structure which was built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. However, its upkeep was neglected, and 1917 Tom Pym, a boy of 8, fell through some rotten boards and was drowned. The pier was pulled down shortly afterwards and never replaced.
St Sidwell’s Railings
Back by the Passage Inn, near the ferry, you will see some handsome light blue iron railings, acting as the boundary of a riverside garden. For years, no one knew where these had come from. Now they’ve been traced St Sidwell’s Church in central Exeter, which was bombed into ruin in World War 2. According to Chips Barber, in Topsham Past and Present, these were ‘salvaged from the tip for a mere twenty pounds.’ You can see Sidwell’s initials ‘SS’ and a scythe pattern in the ironwork, shortly to be explained.
I knew nothing about Saint Sidwell(a), so I went into Exeter to find out more. Gary, a helpful manager at the St Sidwell’s café took me into the new Chapel, part of the modern St Sidwell’s Church and Community Centre. Here I marvelled at the bold modern window celebrating her life, and the two Victorian windows rescued from the bombing and beautifully restored. But who was Sidwell herself?
Sidwella (or Sativola) is Exeter’s very own saint. She too was beheaded like Margaret of Antioch who we met earlier. (Although Margaret came out of the dragon unharmed, her Roman captors still chopped her head off because she wouldn’t renounce her faith.) According to tradition, Sidwella was either Saxon or Celtic, living in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ after the Romans had left Britain. The story goes that she was the daughter of a rich local landowner, with a jealous stepmother who was determined to prevent Sidwella inheriting the wealth which she planned would come to her own children. The stepmother bribed a reaper in the hayfield to behead the innocent girl, which he did with his scythe (hence the symbol in the railings). Immediately, a spring of pure water bubbled up where her head fell. The water was discovered to have healing properties, and the well built around it was considered sacred. A cult of St Sidwell thus emerged in Exeter, around the site of the current church and the well itself, as people came on pilgrimage from far and wide for healing and worship.
So where is the well? After a couple of false starts, my trail led to the Pura Vida Café in – yes, I should have guessed it! – Well Street, close to Sidwell Street itself. Clare, the mother of the young proprietor, explained that they have had to board the well over as it was making the room too damp, but showed me photos of how it had looked. It’s still preserved under the black and white chequered flooring.
And, as it turned out, Clare is a Topsham lady who used to run Pebble House Nursery where my granddaughter spent many happy hours, so we had plenty more to talk about! Maybe all such trails, even outside the town, lead back to Topsham?
The Civil War
Across the road from St Sidwell’s railings, there is a steep bluff, and the land above this is thought to have been the site for the garrison camp during the Civil War. Exeter was under siege, and fighting was fierce at times in Topsham, with canons and guns in use. Topsham was defended by the Royalists, but a couple of years later, Cromwell’s army placed garrisons in the neighbourhood, and its leader Sir Thomas Fairfax stayed for two weeks in Topsham. The site itself had probably been a look-out since at least as early as Roman times – the current owners of Eleanor’s Bower where it’s situated have found many shards of Roman pottery there.
I’ve ended previous Hidden Topsham posts with ‘Topsham Fancies’; now it’s the turn of ‘Topsham Cats’. Cats, after all, do hide away for much of the time when there are strangers around. Here are three associated with Follett and Ferry Road.
The black and white cat near ‘Furlong’ paused only long enough on the railings for me to take a photograph.
The grey cat in Clara Place, also hoping that the railings would act like stems of long grass to hide her, was especially shy. I photographed her because someone in Topsham was missing a grey cat, and I hoped to reunite them, but this cat turned out to be a legitimate resident of Clara Place.
Finally, there is Cosmo. Cosmo is a cat of character and might well be related to ‘Six Dinner Sid’ of picture book fame. Rumour has it that he was originally abandoned when someone moved house on the Strand. He is well-known for loitering around the Strand and Monmouth Street, where he has been kept in food by various kind people over the years. (He was occupying a seat in the Museum Garden the other evening.)
However, he has also been taken in by two separate households on Follett Road, after presenting himself as starving and homeless at their back doors. Each household in turn fed him, made him comfortable, and offered him a forever home. However, after a week or two, Cosmo tired of life at the northern end of town, and returned to loitering back down south again. While I was taking this photo in Monmouth St a couple of months ago, a gentleman opened the door, and I explained that I already knew a little about Cosmo. His benefactor rolled his eyes, and said, ‘Yes, he certainly knows where to come.’
Cosmo recognises me now and if he’s feeling sociable, he’ll graciously allow me to stroke him a little, before re-asserting his independence. How do you tell him from another black cat? You’ll know if it’s Cosmo once he raises his chin, and reveals the tell-tale little splash of white on his chest. He’s old and bony now, but is still able to dash into the bushes when he hears a bird flutter there.
This has been the longest of my Hidden Topsham posts, and to ease the length of these narratives back again, the next will be a shortish stroll upriver to Retreat House.
You might also be interested inthese earlier blogs about Topsham – just click on the link to open them:
This post is adapted from ‘The Russian House and the Craft of Living’ – Chapter Three in my book Russian Magic(first published as The Soul of Russia). It’s the last of the current series of posts about my travels to Russia and the culture that I became immersed in.
The House as Microcosm The traditional wooden Russian house (known as an izba) is a model of the universe, and a microcosm in its own right. Although the izba may look as though it only has a ground floor, closer investigation usually reveals a trapdoor in the ground floor leading to an underground cellar, and very often a ladder rising to an unheated attic room above. This symbolically embodies the three worlds of underworld, a human or middle world, and an upper world connecting it to the sky. The decoration use and lore of the Russian home is redolent with this symbolism, connecting it to Slavic myth, and the three vertical worlds represented in the ancient Russian Tree of Life.
‘The house, where many generations of a peasant family lived and died, was associated by its inhabitants with a small universe, connected innately with the world of nature and the Cosmos. Peace and harmony should be reigning in this well ordered world – once and forever.’ (Krasunov, p.12)
Everything in the traditional Russian house is charged with meaning. It is a vital living space laid out according to the rules of the cosmos, and in which certain rites should be carefully observed to keep it in good health as a home, and beneficial for the humans who live there.
The Human World of the Izba As you enter the Russian home, you may have to stoop low as you pass through the doorway. This is deliberately done, so that anyone entering must show respect for the house, and in particular for the Red Corner, the sacred area of the home where the family icon is kept. Traditionally, the icon stands on a high wooden corner shelf, draped with an embroidered linen towel, and lit by a small votive lamp. In Orthodox culture, icons are not just religious images, but are considered to be holy objects, empowered in their own right as a gateway to the divine. The icon is also a charged symbol that represents the welfare of the family itself. In a TV interview, at the time of the Kursk submarine disaster in the year 2000, an old woman sobbed bitterly as she talked about her grandson, who was trapped at the bottom of the ocean: ‘The icon fell off the wall a few days ago,’ she sobbed. ‘That is a bad, bad sign.’
The Red Corner, krasni ugol, is thus called because the colour red means ‘beautiful’ in Russian culture. The word krasni for red comes from the same root as the word for beautiful, krassivi. This is a pre-Christian Slavic tradition, and the ceremonial linen towels are embroidered in red as the colour is considered sacred, and represents not only beauty, but the force of life itself. Russia is known as the ‘country of two faiths’, and it is plain that there are few boundaries between the Christian and the indigenous Slavic symbolism in Russia. The same towel that may be embroidered with figures of the Mother Goddess, the tree of life, and sky spirits in the form of horses, is used to drape the family icon in the mark of deepest respect.
The polarity of Christian and native religion also reveals itself in the layout of the room. Diagonally across from the Red Corner, is the place where the stove often stands, the pechka that is also known as ‘the Little Mother’. While the Orthodox icon guarantees a link with the heavenly rites of Byzantium, the stove is the elemental crucible of life itself. A Russian proverb, which literally translates as, ‘To dance from the stove’, means ‘To begin at the beginning’: the stove is the origin and the perpetuator of life. Without pechka, there is no life in the home; she is the source of warmth and comfort that may actually keep the family alive during the long Russian winters. The pechka is multi-purpose – not only is it used for heating the home and for cooking, but traditionally it was also the place for sleeping. The classic construction of the stove is as a large box shape, constructed out of brick with a plaster finish; its flat top, six feet or so below the ceiling, provides an excellent sleeping platform.
The stove requires skill and patience to manage. In the village house that I owned in the same village of Kholui, I knew that I had to listen carefully when I was given instructions on how to light it, or my stays there in winter would be icy. The critical stage of the operation was to wait observantly for the time when the logs had burnt down, and the tiny, residual blue flames had been replaced by an orange glow. Only then was it safe to close the dampers, which would keep the heat in for another eight hours or so, the brick casing acting as a giant storage heater. Otherwise, deadly carbon monoxide can seep into the home, causing acute headaches or worse. I never did master the skills of drying mushrooms or making porridge overnight in the cooler ovens of the stove, but I learnt to respect the life and death powers of the ‘Little Mother’, and to love her gentle, penetrating warmth.
Food and hospitality
The other key feature of the traditional living room is the dining table, and to sit there is to be ‘in the palm of God’, as the old saying expressively puts it. By tradition, it would be set under the Red Corner, and much of family life would be lived around this table. Food and hospitality is a crucial part of Russian culture, both rural and urban.
The samovar, or ‘self-boiler’ as the word translates, is also a key part of Russian hospitality. It is sometimes seen as another symbol of the mother, along with the pechka and the Matrioshka doll. Its comforting curves, its decorative and gleaming brass, nickel or silver finish, and its near-boundless supply of hot water, make it a natural centrepiece for the tea table. Traditional samovars, as opposed to modern electrical ones, are heated by means of lighting a bundle sticks or some charcoal in the central funnel, which then in turn heats up the water in the large outer chamber. The tea itself is made separately, in extra-strong quantities in a small teapot, which is then topped up with hot water from the samovar itself. Samovars are still popular, and large versions are often used in hotels and offices as well as at home. But as a friend told me: ‘The best kind of samovar is the kind that you light with charcoal and twigs, and add herbs to as well. You can sit outside in the garden, breathing in the fragrant steam and having a cup of tea every now and then; it is happiness that lasts for hours.’
The best known ritual of hospitality in Russia is the welcoming ceremony known as ‘Bread and Salt’, khlebsol. A round loaf is used, in which a little hollow has been scooped out to hold a mound of salt; the loaf is placed on one of the long, embroidered linen towels, and offered to guests on arrival. Although the custom of Bread and Salt doesn’t take place on a regular basis these days, it is still often carried out at weddings, when the new bride enters the home of her mother-in-law.
The Underworld After the bustling life on the ground floor of the house, the middle world, the descent into the cellar may seem dark and eerie. The cellar, or podpol, is a small room under the floor of the home, generally used as a place of storage, where root vegetables can be kept in a cool but even temperature through the winter, or jars of marinated salad and home-made apple juice left until they are needed. But in terms of traditional belief, it is known as the place of the ancestors, and the residence of the domavoi, or house spirit.
Domavoi’s name comes from dom, the Russian word for house, and he is one of the tribe of Russian ‘nature spirits’. These characters are temperamental, elusive, and tricky to deal with. They are akin in many ways to the mischievous ‘elementals’ of the Western magical tradition, or to the pixies and sprites of Western folklore. A domavoi is actually associated with a family rather than a house, and any family that moves house may have a difficult time ahead if they do not persuade their domavoi to come with them. One tried and tested method is to coax him into a sack, carry the sack to the new abode and then quickly offer domavoi a plate of porridge to help him settle down. Another is to cut a thick slice of bread and place it under the stove in the new dwelling. It is important to invite domavoi to come with you; even if he is capricious, the family needs him to be there.
Although domavoi is commonly associated with the ancestors, and the cellar of the home, he also likes to sit in the stove, and sometimes in the attic. In general, it is considered unlucky to see domavoi, for this can presage a death in the household. If you do see him, he should not be addressed as domavoi, but more often as ‘master’ or ‘grandfather’.( In various traditions it is common to avoid calling a magical creature by its real name; in Russia the bear is often referred to as Mishka, an affectionate nickname, rather than by its proper name of Medved, or ‘honey knower’.) You need to know how to recognise domavoi too, as like most nature spirits, he can appear in various forms. He might appear in the shape of a tiny, wizened old man, covered in downy hair, or as a tall figure ‘black as coal’, or even as an animal or a bundle of hay.
Is the belief in domavoi obsolete? Some Russians may well regard it as a quaint old folk belief, but to others the presence of spirits in the home and landscape is very real. On the island of Kiji, in the far north of Russia, I asked a woman from the regional city of Petrozavodsk what she thought about the domavoi. She answered me with great seriousness:
‘Every summer I come to work with tourists here, and I live alone in one of the old wooden houses. Oh yes, domavoi certainly exists. When I sit in this dark house at night, I sometimes hear a knocking, or I hear someone singing a melody. And even when I know the house is empty, I sense that there is someone upstairs. This is undoubtedly the domavoi.’
And a small post-script: I had just sat down to breakfast with my husband after writing this, when we were both startled to hear a loud knock come from the cupboard under the stairs. Thinking that one of the cats had got trapped in there, I opened the door to investigate. There was nothing to be seen. Except, perhaps, domavoi?
The Attic and The Upper World Many Russian houses have an unheated attic room, used mostly in summer. It is often known as svetelka, a word associated with sunlight, and with the sun itself, which is considered to be the protector of the home. Its lofty position was said to be beneficial for young girls, and would help to guard their innocence. However, although unmarried sisters and their girlfriends might officially sit up here together to sew or spin, it was also the place for divination, especially in matters of love. Here they might unbraid their hair, an action which would loosen the bonds of the everyday world, and invite the powers of magic in. While their mothers believed them to be safely occupied with spinning and needlework, they would gaze into a mirror to see the faces of their future husbands, or tell fortunes by interpreting the shapes of melted wax dropped into a bowl of water.
