A foray into ‘The Festival of Fools’ and the Fool in the Tarot
The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas
In this post I take the opportunity to continue with my exploration of the Tarot cards, by setting the Fool in the context of the Twelve Days of Christmas (see my previous post). These Twelve Days are also known as The Feast or Festival of Fools, and have been celebrated as such for hundreds of years. Although the Tarot image and the Feast are not identical, their meaning and imagery interweave. Both emerge from a long tradition of honouring ‘the Wise Fool’ and the customs and merriment which surround him. Even though we have lost much of the original tradition of the Feast of Fools, we still enjoy pantomimes, charades and jokes at this season. And there is still time to plan for a festive Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Fool himself!
So as well as the religious and domestic celebrations of the Christmas period, primarily associated with the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of the Three Kings, this is also the domain of the Lord of Misrule. In customs found all over Europe, during the period when the sun ‘stands still’ and seems to halt in its cycle, at the period of greatest darkness, the usual hierarchy could be turned upside down. This was ‘time out’ – time out of the calendar, time out of work, and time out of the normal rules and regulations. Society could throw off its shackles and reverse the general order. Thus a servant could play master or mistress for a night; a Knave could become a King at the Twelfth Night Feast. Games normally forbidden, such as ball games in Tudor England, could now be played. Priests played practical jokes, and got tipsy, while mock sermons were preached by ‘boy bishops’ or perhaps anyone not too drunk to stand up and spout a few words.
One religious justification for this overturning of the usual order lies in the parable from St Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus suggests that it’s best to take a lowly seat at a feast: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Though the Festival of Fools has other affiliations than Christianity, and is also strongly influenced by the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which too took place at midwinter: ‘Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.’ So, whereas there might be a pious Christian reason for reversing the normal rules, the custom as practised did in fact give licence for throwing off the shackles and having fun. In other words, it could keep everyone happy. Let the world be turned topsy turvy!
‘For Fools a mirror shall it be/ Where each his counterfeit may see./ The Glass of fools the truth may show.’ (Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brant, 1494).
And to play the fool was not merely to be ‘foolish’, for maybe insight or wisdom can be gained from cultivating the absurd. It was a time to be outspoken, without fear of reprisal. Poorer folk could give voice to their complaints, because they couldn’t be punished for doing so at this time. And, year round, official Fools who were employed to entertain their masters at a higher level of society, could express what no one else dared to say. At court, the fool or jester often played an important part in taking the edge off a monarch’s temper or impetuousness, and sometimes, under the guise of folly, would reveal the real meaning of a situation. Fools were therefore more than mere entertainers, and in the medieval and Renaissance periods, were sometimes important figures in diplomatic negotiations. They could warm up the temperature in frigid encounters, keep the two parties talking by throwing in a few jokes, and even stage mock fights to represent the opposing causes championed by their masters. (For more on their diplomatic role see Fools are Everywhere, Beatrice K. Otto, p63)
The cult of the Fool was prominent at the time Tarot cards emerged, and perhaps has a connection with ‘sotties’ or fools’ plays which were very popular in France in the late 15th century. ‘The sotties developed from the celebrations of the societies joyeuses that sprang up in Paris and in many of the larger provincial towns, associations of citizens or wealthy farmers that would elect a prince of fools to preside over them while members would dress up as fools either for carnivalesque processions or dramatic performances.’ (Otto p212-3)
The Tarot Fool emerges in his particular form from this widespread and ancient cult of folly. The first known Tarot cards date from the mid 15th century. He is also related to the modern Joker in the playing card pack, and akin to the Court Jester and perhaps to the wandering players known of an earlier period, known as Jongleurs.
I invite you now to read the section on the Fool from my book Tarot Triumphs:
THE FOOL In the Tarot image, the Fool is both jester, and beggar. His cap and bells are those of the court fool, but his ragged breeches, travelling staff and tiny bundle of worldly goods are more in keeping with those of a hand-to-mouth wanderer. The little dog is probably his companion, although some Tarot interpreters see it as a dog chasing him out of the neighbourhood that he passes through on his rambles. But they are more likely to be a pair; the Fool and his dog are often found together in medieval pictures. Historically, the Fool or jester was a very important character. His job was to deflate pomposity, to speak the truth when no one else dared, and lighten up tension with cheeky humour. At the time of the earliest known Tarot cards, in 15th century Italy, the employment of a Fool or jester was at its peak of popularity, so this image would have been well-known to early users of the Tarot.
The Fool has always remained without a number in the Marseilles Tarot pack, as far as I am aware, and has only been shown as zero in modern versions of Tarot such as the Waite pack. He therefore stands outside the 21 numbered cards, and can be seen both as beginning and end of the pack, or even as standing at the centre while the others process around him in a circle. In a way, the Fool is the key to the whole Tarot pack, and can butt in anywhere he pleases. He represents the human quest, and the eternal optimism of the seeker. He can be foolish but, like a child, he offers a fresh view of the truth, undermining that which is false. The Fool is the blind spot of our nature -we can see ahead, and behind, but can never quite make out where we are. He is the ‘human error’ factor that is never entirely ruled out, despite best efforts with technology. In relation to the other twenty-one cards, he is not one of them, but contains their potentialities within him.
The Fool is always travelling. He can be perfectly innocent, or perfectly ignorant, depending upon how you look at him, but he is there within all of us. As a ‘wild card’ he is best placed to represent the significator in a reading, and if he turns up in this position, it’s a sign that the querent is genuinely open to hearing what the Tarot has to say.
And of course, the Fool is allied to ‘The Fool’s Mirror’ in the context of this school of Tarot. Who is more innocent than the Fool, in holding up a mirror to the universe? But also, who is more ready to laugh with innocent merriment at the follies that appear there.
Preparing for Twelfth Night
So, are you ready for some folly on Twelfth Night? Play a game, a charade, hide a bean or a lucky charm in what you eat (be careful about people’s teeth!) so that someone can become Lord or Lady of Misrule for the evening. I do plan to make the Twelfth Night ‘King’s Bread’, for which I gave the recipe in my earlier blog on the Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve even got the candied fruits in ready for it. Who knows how it will turn out? That, though, is the essence of the Feast of Fools!
Sources on the history of the Fool, Twelfth Night, and the Festival of Fools: Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World, Beatrice K. Otto, (University of Chicago Press, 2001) The English Year, Steve Roud, Penguin 2006
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.
This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.
This lovely poem by Thomas Campion, which I’ve frequently sung to the lute with my friend Steve Graham, paints a richly-coloured picture of how people, perhaps in a large household or stately home in the early seventeenth century, would occupy themselves during the dark hours at the turn of the year. And although the celebrations indicated here might be a little more elaborate than in the average household, merry-making, playing games, acting and drinking wine were an honoured part of the general Twelve Days tradition. We’re about to enter these days, which are generally said to start on Christmas Day itself, and perhaps we might extend our own revels right the way through to Twelfth Night itself. More of that later!
One key element of these Twelve Days, is that even though they start after the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, the mornings will continue to get darker until about January 6th. So the finish of the Twelve Days heralds a general return of the light at both ends of the day, rather than just in the evenings which follow the Solstice. This seems to be a little-known fact in today’s society, when our habits are governed by artificial lighting. You can find a readable astronomical explanation of this here.
In many traditional cultures, these twelve days have been considered as time set apart, because of this phenomenon. The ancient gods of the Indian Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days, and the Romans placed the days outside the calendar itself. In Germany, all spinning was prohibited at that time, so as not to offend Frau Perchta, the winter goddess. And in England, as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the reign of the Lord of Misrule, and games where finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day. It was a time of mystery too; the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’
Fortune-telling during the Twelve Days – Indeed, the Twelve Days are a magical time, when the veil between our world and the invisible realm of spirits is said to be very thin. The season has many associated traditions of fortune-telling, mostly to do with predicting events or even the weather for the year ahead. Farming communities were, not unnaturally, obsessed with trying to forecast weather in the days before modern meteorology. Weather lore and keen observation obviously counted for much, but by magical means, they hoped to glimpse further ahead. One divination practice assigns the weather on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas to a corresponding month of the year, so rain on Day One stands for a wet January, frost on Day Two for an icy February, and so on. I dare say you would have to make some adjustments though: if it snowed on Day Seven (July), for instance …
For personal fortune-telling, divination rituals could be performed using whatever you had to hand in the home and for the celebrations: candles, nuts and even the family Bible, could help to determine what will happen in the year ahead. If the flame guttered, or the nut cracked on the fire, for instance, this might have a particular meaning and could be interpreted as signs of things to come. One popular custom was to open the family Bible, blindfold, then place your finger seemingly at random on a verse; this is said to give you relevant guidance for the next twelve months More macabre practices involved predicting who would die in the year to come, perhaps by sitting in the churchyard at midnight to see the spirits of the not-yet-dead appear there. Even if we have forgotten most of these Christmas rituals today, trysts with fortune such as pulling crackers and playing board games are still echoes of these customs.
If you are eager to get into the mood of the Twelve Days early, then you can join in with a pre-emptive Russian custom. That’s if you are still an unmarried girl: Dec 13th – The Day of St Andrew the First-Called. Although it was still a long way till Christmas, girls were already trying to read their fortunes. Some knew how to foretell it from tracks in the snow. To do this, they had to get up early in the morning and look for the tracks leading from their porch. Who was it that left them, a man or a bird?…They should not be in any hurry, otherwise they might remove the tracks of someone they were eagerly waiting for.A Russian Folk Calendar– Polina Rozhnova
The Calendar Change
I’ve mentioned that the commonest way to count the Twelve Days of Christmas is to start on Christmas Day itself as number one. But other variations are possible. We have a complex history when it comes to counting dates. In 1752, British folk calendar customs were thrown into disarray for years to come, when the calendar was changed. Those who went to sleep on Wed 2nd September 1752 were forced to accept the next morning that they had progressed overnight to Thurs 14th September. There was an uproar – and it’s said that mobs stormed the streets, shouting, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ No one is quite sure if this is true, but the general public did not take the loss quietly.