Within living memory, the women’s tasks of spinning and weaving were key activities in country life, and discarded spindles, distaffs and spinning wheels can still readily be bought at flea markets. It was not only a practical occupation, but also symbolised the bringing of order and civilisation to the community.
Mokosh the old Slavic mother goddess played a particular role in relation to spinning, and another female household spirit called Kikimora presided over distaff and loom. Kikimora was quick to punish any women who did not put their spinning and needlework away tidily at the end of the day! She might, however, help out the diligent housewife by taking on some of her work at night.
Distaffs were often highly decorated, painted in lively colours with human figures, animals, and geometric motifs.
The attic, therefore, could be a place both of light and innocence, and of magic. The sky world is related to the top part of the house, which is often decorated externally to reflect this. In the Volga region especially, the protruding end of the ridgepole is frequently fashioned into a form of a horse, known in Russian mythology as a sky creature. Symbols of the sun, such as cockerels or circles with rays around them, and those which signify heaven, like peacocks and bunches of grapes, are commonly found carved into the upper part of the house façade, and boards covering the ends of the roof beams are commonly known as ‘wings’.
The Bathhouse The bathhouse has been an important part of Russian life since time immemorial, and the custom of weekly steam bathing in an extreme temperature was noted with surprise by early travellers to Russia, one of whom described it as ‘a veritable torment.’ Saturday night is the traditional Russian day for bathing, said to be a choice of day originated by the Vikings.
The bathhouse is a house in miniature, built out of wood with a pitched roof and its own small chimney. It usually stands apart from the izba to avoid the risk of fire. Water is heated in a copper in the lighted stove, and the art of bathing involves the skilful creation of steam to the required degree. There are various stages in the ritual, such as rinsing oneself with warm water and then lying on one of the wooden benches before engaging in the more intense process of steaming. Switches of birch twigs (venniki) are used for one person to flick or whip another with; the sensation is light and stimulating, and far from painful! There is a tradition that the birch should be cut in early summer, when at its most potent. The family whose bathhouse I used told me that they try to gather them around June 24th, the old Russian midsummer festival.
The bathhouse is inextricably bound up with magic and divination. Any spell or charm is most potent when cast at midnight in the bathhouse. The role of the bathhouse is considered by some authorities to be that of a pagan temple relegated to this warm and steamy place after the old religion was displaced by the coming of Christianity. The rituals once carried out on the bride’s wedding eve were always conducted in the bathhouse. This was an occasion for women only, usually with just the bride’s girlfriends present, though sometimes with the male village sorcerer in attendance too. Girls hoping to marry would take away some of the bathing water to ensure their future luck.
Playful versions of divination in the bathhouse for love still take place today. Girls set up a deliciously scary ritual, in which they go into the bathhouse one by one, into an atmosphere thick with steam, and feel around until they touch someone’s hand. The type of touch they encounter tells them what kind of husband they will marry– if it’s a hairy hand, he will be rich, if smooth then he will be poor, and if wet, he will certainly be a drunkard! In practice the game is often aided and abetted by the local boys, who enjoy taking a turn to hide in the bathhouse and frightening each of the girls in turn.
The Bannik The spirit of the bathhouse is known as the bannik. Like most Russian domestic spirits and nature spirits, he is a shape-shifter, who can change his appearance at will. For much of the time, he is not seen at all, since he owns a cap of invisibility, but he might appear in the form of a large black cat, or perhaps as an old man with a green beard. Bannik can also manifest as a heavy stone or a burning coal, so potentially he could be around in the bathhouse at any time, making it a place of menace, as he is bad-tempered, and brooks no breach of etiquette. Students working on Kiji Island (in the far north of Russia) during their summer break told me that they always treated bannik with great respect. One of their number, an intellectual young man who thought he knew better, refused to ask bannik’s permission to enter the bathhouse as required, and neglected to leave a little offering of soap or a fir twig for the bath spirit as is the accepted custom. The next time he entered the bathhouse, he tripped over, dropped his glasses, and trod on them by mistake. Stooping down to retrieve the now broken glasses, he stood up too abruptly and cracked his head on a low beam. Since then, his friends reported, he has always shown the proper respect to the spirit of the bathhouse.
Potent, risky, pagan, but also a great source of pleasure to almost every Russian today, the bathhouse retains its position in the heritage of Russian traditional culture and magic.
Decoration of the House There is an intense love of colour and decoration in Russia, and the country is rich in arts and crafts. Houses are often decorated on the outside with wooden carvings, and home owners compete with each other to create the finest of these. As well as symbols representing the sun or sky in the upper parts, there may be carvings of lions or mermaids to protect the home, birds to symbolise happiness, and beautiful descending panels of fretwork on the front wall, imitating the embroideries on the ceremonial linen towels.
The most prominent and typical decorative feature of the izba is the carving around the window: lacy fretwork window frames known as nalichniki, which incorporate a variety of motifs, often rosettes or floral designs, and sometimes even the Communist five-pointed star. As for the origin of this custom, one suggestion is that it is a way of protecting the home, by guarding the windows against the entry of evil spirits. The other is that it provided a beautiful framework for an unmarried daughter as she sat sewing at the window, ready to catch the eye of any eligible young man strolling by.
Gerhart, Genevra (1994) The Russian’s World, Holt, (Rhinehart & Winston, USA) Fraser, Eugenie (1984) The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood (Corgi, UK) Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia, (Indiana University Press) Milner-Gulland, R. (1997) The Russians, (Blackwell, USA) Billington, James H. (1970) The Icon and the Axe, (Vintage Books: Random House, New York) Gaynor, Elizabeth & et al. Russian Houses, (Benedikt Taschen Verlag – no date). Hilton, Alison (1995) Russian Folk Art (Indiana University Press) Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc.) Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod) Rozhnova, P. (1992) A Russian Folk Calendar, (Novosti, Moscow) Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight (Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)
Russian Magic– You will find much more detail about the Russian izba and traditional way of life, with folk customs, fairy tales and Slavic mythology, in my book Russian Magic, which is available in printed and electronic form .
This article was first published in the American magazine ‘Russian Life’in Nov/Dec 2001. It was based, at that point, on my nine years of travelling to and from Russia, investigating the art form, staying in the village of Kholui, and running Firebird Russian Arts in the UK. (A busy time!) Now, nineteen years later, of course much has changed. The Western market for buying lacquer miniatures has almost dried up, and many artists have switched to painting icons and commemorative panels, as this article in the New York Times illustrates. (NB – this otherwise excellent article is not always accurate on history or painting techniques!)
Everything about the history and style of the art form still stands, however. I hope that in time, the lacquer art painters will profit better from their creations, and find a market for the traditional boxes once again. One issue is the sheer time-consuming nature of creating them; as the Russian cost of living rises, and the differential between this and the West diminishes, it’s almost impossible for buyers to compensate the artists adequately for their skill and work. Money for commissioning icons, however, can be found more readily.
Please note – It’s extremely hard to photograph Russian Lacquer Miniatures well, since they are tiny, shiny and convex! Any gleams on the photograph are from where the light is catching the lacquer polish.
The article begins with an account of the scene that I described in my earlier post, ‘The Russian Diaries’.
The road to Kholui passes through stretches of open meadowland, brushing the edge of the forest, and traversing marshy tracts until it swings around the last sharp bend and meets the broad River Teza. This is the end of the road. The silver sign of the Firebird welcomes the occasional visitor. The fine, but crumbling, church singles the place out as one of historical importance. Substantial brick-built houses along the riverbank indicate that once rich merchants lived and traded here. The other houses in the village are traditional brightly-painted wooden izbas, with carved fretwork around the windows and eaves.
But this is no typical Russian village: of its 1800 inhabitants, 300 are artists. Kholui’s roots as an artistic community stretch back to the thirteenth century. For hundreds of years, it was also an important trading centre. And, along with three other villages – Palekh, Mstiora and Fedoskino, it is now home to a unique art form, the Russian Lacquer Miniature.
The quality of the Russian Lacquer Miniature is widely-known around the world, but even the average Russian knows very little about the art form. In Russian cities, cheaply-painted boxes are sold to tourists for a few dollars as ‘Lacquer Miniatures’, and in the States, many people erroneously call them ‘Palekh boxes’. Anyone can admire and enjoy a genuine lacquer miniature, but when you understand more about its history and the work that goes into it, then you truly begin to value it.
The history of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be traced back to Russia’s ancient past, yet it is a comparably young art form. It looks timeless, but was only fully established as a genre in the 1920s and 30s. There are two distinct chapters in the history of lacquer miniatures.
In the 13th century, the village of Kholui, and its neighbours, Palekh and Mstiora, were icon-painting centres, founded by monks who fled the Suzdal area to escape the Tartar-Mongol invasion. They made their way into remote forested regions about a hundred miles to the east, where they established three separate settlements. Over the course of the centuries, these three villages trained generations of icon-painters. The names Palekh, Kholui and Mstiora became synonymous with schools of icon-painting, and their icons can often be found in museums and auctions today.
The icon-trading attracted commerce and fairs and markets arose. Kholui, now the quietest of the lacquer miniature villages, was once the liveliest and probably the wealthiest. Major fairs were held there at least five times a year, with buyers and sellers arriving not only from far-flung corners of Russia, but from abroad. Cloth, furs, fish, ‘lubok’ prints and anything and everything was sold here, along with the icons. Drunkenness, merry-making and quarrels abounded. One deep pool on the edge of the village is still known as ‘Turk’s Lake’, into which, it is said, a Turkish trader was hastily tipped after one quarrel too many. Old coins are regularly dug up in Kholui gardens, and the fair still just about lives on in the memory of old folk, though it was suppressed in the 1930s.
The trade in icons fell into sharp decline at the end of the nineteenth century, partly because mass-produced printed icons were cheap and widely available. After 1917, religious painting was discouraged, putting the remaining icon-painters out of a job. Officially, icon-painting was now defunct. Unofficially, the tradition was carried on secretly; the former director of the Kholui lacquer miniature workshop said he used to tip off the artists when official visitors were coming, so that they could hide any icons in progress.
The second chapter in the evolution of the lacquer miniatures as an art form came after the Bolshevik Revolution. Dedicated artists who remained cast around for something into which to channel their talents. They tried painting carpets and china, without great success. Then, in Palekh, an artist called Ivan Golikov began to create the first lacquer miniatures. The miniature form actually sprang out of the icon tradition, since icons often contained a border of miniature paintings around a central subject.
But now, instead of sacred themes, Golikov took the age-old legends and fairy tales of Russia for his subjects. He retained the use tempera, egg-based paints, and much of the icon style. In particular, the richly-coloured, gold-ornamented icons of Yaroslavl served as inspiration, their horses and chariots, robes and palaces already almost suggestive of fairy tales rather than religious themes. But, significantly, Golikov changed from using wood to lacquered papier mache as a base.
This is where Fedoskino, the fourth village comes into our story. Fedoskino artists argue that they were the first school of Russian lacquer miniature painting, since their workshop was originally set up in 1798. It was the brainchild of a merchant called Korobov, who realised that he could sell vast quantities of snuff boxes if he could make them both cheap and attractive. Many people could not afford the snuff boxes made of ivory, jade or other precious materials which were in vogue at the time. Using a process which he discovered in Germany, Korobov began to produce little boxes of papier mache. He employed artists to decorate them, and he finished them in lacquer to produce a very durable and attractive finish. Over the course of time, many other beautiful but functional types of boxes were produced, as tea caddies, card cases and so on. And, since Fedoskino lay just north of Moscow, it was well-placed to serve the fashion-conscious clientele of the city.
The Fedoskino artists painted in oils from the start, and took their style from mainstream art, which at that time in Russia was very similar to Western art. They did begin to introduce a distinctly Russian flavour however, painting troikas and village scenes, and girls in national costume. They also began to concentrate more and more on the quality of the painting itself; it was no longer enough just to decorate a box. The workshop, a highly successful venture, subsequently passed into the hands of the Lukutin family, and remained as such until it became a co-operative in 1910. It has always retained its distinctive style, which is also now often characterised by an underlay of mother of pearl, or gold leaf. This gives the miniature an iridescent sheen, and an inner glow, and is particularly effective for bringing to life snow scenes, sunlight, and silken draperies.
Back in Palekh in the 1920s, Golikov gathered a small group of artists around him, and this founding group set the Palekh style securely in place for succeeding generations. It is, not surprisingly, very iconic, with beautifully detailed faces, and elongated figures poised in dignified stances. It consists of vivid colours, often including brilliant reds or blues, but always used with restraint on a background of black lacquer.
All the lacquer miniature schools generally use black for the outside of the box, and red for the inside, though they paint over the black to a far greater degree than the Palekh artists. Red equals life and beauty in Russian colour symbolism, and the black expresses both the mystery and the sorrows of life. The black background helps the vivid miniature scenes appear as if they are floating in another dimension of time and space, drawing us into the intense world that they create. The gold of the delicate ornament, used to highlight detail and provide a decorative border, is a symbol of eternity. This trio of colours – red, black and gold – also forms the basis of colour in other Russian folk art too, especially in the lacquered wooden ware of Khokhloma.
Kholui and Mstiora followed Palekh into the painting of lacquer miniatures in the 1930s. There was some rivalry between the villages, as each was eager to define its own status, and over the course of the years all three villages have developed very distinctive styles and outlooks. Kholui is dynamic, colourful, relying on contrast and a depth of perspective, and it often contains superb natural detail. Kholui artists today show remarkable creativity, especially the talented 26 or so members of the Kholui Union of Artists. Mstiora style is dreamy, with delicate, carefully-graded colours, and usually all of the background is painted over. Mstiora style needs a different eye; there is often less detail than in Palekh or Kholui painting, but the overall effect is wonderfully harmonious.
So despite the early start in Fedoskino, the genre of the Russian lacquer miniature with its four schools only really came to birth in the middle of the twentieth century. It remains a very Russian art form at its heart, with subjects drawn from fairy tales, historical legends, Russian landscapes and architecture, and festivals and scenes from old village life. The artists meticulously research their themes, if they are not within living memory. Sometimes flowers, animals, portraits, and non-Russian themes are painted, often with stunning results – but stray too far or too often from the Russian flavour, and the art weakens.
The artists of this genre go through a thorough training lasting five years. Each of the four villages has its own art school, and outsiders are welcomed as well as children born and bred in the village. There is healthy competition for spaces, with about four or five applicants vying for each slot. In general, students do not pay tuition, though schools are beginning to offer a proportion of fee-paying places simply to survive. Students must show not only a talent for art, but also must also have excellent eyesight and good general health.
Contrary to popular belief, the lacquer miniature artists’ eyesight does not typically deteriorate more than other adults, despite the fact that they carry out such incredibly detailed work. (Painting fine gold ornament is especially taxing and is done with the finest of brushes.) They are taught so well that they work more with mind and hand than with the eye .In fact, lacquer miniature artists prefer not to work with magnifying glasses, as they like to see the whole of their composition at once. But students don’t spend all their time in such concentrated work; they are also encouraged to work in charcoal, oils and watercolours, to draw from life, and to study the history of art as well. Much of their miniature training is acquired by copying from examples, so that they learn in a very disciplined and structured way. For their diploma, however, they must produce a completely original composition.
It is important to understand that lacquer art does not depend entirely upon original compositions. The word ‘copy’ often has negative connotations in Western minds. But this does not mean something slavish and mechanical; it is rather the chance to re-create the work of a master. This approach is common in Eastern art as well as in icon-painting, where the artist does not have to strive to be original. Some artists at the pinnacle of the profession only paint originals or ‘author’s works’ as they are described in Russian. Others will only ever paint existing subjects, drawing from a range of designs and repertoire. Altogether, this forms the body of the art, which has a life of its own and a strongly collective element. Even the most ‘original’ artists usually meet in council in their union or co-operative to discuss their works – and criticisms are certainly made, especially if other artists feel that new compositions are spoiling or weakening the tradition. Artists who leave and settle elsewhere are rarely able to keep up the quality of work; the members of the collective rely on each other, the spirit of the art, and indeed the ‘spirit of place’ of their village.
Some years ago, the Soviet government tried to artificially create a fifth centre of folk art in the industrial city of Lipetsk. Artists were tempted to re-settle there with promises of modern flats, bathrooms and running water (luxuries not available in the ‘izba’). Sadly, the experiment was a failure; nothing new or creative has emerged from Lipetsk, and it now turns out low quality miniatures for the tourist market. The artists who moved there could never return, and gradually they lost both their individual creativity and the vital link into the main body of the art.
The four lacquer miniature villages are all quite individual, set in beautiful countryside which is a source of inspiration to the artists. Intense sunsets, deep forests, spring floods, fall harvests and winter snows all fuel their imagination. The artists are rooted in the traditional life of the Russian countryside, with seasons for potato-planting and mushroom-gathering, berry picking and fishing. And, like most rural Russians, they have to make do for themselves, mending their homes and tending the vegetable plots. Women and men are both in the ranks of artists, sometimes even working as a husband and wife team, taking turns minding the children while the other one paints.
Meanwhile, more than ten years after the lifting of state controls, lacquer miniature artists find the situation for selling their art to be quite fluid. Though some regret that they are no longer as financially secure as they were, most prefer the creative freedom: they are no longer tied to a production quota, and can work as and when they please.
The four original state-run studios, one for each village, still function in various disorganised stages of privatisation. Some artists work there on salary, while others are members of co-operatives or unions. Still others go it alone. Much depends upon their contacts, and the selling network that they find their way into. Thus, it is not always the best artists who are the richest.
The domestic market for this art form is weak, although recently record prices for lacquer miniatures have been extracted from tourists in St Petersburg. The plain fact is that most miniatures find their way West; in Russia, only corporate customers such as banks regularly buy them. Once, museums were queuing up to buy the best lacquer miniatures, and none of the real masterpieces ever left the country. Now the museums do not have the funds for such purposes, and Russians with money would rather buy consumer goods rather than art.
This dissolution of control over production brought other challenges as well. In Fedoskino and Palekh especially, artists have split into many groups, some of them now in a difficult relationship with one another. But on the whole, genuine aspiration and honesty is still at the heart of the tradition, and the studios still work with dogged persistence in extremely difficult market conditions. Each village has its own stupendously good museum, and exhibitions, celebrations and jubilees are common excuses to get together with artists and colleagues from the other lacquer centres and party at great length once the official speeches are over.
It is worth noting that the making of the papier-maché and the lacquering and polishing of finished work is actually not done by the individual artists. Rather, it is done by another team of craftsmen, who are skilled, but who do not enjoy the status level of the artists. It is an interesting process in its own right, involving just the right type of cardboard, from which the papier-maché is made, the ‘slow-cooking’ of the papier-maché for two or three months, and painstaking lacquering and polishing. Three or four coats of lacquer are applied before the artist begins painting the miniature. Afterwards, between seven and twelve coats must be applied, and each one dried and polished to achieve the right finish. The lacquer has to be made to just the right formula; untrained city artists producing ‘souvenir’ boxes often slap on a couple of coats of floor varnish, and hope for the best. This will usually crack up within a couple of years, whereas properly lacquered works will survive, with only a little dulling, for centuries.
No genuine lacquer miniature is complete in less than three months from start to finish, and many will take a year or more. The simplest design will take the artist several days to paint; the most complex more than twelve months.
As the basis for the lacquer miniature, the traditional form of the box is still the most popular. Yet, as the art became finer and finer, so the utility of the box was largely forgotten, and the miniatures became collectors’ items in their own right. Although the art of the miniature is the main focus, a miniature on a box is still evocative, like an exquisite treasure chest. Some of the old functional shapes have been retained, such as the ‘inkwell’ and ‘cigarette case’, but for decorative interest only. Artists often paint plaques and panels as well, and brooches have gained in popularity in recent years. They also occasionally paint wall panels and frescoes – on a completely different scale of course – and lovely examples of these can be seen in the restaurant in Palekh, and in the children’s home in Mstiora.
It is often asked whether there is a Persian or Moghul influence in the miniatures. The artists themselves deny this, and it is more likely that there is a slight similarity of style, simply because of painting lively scenes on a small scale in vivid colours. Once at a British art exhibition, Uzbeki miniaturists were painting in the next tent to Russian lacquer miniature artists. A British interpreter was getting very heated as she defended her Uzbeki artists against the supposed crimes of their ‘thieving’ former overlords, claiming that those Russians next door had ‘stolen’ the tradition from the Uzbeks. The Uzbeki Minister of Culture, who happened to be present, gently put her right. He noted that they had actually sent some of their own Uzbeki artists to Palekh to train in miniature painting and production, having lost their own indigenous tradition some time back. With the help of this input from Russian artists, they are now trying to re-create their own style using Russian technique as a basis.
The creative potential of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be tapped in unexpected ways. But at its heart, it remains a uniquely Russian art form, its little boxes dispatched across the globe as messengers from the soul of Russia, carriers of her magical tales and traditions.
This article is adapted from my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It opens Chapter Five, ‘The Secrets of Life and Death’ celebrating the mystique and myths of the Russian witch and crone, Baba Yaga. Although she’s a popular figure of Russian folk lore, yet she’s a shadowy, complex figure, who may have a role in the old pre-Christian rituals of the land of ‘Rus’.
This is the second of four posts celebrating the years I spent going back and forth to Russia, in search of its ancient culture and mythology. I’m flattered that the young conductor Alexander Prior said of my book: ‘It’s the first time any Westerner has understood the Russian soul.’
Baba Yaga’s Kingdom
‘Beyond the thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-ten kingdom there lives Baba-Yaga, the witch. Her house stands in a forest beyond the Flaming River.’ (from the story of Maria Morevna)
Baba Yaga is an ugly, cantankerous old woman, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken’s feet in the middle of the forest, and who flies around the skies by means of a pestle and mortar. She captures small children, tricks young maidens, and kills just about anyone who crosses her. This wicked witch of Russian fairy stories is familiar to every person in the land, and her fame, or notoriety, has spread further afield, so that she is also well-known in Europe and America. She is a stock character in folk tales, and also turns up regularly in other contexts: in modern Russian cartoons and children’s books, as a puppet, and in more high-minded art as a character in Modest Mussorgsky’s suite of music, Pictures from an Exhibition.
Baba Yaga is also a useful weapon for Russian parents to frighten small children who are misbehaving.
‘Sit down, and finish your supper, otherwise Baba Yaga will come for you!’
Olga, otherwise an extremely patient grandmother, had finally had enough of small Dima’s noisy behaviour at the supper table. On hearing the dreaded name, he subsided instantly; a watchful, fearful look in his eyes as he sat back quietly to eat his meal. A few minutes later, though, after the threat of the witch had worn off, he began to jump up and down again.
Olga was quick to react. She got to her feet and peered out of the window.
‘Baba Yaga’s coming down the lane now,’ she said.
Dima was back in his seat before any of us could blink twice, and we finished our evening meal in peace. Baba Yaga is fond of stealing little children in order to cook them up for her own supper.
But although she has a world-wide reputation, and is a star of wonder tales, woodcuts, comics and animated films, Baba Yaga remains enigmatic and ambivalent, ultimately a mysterious figure whose source is unknown. No one is quite sure of her origins, her function, or of whether she is ultimately a force for good or evil. All studies seem to agree, however, that her role is much more than that of a pantomime-style witch. Baba Yaga stands at the boundaries of life and death, at the borders of darkness and rebirth.
‘Leg of Stone, Toothless Crone’
Baba Yaga is of grotesque appearance, with lank greasy hair, a long nose, and a leg which is either made of stone in polite renderings, or of faeces in more earthy accounts. Her bulk fills up her hut when she is at home, and, when out of it, she flies around in a mortar made of iron, which she steers with a pestle. Sometimes, as in the story mentioned below, she rides instead on a magic horse chosen from her herd of doughty mares. She lives deep in the forest, and has a fondness for killing and perhaps eating visitors, whose skulls she nails to posts impaled in the ground around her hut. This hut also has the property of revolving at the witch’s command, hiding or concealing its entrance according to her word.
In common parlance, the term Baba Yaga is used in Russian for any cantankerous old woman. There is no common agreement as to where the Yaga (or Iaga, Ega, Egibihk and other variations) part of her name comes from. The ‘Baba’ prefix refers to woman or mother, but Yaga may be connected to the word for snake, for pain, or even for pelican, according to various authorities, or, more likely, to none of these.
Her role in traditional stories is to challenge anyone who strays into her domain, whom she may then attack, kill, advise, help or strike a bargain with, or any combination of these functions. She is fond of both drinking and spilling Russian blood, and can smell it approaching from afar. New arrivals are often greeted with the question, ‘Are you here to do something, or are you running away from something?’ – words that suggest a ritual confrontation, a challenge to test the visitor’s determination.
Her attitude towards children and girls is different to the stance she takes with young men. She may capture and consume small children, she may imprison young girls or choose to let them go unharmed, but she always challenges and tests youths and men. This has led to a theory that Baba Yaga is in origin the ancient goddess of the underworld, who conducts young men through initiation ceremonies at their coming of age. They must show bravery and cunning, avoid the traps and snares that she sets, and perform near-impossible tasks in order to win through and be worthy of manhood.
In the story of Maria Morevna, quoted earlier, Prince Ivan encounters Baba Yaga when he is in search of his abducted wife, the warrior queen Maria Morevna. Baba Yaga’s house is surrounded by twelve poles, all but one crowned with a human head, and Ivan recognises that the last one has been saved for his own head to crown. But Baba Yaga promises to spare him, and grant him his freedom, if he will look after her horses for three days. She has many fine mares, and flies around the world each day on one of them; she is ready to offer Ivan one of these magical steeds if he can care for the whole herd.
The task is more difficult than he thinks, since for two days running, the horses gallop off into the forest as soon as he takes them out to pasture, and he falls into a heavy slumber till the end of the day. But he is then helped by creatures who he has been kind to earlier in his travels, and manages to get the herd back to the house with the mares intact. At midnight, knowing that Baba Yaga will never honour her promise, he decides to escape; he steals a colt and rides off towards the flaming river, where his wife waits for him on the other side.
Going to sleep on the job, as with the story of Prince Ivan and the Firebird, is a mistake for young would-be heroes, and in this case it may correspond with the sleep deprivation that often accompanies initiation rites, where keeping a vigil can be a significant phase of the process. All the old habits of eating, sleeping and bathing must be uprooted, and Baba Yaga’s offer of steam baths and food in some stories may be echoes of new and possibly dangerous experiences in this department. There is a strong tradition of women initiating boys into manhood in various societies: for instance in the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, women would present young men with weapons so that they could become warriors or knights. And in mythology, King Arthur himself is said to have received his magical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.
Male initiation is often sexual, too. The horrific appearance of Baba Yaga as an ugly old crone, who may be farting and exposing her foaming genitalia, denotes the reverse of everything lovely and maidenly. This may challenge the young man’s unquestioning attachment to the beauty of the female form, and force him to look with different eyes at an adult woman. The witch is also the opposite of the comforting, familiar mother figure, and this may help to break his dependence upon his mother, in order to claim his manhood, and make a new and truer bond with a woman who can become his wife. In the story of Maria Morevna, although Ivan is married to her already, she is abducted on account of his naivety and carelessness, and it is only by showing genuine bravery and effort that he can finally reclaim her, and make her truly his own.
If the forest ritual was once a cultural event, marking the passage from youth into manhood, then most likely it would have been enacted by a person, male or female, dressed and masked as Baba Yaga, to give a terrifying appearance. Some weight is lent to this by the fact that fairy stories may contain ‘a’ Baba Yaga, or even several of them, suggesting that there could be local Baba Yagas. There may be three sister Baba Yagas, for instance. This may also relate to the symbolism of the triple goddess, an idea which is widespread through various cultures. The three faces or figures of this goddess are maiden, mother and crone, and there is no doubt that in this schema, Baba Yaga would be a manifestation of the crone figure.