The calendar had finally been changed because it had become significantly out of alignment with the astronomical calendar. Christmas had drifted from its original position, closely following the winter solstice, to a date which is now the equivalent of January 6th. The reason for this is that a year, (a complete orbit of the earth around the sun) is not exactly 365 days long. It is in fact 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. So the calendar needed re-setting, and a new method had to be implemented for interspersing extra days, which we now know as the leap year system.
However, even after the calendar was changed, some people clung on to their habit of celebrating Christmas on what is now January 6th. In fact, those especially keen on merry-making could celebrate right through from new-style Christmas Eve on December 25th, to Old Twelfth Night on January 17th – 18th. This is not unknown in Russia today, where the Orthodox Church uses the old calendar, and secular society the modern one. There are reputed to be some seriously partying Russians who begin merry-making on December 24th and only let up around Jan 18th.
And which date is which?
There is still scope for confusion, though. A calendar sounds a nice simple affair, designed to make life easier for all of us. But scrape the surface, and you will find a chasm of uncertainty beneath. Is today’s Twelfth Night the evening before January 6th, i.e. the night of Jan 5th, or is it on Jan 6th itself? A calendar expert speaks: ‘In earlier times, ‘Twelfth Night’ meant 5 January, i.e. the Eve of the Twelfth Day, in the same way as Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day. But nowadays most people regard ‘Twelfth Night’ as meaning the evening of Twelfth Day (6 January).’ (The English Year – Steve Roud).
Then you seemingly have the complication of New Year, interrupting the Twelve Days, and declaring a new beginning before we’ve even finished celebrating these twelve. In previous centuries, New Year’s Eve and Jan 1st weren’t given such prominence, but included in the general range of customs and festivities celebrated over the Twelve Days. New Year on January 1st was a bureaucratic Roman invention, and wasn’t considered very important until Queen Victoria’s reign. In my view, that’s where things have gone wrong! I prefer the natural progression of the twelve days and the return of the light to mark out the time, rather than an artificially chosen date for a forced celebration. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like staying up late? Perhaps, too, in an industrial world more pressure is now applied to get back to work after January 1st; in rural societies, this was a rare opportunity for people to celebrate and rest for twelve days because they couldn’t usefully work on the land at that time.
The Marshfield Mummers, aka ‘The Old Time Paper Boys’ usually perform every Boxing Day in the village of Marshfield just north of Bath. Sadly, it’s cancelled for 2021 because of the coronavirus – ‘for the first time since 1944’. I enjoyed this performance some years back, and these are some of the photos I took at the time.
‘A partridge in a pear tree’ A post about the Twelve Days wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the famous song, with unusual gifts given on each successive day. Just as a reminder, the standard version (there are indeed variants) goes: A partridge in a pear tree – Two turtle doves – Three French hens – Four calling birds – Five gold rings – Six geese a-laying – Seven swans a-swimming – Eight ladies milking – Nine ladies dancing – Ten lords a-leaping – Eleven pipers piping – Twelve drummers drumming.
Much effort has been made to delve into the symbolic meanings of these gifts. There are pagan versions, Christian versions, conspiracy theory versions, folkloric versions – you may take your pick. I have my own take on the ‘nine ladies dancing’, as I’ve written a whole book about the significance of ‘nine ladies’, as emblems and archetypes of women’s lives. And the concept of ‘the company of nine women’ goes back to prehistoric times. (The Circle of Nine). Take a look at this blog on January 17th, when I’m devoting a whole post to this theme!
Others have turned the words of the song into comedy, as did John Julius Norwich. The correspondence between a young lady and her over-zealous lover, who delivers these gifts, may not be so amusing once you’ve heard it performed at several Christmas concerts in a row! However, I’ve warmed to this unusual version from Ireland, although is there an element of cross-dressing here too?
If it’s novelty you’re after with the Twelve Days song, you can also find Covid versions, a Boris Johnson version and other subversive attempts to spice up an old favourite. (I’ll let you discover those yourselves on YouTube).
Twelfth Night, marking the final day, used to be a major celebration in the British Isles with parties and games. The Twelfth Night cake was the centrepiece of the occasion. This was baked with little charms or tokens in it, such as a bean, a clove or a coin, for guests to discover in their slices. As mentioned earlier, sometimes they were required to act out the role their charm signified for the rest of the evening, according to a pre-determined list ranked from Knave to King and Queen. It was finale to Christmas of merry-making, which included pageants and plays for those in the higher ranks of society. Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ is thought to have been written for that purpose, and it contains the kind of uproarious comedy, topsy-turvy accidents of chance, and switches of identity which were in keeping with Twelfth Night games. There’s an excellent account of the Tudor Christmas, which put all the emphasis on those twelve days, and their associated customs, saints’ days, and food offerings, recorded by Lucy Worsley for the BBC. In the UK, you can catch it on iplayer for a couple of weeks longer, or find it on You Tube. (NB The link I put up when this post was launched has now been removed from You Tube, but perhaps it will be posted again.)
I’d like to spread the net wider than just the UK, so let’s have a look at a Spanish custom of making a special Twelfth Night ‘King’ bread. Within the complexities of the Twelve Days is, of course, the Christian Epiphany on Jan 6th, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts at the stable where Jesus was born.
This description comes from The Spruce Eats . I discovered that the recipe given on this website is almost identical to the one in my book Bread: A complete guide by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter, which I’ve had as a staple cookery book for years. I’ve streamlined the two versions here, which luckily agree almost entirely on quantities and method. However – COOK’S ALERT WARNING! – I haven’t actually made this recipe yet. I hope to do so this year, but please join me in the experiment, rather than take it as Cherry’s-Cache-tested. BUT – now I have made it! Please see ‘Checking in for the New Year’, posted on Jan 10th. I’m adding a few tips below, in italics.
Twelfth Night Bread, from The Spruce Eats Roscon de Reyes is a traditional dessert, served the night before or the morning of Reyes or Epiphany on Jan. 6. Dia de Reyes or simply Reyes is the day when children in Spain receive gifts from the Reyes Magos–Wise Men or Magi—the three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts. Instead of gifts from Santa Claus, the children receive them from the Reyes Magos. It is traditional to put several surprises inside the roscon. A porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean are hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the king of the party, but if you find the bean, you pay for the cake. In the last half of the 20th century, filling the roscon with whipped cream or a thick custard became popular. Today about a third of the roscones sold in Spain are filled. If you want to fill yours, use a bread knife to slice the bread in half horizontally and carefully remove the top. Next, squeeze in the whipped cream or filling you’ve chosen and carefully replace the top. Keep refrigerated until serving if filled with cream or custard.
Ingredients 450gm/1lb/4 cups unbleached flour ½ teaspoon salt 25gm/ 1 oz active dry yeast I don’t think this is correct – 25gm would be for fresh yeast. The proportion of fresh to dried is 3:1, so I used 8 gm granular yeast, which rose perfectly well, but probably a 7gm packet of instant yeast would be fine 140 ml/ scant 2/3 cup mixed lukewarm milk & water 75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp butter 75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp caster sugar Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (alternative quantity 2tsp) Finely grated rind of 1 orange (alternative quantity 2tsp) 2 large eggs 1 tbsp brandy 1 tbsp water (orange water also recommended – or I used 1tbsp fresh orange juice) 1 egg white (lightly beaten) for glazing 2 cups candied and glace fruit (eg assorted figs, oranges, lemons, mangos or cherries, chopped or left in large pieces. You’ll need the soft sugared kind as in glace cherries or mixed candied peel) As it bakes on the outside of the loaf, choose the softest kind. It might also be possible to mix in some chopped candied peel into the dough, the kind sold for cake-making. Flaked almonds for sprinkling on top
How to Make It
Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a hole in the centre of the flour.
In a small mixing bowl, stir and dissolve the dry yeast in the lukewarm milk mixed with the lukewarm water. NB if using instant packet yeast, you won’t need to do this
Once dissolved, pour the dissolved yeast into the centre of the flour. Stir in just enough flour from around the sides of the bowl to make a thick batter.
With your hand, grab about a teaspoon of the flour from the side of the bowl and sprinkle it over the top of the batter.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place, away from any draft. Allow batter to turn spongy, about 15 minutes.
In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Add grated orange and lemon rinds, eggs, brandy and water to the flour mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon to make a sticky dough.
Beat or hand mix the flour mixture until it is elastic and smooth. Gradually beat in the reserved butter-sugar mixture and mix until the dough is smooth. Form the dough into a ball, then cover the bowl oiled cling-film or damp tea towel.
Leave in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size. This will take approximately 1 1/2 hours.
While you are waiting for the dough to rise, grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
Once the dough has doubled, remove the plastic wrap and knock down the dough. Lightly flour a clean counter or cutting board and place dough on it.
Knead for 2 to 3 minutes. You can incorporate any Twelfth Night charms, figures, beans etc at this point. (Consider the impact on people’s teeth, though!)
Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a long rectangle, about 66cm/ 26” long and 26 cm/5”wide.
Roll up the dough from the long side, as if making a Swiss roll, into a long sausage shape.
Carefully place the dough seam down onto the prepared baking sheet and connect the ends together, forming a ring. (You can also hide a bean or a small foil-wrapped, ceramic figurine at this stage, too). Cover again. Leave in a warm place until doublde in size. This will take about 1 to 1 ½ hours
Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 F/ 180 C. Brush the top of the dough ring with lightly beaten egg white, and Decorate the ring with the candied fruit pieces. Push them into the dough slightly so that they do not fall off. Sprinkle with almond flakes.
Place in oven and bake for about 30 -35 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.
Midwinter Darkness And so to close this account, I’ll just slip in a reminder that my current series of posts are about different forms of celebrating the time of year, not just with dazzling lights and feasts, but also about relishing the darkness of the days and the long nights. These allow us to rest, to ponder, to warm ourselves with memories. Put another log on the fire, dim the lights, and sink into the dark womb of the year!
Topsham knows how to celebrate! Even though our feasts and festivals couldn’t be the same this year, due to the pandemic, the customs of dressing up the town and dressing up ourselves are firmly embedded in the calendar. We’ll do it again next year, if we can.
This post is based on the Topsham celebrations that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, with a few historical occasions thrown in for good measure. It’s not a comprehensive Topsham Calendar, and it will be more picture-dense and text-light than usual. But I’m including a link to a full account of the illicit Tar Barrel rolling event!
Let’s enjoy some celebrations here virtually, and despite all the restrictions, I’m sure that we’ll still have a festive spirit and display in the town. As I write this, in early November, the town is making itself ready for Christmas as cheerfully as possible. And as I come to make the final tweaks on December 5th, everything is up and twinkling! More photos further on.
Charter Day Since 2016, Topsham Charter Day has been held each August, to celebrate the day when King Edward I granted the charter which turned Topsham into a town, back in 1300. (Woe betide anyone who dares refer to it now as ‘a village’!)
On the first of our modern Charter Day celebrations, Charles Courtenay, the current Earl of Devon, arrived by boat from Powderham Castle to receive the charter from ‘the King’. According to the schedule for the festivities:
1.45pm: The king and his entourage and townsfolk will process along Fore Street, lined with “medieval” market stalls, to St Margaret’s Church green. Here, he will present a replica town charter to the present Earl of Devon, Charles Courtenay.
In case of any confusion, the Earl was real, while the king was ably acted by one of our townspeople. You can read the complete order of ceremony here:
The Town Criers’ competition has staunchly remained a popular feature of Charter Day. They arrive from all over the country, to process down the main street in splendid array, then make a speech from the balcony at the Globe Inn, in the old coaching yard. It’s the speech that decides who will be crowned the best Crier in the land.
Christmas Well, Christmas in Topsham wouldn’t be the same without the Carols at the Bridge Inn, which always takes place just before lunchtime on Christmas Day, to the rousing accompaniment of our local celebrated folk group Show of Hands. I hope we can still manage it in some form in 2020.
Topsham shop windows are beautifully decorated, house doors likewise.
Nello’s Longest Table Once every two years, in June or July, over two thousand people gather for lunch together in Topsham. The line of tables stretches down Fore St, winds around to the Quayside, then snakes back again alongside the river to Ferry Road. Over 350 tables are laid out, so that families, friends and visitors can feast together, and create one ‘Longest Table’.
This lunch was set up in memory of Nello Ghezzo, a local restaurateur who dreamed of a feast which the whole town could take part in. Nello died in 1999 and in 2008 the first such meal took place, named in his honour. The event is also a fabulous fundraiser. In 2018 the organisers posted on Facebook: We are absolutely delighted to hand over the proceeds from this year’s Nello’s Longest Table and Topsham Food Festival: £2500 to Force Cancer Charity, £2500 to the Brain Tumour Charity (in memory of Geoff), and £1500 to Estuary League of Friends for the new and fabulous Nancy Potter House. We furthermore were able to fund the new Love Topsham web site as well as give a donation to Love Topsham for admin for new Topsham traders initiatives.
There’s always a rush to secure tables in favourite spots when the booking opens, and the food is generally more banquet than picnic, with delicious creations and exotic specialities.
Dressing up may be either to a theme or on the whim of the individual groups. The second Longest Table in 2010 reported: Tables were decorated beautifully with colourful cloths, china, table decorations, flowers and even chandeliers. Others had based themselves on a theme – there was a Mexican table complete with sombreros and giant moustaches, a Sicilian men (and women) in black table, a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a gardening table, walkers’ table, and more.
As the day goes on, groups mingle, children play games (racing each other around the churchyard is a favourite) and wine flows freely. We missed it happening this year, in 2020! Here’s hoping we can go ahead in 2021.
And what celebrations happened in days of old? The Museum archives tell a tale or two.
(With thanks to Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum for supplying these images.)
Other festivals pop up throughout the summer, like various Music Festivals, Beer and Bacon, ‘Secret Gardens’ (which I’ve written about here…). Plus ‘Jazz in the Garden’, a Dog Show, and a Flower and Produce Competition. I’m sure I’ve missed some out! Ah, yes, the Food Festival at the Quayside, which produced an excellent talk on salmon fishing from Ed Williams-Hawkes, and a demonstration of making the acclaimed ‘Smokie’ dish which used to be the top favourite at the Globe Inn. Here’s how a member of the Hodges family who ran the Globe explains it:
The Topsham Smokie Basically it’s smoked haddock poached in milk with bay leaves. Make some lovely white sauce – you can put some cheese in there & use some of the milk that has poached the fish. Mix up the fish, white sauce and stir in some mashed potato. Put in a pot, top with tasty grated cheddar cheese and bake xxx simples !!!
Demonstrated by a chef from the Globe Inn, who hasn’t forgotten how to make this scrumptious dish.
Guy Fawkes Night But what about November 5th? There may be a mega-display at the Rugby Club most years, but individual fireworks are a matter of past glory, according to long-term resident Roy Wheeler. Recording his memories back in 1988, he remembered how, decades earlier, the local lads would pitch a firework battle on Chapel Platt, just outside the Methodist Church.
One thing I remember vividly was fifth of November, firework time. A chap used to keep what is Meg’s Restaurant now was a man called Gilders – we used to call Putty Gilders – and he used to sell everything. And we used to buy our fireworks there and then it was a case of ‘Top Town’ versus ‘Bottom of the Town’. The bottom of the town boys used to come up to there and we used to come down to this side and we used to throw fireworks at each other. It was a battle-royal. That was always something to look forward to! Ha ha ha ha! But yes, this was always a very busy spot and it wasn’t so long ago that the City Council in their wisdom, or otherwise, planted a tree there. Thought it would enhance the beauty but it didn’t last very long. The Topsham people weren’t going to have that. They weren’t going to have their Platt desecrated. Hee hee! So, the tree was knocked over. (Account supplied by Topsham Museum)
Still earlier, in the 19th century, there was a rip-roaring tradition of celebrating Bonfire Night in Topsham and Exeter, with processions, battles and exotic guys. This account reveals that a recreation of the Armada provided plenty of entertainment for Topsham folk:
Western Times – Saturday 08 November 1890 Had the weather been favourable no doubt the carnival held on Thursday by Young Topsham” would have surpassed any previous attempt. But unfortunately rain fell heavily and a strong wind blew continually during the night. The procession did not start until close upon eight o’clock. The order was follows:—The local band, banner, Topsham guys, Young Exeter, the local fire brigade, Captain on horse, back, Committee, Topsham Cyclist Guys, tar barrel brigade, and a representation of the Armada fleet, under the command of Ally Sloper.” The latter was the most striking feature of the carnival. After the procession had broken up, the two model ships, representing the British and Spanish fleets, were formed for action the ” battlefield” in Fore-street, and after a warm encounter the Spanish vessel was ” bombarded “by Roman candles. A large number of excellent rockets were let off, and the celebration, which was witnessed by a large number of persons, including many from Exeter, continued up to a late hour.
Indeed, it wasn’t all fun and happy outcomes:
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 13 November 1847 Accidents. —Since Friday last, upwards of 27 individuals, who have received serious injury from accidents, have been taken into the Devon and Exeter Hospital. Of these accidents 18 or 19 were occasioned by the unexpected explosion of rockets and other fireworks in the hands, or near the persons, of the sufferers; one of whom, a lad, was brought from Topsham, so injured the lower part of his person, that life is despaired of. Another young person had his skull fractured by a kick, or a blow from a bludgeon, as he was engaged with others in the fun of rolling tar-barrel.”
Did someone say Tar Barrel? What’s that about? – surely the only Tar Barrel Rolling round here is in Ottery St Mary? But no – Topsham used to have its own tradition of Tar Barrels, until it was made illegal in the town, probably in the early 19th century. As a sport it can be thrilling, but the dangers are obvious, and especially so in narrow streets with old timber-framed cottages.
And in 1847, the Rev. Frederick Isop Cocke,, assistant curate of Topsham, was convicted of Unlawfully Rolling a Tar Barrel. The Rev. Cocke appealed – he had only been doing his duty, he said, and trying to keep the barrel away from the crowd. In January 1848 he was acquitted. ‘Decision of the Bench was received with loud cheering outside the court.’ Western Times – Saturday 08 January 1848 – you can read the whole story here:
But be warned, if you decide to persue this account, that the ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘No I didn’t’, ‘Yes you did,’ runs to over 3000 words . Nevertheless, it’s a mine of information about local people and the streets of Topsham at the time. The story proved immensely popular around the country, and appeared in briefer versions in various provincial newspapers. After all, a parson with a flaming tar barrel, who ends up in court, makes a good story!