The symbolism of the triple goddess is intimately connected with the phases of the moon, so that the maiden can be seen as the crescent moon, who then grows to fullness as mother, and finally declines into the dark phase as the crone, a phase associated with Hecate in Greek myth, for instance. The crone may be frightening, old, smelly and in some ways evil, but she is also the embodiment of wisdom, and no understanding of woman is complete without her. It has also been suggested that Baba Yaga’s hut, which revolves to conceal or reveal its opening, may itself be associated with cycles of the moon, and of feminine sexuality, so that Baba Yaga’s role as crone could also thus embody knowledge about female sexual cycles, about menstruation and the waxing and waning of fertility and desire, knowledge which young men need to acquire as they are about to enter into relationships with the opposite sex. Such an interpretation also goes a long way to explaining the ambivalence of Baba Yaga, and how she can never be finally upheld as totally good or evil.
The much-loved tale of Vasilisa the Fair gives us a heroine’s perspective on an encounter with Baba Yaga. Young Vasilisa is sent to the forest by her cruel stepsisters to fetch a light from Baba Yaga’s house in the forest. On approaching the hut, she meets three horsemen, one white, one scarlet and one black; they represent Day, Sun and Night, and they are under Baba Yaga’s command, for she, as many stories about her relate, has power over the winds and weather, sun and moon. Baba Yaga sniffs out Vasilisa’s approach, and offers her a light only on condition that the little girl stays and works for her. The tasks seem impossible, but Vasilisa has an ally – a little magic doll that her mother gave to her as she lay dying. The doll helps her to do the housework, and finally Baba Yaga turns Vasilisa out of the house and gives her the light she requested to take home.
In terms of the lunar cycles and the symbolism of the triple goddess, Vasilisa may be seen as the ‘maiden’ phase of the moon, and her mother as the full moon, who then died to be followed by the black lunar crone. Vasilisa wins the light of her crescent moon back by braving Baba Yaga’s darkness, and earning her respect through hard work and integrity.
Russian lacquer miniature illustrations of Vasilisa the Fair, meeting the Knight of the Sunrise. (Left – Kholui School, Right – Palekh School)
Perhaps Baba Yaga once played a part in coming of age ceremonies for young girls too, and perhaps, too, this is an example of one, although I have not come across any direct mention of this.
Baba Yaga is a figure who stands at the borders of life and death, and as both boys and girls have to die to their childhood in order to enter the adult world, she is an appropriate figure to meet them on the threshold of that transition. She is herself a symbol of death in some old folklore customs; at harvest time, for instance, an effigy of Baba Yaga may be created in straw, and subsequently destroyed. This is said to act as a reminder that the day of reaping and death comes to us all.
In many tales, it is made clear that the witch lives close to the borders of the otherworld. One hero finds her abode right at the end of the earth: ‘A little hut stood there, with no road beyond it, but only darkness so deep that the eye could not pierce it,’ as we are told in the story of The Enchanted Princess’.
Baba Yaga’s territory is already considered to be in the world of ‘the living dead’, known as the ‘thrice-nine land’. This lies far beyond the human realm, and from here one must set out to confront the final boundary to the ‘thrice-ten kingdom’, often understood as the realm of the truly dead. This boundary may be described as the ‘flaming river’ or ‘the blue sea’. In one story, it is charmingly defined as the ‘Currant River’, crossed by the ‘Cranberry Bridge’. Indeed, it is not enough just to reach the boundary, for a means must be found or created to pass over it. In the story of Maria Morevna, Ivan calls up a bridge by waving a magic kerchief, a trick sometimes employed to make it passable. In fairy stories such as this, the hero performs the superhuman feat of going to the‘thrice-ten land’ and returning, perhaps as young men once did symbolically through their ritual ordeals. Baba Yaga has been the catalyst for this.
She also remains a key archetype in Russian mythology, represented not only in stories but in popular rhymes, and in old folk woodcuts, known as lubok. In one famous and often copied lubok, she is depicted as fighting something described as a ‘crocodile’, but which looks more like a furry figure, or a bearded man with a tail. This has been interpreted as representing a political satire on Catherine the Great (the witch) fighting with Peter the Great (the foreigner, and thus the dangerous crocodile). However, as one study points out, both Baba Yaga and the crocodile are designated as guardians of the underworld in traditional lore; the appearance of the so-called crocodile as half human, half furry animal may in fact be a shaman magician. These wizards were real life characters, but were popularly regarded as a combination of beast and man. According to accounts given by the wizards themselves, battles were also traditionally fought between witches and sorcerers, and it may be an old magical battle that we see here.
Whatever the final definition of Baba Yaga, if such a thing is possible, she remains as a figure who can both attract us to the darkness of her mysteries and repel us with her disgusting appearance and unpleasant ways.
References – Image of Ivan and Baba Yaga in ‘Maria Morevna’ from ‘Life in Russia’
Suggested reading on Baba Yaga and Russian myth and fairy tales
Forest of the Vampire (1999) (various authors), (Duncan Baird, Amsterdam).
Haney, Jack V. (1999) An Introduction to the Russian Folk Tale, (M. E. Sharpe Inc, Armonk, New York & England)
Haney, Jack V. (2001) Russian Wondertales (two vols), (M. E. Sharpe, New York).
Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis)
Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, New York & England)
Johns, Andreas (1998) Baba Iaga and the Russian Mother in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 42, No. 1.
Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)
Phillips, C. and Kerrigan, M. (1999) Forests of the Vampire, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London)
Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia,(Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)
In 1992, I made the first of what was to be fifty-nine journeys to Russia, something I could never have foreseen when I stepped off a plane in St Petersburg. Between then and 2006 I developed Firebird Russian Arts, a business specialising in Russian crafts, and became a lecturer in traditional Russian culture. Somehow, I ran this alongside my other writing projects and activities, although it did take over the course of my life for fifteen years! It also resulted in a book called Russian Magic, first printed as The Soul of Russia, drawing on my experiences in Russia and related research.
Returning to my Russian adventure stirs up plenty of memories, both joyful and sad. It was a unique experience, getting to know the country just after the Iron Curtain had been lifted. And in particular, for me, learning directly from its artists and discovering the charms of Russian rural life had a huge significance. This month, for the next four posts, I’m celebrating that quest through posts based on articles I’ve written, extracts from my book, and diary entries. All have been adapted as necessary for this new output. I hope you enjoy them.
The next-but-one post will explain the art of the Russian lacquer miniature, which was at the core of my visits.
The Russian Izba
In 1995, I bought a wooden village house in Russia, known as an ‘izba’. It was situated in the village of Kholui in the Ivanovo province, east of Moscow by some 200 miles. I’d started buying and selling Russian lacquer miniatures which are an acclaimed art form in their own right. Kholui is one of the four artists’ villages where these are painted. Although there are about 300 artists in the village, along with an art school, a painting workshop and a museum, it is still very much an unpretentious country village. It sits on the river Teza, and was once a place of annual trading fairs and passing river traffic. I was won over by its charm, the friendliness of the people, and the chance to immerse myself in the life and work of the artists. A later article this month on Cherry’s Cache will say more about this art, but this one is a memoir of that first idyllic summer, when my former husband and I took over a wooden village house, and immersed ourselves in local life.
Even on the threshold of the twenty-first century, the wooden cottage or izba, remains deeply rooted in the Russian psyche as a symbol of simplicity and comfort that also represents an aesthetic, even spiritual, perception of the world. These cottages served to diminish and humanize the vast scale of the Russian landscape, offering a place of comfort in an alien universe.
Russian Houses – E. Gaynor, K Haavisto (D. Goldstein 1994)
I should explain that I had to buy the house through one of my business partners, Ludmilla, as it needed a Russian signature on the deeds. She and her husband Valodya were close friends and colleagues, and Ludmilla helped us in every way with the Kafka-esque process of trying to buy a modest village cottage for about $4000 (American dollars, the unofficial Russian currency).
Extracts from the Russian diaries: What follows are extracts from my diary of our first stay in the house that summer of 1995 in Kholui. We arrived in late May, having travelled there on the overnight bus from Moscow, an experience in itself, and the first major journey that we’d made in Russia by ourselves.
Friday May 26th 1995 – Arrival
Yesterday we arrived at our dacha for the first time since the ten minutes it took to choose and agree to buying it last September.
In Moscow, Vladimir had found out that the arrival time in Uja, the nearest stop to Kholui, was supposed to be at 8am. He told us that the arrival times had been scratched off the notice boards, so that you had to go to the bureau inside and pay 1000 roubles to get the information you needed.
We actually arrived in Uja at about 6.45am. It was a lovely day. My primitive Russian began to seem even more primitive as a few friendly travellers and women travelling with their produce to market questioned us. Finally, our Natasha arrived from Kholui with a car and a driver, and it was lovely to see a familiar face. Her family, the Malkovs have agreed to be our caretakers, and they are going to look after us as well as the house.
We just about got all our cumbersome, hard-shelled suitcases and bulging holdalls into the car. Packing had been a nightmare; I accumulated what I thought were small but essential items for the house, and some useful food, as we didn’t know what provisions might be available. We packed; I weighed. We were 30 kilograms overweight. We unpacked. We repacked. Chris threw out the candles, and I put them back in again. (Wisely, as it turned out, as there were a number of power cuts during the next couple of years.) In the event, when we got to the airport, all the computers were down, and the poor airline staff had enough to do, writing out boarding passes by hand, without worrying about overweight baggage.
Driving into Kholui from Uja, we both felt a surge of euphoria. Till then, we had been full of joy and confidence in our undertaking one day, the next struck by insecurity and panic. The village looked wonderful in the brilliant sunshine, with dandelions and buttercups in bloom, the grass already rich and deep, and the dignified green and white onion domes of its ancient church crowning the scene. Already men were fishing in the river, women were washing clothes from the banks, and children were splashing in the water. Over the bridge, along the road to the right, a turn to the left, and we were there.
The house is painted in gentle, kindly, faded, blue and brown colours. Like other Russian country houses, it has elegantly carved window frames and looks bigger than it is. Most houses have been constructed to accommodate cows, goats, potatoes, boats, tools and hay as well as people, and plenty of space is given over to this. It has two main rooms: one a large, regularly shaped front room with a traditional Russian stove built up to ceiling height, and the other an L-shape, with the kitchen built into the missing section. It’s sunny, and feels peaceful and settled. The previous owners have left two primitive tables, two wooden benches, two rickety stools, one bed base with old-fashioned metal bed-ends (useful for hanging towels on), a stove that runs off bottled gas, a free standing corner shelf, a small kitchen cupboard, and lots of rusty paint cans and empty beer bottles in the numerous gloomy wooden storage rooms that cluster around the main living space. The toilet is a wooden throne emptying onto an abyss below, with only two ancient and grubby curtains hanging across the entrance to dignify one’s privacy. (We replaced these with a door as soon as we possibly could!)
As with most country village houses, there is no running water. The local well is just around the corner at the bottom of the lane, roofed in a quaint, fairy tale style. A sort of upturned painted biscuit tin over the sink acts as a temporary water tank; we fill it with a bucket and then it comes out of the tap below. This might seem rather pointless, but does mean that you can turn the tap on and get a quick trickle if you need to rinse something or wash your hands. I have instituted a graded water programme, with bowls of good water for rinsing dishes, and less good water for first washes. An ancient fridge rumbles self-importantly, and thank God that we’ve got it, as it’s so hot, and the lovely fresh milk, butter and eggs that we have would go off in no time otherwise. Natasha has kindly filled the cupboard with basics, mainly potatoes, pasta and more pasta, which is a curious grey-brown colour.
Settling in – We have unpacked as best as we can, but until Ludmilla comes on Monday, we will be a bit limited with cupboards and storage space. Then we hope to go to Uja and buy some cheap Russian furniture. Natasha sent her son over with one of her own soft mattresses for the bed, and she had managed to buy us a folding bed too – just as well, as we wouldn’t have been able to cram two of us into the ancient, indigenous bed.
Not long after we arrived that morning, I lay down on it to test it out, and was soon fast asleep after three nights of little rest. The sound of hammers ringing all around became a kind of lullaby. At this time of year, everyone is outside, planting potatoes in the garden, or improving their houses and outhouses. The growing season doesn’t begin until May, and will be over by the end of September. There is an air of ominous necessity about the frenzied activity and industriousness too; it’s been explained to us that if country people didn’t grow their own vegetables and potatoes, they probably wouldn’t eat, since some of the factories in the nearby small towns, which used to provide them with employment, have lain idle for two years.
This morning, Natasha sent round three of her brood in the blistering heat to finish the potato planting. (They’ll be using our back garden to grow vegetables, and they are more than welcome.) The eldest, Misha, knocked at the door, and asked if he could use the electricity socket. I thought he had some kind of a rotavator that he wanted to plug in, but instead he had an enormous ghetto blaster, for very loud music while they worked. The children lined up along the rows: one to open up the trench with a spade, the next to drop the potatoes in, and the third to cover them over with earth.
Shopping – a challenge Today we have sorted out the house as best we could, and in the early afternoon, we went for a walk around the village, partly to admire it, and partly to find the food shops. Kholui is peaceful, yet fully alive. It is not noisy in the way that cities full of traffic are, but it is certainly not quiet either. As well as the hammers, you can hear cockerels crowing, goats butting up against the side of the house, wood being chopped, geese honking, the roar of an antiquated motor bike, the voices of neighbours loudly calling out their news to each other. And, as we discovered later, in the evening, you may also hear the plaintive sounds of the garmon, a kind of small accordion, which is often played as people gather on the riverbank, or a party is struck up in someone’s parlour.
We watched hens and cows meandering around contentedly, saw boats being pulled up on the riverbank, and old people sitting on benches outside their homes. When we got to the shops, however, my Russian began to seem useless as we were drawn into conversations and began to make our needs known. I kept asking for sugar, sakher, and was met with incomprehension until someone finally said, ‘Oh, sakher!’ Which sounded to me exactly the same as what I had already been saying.