Finally, I’ll end with a custom which has only recently been introduced, but which is based on a very old tradition which certainly took place in the area, if not in the town itself. This is the now annual Wassail. Wassails are usually held in January, an old farming custom intended to drive evil spirits out of the orchards and produce a healthy crop of apples. (Very important in cider making districts!)
Topsham’s Wassail is now going strong, with songs especially written by Adrian Wynn, and a merry band of folk club followers, children and townspeople. We gather at Matthews Hall, serenade the apple tree there……, then move onto Victoria Road and a noble old apple tree in a garden there, thought to be a survivor of a former cider orchard. Further stops occur at other venerable apple trees, including the Old Vicarage, and the procession eventually celebrates the final tree at the Allotments . To make the magic work, a robin must be placed in the branches, and a piece of bread dipped in cider then stuck in the tree itself. Possibly a few cups of cider and slices of apple cake may also be consumed en route. And perhaps I should mention that we’re usually accompanied by a farmer with his shotgun; traditional Wassails aren’t complete without a loud blasts fired through the branches, to send the devils packing! You can see him lurking with gun at the ready in the picture on the right.
Topsham Wassail In the orchard dark we muster, North wind whistles through the North wood Tree; Prosper Greasy, Soldier prosper, In our orchard and soils of old, Gather Topsham, sing and rattle, We’ll bring cider back to thee! Gather round and old Tom Putt Will flow and fill our wassail bowl.
Christmas 2020 – So here we are, in the run-up to Christmas, with shop windows beautifully decorated, lights twinkling and everything as normal and cheerful as it can be in this extraordinary and difficult year. As a small town with a busy High Street (actually called Fore Street!) it has a particular sense of community and the feeling that everyone is doing their best to create the spirit of Christmas here. I’m thankful to be living in Topsham!
With thanks to Doc Rowe, for his stunning photographs of the Ottery Tar Barrels
Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum, for photos of historic Topsham celebrations and the memories of Roy Wheeler
All other photographs by Cherry Gilchrist, with thanks to Love Topsham for help both in the town with masterminding various projects, such as the Christmas lights and other festivities, and for supporting this blog.
I first posted a version of this story on my author’s blog at in Dec 2019. Various other Phillips descendants got in touch as a result, so I’m delighted to have expanded the current family network! In autumn 2019, my husband and I had planned to visit Gaile House (the first time for me), staying in the house where Mary Max was born, and visiting the graveyard nearby where she is buried. We would have been joined too by one of my ‘new’ cousins who I’ve discovered through sharing her story. Sadly, the owners of Gaile House cancelled our booking due to a bereavement in their own family, so we’ve had to postpone our trip. At present, in late 2020, it’s impossible to say when we may be able to travel to Ireland again, but I hope that 2021 will bring better opportunities to use my new Irish passport, and that I can see for myself both where Mary Max lived, and where my own grandfather was born.My father who was a regular visitor there during his life, while his elderly cousin was still in residence, always hada dream of buying back Gaile and living there in his retirement, but as is so often the case, life got in the way. It was sold, and is now beautifully renovated and operating as a working stud and horse training centre, so it has certainly come into good hands.
Note to other Phillips descendants: if you are connected to this line, and would like to be put in touch with others researching the Phillips family, please contact me either via this website or my author’s site at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk. (use the Contact Form)
This is the story of my 4 x Irish great grandmother, Mary Max, who was abducted and forced into marriage in1777, at the age of thirteen. She lived in the Max family home at Gaile House, County Tipperary, and was an heiress to a £40,000 estate, which was worth over £6,000,000 in today’s terms. Her father and brothers had all died in quick succession, so in 1777, as a young teenager, Mary was set to inherit the family fortune when she turned eighteen. Her only close relative was her mother and guardian, Joan Max.
At the time, abduction was rife in the heartlands of Ireland, and Mary was a tempting candidate. Bride-snatching had become almost acceptable as a way of securing a bride, and although it was a capital offence, the risk of conviction was low. The target was usually a girl who the prospective bridegroom thought would better his position, preferably with money or property, and of good social standing. He would then gather a band of supporters, often including friends and family members, and they would plot to seize her by force. Plans were audacious, with ambushes and even armed hold-ups. One episode on record involved locking the priest and the congregation in church while the raiding party singled out their chosen target from the worshippers!
Mary Max was abducted by Samuel Phillips of Kilkenny in August 1777. He was her first cousin-once-removed, who lived about forty miles away in the Phillips home of Foyle. The Phillips family had arrived in Ireland before 1600, possibly as Welsh immigrants, and as merchants they then rose through the ranks to produce a couple of Mayors of Kilkenny, marrying into moneyed or landed families such as the Despards along the way.
By the 18th century, the family had some land and money of their own, but not enough to satisfy them, it seems. And so a secret plan was made to grab the family fortune of the Maxes, their kinsmen, to add to their own. A raiding party was put together: Samuel Phillip, groom was then 21, and his supporters included his father Richard Phillips, who was a Magistrate and Justice of the Peace, his sister Frances, and, surprisingly, Dennis Meagher who was Mary’s uncle on her mother’s side.
Mary was snatched late one evening, as she was returning home from a ball. Samuel’s sister acted as the decoy, pretending to offer Mary a safe lift in her carriage back to her mother’s home. Instead, the coach sped away to Waterford, where the conspirators and prospective bridegroom were waiting. It sounds the stuff of a period drama movie, and it certainly caught the public attention at the time. Reports spread through the press like wildfire as the story unfolded.
One newspaper gossip column reported:
Letter from Dublin, dated Sept. 20: As I make no doubt but you will be curious to know in what manner Miss Max was carried off, I have collected such particulars as I could, and have sent them for your entertainment. Miss Max was at a ball, at which also was Mr. Philips, with whom she danced the evening. —The husband intended by her guardian was also one of the company; after the ball, Mr. Phillips’s sister walked with Miss Max towards the carriages, and prevailed her to accept of the use of theirs to set her down. All things having been previously concerted, Miss Max stepped into the post-chaise, and was drove directly to Waterford, where Philips, the young Lady, and assistants, embarked, and arrived safely in England, from whence they crossed over to France. Miss Max not being missed for above two hours, full time was given for eluding a search, which was afterwards made to no purpose. She is first cousin to her adventurous lover.
Newspapers around Britain went crazy for the story, and this particular ‘letter’ was republished in local papers from Kent to Newcastle.
From Waterford, the ‘wedding party’ went by boat to Wales, and then by road to Scotland. (All land transport was, of course, by horse and carriage in this era). A hue and cry was raised, and a magistrate’s militia was sent off in hot pursuit. At this point, the Phillips family’s first aim was to get Mary married off to Samuel, before the pursuers could intervene. Many such forced marriages were conducted in all sorts of shady ways, with little regard for the legitimacy of the priest. In Edinburgh, as we’re told by subsequent legal documents, Samuel procured a so-called clergyman, ‘a man of very indifferent character’. (In later years, he came to regret not finding a priest with better credentials, but only because he was worried that it might otherwise undermine his claim on Mary’s fortune!)
Mr and Mrs Phillips then hastened to travel south with their ‘wedding party’. But by then, there was a price on their heads: Mary’s mother offered a handsome reward for Mary’s safe return, and a bounty price to anyone who could hand over Samuel Phillips or his father to the law. Knowing little of the geography, Samuel’s troupe made a strenuous journey by side roads down to Brighton, at the time a small fishing village known as Brighthelmstone. En route, they stopped at Kingston, and asked if the sea was nearby! When they finally made it to Brighton, they then set sail for France. All but one of the party – Mary’s uncle- escaped across the Channel. He however was arrested and clapped in jail in Dublin. It was a close-run thing: according to one newspaper report the abduction party was chased right to the edge of the water.
‘Before the packet in which they sailed was lost out of sight, two of Sir John Fielding’s men arrived at Brighthelmstone, in pursuit of them, and offered any of the fishermen a large reward, that would give chase to the packet, and prevail on the Captain to steer back; but not one of them would attempt it.’ (Hampshire Chronicle, 15 Sep 1777)
It was reported that they made a successful landing at Dieppe and then headed for Paris. It was time to draw breath, perhaps. Within the space of a month, a thirteen-year-old girl had gone from living quietly with her widowed mother in rural Ireland, to being forcibly married to a cousin, and chased across four countries. But even in France they were not entirely out of reach of British law. As the Freeman’s Journal reported on Sep 25th 1777: ‘Application has been made by the English Ambassador at Paris to have the Phillipses who ran away with Miss Max delivered up if they could be found in the French dominions, and liberty given to have them transmitted to this kingdom to be tried for the felony.’
But before the law could finally catch up with them, Mary’s mother Joan made them an offer. She was desperate to get her daughter back, having lost her husband and both sons in quick succession. According to later legal reports, they stayed in Paris for some time, until the new year of 1778, when Samuel finally decided to bring his ‘bride’ home. On Dec 31st, 1777, Joan Max had formally withdrawn her offer of rewards for capturing the kidnappers. She withdrew her threat of prosecution too, and allowed Samuel to bring his under-age bride back to Gaile House, the Max family home.
Samuel Phillips now became head of the household in a dwelling that was most definitely superior to his father’s home at Foyle, Kilkenny, and he lost no time in using Mary’s money to make it even grander. He still however had to stand trial at Kilkenny Assizes for a hanging offence of abducting a minor, but as Joan Max refused to offer any evidence, he walked free. Though Samuel didn’t win hands down. Mary’s money and property was put in trust for her heirs, so he never had complete control of it. He did however secure Gaile house, which then became the Phillips’ family home for over 150 years after this. My grandfather, Richard Phillips, was born there, before emigrating to England, where my father was born. (Thanks to having an Irish-born grandparent, though, I have recently been able to obtain Irish citizenship and an Irish passport!)
The photos below, from my father’s colleciton, show the glory days of Gaile in the late 19th and early twentieth century – the hunt meeting, garden parties and bicycle races!
Samuel Phillips and Mary Max, now Phillips, had three children: Richard, Joanna and Frances. (Richard and Samuel were names which were chosen in almost every Phillips generation). Then Mary died, aged only 26. Who knows what a toll the early marriage and childbirth had taken from her? She had her first child, Richard, when she was only sixteen years old.
But despite family papers and newspaper reports, we still don’t have the whole story. Was it a forced abduction, that ripped a young girl away from her mother, her only protector, and laid claim to Mary’s fortune? Or could it be that Mary and Samuel were indeed in love? Or, again, perhaps she was a headstrong young teenager with a thirst for an exciting adventure. The idea of running away might have seemed very romantic. They were not strangers; the families lived only forty miles apart and already knew each other well. At that period in history, thirteen was considered nearly ripe for marriage. But even for those times, she was still very young: although most Irish abductees were under the age of 21, very few indeed were as young as that. And it seems that Sam and Mary started sexual activity straightaway. One newspaper reports: ‘It appeared that when they left Ireland they sailed for and landed in Wales, that they crossed all England and made the best of their route to Scotland, where it is supposed young Phillips and Miss Max were married, as it also appeared they slept together at Kingston, and at Brighthelmstone.’
As her direct descendant, I’d like to think that Mary and Samuel married for love. Or at least, that there was some romance, or sense of adventure on her side. Perhaps she was a catch in more ways than one – a couple of newspapers described Mary as ‘exceedingly beautiful’, though we have no surviving pictures of her to check this. One gossip column of the day suggested that the couple already had an ‘understanding’ and that when Mary’s relatives began to arrange a marriage for her to ‘a young Gentleman of a distinguished Family in Dublin’, Mary and Sam decided to secure their own marriage first. Nevertheless, would a thirteen-year old girl really understand what was in store for her?
My father was a keen genealogist, and he uncovered this story and pieced it together. I’ve added to it with the advantage of excellent internet tools now, and a rich trove of old newspaper reports available for searching online. And thus a tantalising, dramatic, but still mysterious story has unfolded, to which we will probably never have all the answers. One question is why Mary’s mother Joan dropped the prosecution, and accepted that her young daughter’s marriage? For that, there is a historical answer: studies from the period reveal that a girl was often regarded as ‘damaged goods’ once she had even been alone with a young man, let alone travelled abroad with him, and that she would henceforth be rejected as marriage material. Once a daughter had been abducted and married off, it was a fait accompli, and parents usually decided that a forced marriage was better than no marriage. And later reports do indicate that Mary and Sam did settle together quite happily, for the thirteen year period of their marriage.
Below are three of my direct-line grandfathers, all named Richard Phillips, and all of Gaile House.
The family lore which was passed down through the generations, doesn’t seem to include a strong sense of outrage or pity for Mary. My father, Ormonde Phillips, often talked to his ‘kinsman’ Jack Max, who still held some of the Max family papers about the legal side of the abduction, and he didn’t glean any indication from Jack that it was a blot on the family landscape. This isn’t conclusive, but does at least give a window of hope that Mary was not completely devastated by the event. The Max family, rather than the Phillipses, would surely be the ones to hold onto a grievance.
This Facebook video is a delightful sequence of a Connemara pony being put through its paces at Gaile today, which is now an equestrian centre for training and supplying sportshorses.
I’d like to honour my 4 x great grandmother by telling her story, and keeping its memory alive. Researching it has led me into a fascinating area of history, when the law in central Ireland was largely disregarded, and old clan ways still prevailed. I cannot help be somewhat uncomfortable, however, about the way my Phillips ancestors acquired their ‘forever’ home of Gaile House, Tipperary. Eventually, there was no one in the family suitable to take it on any more, and so it was sold. But from falling nearly derelict, it’s now under new ownership, and beautifully restored as an equestrian centre. The wheel of Fortune turns again.
To the memories of Mary Max 17763-1789 and Samuel Phillips 1756-1816. I wish you could see how the family has grown today, and how splendid Gaile House looks once again!
The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland 1740-1840 – A. P. W. Malcomson (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2006)
Forcibly without Her Consent: Abductions in Ireland, 1700-1850 – Thomas P. Power (Universe, no date). My father contributed his Mary Max research to this book, which also contains a very good Bibliography
You may also be interested in other family history postson Cherry’s Cache:
Over the last few years, I’ve been looking into the history of the Soho coffee bar – a fascinating phenomenon in its own right. This post is adapted from one that I’ve written for Soho Tree, and here I’ve combined stories from two circles of people who frequented Soho at that time – the aspiring musicians, including the renowned folk singer Peggy Seeger, who I interviewed earlier this year, and the ‘seekers’ who became members of a Cabbala group, studying the mystical Tree of Life.
Soho in the Fifties While most of Britain struggled through the dreary post-war years in the 1950s, Soho was a fermenting cauldron, a pageant of unusual characters, exotic food stores and exciting new art and music.
‘The fifties were a time of austerity, of punitive conventions, of a grey uniformity….Soho was the only area in London where the rules didn’t apply,’ (George Melly, critic and musician).
The cafes of the 1950s helped to define Soho itself. Tucked into the very heart of London, Soho had already been a melting pot of nationalities and cultures for a hundred years or more. But the arrival of the espresso bars there in the 1950s opened up a whole new phase of possibilities for meeting up, making music, and finding soulmates and allies.
In keeping with various other Soho memoirs, I’m stretching the geographical boundaries a little. The café habitués of the time didn’t draw a hard line where Soho officially ended: people spilled across the Strand towards Charing Cross and up towards Covent Garden market when staking out their favourite haunts.
Music and Cabbala Folksinger Peggy Seeger recalls fondly: ‘It was my playground. You could meet people there, get to know them in the street.’ In the 1950s, Peggy was a young woman who had recently arrived from America, a member of a prominent musical family – her brother was Pete Seeger – and was now in both a relationship and a performing duo with the Scottish folk singer Ewan McColl.
Peggy’s route through Soho took her mainly into the music clubs of the day, and the coffee bars which offered music. The Cabbala group, on the other hand, met primarily in cafes where you could focus on long discussions, while spinning out a cup of coffee. Although several members of this group were themselves musicians, and there was plenty of overlap between the two circles, you needed a somewhat quieter environment to tackle ‘the big questions’ of life. These were informal gatherings, the gateway to more intense, private group meetings for those who were interested in taking it further.
The Coffee revolution Coffee was a prime mover in the Soho scene. Its influence began in the early ‘50s, when an Italian dentist came to the UK to sell revolutionary Gaggia coffee machines:
‘The coffee bar and espresso culture of the fifties…began in Soho, partly because of the large Italian community, and partly because Gaggia had their first British premises in Dean Street. Achille Gaggia invented the espresso machine…in Milan in 1946. Pino Riservato, an Italian dental technician, set up Riservato and Partners to import the machines to England, and in 1953 got Gina Lollobrigida to open the Moka Bar at 29 Frith Street, England’s first coffee bar, to show off his wares….’
Mr Gaggia’s shining machines transformed many traditional ‘caffs’ and Italian ‘greasy spoons’, which cut the grease and stodge from their menus and acquired a set of toughened glass cups and saucers (which not only looked modern, but also made sure that drinks soon got cold, discouraging those who wanted to linger all night over a single cup).
(Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London, Pip Granger)
This was probably the first taste of decent real coffee that anyone had enjoyed in the UK
The Soho Crowd For many, entering the Soho scene was primarily a chance to break free of stuffy rules and live on the wild side. Some had run away from home to be there, or it was their first taste of freedom after National Service, or an escape from a tedious job in a dull post-war town. It offered both the opportunity to seek out those who shared your interests, and also the chance to mix more widely with a fascinating variety of people, of all artistic, philosophical and sexual persuasions.
‘Soho was a wonderful mix of artists, writers, sculptors, many of whom had studios nearby,’ Peggy told me. ‘It was also sleazy – the prostitutes would stand in doorways, the phone booths were full of cards, which were often rather ‘poetic’ in their descriptions of what they offered. I would often go in and take the cards down!’ (Peggy was, and still is, a passionate feminist.)
Even when you had found your crowd, or your tribe, there was scope for making new friendships through a common interest in music; live rock and roll, skiffle, folk and blues were a key feature of many Soho coffee bars. Often a performing space was kept free for this, even though a band might have to squeeze in tightly!
The Coffee Bar Scene To set the scene for the Soho coffee bars, here is an extract from an internet memoir by ‘Goosey Anne’, (real name unknown):
I was living and working in London in the early 1950s and most of my leisure time was spent in the newly-opened coffee houses in and around Soho. These were the haunt of the bohemians – artists, writers, resting actors, musicians and characters closely followed by students, nurses and people like me who had a good day job but enjoyed their company in the evenings. It was a mainly harmless pursuit – we would meet at one given coffee bar and during the course of the evening make our way onto a couple of others. The new Gaggia coffee machines were installed in most of the places – huge, glistening chrome affairs that hissed steam into the air to mingle with the cigarette smoke, for nearly everyone smoked and the atmosphere was pretty fetid. Coffee cost 9d (old pence) and usually we would all make one cup each last all evening.