I also got the words for butter (maslo) and meat (myaso) muddled up, when we were trying to buy groceries. One shop on the far side of the river, the church side, was a mystery to me as it appeared to have nothing in its rather impressive chilled cabinets except for a few biscuits, but was still presided over by several ladies in white overalls and head coverings. In the other establishment on our side of the river, we managed to buy margarine, and a tin of steamed Chinese cow.
Across the dirt road, a man was selling provisions from his porch. At his miniature Upstart’s Emporium, we got butter; a large cardboard box was produced, which contained a gigantic block of butter. He carved some off for us, which wasn’t easy in the heat, as it threatened to slide everywhere. And we got the famous sugar at last, where the request for half a kilo mysteriously turned into a kilo’s worth, but never mind. It’s lovely sugar, only partially refined. Tomorrow I must find out where the bread comes, as it’s Saturday, and we shall need plenty for the weekend. Little quests like that take on a pleasing importance, and present an adventure in themselves.
An unwelcome visitor When we came back from our walk, we had a sleep, as we are still catching up, but our siesta was disturbed just now by a young man with blond hair, sporting an elaborate gold cross on his tanned bare chest. He marched in practically uninvited carrying two very heavy rusty tin cans. We didn’t know whether he had been sent by Natasha our caretaker, so we were cautiously welcoming. He wanted us to guess what was in the tins. He claimed they contained a kind of preservative oil for painting on the house, and he wanted three dollars for them. Since he was trying to have a good look round, and was commenting on our nice big angliski suitcases, (you can see one under the bed in the photo above) I began to feel rather uncomfortable, and decided that I no longer spoke or understood much Russian, so that he would feel he was wasting his time. (This was the only – and rather strange- occurrence – where someone was pushy and out-of-keeping with usual neighbourliness in the village)
Saturday May 27th 1995 Life at the riverside The weekend begins in earnest. Once again, it is very hot, and quite humid too, with some strange cumulus clouds appearing at intervals. It’s a family day, and motorbikes with sidecars have bumped their way into the village complete with husbands, wives and children on board. Some arrived in their faithful Lada cars, and one family was even towed in on a trailer at the back of a tractor. Everyone made for the river, and the bathing area in the centre of the village was soon full of splashing children. The whole scene reminded me of the 1950s: little girls clad only in cotton knickers, women in loose flowered shifts, metal pails, bicycles, and picnics.
At our swimming place further down the river, there were fewer families, perhaps because the water is deeper there. You have to wade out, acclimatising slowly in my case, then strike off in a diagonal direction, though this only just about counteracts the effects of the current. Eventually, the current cuts back in with a vengeance, and I drift back downstream again. I usually end up bumping my knees against the rocks under the water where it becomes shallower again.
I love the life of the river. This is what I observed: Terns swooping down, catching the fish out of the water from right under your nose. Swallows and martins flying over the water. Fishermen using round nets, like large shrimping nets, which they allow to rest on the bottom until the shoals of tiddlers are just above them, and then they can draw up a catch. Frogs, croaking and warbling. Water lilies and waterweed. A large herd of cows and calves which come down at about 4pm every day, and stay until they are called by their owner at about 5.30pm. Dogs which stride purposefully into the water to cool themselves down. Boats – plenty of them – narrow, pointed, elegant, and used with paddles or poles. Women washing at the edge of the river on little wooden platforms built out over the water, so that they can rinse the clothes and sheets that they haul out of the tubs, brought on little trolleys to make the load easier. Mosquitoes and more mosquitoes, worse in places where the water is still.
The bread queue I was truly initiated into Russian life today by joining the bread queue. I decided to try the Co-op shop which we spotted last night, and found myself in line behind fourteen or fifteen women all buying their bread for the weekend – four loaves of chorni khleb (black bread), seemed to be the norm. The girl serving was dressed up in a white overall and a sort of starched white baker’s cap made of material pressed around some cardboard. She was efficient, and the wait wasn’t that long.
In the meantime, the man behind me in the queue found out I was English, and said excitedly to the ladies in front of me, ‘Did you hear that? She’s English!’
They nodded sagely and said, ‘Oh yes, we know. We know all about her.’
So, although the people we meet along the road may only give us a brief formal greeting, most of them probably know exactly who we are and are full of curiosity about these mad foreigners who have taken up residence in Kholui.
We tried to buy matches today, and at last managed to get a cigarette lighter in the Upstart’s Emporium. He has put up a little hand-written notice which says: Kino –ie cinema – and offering showings of Karate Kid for a modest entrance fee. I suppose it’s a video played on his television. We found some Djam in the Sweet Shop, along with two Mars Bars and some cherry soda. The woman who works there wears her hair nicely waved, and watches a portable TV as she works. It’s quite fun seeing what you can get hold of on any given day, but then we’re not struggling to feed a family here on a tiny budget.
The Kholui workshop When we went into the workshop yesterday, (the official studio, where a number of mainly female artists painted lacquer miniature boxes) we tried to find Kamorin, (the director) but he was nowhere around. However, we called in on the ‘Brigada’, and the women artists were very welcoming. They downed their paintbrushes, and soon had an impromptu lunch party in full swing. We ate macaroni, as all pasta is called in Russia, and drank to Anglo-Russian friendship with the famous cranberry vodka that I enjoy so much. (If you manage to read to the end of this blog, your reward will be a recipe for making ‘Cranberry Vodka’ – very easy and delicious!)
Partying, village style Today after lunch, Chris went off to do something useful outside, and I lay down today for yet another afternoon snooze (must be the Kholui air), at about 2.30pm. Then I heard some music playing. First of all, I thought it was a recording of some accordion music playing popular Russian tunes. Then a song began, and I realised that the cracked voices raised in joyful unison were in fact coming live from the house over the road, and that a party had started up. I fell asleep while listening to them, and dreamed that they were all singing, ‘Down the Old Kent Road,’ and in my dream marvelled at how well they knew the words in English. When I woke up, the party had moved outside onto the grass verge. The men and women began dancing, doing some old Russian country dances as far as I could tell, then started on some kind of a waltz. Later, when we came back from our swim at about 6pm, the music and dancing had stopped, but quarrels were breaking out, the drink having presumably flowed freely. Now, at 9.30pm, a serious fight has broken out between two men, but a group of women have just sorted them out, and sent them on their separate ways.
Sunday May 28th At about 10am, eruptions were still happening out of the smouldering ashes of yesterday’s volcano of a party. A young man rushed out of the house pursued by a middle-aged woman, who was dressed only in an elastic girdle and an armour-plated bra. She was holding a frying pan with which she was taking a swipe at the young man’s head every time she got near him. He put his hands over his head to protect himself, as he raced towards his motorbike, which he got to just in time, leaping on it and accelerating up the lane. The dust was billowing up behind, as she ran after him screaming, and waving her frying pan. After that, everything went quiet. They must have all exhausted themselves.
In the late afternoon, I made a cup of tea, took it down to the bottom of the lane, and sat with my book under a willow tree on the riverbank. I thought to myself: I am sitting in a Russian village, by a Russian river, drinking tea and reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What could be better?
Beloware scenes of Kholui village life. Goats, cows, chickens and geese wander where they will, and return home at the end of the day.
Tuesday June 6th Farewell to Kholui Today was our last full day in Kholui. In the morning, I went back to the studio to see if the ladies of the Brigada had any more lacquer boxes to offer me. They didn’t, and I was glad in a way, as I now have a lot of lacquer miniatures to take home, and my budget is getting tight. So we had a kind of farewell party instead, and although it was only 11am, they began preparing a feast for me. I was given a copy of a magazine to look at called Droog, or ‘Friend’, which was all about pedigree dogs, while they began scurrying around gathering the ingredients together. ‘Big Olga’ leapt up and went to purchase six little fish from one of the other factory women, and made boiled fish and soup on the spot. The soup was called Uxa, pronounced ‘Oo-kha,’ with a kind of owlish hoot. One woman opened her mouth so wide to demonstrate how to say it that I could see every bit of fish currently lodged within.
We had a merry conversation, as best as I could manage. They are curious to know about England – what kind of home do I have? Is it a flat? How many floors has it got? How many rooms? Does it have a garden? Do we have servants? Our Georgian house in Bristol is in fact very large by Russian standards, and I tried to play this down. I promised to bring some photos next time.
In the afternoon, Chris and I went for a wonderful walk, our final one for this visit. The sky had cleared to a cloudless blue, and it was warm but fresh. We started to walk along in the direction of the weir, but on the opposite bank of the river to our house. Soon we had to make a detour, as one often does here, to avoid boggy patches. We’ve learnt that it usually pays to follow the path, which circumnavigates the numerous ditches, dikes, quagmires and swamps that dissect this area.
Reflections on the landscape Past the weir, we eventually arrived on a bank-side path which ran through a beautiful sandy, heath-like stretch of ground. Here the flowers were in full bloom, and even more gorgeous than those we saw the other day. There were magenta flowers like single pinks, buttercups, a kind of mauve campanula like a Canterbury bell, a type of yellow cowslip, scabious, wild flowering chives (good to eat with the loaf of fresh bread we’d just bought), vetches, wild pansies, and an extraordinary yellow and purple flower, the exact colour of heartsease – the flowers themselves are yellow with what seem to be purple bracts. The effect is rather like an exotic bird’s crest. There is also lacy cow parsley, a type of ladies’ bedstraw, occasional orchids, and various other blue and purple flowers, so that the whole ground is carpeted with a delicate mixture of tall grasses and flowers, and full of butterflies. It will probably be short-lived, because the heat and the rain have brought the flowers on rapidly, and during the summer, the profusion will dwindle.
The heathland was dotted with bracken and silver birches, one of my favourite types of landscape. There were large oaks in full leaf too. Eventually, we came to where the wood ended and the ground opened out into a large meadow ahead of us, with a village set above it on a little hill. We tried to get there, then realised that the river lay between. In the meadow on our side of the river was a herd of cows, with two male cowherds in attendance. They carry what I call long whips, and Chris, with his Scottish ancestry, calls ‘knouts’. When I looked up the Russian for whip, it is in fact knoot, so there is obviously some common origin there. Although we think of Russian as an alien language, there are lots of words which are similar to ours, not only those from Latin roots, but some which must relate to old Norse or dialect words in our language. Bruki for trousers, and ‘breeches’, barsuk the badger, and ‘Brock’ as an old nickname for badger, buk and ‘beech’, holm and hill, kot and cat, are just some of the examples that come to mind.
We passed a cemetery; I’ve noticed now that Russians often place their cemeteries in woodlands and forests. I like the idea of being planted among the trees. Finally we came out, as we guessed we would, right by the Detski Dom (children’s home) in the old monastery, and from thence our path back to Kholui lay straight and clear.
Finally…Now it’s 10.30pm, the sun is setting, and tomorrow we leave for Moscow. We’re talking about coming back for three or even four weeks next summer. The river, the walks, the studio, the artists, the museum – it’s a unique combination. We went to the museum once again today, and after ringing the bell and waiting for a long time, one of the young curators appeared.
‘Mozhna?’ I asked. ‘May we?’ ‘Mozhna,’ she replied, smiling, and opened the door wide for us.
It only costs about ten pence to get in, and houses as fine a collection of lacquer miniatures as you could see anywhere. The museum employs about four female staff, but what do they do all day? I don’t think they spend their time cleaning, because the dirty footprint on the carpet today was the same as it was last week when we paid a visit. Perhaps they catalogue a bit, and read professional journals; I don’t know. Although they can’t have more than one or two visitors a day, when we looked at the Visitors’ Book today, we were astonished to find that an American from Texas had visited the museum since we came in last week. Who could he be? How did he reach these parts? Where might he be going? I’m beginning to react like a Kholui local!
And afterwards – Posting these diary records tugs at my heart strings…I kept the house until the early 2000s, and visited it about three times a year. It was a colourful time, but over the course of the years became textured with challenges and even tragedy. Accidents, both serious and fatal, occurred to people we knew; wintertime in the village could be beautiful but harsh, and the old innocence of country life began to shift under the rapidly changing influence of unstable economics and the increasing sophistication of the Russian cities. But I’ve never forgotten the beauty and fulfilment of those first few visits to Kholui, or the kindness of the people there. The countryside in Russia still holds the essence of its old traditions and wisdom.
Full twenty years and more are passedSince I left Brummagem.But I set out for home at lastTo good old Brummagem.
But ev’ry place is altered soNow there’s hardly a place I knowWhich fills my heart with grief and woeFor I can’t find Brummagem.
As I was walking down the streetAs used to be in Brummagem,I knowed nobody I did meetFor they’ve changed their face in Brummagem
I am here in Birmingham, as bewildered as the poet James Dobbs when he penned this song in the late 18th century. I’ve arrived at New Street Station, and need to find my hotel, which should be only five minutes’ walk from here. But where are the landmarks to guide me? There’s a 1967 map emblazoned in my brain, and in November 2017, this doesn’t serve me well. The station itself has gone through at least two major changes in my time: the first transformation was from the imposing Victorian Temple of the Train, to the brutalist concrete sprawl of the 1960s. And now it is a Temple of Shopping and Bling, titled Grand Central. I emerge from the dingy, low-ceilinged platforms, much as they were in the ‘60s, to acres of glass and chrome, hosting fancy shop fronts and eateries. Here, swarms of cool young people are giving the place a lively vibe. I exit blindly, choosing a way out at random, and emerge into the hustle of rush hour streets and roads.
So, the Canalside Premier Inn is about quarter of a mile away, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there on foot. I’ve done my homework. I have a printout of the area, a 79p app map of Birmingham, and the phone’s satnav to help me. But I’d be better off with a 3D model as the route involves negotiating underpasses, several floors of the Mailbox shopping development, a pedestrian footway and a couple of canals. It has a weird, dream-like quality. I come unstuck quite early on, and find myself heading the wrong way up the inner Ring Road. A cheerful Brummie lady rescues me (most Brummies are cheerful). ‘You want to go back the way you came,’ she tells me firmly. She knows how to decipher the path through the jungle.