We would sit and talk and talk and talk – putting the world to rights. No drugs ever came my way and indeed had that happened I would have refused. I only knew two of the circle who took drugs – we actually felt sorry for them. Most evenings someone would bring a guitar along and another person bongo drums and a sing-song of mainly Folk Songs would begin. One particular coffee bar – The Gyre & Gimble had a resident guitarist – Dorian – who would play softly in the background and compose witty ditties about the customers which he would almost speak in his educated drawl as he played. In one place – Bunjies – one of our group composed a song which went something like this:
‘Sitting in Bunjies my heart began to throb – for one cappuccino would set me back a bob. And for a sandwich I’d have to sell my soul – for six weeks I’ve saved up to buy a sausage-roll‘.
The owner didn`t like that tune much and would threaten to throw us out. But it was mainly Folk Music with the odd Rugby song thrown in if the University students were about.’
Why Coffee Bars? One of the great advantages which coffee bars had over pubs – apart from serving good coffee! – is that they could stay open later, as they weren’t subject to licensing laws. And anyone could go into a café, whereas there was a minimum age of 18 for drinking in pubs, and women often felt intimidated going into male-dominated pubs at the time. It also chimed in with the birth of the teenager, the time when this age group began to have opinions, fashions and music of its own. ‘The colourful informality of trattorias and the all-important coffee bars made Soho the Mecca of the newly discovered teenager.’ (Pip Granger)
The ‘50s coffee bars were not just a teenage haunt, however – members of the Cabbala Group were mostly in their mid to late twenties, for instance – and they appealed to a very wide cross-section of clientele, from shoppers and beatniks, to office workers and film crew. Cinematographer Walter Lassally, for instance, whose story you can read here, found his way into this circle because he had to be in Soho on film business – most of the film companies had offices there.
No doubt the vices of Soho were feared by parents of teenage children, and by those who never dared to set foot in such a disreputable area. But, as Goosey-Anne says, drugs were not often on the agenda, and those who preferred strong drink chose the pubs instead. In fact, according to the film ‘Beat Girl’, the message among the teens themselves was that ‘drinking is for squares!’ (Beat Girl starred Adam Faith, the soon-to-be pop star, and its cinematographer was Walter Lassally.) The clip below features the theme tune by John Barry and shows the opening sequence, with a very young Oliver Reed jiving in a plaid shirt.
‘Nothing was really policed in Soho though – it wasn’t at all dangerous. And the prostitutes were cheerful – I had a lot of respect for them,’ Peggy told me. Keith Barnes, a ‘Group’ member, recollects that two of the ‘ladies of the streets’ once bought him a meal when he had no money to eat.
Opening a Coffee Bar Property was cheap to rent in Soho in the post-war period, so opening a coffee bar was a great little start-up business. In 1956, the humorous magazine Punch declared: ‘We have reached the stage where virtually the entire population of these islands goes in hourly danger of opening a coffee-bar.’
Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s best-loved comedians, took this further. In one of his sketches, he and his mate cast around for a scheme which will make them a bit of money:
Hancocks Halfhour – The Espresso Bar (1956) Tony: ‘When actors are not working, where do they hang around?…We are going to provide them with such a place! We are going to open an Espresso Coffee Bar!‘
Mate: ‘Oh no! We’re not the type’
Tony: ‘No, but we can soon remedy that. Buy a couple of duffle coats, a pair of corduroys, rope sandals, grow our hair long – we’ll be a sensation!’
Mate: ‘You don’t only get the layabouts in, you know. You get the youngsters, and the intellectual bohemians.’
Tony: ‘Intellectual bohemians – I’ve watched ‘em. They’re all broke. They don’t buy anything.’
Mate: ‘No, but the people who come in to look at them do!’
So the coffee bar crowd not only drew the beatniks and the intellectuals, but also generated its own kind of tourist trade. Hancock goes on to envisage how the Guards officers would bring their debutante girlfriends to gawp and giggle, on a racy night out on the town!
Choosing theImage Creating the right image for your coffee bar was of prime importance. A funky name went down well – perhaps something Italian or Spanish like Il Toro, or arty like The Picasso, or musical like Freight Train, or melodramatic like Heaven and Hell. (All these were successful Soho cafes.) Décor was important, but could be done cheaply. Popular finishes were murals (plenty of young hopeful artists to paint them for next to nothing), brick-patterned wallpaper– or just the real thing, bare bricks. Bamboo furniture and plastic tables were inexpensive, and imaginative recycled lighting helped to create atmosphere. Some cafes went further. As one blog comment put it: ‘At Le Macabre you could have your coffee on a coffin in a cobweb festooned house of horrors, wearing sunglasses at night whilst having earnest discussions about the difference between Jean Paul Sartre and Dizzy Gillespie.’
Affirming your identity Choosing your coffee bars went along with choosing your circle and affirming your identity. Keith Barnes, a core member of the early Cabbala Group, recalled that there were different circles in Soho. He was, as he put it, at the bottom in the beat circle, wearing his duffle coat and a sweater, and sporting a dirty beard. The musicians, he said, were a rung higher up the ladder as they were paid for what they did.
The Musicians of Soho Keith himself played in the musicians’ cafes, and a number of his friends in the Cabbala Group did likewise – group leader Alan Bain busked with his piano accordion, and another group member called Fritz Felstone was in demand for his banjo playing, for instance. Because Soho overlapped with the theatres and cinemas of the Leicester Square area, there were plenty of queues outside these for the musicians to serenade. And the Musician’s Union had its offices nearby, where jobbing musicians could pick up work, perhaps in nightclubs or for session recordings. Soho was the nucleus of the music industry at the time, giving birth to British skiffle and rock and roll, and so it’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the prime musicians’ cafes was called the Nucleus, generally known as ‘the Nuke’. ‘The 2 Gs’, in John Adam Street was another, and a favourite of the Group. Its full name was the Gyre and Gimble, but according to Keith, ‘only the tourists called it that’.
Goosey Anne recounts: ‘Of course this music played in the coffee houses was the beginning of the Skiffle and later Rock `n Roll era which I just missed. Apparently Tommy Steele used to come into the Gyre & Gimble and play his guitar rather tunelessly and people would ask him to stop! ‘
She is not the only one to refer to Tommy Steele’s first and rather awful efforts – one account witnesses somebody hitting Tommy to try and shut him up. But, like Tommy Steele (born Thomas Hicks – recently knighted as Sir Thomas Hicks!) a number of other musicians began their rise to fame from these early sessions in the clubs and cafes of the Soho area – Seeger and McColl, Diz Disley, Red Sullivan and Wiz Jones, for instance, along with members of the future Incredible String Band. A couple of years ago, when Rod Thorn (my co-author of Soho Tree) and I visited the Mexican basement café which once housed the 2 Gs, the waiter we encountered was astonished to learn that it had once been a famous café, where Tommy Steele had played!
Peggy Seeger’s musical relationship with Soho evolved too, and in the 1960s she and Ewan were principle members of The Ballad and Blues Club, near Soho Square. No doubt today’s Health and Safety would have clamped down: ‘It was an absolute fire trap,’ she told me. ‘The room was on the third floor with stairs so narrow that they had to have ‘going up’ times and ‘going down’ times. It was like climbing to the top of Notre Dame! And the room was only very small, and always crowded. The stage was next to the one tiny toilet.’
The name you were known by Nicknames were de rigeur, especially for musicians. Keith Barnes was known primarily as ‘Peanuts’, and Fritz was really called Brian. Alan Bain’s brother, Bob Bain, adds: ‘I recall Mum (desiring to speak with her “Bohemian” son) taking me to where he might be found which was probably Gyre and Gimble but when asking for Alan Bain there was seemingly a look of ‘Who?” followed by “Oh, you mean Max!“’
Did this habit have its roots in the jazz culture? A Wikipedia article takes it very seriously: ‘Nicknames are common among jazz musicians…Some of the most notable nicknames and stage names are listed here.’ There follows a list of well over one hundred names, including 16 musicians who chose to call themselves ‘Red’.
Group Cafes The gatherings of the Cabbala Group took place chiefly near Charing Cross, in the ‘2 Gs’ (Gyre and Gimble) in John Adam Street, the Cross, and the Florence in nearby Villiers St, with Lyons Corner House on the Strand playing a part too. It was possible to eat cheaply in some of them as well – getting a filling bowl of stew or pasta was essential. Few members were earning much, if anything. As member Lionel Bowen writes: ‘I spent a lot of time in the ‘Gyre and Gimble’ coffee house on John Adam Street close to Trafalgar Square. We drank espresso, played bad guitar and sang (poorly) folk songs. The elder members of the Group hung out there, I think, on the lookout for likely recruits.’
A couple of members even lived on the premises – although rents were cheap at the time, it wasn’t always easy finding affordable accommodation, so keeping body and soul together took ingenuity. Group leader Alan Bain, who sold books, and member Norman Martin, a jeweller, rented an ‘office’ upstairs in the same building as the 2 Gs. However, they also used to sleep there; by day, the bedding was rolled away to hide the evidence of their overnight stays. But, Norman said, the landlord eventually twigged what was going on, and threw them out!
Micks All-Nighter Another popular café was ‘Micks’ on Fleet Street. Although this wasn’t so much of a meeting place for the group, it was a welcome resource for all-night cheap eats, and was often frequented by Keith Barnes and Glyn Davies, another of the group’s leaders, after they’d put in long hours on menial jobs, such as washing up in hotels, in order to pay the rent. They weren’t the only ones earning a pound or two where they could. ‘You would often see quite famous musicians bombing along there in Ford vans driving at 70mph delivering newspapers – they took on these jobs because they couldn’t earn enough from their music.’