When I get to the sign for Navigation Street, there’s a flash of recognition.
“Oh yes, this is where I used to get off the bus from school.”
A few more steps, though, and the recognition dissolves as I face a meaningless stretch of roadway, shops and buildings. I try to re-impose my original map onto the unknown landscape ahead of me – I want to blot out the acres of chrome and concrete and find the turning that once led to the scruffy Greyhound pub, famous for its dubious cider. I remember small children sitting disconsolately on the pavement, waiting for their parents to emerge. It would help to orientate me, perhaps? But the new Navigation Street refuses to budge. Then another memory swims to the surface, mythic and incongruous. Here, one hot afternoon after school, I witnessed a man ride down Navigation Street on a small white pony and hitch it up to a newly-installed parking meter, as though this was the most normal thing in the world to do. I never saw a horse in the centre of Birmingham before or since.
Eventually, I get to the hotel. My room is on the fourth floor, with small windows which squint down onto the tow path of the canal for which the hotel is named. Lights are twinkling in the early evening dusk, as people stroll and jog along the water’s edge. It looks so inviting. I want to join them. But how do I get from the front door of the hotel onto the tow path at the back? It’s not a simple matter. Water, paths, roads and railways combine in a multi-imensional labyrinth. Wandering lost, I at last solve the mystery when I realise that the road I’m using is actually running under the canal. Oh! Of course, now I remember. The majestic, rather gloomy, iron bridge that stretches above me, carries the waterway itself.
When I do manage to access the tow path, it is a delight. Birmingham has reclaimed its city centre canals and they form a charming network of locks, warehouses, pubs, and iron bridges that sometimes lead onto strange little islands. One even has a signpost, as if for a junction of country lanes. There are colourful narrow boats, tubs of flowers and a country feel to some of the old pubs on the waterside. In the 1960s, by contrast, the canals were neglected, having sunk to their nadir after the glory days of commercial water transport. Back then, the Gas Street Canal Basin where I am now walking, was inhabited mostly by a few beatniks living on dilapidated barges. Most of the canals were either drained hollow, or filled with sludge-green, stagnant water. Once, as an over-confident schoolgirl trying to explore alone, I found myself walking through a long, silent tunnel that seemed like the entrance to Hades. I knew that one of the main city streets was passing above, but I could hear or see absolutely nothing of it. Eerie!
During the next couple of days, which were interspersed with a school reunion and meet-ups with friends, I explored the new Brummagem. I sifted older memories too. My family arrived in the Birmingham area in the late 1950s. But I was too young to head into town on my own, and had very little experience of being in the centre until 1960, when I had to trek across the city every day to my new school. As I got older, I roamed quite freely with my friends around the city centre –it was our territory, and I prided myself on being at ease there.
Already the city was undergoing major redevelopment. The craze for modernising meant demolishing splendid old municipal buildings, pubs of character and independent shops with ornate tiled frontages. Many Victorian houses and back-to-back terraces also came in for demolition. From the top of the double-decker bus, as I travelled to and from school, I could see newly-razed areas, zones where houses had stood perhaps as recently as the day before, perhaps even that very morning. Half-broken walls thrust up from piles of rubble, whole streets gone in the blink of an eye, the crash of a wrecking ball. Children quickly took over these abandoned sites, turning them into playgrounds with skipping ropes, footballs and home-made go-carts.
Our bus was often diverted down narrow back streets, where houses were still awaiting the moment of execution. One image imprinted in my memory is the end wall of a house, painted black with the slogan “God Bless Our Boys” in giant white letters. (This, according to internet posts, was in Guildford Street.) It seemed historic to me even then, before my lifetime. For the post-war generation, the war was another country, and we didn’t intend to let it impinge now, when the tide was rising towards the Beatles and miniskirts. We were preparing to surf the wave.
Change was also taking place in the very heart of the city. When we first arrived in 1957, the Bull Ring market was just about still in use. I vaguely recall an old-fashioned outdoor market with a wide and sometimes weird variety of stalls. A classmate bought a grass snake there as a pet. The market survived longer than the snake, until about 1962, when it was cleared away for the Bull Ring shopping centre. This brave new world included the most famous Birmingham landmark of the day: the Rotunda, completed in 1965. It was always controversial as a building; some thought its concrete cylinder a marvel of construction, stretching up to giddy heights, whereas others derided it. However, opposition was fierce when the council proposed to demolish it in the 1980s, and it has since been refurbished. The Bull Ring itself was never an exciting destination; drab tunnels, over-priced cafes and mediocre shops held little of interest for my friends and I as teenagers on limited pocket money. One exception was the recording booth. You sang, spoke or shrieked into the microphone and a few minutes later a 45rpm disk popped out. Was it worth the money? Worth a try – your talent might be ‘discovered’ this way, we thought naively.
The last courtyard of back-to-backs in central Birmingham has survived thanks to a Jamaican tailor, who didn’t give up his workshop there, and is now restored, and one of the most popular National Trust visitor attractions in the country. On my second day in the city, I took the tour there with a small group of friends. We learned how people had lived in these tiny houses with no indoor toilets or proper washing facilities. Sometimes they slept crammed top-to-toe in beds to save room for a few lodgers, whose rent helped to eke out the tiny family income. Child mortality was high, and general health was poor. But many residents tried to make their homes cosy, and the courtyard at the back was the place for children to play, women to chat, and for neighbours to help each other out.
I briefly saw something of back-to-back life, when I took a job on the Christmas post during my last year at school. My route took me to an area of back-to-back houses where an envelope would be addressed, say, to Mr Dermot O’Leary, care of Mrs Ethel Brown, back of no 15, in something-or-other Court. I would go through the entry, often known as a ‘jitty’ in Birmingham, and try to find the door in question amid a row of unnumbered front doors facing into the courtyard. Often I had to knock and ask. The courtyards had a romantic feel to me, I have to admit. There was an atmosphere of the cottage, of an old way of life that had made its way into the city.
After leaving school, I lost my sense of orientation during visits to Birmingham. Usually, I didn’t have to figure out where I was going as I was meeting a local friend who shepherded me, or heading to a fixed rendezvous point. But this time, in October 2017, I was spending time on my own during my visit, and my relationship with the city had to be reinvented. And this gave me a chance to see with new eyes.
“What,” I asked one of my old friends, “is that extraordinary building with the golden turban?”
“That,” she said, “is the new library.”
So I visited it later that day. To locals, it’s now a familiar sight, but to me, an uninitiated visitor, the library resembled a Central Asian-style tiered building, covered in patterns of blue and white, enmeshed in a kind of filigree, and topped off with what I will continue to call a golden turban. I found it glorious. Inside, it is still curiously evocative though of the original Birmingham Reference Library, which was much lamented when it was demolished in the late ‘60s. Today’s building is open plan, with gently sloping travellators, but it maintains the quality of a ringed dome, with huge bookcases encircling you as you glide up through the floors through a forest of gently twinkling lights.
On Level 3 there is a spacious roof garden, planted with fruit bushes and herbs, where you can step out and admire the city centre from on high. Below me, I saw another huge demolition-and-reconstruction project in progress. It had greedily devoured the area where the Hall of Memory, a small, circular, neoclassical building, was still just about standing, and its perimeter stretched to the nearby Town Hall, with its fluted pillars. Of course these landmarks are preserved – the city is much more careful now about its heritage – but they will now be minor monuments amidst vast edifices.
Coming away from the city and sifting my impressions, I realised that although I recoiled from this large-scale demolition, the energy of the place had grabbed me. To quote from the guide at the back-to-backs, Birmingham has always been a “chuck it up” kind of city. Pile it high, and make it shiny and colourful. It is the city where everyone can have a go, from the kind of trade you follow, to the way you drive your car (‘cowboy country’ as I’ve always called it, trying to navigate through Spaghetti Junction) to the way you – or the city council on your behalf – has a crack at shaping your surroundings. Birmingham, I’d say, is all for individualism.
And something of the ‘chuck it up’ mood still prevails even in the most prestigious new developments, where buildings are thrown up to look like handfuls of coloured dice, and adorned with crazy mirror work, and strangely angled walls. I’m not usually a fan of new cities, but during my three days, I admired what’s going on here. I felt that Birmingham was and is being true to itself. Big, bold, and still full of bling. It gives you new vistas, and unexpected humour too. ‘How come that man is walking upside down halfway up a building?’ It took a few seconds before I realised that I was seeing a reflection in a distorting wall of mirrors, high up above the pavement.
And there is sensitivity too, among the wholescale changes. One example is the little stream that cascades down the hill from the Bull Ring to St Martin’s Church below. It is a rivulet from a river that is now paved-over, but this little flow of water has been brought up to the surface, and a polished granite wall erected beside it, engraved with a poem about the city. And so history is not completely submerged.
Birmingham is multicultural too on a phenomenal scale. The first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan had not long arrived when I came to Birmingham in the late 50s. My parents steered me across the Bull Ring as I marvelled at Indian ladies in gorgeous saris and bare midriffs, shivering in the damp winter air. Now of course there are second and third generations who have been born in Birmingham, and who have made the city their own. It is a youthful place: 40% of Birmingham’s population is under twenty-five, boasts a poster in the city centre.
Shopping remains a Brummie preoccupation, but the old premier shopping streets have been eclipsed by the smart new complexes such as Mailbox and Grand Central. Though I was happy to see the Rag Market still in full swing, on the far side of the Bull Ring. I recalled Corporation Street in its smarter days, where Marshall and Snelgrove’s department store still used bags and hatboxes patterned in a 1940s style (shown below).
Even posher was Rackham’s, where I had a holiday job selling girls’ school knickers. I also had one at Neatawear, where I had to put a hand-written bill and the money into a brass canister that shot up to the cashier’s office in a pneumatic tube. Now Corporation Street and New Street are almost backwaters, and in a way I’m not sorry, because they always seemed stuffy and self-righteous to younger customers. But oh – what happened to the Kardomah, with its chocolate-and-coffee cake? And Yates Wine Lodge, where old ladies tippled their port? (How come I went in there?…memory is blank…)
I ended my astonishing but head-splitting tour of Birmingham back at New Street Station. I had begun there, clutching my luggage in a panic-stricken way, lost in Brummagem just like James Dobbs in the late 18th century. It’s extraordinary to think that I echoed his sentiments nearly 200 years later. But then, perhaps it indicates that Birmingham is still the same. It is still in a state of flux, and ever-expanding to meet the needs of the day. I detect a growing maturity, though, in terms of what is saved and what is lost. The best of the old is now preserved, and the city’s identity celebrated with various sophisticated artistic touches, like the modern sculptures which inhabit Victoria Square, alongside the po-faced statue of Queen Victoria herself, as in the earlier photo. (I once stuck a poster onto her advertising a concert by Ravi Shankar, but that’s another story.) On my journey this time, I couldn’t find exactly what I once knew, but after three days of walking the city, I felt that, yes, I had found Brummagem.
Photos of Birmingham today by Cherry Gilchrist
A version of the song ‘I can’t find Brummagem’ performed by John Wilks can be heard here
Photos of the last day of trading in the Bull Ring market by Phyllis Nicklin (1913-1969), who was a University of Birmingham geography teacher. ‘She made these colour slides as lecture aids for her lectures on the geography of Birmingham.’
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This is the second part of my search for obscure nooks and crannies of Topsham, and its hidden stories.
Dare you walk down White Street? The crooked entrance to the street looks inviting, but also a little spooky.
Head around the corner, however, and you’ll see charming rows of cottages, with little stirring except perhaps a neighbourhood cat. But in the 19th and early 20th century, this was the Red Light district of Topsham – crowded, noisy and disreputable. Even as late as the 1950s, young girls from other parts of town were forbidden to go there on their own. Fishing families had grown poor, and a mix of sailors of different nationalities coming ashore helped to fuel the frequent drunken fights, especially on Saturday nights.
You can still see the remains of the sign for the Malt Scoop pub, which finally closed in 1982 after complaints of rowdy motorbike gangs. It was also famous for its late night drinking sessions, since in about 1800 a secret door was installed leading into the neighbouring cottage. If the pub was raided, after-hours customers could then make their escape, and this seems to have continued as a very successful ruse for nearly 200 years.
All is changed now: today White Street is calm and quaint, and offers a very pleasant stroll through the historic heart of the town.
As a port, Topsham was naturally renowned for its pubs, and there were once over forty in the town. Only seven pubs remain now. Route Two Cafe was The Steam Packet pub within recent memory, which in earlier days was nicknamed ‘The Bucket of Blood’, since it had a reputation for fights and rowdiness! Trouble often broke out between sailors from different parts of the world and the locals – even those from Wales were considered ‘foreign’.
But the Bridge, below, is still very much up and running today.
The Bridge is Topsham’s best-known and most historic pub. No one is exactly sure of its age; the current building incorporates 16th century elements, but an Inn has stood here since at least early medieval times, close to the important bridge over the Clyst River. This may have been where cargo loads of Beer Stone were landed by boat, for onward transport into Exeter, for the building of the Cathedral.
The Bridge’s exterior hides a warren of charming snugs and a delightful old Malthouse, where folk concerts and story-telling sessions are often held.
A Royal Visit
Perhaps its proudest story in modern times is that of the Queen’s visit in 1998. It’s reputed to be the only pub HRH has ever stepped inside.
As this news report tells us: ‘Landlady Caroline Cheffers-Heard received a very confidential phone call from Buckingham Palace… “We were asked not to change anything so that was lovely because she wanted to see the inn as it was. Why she chose here will be a mystery forever…” The Queen was pictured at the 16th century Bridge Inn holding a bottle of special anniversary ale with Caroline and her father, Norman, in the background.
“She didn’t have a drink, but she did take away a case of out 101 celebratory ale.”’ I am proud to say that beer produced by my daughter and son-in-law’s brewery Powderkeg has also been on the Bridge bar list in recent times.
Come back, your Majesty, and sample it!
The hidden closet at the Salutation
Some Topsham pubs have particular features which only the keen-eyed may spot. The Salutation, for instance, which is now an upmarket hotel and restaurant, was once a coaching inn, hence the superb wooden doors which were big enough to throw open and admit the coach and its passengers. This in itself is not a surprise; however, the little white grill on the left may pose a puzzle. In fact, this was ventilation for a small mortuary, at the side of the coaching entrance. A body could be stored here in its coffin, and loaded discreetly onto a departing coach for burial elsewhere.
The Town Fields
After this time spent in pubs, it’s time for a breather in the beautiful community fields, six acres purchased in 2015 on behalf of the town by the Goat Walk Land Trust. These two fields, at the corner where the Goat Walk meets Bowling Green Lane, provide a secluded sanctuary for wildlife and indeed for visitors. Great care is going into the land management, which includes creating two seasonal ‘scrapes’ to help ‘improve drainage and habitat diversity’, as you can see here. Do consider supporting this excellent scheme!
It’s what I hope is the happy final chapter in the efforts to forestall unnecessary development in that area of Topsham. This tussle was around even when the Goat Walk was built in 1909 (see The Tidal Town of Topsham). Topsham developer Richard Cridland opposed its construction as he wanted to build over the whole foreshore of the river. In a pompous letter to the Board of Trade, he claimed that it was a ‘pettyfogging scheme’ which would be ‘a laughing stock for all visitors to the town’. Really?
I will have more to say about the Cridland family in a later blog, as they were also responsible for dividing up the house we live in, and for building Samoa Terrace.
During lockdown walks, I’ve sat in the Trust’s fields listening to birdsong, and marvelling at the early morning light on tall grasses, young trees freshly planted, and emerging wild flowers in the hedges.
Take a walk back into town along the Strand, and marvel at Reka Dom, the white house with its intriguing towers (one of them built for water storage by an eccentric wine importer), and which at the end of May is adorned with elegant white wisteria. What are its other secrets?
Possibly, Peter the Great, who founded St Petersburg, stayed here when he came over to Britain from Russia to study boatbuilding from 1697-8. (He and his pals trashed their lodgings in Greenwich, so I pity their landlord in Topsham if he did park himself and his entourage on the Strand.) ‘Reka’ means river in Russian, and ‘Dom’ means house. As a somewhat lapsed Russian speaker, I checked with a Russian friend to see if the words did work this way to signify ‘River House’. (The language has complicated rules regarding adjectives placed with nouns.) She assured me that it’s fine.
So we are in with a chance for Peter the Great’s lodgings, and although this is an unproven story, the current owner told me that documents relating to Russian tenants in the house have been unearthed, although she doesn’t have the details. The house has been in her family for 80 years, and it was purchased when derelict in 1939 by her late father-in-law, architect Rex Gardner. As the war swiftly followed, he had to make do with whatever materials were to hand, in the fine old Topsham tradition of ‘making do’, including getting sand from the ’beach’ at the end of the Strand.
The Old Gaol At the town end of the Strand, there is an attractive wedge-shaped building made of brick, now a home decor showroom. This has a hidden past however – it was once the town Gaol. One of its functions was to house prisoners who had been sentenced to transportation, keeping them locked up until they boarded the steamer which would take them to the convict ships that would then transport them to Australia or Tasmania.
The Seven Women Convicts – In a newspaper report of 1837, I found the story of seven women who were sentenced at the Devon Assizes to be transported from Topsham to Tasmania. They would probably have been lodged in the town gaol until the ship was ready to sail.
On Saturday last, Mary Dolbear, and Sarah Bartlett, each transported for 14 years; Elizabeth Ware, Jane Duffy, Susan Featherstone, Ann Rawlings, and Elizabeth Jones, transported for 7 years each, were removed from the Devon County Gaol to the Zephyr steamer at Topsham, order to be conveyed to the Platina, in the Thames, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. (The Western Times, Saturday 15 April,1837)
What were the shocking crimes of these women, that they should be sent into exile? Another newspaper reports further on three of them: Susan Featherstone stole a shawl from Henry Liscombe of Stoke Damarel Mary Dolbear stole a pair of boots from Peggy Hawkins Jane Duffy (sic) a blanket and coverlet from John Greve at East Stonehouse (North Devon Journal, Thursday 12 January 1837)
It is shocking indeed that these women, aged 18 – 56, who were perhaps living in poverty, should be transported for such petty offences. The first part of their journey was by the regular steamer to London: ‘The Zephyr steam packet sailed every Saturday from Topsham to London, a journey that took three days, with stops in Cowes and Portsmouth’, according to Route Two Café, which was formerly the Steam Packet Inn which stood just across the street from the gaol.
Then the women were moved to the Platina convict ship . The ship’s records do indeed list the names of our seven women, among 113 female convicts, whose journey lasted from 22nd April, 1837, to 22nd October, 1837 when they arrived at Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania.
We know a little more about them from the medical records kept by the ship’s doctor on the Platina. Jane Duffy (18) accidentally swallowed a pin which lodged in her gullet, and later suffered from dysentery. Mary Dolbear (56) had dysentery twice, and also complained of rheumatism Elizabeth Rawlings (47) was another victim of dysentery
At least the doctor was conscientious and took trouble to write detailed case notes for some of the afflictions. On arrival, ‘female convicts arriving in Tasmania were housed at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart where conditions were grim to say the least’. (note from Gill McLean of Topsham Museum)
The Old Gaol must hide many tragic and largely forgotten stories, ranging from drunken brawls to the last shivering hours spent before being sent away to the other side of the world.
But I’d like to end on a more pleasant note. Topsham is a town of surprises, with hidden gardens and even small fields concealed behind town houses and up small lanes. Check out Topsham on Google Earth, and you will see how green it is. There are tempting gardens to be spied through gateways too as you walk around the town. Some lie directly by the river, often across the Strand from the houses they belong to.
And every two years, the Topsham Museum puts on a ‘Secret Gardens’ event, which is hugely popular as generous residents open up their plots for visitors to admire. Everyone wants to see what lies behind those garden doors, gates and archways! The next one will be in 2021.
Below: Glimpses of the magical gardens at Wixels, a former coal store and now a beautifully styled home which extends into the river. (Visits courtesy of Mary Lambert). The mirrored view is from another ‘Secret Garden’
References: Topsham Inns Past and Present, Colin Piper (Topsham Museum publications, 2010) The Story of the Manor and Port of Topsham, D. M. Bradbeer, (Town & Country Press 1968) Topsham Past and Present, Chips Barber, (Obelisk, 2004)
A note from Cherry: I’m planning a ‘Hidden Topsham – Part Three’ for later in the summer. I hope that these intermittent blogs about Topsham will be of interest for our townspeople, for our sister town across the sea in Topsham Maine (who’ve expressed enthusiasm!) and for anyone else with a fondness for this unique place. Please subscribe to the blog, to receive notifications about the upcoming posts.
‘A Long Long While’ I first heard this story delivered with great relish in a folk club in Birmingham, back in the 1960s. The story-teller was Alan Bishop, a bearded native of Blackheath in the Black Country. It wasn’t the last time I heard it either, as it was one of Alan’s favourites, and he would end it with a gleeful grin, while he waited for the punch line to sink in. Alan was in fact so fond of this story that his family made sure it was recited it at his memorial service in 2017.
It’s bin a long, long while since fust this tale was told You’ll laugh your eyes out when you hear it, as Eynuck did of old
Two men went sanking down the street When soon two fighting dogs they hied They stuck ‘em in an empty butt, lid on To fight it quietly out inside
Now yow con fight to your heart’s content And both stood nigh to listen Bist gonna have a bet? said one Now tell me, bist or bissen?
They placed their bets the while And the clamour in the butt was chronic What thrills they got from that there fight It was better than a doctor’s tonic
But soon alas, dead silence reigned And each mon looked at t’other They raised the lid – an empty butt Them dogs – they’d etten one another!
I think the title would be better as ‘Them two dogs had etten one another’ – but then that would give the game away. But isn’t there more to this story than just making you laugh? True, it’s yet another comic tale in the traditional Black Country fashion, with a preposterous ‘double take’ conclusion, but I think there’s something of the metaphysical in it too. After all, when cosmologists and theologians struggle with the question, ‘How did Something come out of Nothing?’, then surely, a convincing answer to the even more difficult question of ‘How does Something return to Nothing’, deserves serious consideration. Yes, ‘them two dogs had etten one another’, and that settles it.
And this is just one of a multitude of Black Country jokes and stories. Why is it such a ‘funny’ place? Why do people still tell jokes the whole time, especially, it seems, in pubs? When writer and actor George Fouracres, returned to his native Black Country to research an article on Black Country humour , the first person he asked was his father. “Everyone round here thinks they’m a comedian,” reflected his father. Black Country folk, he reckoned, will always find a way to “av a loff abaat” whatever situation they find themselves in.
Enoch and Eli These are the mythical duo who drive the juggernaut of Black Country jokes. They are very often the narrators of the stories, tripping each other up in dialogue, scoring points and laughing at the ways of the world. In the tale above, only ‘Eynuck’ (Enoch) appears, but his pal Eli is always just around the corner. The pair, often referred to in Black Country dialect as Aynuck and Ayli, have become the stock characters , often of stories where one of them makes the other the butt of the joke. Aynuck and Ayli have weaseled their way into cartoons and comedy clubs, and have even had a reading room named after them. More on their origins later.
Black Country humour Black Country and Brummie humour is dry, sharp and mostly delivered dead pan. The inhabitants love to send themselves up, as well as everyone else. Given that ‘meat’ and ‘mate’ are pronounced the same, along with ‘bison’ and ‘basin’, and ‘whale’ and ‘while’, there’s a fund of jokes to be had about these potential misunderstandings.
Aynuk: What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison? Ayli: I doh know, I’ve never washed me hands in a buffalo.
Aynuk and Ayli were fishing in the canal: ‘Me mate’s fell in the canal !’ ‘Owd it appen?’ ‘I just took a bite ov me sanwich an me mate fell out.’
Ayli, Aynuk and their mate Noddy Holder go into a clothes shop and Noddy says to one of the assistants, ‘I’m re-forming Slade, I want to buy some new stage clothes. I need a pair of flared trousers, a wide collar shirt, platform boots and a mirrored top hat.’ ‘Kipper Tie?’ asks the assistant. ‘Oh thanks,’ says Ayli and Aynuk ‘Two sugars and milkplease.‘
Leaving the puns hastily behind – there’s plenty more in that vein- it’s worth digging deeper into the nature of Black Country wit. The jokes are often about people being daft or stupid, at least on the face of it. But there’s usually a wry twist, a double take, a lightning quick reversal of expectations which kickstarts a guffaw. This kind of wit tickles your brain. It’s a type of humour in the tradition of the Wise Fool, similar to the Turkish and Middle Eastern stories about their folk hero, known as ‘Nasr Eddin’ or ‘The Hodja’. It appears to be ridiculous but is often rather clever.
Aynuk: People always say as Black Country folk is thick, doh ‘em? Ayli: They do, mate. Aynuk: Well I read in the paper as ‘ow the population of London is the densest in the whole country.
Yes, right! Insult them, and they’ll find a crafty way of turning it back on you. Indeed, the Black Country has long celebrated its own wit. T. H. Gough’s cheap-and-cheerful collections of Black Country Stories were a popular seller and ran to five volumes in the 1930s. I have one on my shelf now.
I’ve been around Brummie and Black Country humour since I was about ten – although I’m not completely a native, I spent my formative years in the Birmingham area. I am told I still break into a Brummie accent when excited. Strictly speaking, Birmingham and the Black Country are not exactly the same thing, but for many of those years, we lived on the edge of the Black Country itself, near Aldridge and Walsall. The two areas – Black Country and Birmingham – have much in common, but as Birmingham was industrialised earlier, its local customs and language were diluted to a greater extent, as it grew into a city and had a influx of workers. The Black Country – an area covering the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton – is said to have retained its distinctive outlook and language for much longer. However, the name ‘ Black Country’ has been in use for a while, at least as early as the 1840s, referring to the seams of coal prevalent in the area, or the soot which began to cover everything .
Black Country dialect is a rich heritage which is valuable to the English language as a whole, as it’s apparently the closest one we have to Middle English. It’s Germanic speech – note the ‘bis and ‘bissen’ in the dog story at the start, similar to German ‘Du bist’, meaning ‘you are’.
When I gave a talk once at the British Council in Florence, Italy, I was put up for the night by the director of and his wife. They were a highly educated, well-spoken couple who you might assume had come from the Home Counties. But no, they were proud natives of the Black Country, and completely bilingual. They loved to speak ‘Black Country’ together, impossible for an outsider to understand and very useful, they told me, when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were saying! Sadly, I also learnt from them that schools had in their day tried to drum Black Country speech out of the children, and the ‘nippers’ ended up with one language for the classroom, and another for the playground.
Black Country words describing what children (nippers, babbies) might be doing Riling is fidgeting or rolling about Slummocking is standing or walking in a slouching, slovenly way Chobbling is chomping or munching loudly, especially on your rocks (hard sweets). Blarting is crying or sobbing. Clarting about is messing around. Wagging it means playing truant
Language coach If you’re concerned that you might not be able to master the accent, then there are guides to help you. I have in my possession Aerbut Paerks of Baernegum: Six Dialect Monologues by Graham Squiers, published in 1923. Fork out one shilling, and you could be speaking like a native – even if it wouldn’t perhaps be considered quite culturally appropriate today. But in the grand old days of the monologue (think Stanley Holloway and ‘Albert and the Lion’) it would indeed ‘be a loff’.
Here’s Aerbut (Herbert) getting married:
‘Ah kid. I’m sorry as yo couldn’t get orf from ther waerks and cum to ther weddin’. We daint ‘arf ‘ave a tim I tell yer. I took Gaertie t’ave ther banns put up faerst. Ther bloke wanted ter know ther date of me baerth, and wot I waerked at and ‘oo my old mon wos, and ‘edaint ‘arf get shearty when I told ‘im I’d got a strorberry mark under me left ear’ole. Then he arksed Gaertie if ‘er wos a spinster. ‘Er says, “Gar off, I’m a baernisher of caertin ‘ooks.”’