A former police officer, interviewed for ‘Spitalfields Life’, remembers it well from slightly later, in 1972: ‘Micks Cafe in Fleet St never had an apostrophe on the sign or acute accent on the ‘e.’ It was a cramped greasy spoon that opened twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. During the night and early morning it served print-workers, drunks returning from the West End and the occasional vagrant. Generally, we police did not use it. We might have been unwelcome because we would have stood out like a sore thumb. But I did observation in there in plain clothes sometimes. Micks Cafe was a place where virtually anything could be sourced, especially at night when nowhere else was open.’
Recollections of the café also pop up in Fleet Street memoirs: ‘Working through the night was thirsty work and John recalled how the ink-stained printers would rub shoulders with the ‘toffs’ on their way back from London nightlife, in a “Mick’s Café”, as part of the Fleet Street tradition.‘
And for messenger boys, a special task awaited them at Micks: ‘First job at 8.00am was to go to Westminster Press and collect the day’s national papers, these were then checked for previous day’s publications, then came the most important job of the day, this was taking a large silver teapot down to Micks Cafe in Fleet Street and getting it filled with tea and also ordering toast for the Darkroom and Bench staff.‘ A Day In The Life Of A Fleet Street Photo Press Agency -1960’s
Micks, though not strictly speaking part of the Soho scene, had the same mix of working people, musicians, eccentrics and high society. It also has a very special claim to fame as the all-night café featured in ‘The Streets of London’, by Ralph McTell. (This YouTube version has a fine set of photos and street scenes accompanying the song.)
The Mix Other circles with esoteric interests met in the Soho coffee bars. As well as the Cabbala group I’ve come across mentions of a Mithraic order, Druids, and magical groups, and there was also a widespread interest in astrology. ‘Sun sign’ newspaper columns had appeared since the 1930s, and people were keen to know more about their horoscopes. Ernest Page, a homeless, eccentric and very accomplished astrologer, was usually to be found somewhere in Soho, where he read horoscopes for a modest sum, as well as generously instructing those who wanted to learn the art of astrology for themselves. He is recalled by various other Soho seekers of the era, as in this discussion forum:
‘I well remember Ernest, the elderly astrologer (well, I was early 20s) giving me a reading for the price of a coffee or two!‘
‘The astrologer was named Ernie Page an ex postman. Long grey hair, hunched shoulders and carrying a small suitcase with his astrology charts. He used to prefer Sam Widges’ Coffee bar to the 2Gs. He often kept company with a ladyboy prostitute called Angel.‘
Angel is featured in Pip Granger’s book Up West, as a transexual who braved the general intolerance of the times: ‘We were easygoing. We were an odd society of people, and when you say we were bohemians, in a way we were, and we were very broad-minded, so…Angel came down to my coffee bar a lot.’ (Interview with Soho dweller ‘Gary’.)
In the photo below, extracted from a short video on Soho Coffee Bars, Ernest discusses astrology with other key Cabbala group teachers Glyn Davies and Tony Potter. Their colleague Alan Bain acknowledges what an excellent teacher he was.
By the mid-1960s, the Soho café culture was waning. I was keen to visit it as a teenager, however, on the rare occasions I was allowed to stay in London for a few days, as somehow its reputation had trickled through to Birmingham where I was at school. I remember seeking out ‘Les Cousins’, a famous café and music club. I was a keen folk singer and had brought my guitar, and sang a few songs to a very small cluster of people. Indeed, I wondered where the action was – but was quite glad there wasn’t more of an audience, as I forgot the words to one of my songs!
Soho in the 50s is a world I relish reading and hearing about – perhaps because it was the party that I just missed.
References The London Coffee Bar of the 1950s – Teenage occupation of an amateur space?, Dr Matthew Partington, (conference paper 2009, available to read or download on line) Soho in the Fifties – Daniel Farson (Michael Joseph, 1987) Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London– Pip Granger (Corgi, 2009) The Surrender of Silence – The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, ed. Colin Stanley (Strange Attractor Press, 2018) A complete and remastered version of ‘Beat Girl‘ (starring Adam Faith, filmed by Walter Lassally) can be found on Prime Video
Temperance, Justice, and the Chariot (Line drawings by Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs)
With three Tarot cards in hand, it’s nearly always possible to see a dynamic between them. It’s possible to do a simple three-card reading, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs, because any combination of three Tarot symbols can be seen as a situation, formed by a triad of energies at work together. However, I did feel that this particular trio of cards, which turned up when I shuffled the pack, are especially close in their relationship: they are all to do with the balancing up of different forces, along with principles of fairness and even-handedness.
TEMPERANCE no. 14 This winged figure offers a rainbow spectrum of possible meanings, rather like a prism of light shining in the spray of the waters, which she pours endlessly. The waters do indeed seem to flow eternally, in both directions; one of her messages is that our resources will stay fresh and renew themselves if we use them moderately, but generously. Creating the right kind of flow is everything.
This image goes back far in history: Temperance’s action of pouring is similar to that of certain Assyrian deities, who were shown in winged form, pouring divine water into a receptacle. Although the Tarot card of Temperance is not likely to have a direct link with this mythology, it could link indirectly through the Renaissance use of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which followed on from Assyrian culture. The winged figure suggests grace, and a benign, angelic presence from another realm, so that this symbol can represent being touched by something higher.
In terms of cultural history, this card of Temperance represents one of the four cardinal virtues, and could of course be taken as a stern warning against too much self-indulgence. But earlier associated meanings include ‘temperament’, as the blending of four elements to make up a person’s type. Temperance in a Tarot reading may raise the question of balance and flow; are the energies flowing well, and are they being channelled correctly in a particular situation?
Winged Temperance was also called ‘The Angel of Time’ (the words ‘time’ and ‘temperance’ are connected through their Latin roots), whose swift beating wings may announce the fleeting passage of time in human life. So perhaps the card could also signify that it’s important to make good use of the time available to us.
THE CHARIOT no. 7 Here we have drive, energy and movement. The crowned and armed youth rides in a triumphal car, a classical Roman emblem of victory. As a Tarot emblem it can signify achievement, and the overcoming of obstacles. ‘Onwards! Forwards!’ is the cry here.
There is also an allegory of duality, embodied in the harnessing of the two horses who have to move forwards together, two energies which must work in harmony. Otherwise, if they go in different directions, disaster follows, the chariot is overturned, and all is lost. In psychological terms, this represents control over our own emotional power. Feelings such as anger, desire and excitement make terrible masters but excellent servants. The driver must be the one to balance these energies out, and to train his horses to pull together and respond to his touch. But, as is often the case in Tarot, this card also poses a question. The driver does not seem to have reins. How, then, does he manage to steer and restrain his horses without this direct control ? Something to ponder, perhaps?
Plato portrayed the charioteer as an allegory of the human struggle, where we try to control a pair of horses who want to go in different directions; one is of finer breed, and represents our noble urges and impulse towards truth, while the other is a brute beast, fixated on selfish appetites. This classical reference might well have been understood by Renaissance owners of Tarot packs, though it was probably not the only source for the image.
Historically, too, the image has similarities to the triumphal chariots that were still used in processions or as allegorical emblems in early Renaissance times. One early Marseilles-style pack, known as the Vieville Tarot, and dating from 1650, shows sphinxes drawing the chariot. This is the only traditional pack that I have seen with sphinxes, but the idea was certainly carried forward into the 19th century Oswald Wirth pack, and incorporated into the influential Rider-Waite pack a couple of decades later. Digging a little deeper, I find that Renaissance mythic triumphal chariots were often portrayed being drawn by strange creatures, especially sphinxes, which were portrayed as part human, part lion, and symbolised the duality of Wisdom and Ignorance. This fits in well with the idea of self-mastery and the need to control opposing forces that the symbol of the Chariot implies.
JUSTICE no. 8 The figure of Justice is familiar to most of us. She is Iustitia, or ‘Lady Justice’, the Roman goddess, with upright sword and scales. In the most common image we have of Justice today, she is blindfolded, but in the Tarot card she is shown with her eyes open. This affirms that Tarot originated at least as early as medieval times, as the general image of Justice was not depicted blindfold until the fifteenth century.
Justice, like Temperance, is one of the four Cardinal Virtues, a schema originating in Platonic thought and taken up by the Christian Church. Possibly Strength may double for Fortitude, and, as suggested in my earlier post, the High Priestess could serve as Prudence. However, Tarot is an extraordinary mix of images and concepts, and can’t be pinned down to a single allegorical or religious set of meanings. So although Justice is one of the more ‘straightforward’ images in the pack, it is worthy of further scrutiny, to penetrate its deeper meanings, and perceive implications that might not immediately be obvious.
Although the principle is universal, each culture devises its own system of justice. Both in a tribe or a large nation, a person is required to know its laws, and infringement brings a penalty, or a requirement for restitution. Thus the balance of the scales is set to rights. The ways and means are decided by those acting locally in service to justice, whether in the imposing Law Courts of capital cities, or by a group of tribal elders deciding how many cattle the miscreant should pay to compensate the man he has wronged. In families too, parents act as enforcers of ‘Justice’, handing out rewards and withdrawing privileges, often battling with the growing child’s own very particular sense of what is ‘fair’, and what is not. Justice is not perfect; many who begin legal proceedings for justice eventually come to wish they had never started. So the Tarot Triumph may warn us not to invoke the goddess of Justice unless we are willing to let her do her work, whatever the result may be.
‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ Justice points to the pattern of cause and effect, and invites us to learn its laws.