But the double act of Herbert and Gertie Parksis trumped by that of Aynuk and Ayli, the favourites in all the stories and jokes, the duo with the innate shrewdness of the Black Country folk. How did these names come to be chosen? After all, Eli was a High Priest of Shiloh in the Bible, and Enoch an ancestor of Noah who ‘walked with God and was not’. Not much to laugh about there, surely? Such resonant and robust Biblical names were popular in the 19th century, though, especially in non-conformist families. Black Country expert Jon Raven confirms that ‘Methodism had a particularly strong foothold in the Black Country amongst all strata of society.’ (Although he goes on to explain that the Methodists and the similarly numerous Wesleyans were often at each other’s throats!) According to one source, the pairing of the two names Enoch and Eli originated in the late 19th century music hall, as used by comedian Ernie Garner. (Little Book of the Black Country – Michael Pearson, History Press 2013). Somehow, they passed into local culture and became a permanent fixture. Aynuk and Ayli was the name of a much-loved comedy duo (John Plant and Alan Smith), well-known in the Midlands from 1984 to 2006.
The pub has remained a prime source of material for jokes, as well as a venue where people are still eager to listen to them: Aynuck and Ayli in the pub. Ayli: Doh drink no more, mate, yo’ve ‘ad enough. Aynuk: ‘Ow do yer mek that out, I ay drunk. Ayli: You must be, yer face is gerrin’ blurred already.
The Dog Dogs are popular in other A & A jokes too:
After seeing the sign in the big store, ‘Dogs must be carried up the escalator,’ Aynuk spent three hours trying to find a dog.
Aynuk went round to see Ayli’s new dog which kept barking and leaping up at him as he walked up the path. ‘My word ‘e doh ‘erf bark some,’ said Aynuk, ‘Yes’, said Ayli, ‘but you know the saying ‘a barking dog never bites?’ ‘Ar,’ said Aynuk, ‘I know the saying and yo know the saying but does you’r dog know it?’
The ‘Ooman The wife and mother-in-law as tyrant, nuisance and millstone was often the butt of old Black Country jokes – maybe this has changed a little now, with the advent of sharp-witted Black Country female comedians such as Josie Lawrence and Meera Syal? So I shall ignore those sorts of joke, except for this one, which I reckon helps to level up the playing field.
A little lad went home feeling really excited that he’d been chosen for the school play. He told his father, ‘I’ve got the role of an old married man’ His father patted him on the head sympathetically. ‘Never mind son,’ he said, ‘maybe next year you’ll get a speaking part.’
Daft Jokes And then there are the plain daft ones, which nevertheless make you giggle:
Aynuk: How do yo stop moles diggin’ in the garden? Ayli: Hide all the shovels.
Aynuk: How many hundredths are there in an inch? Ayli: Cor, there must be thousands, mate.
Grandiose ideas Black Country folk like to dream big: Aynock thought Ayli was in need of a little further education so decided he would take him to the big city, Birmingham. Aynock led him round the city explaining what building was what, and the local history attached to them. Eventually they arrived at Victoria Square, and by this time Ayli’s brain was in a right spin. Suddenly, Ayli turned and saw the large building and said to Aynock, ‘Is thet a palace our kid?’ ‘Naa’, says Aynock, ‘that’s the Council House.’ ‘Bloody hell,’ says Ayli, ‘I’ve got me name down for one of them.’
More Black Country words I’ll finish off with a few more delightful dialect words and expressions: Scrage means to scratch, scrape or graze the skin. Fittle is food, and ‘bostin’ fittle’ is ‘great food’ Yampy means daft, or someone who’s losing the plot. Never in a rain of pigs pudding means something will never happen. Clarting about is messing around. Noggy means old-fashioned or outdated. Fizzog is a face (from the word physiognomy); tell someone to stop sulking with, ‘Put yer fizzog straight.’ Oil tot means feeling satisfied and happy, from the days when working men would have a tot of olive oil before drinking beer, in the belief that it would stop them getting very drunk. Go to the foot of our stairs! is a local exclamation of shock or surprise. This ain’t gettin the babby a frock and pinny means ‘We’re wasting time’.
So, for now, Keep out th’ossroad! (Mind how you go!) Ta-ra-a bit! (See you!)
Contribute to the post – If you’ve any Black Country jokes or words that you’d like to share (keep them clean, please!) just submit them via the Comments/Leave a Reply box. They’ll appear on site as soon as I’ve had a chance to ‘approve’ them.
Update! My good friend and former Archers’ scriptwriter Mary Cutler has contributed a few, from her lifelong association with Birmingham and the Black Country:
‘It’s looking very black over Bill’s mother’s ’ – It’s likely to rain soon.’
‘Outdoor’ – Off-licence
‘Yam yams’ – affectionate (local) appellation for people with a strong Black Country accent
Tales from Aynuck’s Black Country, Jon Raven, Broadside 1978.
Many thanks to my old folk singing buddy, Pam Bishop, who supplied photos and a copy of ‘It’s been a long, long while’. View her website here.
Thanks to renowned singer Peggy Seeger, who helped me with general queries about folk music in the 1960s. This is a link to the description of the Radio Ballads (see below) on her website.
And to another folk buddy, collector Doc Rowe, who re-discovered the photo below and sent it to me. Find Doc’s website here.
How I became interested – My interest in folk song, stories and language grew strong through my connection with BBC Radio producer Charles Parker, who with Ewan McColl was responsible for the iconic Radio Ballads. In Birmingham, in the mid 1960s, I was a member of the regular folk workshop run by Charles, along with Pam and Alan Bishop, (who are featured at the start of this post) I dedicated my book Your Life, Your Story: Writing your life story for family and friends, to Charles Parker.
‘If you walk’… This is the first part of a look at ‘Hidden Topsham’, and it’s a series of invitations for you to explore certain nooks and crannies of the town, both here through my post, or perhaps in person. One of the delights I’ve experienced from living in Topsham is the continual discovery of features and stories which are hidden from normal view, perhaps by the obscurity of their position, or their concealed history. Topsham is a town of unexpected twists and turns, as I’ll reveal later. But I’m going to start with two stories from the edge of the town.
The Mourne Lass
If you come from Darts Farm, just outside Topsham, and take the footpath a short way further towards the town on the left, it will take you through a little-known part of the Topsham area, passing some charming cottages, and then running along the back of Odhams Wharf and Tremletts Quay. Here, if you look towards the River Clyst, you’ll spy a dilapidated blue boat called ‘The Mourne Lass’. I had long wondered what her story was, and how she had got there, so I did some digging.
She has in fact a venerable history as one of the oldest fishing vessels in Brixham. It seems that she is probably about seventy years old; in an undated post, her owners in recent times ask for advice on restoring her, saying that ‘The ‘Lass’ is a an ex-MFV, which we are working on in an attempt to give her a new lease of life in her retirement. We need to replace the 60 year old deck, but we can’t afford (time and money) to do this for a few years.’
For a spell, she was berthed at Topsham Quay, but now appears to be slumbering in the waters and mud of the Clyst. In her glory days, she continued to sail in Brixham even after she was decommissioned, and to take part in the famous Brixham Trawler Race. Watch her overtaking the competition in this YouTube clip from 1993! (NB – if your device doesn’t show the correct clip, please refresh the page, as there was a slight glitch earlier)
Tryphena Gale (‘Thomas Hardy stood here’)
If you stroll to the back edge of the Topsham cemetery, you will find the memorial to Tryphena Gale, 1851-1890. Tryphena was the wife of Charles Gale, the landlord of the South Western Tavern in Fore St (now the Co-Op, and formerly Drakes Inn). But she was born Tryphena Sparks, and was the beloved of Thomas Hardy, one of England’s most famous writers. They were probably engaged for a while, though the evidence isn’t clear. She was also a relation of his – the usual version is ‘cousin’, but some sources hint that she may in fact have been a niece, which would have meant that any relationship would have been forbidden. In the photo below, Hardy is aged sixteen, and Tryphena looks to be in her twenties.
Both went on to marry other people, though Tryphena first trained as a teacher and became headmistress of the Plymouth Day School before her wedding to Charles Gale. The couple must have been comfortably off, as they ran an antiques business next door to their tavern, and also owned The Steam Packet pub (now Route Two Café).
Thomas remained close to his former love, and was apparently devastated by her early death, caused by childbirth just before her thirty-ninth birthday. In a poem to mark her passing, he refers to her as ‘my lost prize’, and laments that:
Not a line of her writing have I, Not a thread of her hair, No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby I may picture her there. (Thoughts Of Phena – At News Of Her Death)
She had become a woman of the town. As ‘Exeter Memories’ records: ‘Tryphena was well known in Topsham for working to improve the lot of local fishermen – at her funeral, her coffin was carried by some local fishermen to the graveside. Sometime after the funeral, Hardy cycled to Topsham with his brother Henry and visited the grave – he left a note on the grave saying “In loving memory – Tom Hardy”. He was not given a warm welcome when he called on Charlie Gale to pay his respects’
If you stand by her grave, you may like to remember: ‘Thomas Hardy was here too.’
Twists and Turns
As a Topsham guide, I love to lead visitors into some of the little alleyways. Even locals aren’t always aware of their existence. If you enter the one known as Trees Court, which leads up the side of Lily Neal’s bookshop on Fore St, your sharp eyes might spot a date over the side door, and one of the various old pumps which are studded around the town, in the cobbled yard behind. But perhaps you wouldn’t immediately remark on the huge telegraph pole in the middle of this open yard, or realise that it’s a Grade Two listed monument. This was in fact the first telegraph pole in the town and through the little window seen on the bottom left, the post master or mistress used to deal with the business of sending telegrams from the town. No one is quite sure how they managed to bring such a tall pole into position, especially as it has an extra 8 meters sunk below ground!
If you follow the alley further, you will see two spic and span examples of old workers cottages, with their privies across the yard.
And then you come to what I call ‘the All and Everything’ wall on the lefthand side. If you look closely, you’ll see that it’s composed of Dartmoor granite, volcanic rock, Heavitree sandstone (frequently used in local buildings), and ‘buns’, the rounded boulders found on the Jurassic beaches of Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth. Not to mention the old grindstone, as I assume it was. Topsham has always been a place of ‘make-do-and-mend’ which sometimes descends into ‘cobbled together’ tactics. When we renovated our house further down Fore St, although the original medieval walls were sturdy, the more recent bathroom wall turned out to be made of flimsy wooden packing cases! Times were hard in the town, when the fishing industry and market gardening declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Finally, just as you emerge on Victoria St, if you peer over the tall wall on the left hand side belonging to the Masonic Hall, you might be surprised. Here, among the dustbins, are the old Dissenter graves, where members of non-Conformist sects were buried at their old chapel.
If you walk a little downhill from the place of entry to Trees Court, you will come across Chapel Place on the left hand side of the road. The cobbled path ends with a glimpse of a pleasant-looking, substantial house facing you. The house to the right however, which is even more tucked away, was once a chapel, and later the ‘Cosy Cinema’. Then it became a Glove Factory, as the old sign commemorates. A few years ago, I met a builder in Exeter who was the son of the last glove manufacturers there; he remembered coming home after school to sit among the employees sewing, and play with the scraps of material on the workroom floor.
And if you look on the opposite side of the road, you will spy an almost hidden entrance to yet another passageway. Walk up here (it emerges in the churchyard), and see where the mysterious old sign of the Seven Stars Cider House still hangs. What is its story? The author of the excellent Topsham Inns does not know. But someone else has plumbed its secrets. Ray Girvan gives a fascinating – if tongue-in-cheek – account in his own blog ‘Ray’s Secret Topsham’.
Here’s what Ray has to say:
‘The churchyard of St Margaret’s has an intriguing feature, the Hamilton Tomb. This is the tomb of Alexander Edward (‘Ned’) Kelso Hamilton, the young archaeologist on whom Bram Stoker based the hero of his story, The Jewel of the Seven Stars[an archaeological horror story about Egyptian mummies]. Stoker’s title was inspired by the Seven Stars Cider House which can be seen in the small close at the other side of the churchyard (the same location was used in the filming of Cider House Rules).
OK, perhaps this might be stretching a point? But to end the first part of my ‘Hidden Topsham’ posts, I’d like to offer Ray’s solution to another mystery. If you listen to people talking around the town, why is it that some say Tops-ham, and others Top-sham? This has long been a contentious issue in the town, and no one seems to have a definitive or convincing answer. Once again, Ray puts us to rights, speaking first of the King’s Beam, which I featured in my post ‘The Tidal Town of Topsham’:
‘In the late 19th to early 20th century, a stylised depiction of the beam was used as a religious symbol by the Topsamite Reformed Brethren, a non-conformist sect who preached that Joseph of Arimathea had visited Topsham with the young Jesus. The sect is still technically banned by an emergency law passed in 1915 when its leader spoke out in favour of the Kaiser, but it still exists and members can be identified by their secret pronunciation of the town’s name as “Topsam”. It’s of related interest that Oscar Wilde stayed incognito at the quay, “posing as a Topsamite”, before sailing to exile in France.’
So, are you a member of this secret sect?
Next time, I plan to take you up the once wicked White Street, into some Secret Gardens, and to follow in the Queen’s footsteps, among other delights of Hidden Topsham. ‘If you want to…’ of course.
To finish with, here are a few Topsham Fancies – these are the kind of things you may spot if you let your eye wander to the rooftops, the walls, and the porches of the houses of Topsham.
Topsham Inns Past and Present, Colin Piper (Topsham Museum 2010)
These titles were written for schools use. Although they are not directly related to Topsham, they paint a picture of social history and life in Britain from World War One up to World War Two. See also: People at Work 1930s-1980s and Shops by Cherry Gilchrist, also published by Batsford Educational.