In August, I featured posts about Russia, based on my travels and studies there. Here, we are back to Russia, but in a very different way. This story is from an unforgettable trip which I made to Siberia in 2004, travelling to the regions of Tuva and Khakassia. One of the most fascinating encounters that I had was with a traditional Siberian shaman, Herel. This is a shortened version of the article I originally wrote for ‘Quest: The Journal of the Theosophical Society in America’ (Winter 2017).
The first beats of the shaman’s drum were resounding, starting slowly but quickly mounting in intensity. I was transported, in spirit at least, back to Siberia from my home in Devon. But then came the sudden roar of a helicopter overhead, completely obliterating the sound I was listening to on the recording. I clicked on the pause button, and peered out of the window. A large army helicopter was circling right above me, barely skimming the rooftops of the town. Its presence felt incongruous, and menacing. But was it? Had I perhaps inadvertently invoked a shamanic presence, as I played the recording of the ritual in my study? After all, it is said that shamans can fly.
This particular recording was of a ritual that took place in 2004, in the far-off province of Tuva, Siberia. It was a consultation I had there with Herel, a local shaman. In fact, this was the first time I had ever played back the recording. I couldn’t bring myself to do so earlier –it might have seemed artificial, and dilute the experience while the power of that occasion still burned bright in my mind. But now, twelve years later, the time was right, and I was ready to listen and reflect. When the helicopter finally departed, as quickly as it had come, I immersed myself again in the drum beats and chanting. I sensed that I was sliding into a different world, eerie and disorientating in one way, but a place where reflection and calmness were also possible. However, the visceral sound of helicopter remained imprinted on my senses, a reminder that this meeting with the shaman had been a powerful experience, and one that, perhaps, was not quite over yet.
My own spiritual path has led me deep into the heart of the Western hermetic tradition – in particular Tree of Life Kabbalah, alchemy, Tarot and astrology. At the time of my trip to Siberia, I was certainly interested in shamanism, but in a cautious, anthropologically-orientated way. I was wary of the contemporary enthusiasm for taking up shamanism. This provoked questions for me: is it possible to practice shamanism in a modern Western context? Does it require its own traditional culture, for authenticity and indeed safety? Many serious studies of shamanism emphasise what sacrifice is required from true shamans. Physical ordeals, renunciation of normal life and exhausting, risky encounters with the spirits, are part of the job description, in the efforts to help and heal others.
In a traditional context too, the shamanic path is not one that you can choose on a whim. Usually the shaman shows signs from childhood that this is his or her potential destiny. Having a parent or relative may pre-dispose one to be a shaman, but this is not guaranteed. Herel told me that although both he and his wife were shamans, only one out of their five children was possibly a shaman in the making. The signs were there at her birth, as the weather changed dramatically, from thunder and lightning to sunshine and then snow. The heavens were pointing a finger to her ability, which was now manifesting in later childhood through significant dreams, and encounters with spirits.
I came to Siberia seeking answers to my questions about shamanism: can it be practised, or truly experienced by anyone not of that traditional culture? I had no doubts about its power, only whether it could survive in a modern world, without losing its identity as a genuine spiritual practice. By 2004, I had visited Russia nearly sixty times. I ran a Russian arts and crafts business; I had studied Russian traditional folk culture, learnt the language and mixed freely with people in cities and countryside. But I was keen to find an even older culture, to witness practices which go back thousands of years, and which may be the source from which much Russian folk tradition itself has evolved. Siberia has a living, truly ancient culture; the majority of its people are ethnically different from Russians, and its primary religions are shamanism, and Buddhism.
I travelled with writer friend Lyn Webster-Wilde, visiting the fabled lands of Tuva and Khakassia, along with the Sayani Mountains. Our trip was an organised journey of exploration with a small group of Russian travellers. We went in the warm summer months, when the forests were in full leaf and mountain pastures were studded with alpine flowers. We traversed landscapes that had remained largely untouched since the Bronze Age, including sweeping grasslands studded with standing stones and stone circles, like an airbrushed version of the Wiltshire plains. In Khakassia, we saw Bronze Age carvings and pictograms on rocks still relevant to the customs of local people today –of the magic elk, for instance, who they say leads souls to the underworld. Shrines set up to spirits of the land were abundant, and ancient ceremonies of purification and healing were still carried out at important ritual points in the landscape. This was the landscape of shamanism in southern Siberia, that as far its people are concerned, is still a spiritual, magical terrain.
When we arrived in Kyzil, the capital of Tuva, we were put up at a nearby yurt camp, and then taken into the town itself. Here there is a monument that, allegedly, marks the Centre of Asia. It is also home to the shamans ‘clinic’. This is where approved and regulated shamans are allowed to practice. It might sound contrary to the spirit of shamanism, with its allegiance to nature, to fires and skies and a freedom of movement. However, Tuvan shamanism is in recovery after brutal suppression by the Soviet regime– many shamans throughout the whole of Siberia were murdered or dispossessed. In that era, some were even thrown out of aeroplanes with the cruel taunt: ‘You shamans say you can fly! Let’s see you do it, then.’ The tradition was severely depleted, but it was not lost, and is making a strong comeback. To a certain extent, though, it still has to work in co-operation with the authorities, hence the ‘clinic’ set-up. And these shamans certainly practice outdoors as well. They have special gatherings at sacred mountain sites, and as we shall see, our shaman Herel came to our yurt camp with his wife the following evening to perform a ceremony of blessing.
The consultation From listening to the recording, from my notes written at the time, and from the vivid recollections that I still carry, I now offer an account of the session with Herel, the Tuvan shaman.
So now our group sits in Herel’s consulting room, which is filled with feathers, ribbons, ropes, bones, plaques, a reindeer head, a horn and bells. They hang from his walls, a chaotic clutter of ritual paraphernalia, rather in the way that strips of cloth or leather hang from the traditional shamanic costume itself. He shows us some of the tools of his trade, and how they work. His is a hard calling, he admits. His own speciality is purification and divination, whereas his wife specialises in healing women’s ailments.
At the end of the talk, he asks if anyone would like to have a personal session with him. I alone say yes. I’ll pay the price he asks – higher for visitors than for locals, I’m sure, but he has to make a living, and I don’t begrudge it. Later, Ira our young guide tells me that from all the groups she has brought to this place, I am the only person who has ever opted for a private consultation. This surprises me, but she adds that Herel is the very best of the shamans she has encountered, and a man of compassion; some seem aggressive, and the quality, she implies, is variable.
Lyn and Ira stay. Ira needs to translate for me. I speak good Russian, but Herel’s accent is thick and guttural, as it is probably his second language. Lyn makes a recording, her earlier BBC training coming in handy.
Herel dons an eagle headdress and tells me to sit on a bear skin in the centre of the room. ‘Raise your hands,’ he says, as he passes burning juniper around my body. ‘While appealing to the spirits, I’ll ask them to take your worries and bad feelings out of you, and I’ll ask them to make your future road happy.’ He tells me to shut my eyes, and bids me not to be afraid. Let the tears come, he says. Tears often fall during an encounter with the spirits. And indeed they do. I am moved, and emotionally exposed during this session, though I am neither afraid nor unhappy. Herel dances around me, drumming and chanting, creating a kind of beehive of sound and movement around me. I feel that I am in a magical chamber, in a different dimension of space and reality.
The ritual is constantly changing. I have the impression that his chants and cries are a dialogue with the spirits, as they shift in tone and intensity. Phases of the session peak, and then fall away into silence. A new one is heralded by the blow of a conch shell, or jangling of bells. Suddenly, he thumps my shoulder with a bear paw – it’s a shock. Later, he pulls back my Tshirt and spits down the back my neck. Curiously, I don’t mind this a bit. He even uses a whip on me several times, but it is never painful. I write down later that this is ‘stimulating and pleasant’, rather like using a switch of birch leaves to beat your body in a Russian bath. At the end of each section, he blows away the psychic ‘debris’ and sends it out of the door. I am in a different time zone, and have no sense of how long the treatment lasts, although Lyn tells me later that it is about 15 minutes
He mentioned at the start of the session that I have an obstruction in my left shoulder. ‘You are worrying about something. I’ll take it out of you.’ Curiously, at this point I have had several years of problems with my right shoulder, and already recognise that is probably stress-related. I can see now that if one side of the body is numb with some emotional weight or obstruction, then it’s the other side that may take the strain and display the symptoms. After the session, Herel says that he has succeeded in asking the spirits to relieve me of this. Next year, he tells me, will be more normal, and that I will start to be happy again, after going through a little more personal suffering first.
We conclude with three measures of advice. He tells me that I may come again next year, if I wish. But if I don’t, I can connect to him at a distance; he is able to sense people he has treated, and can help if needs be. He gives me a ‘spirit bag’, a little bundle of cloth tied up with cord, and tells me that I should feed it three times a week with oil or melted butter. It is my talisman, to connect me to the power of the session, and I should take it with me if I am travelling or am away on business. He also advises me to contact the spirits of place where I live – the spirits of the hills, trees and streams. After this session, he says, I will be able to do this. That’s if I have such spirits in my homeland. (The aftermath, of how I endeavoured to put this into practice, is omitted here for reasons of length.)
The next day, Herel and his wife arrive at our yurt camp to conduct a ceremony to promote the well-being of everyone there. They come as the light begins to fade, preparing the space carefully, setting the fire and arranging little balls of dough to mark out the territory for the ritual. Once the fire is blazing, they don full costume and invite everyone to sit in a large circle. I am still bathed in my impressions from the day before, and the difference between the two occasions strikes me strongly. This one is open to all comers; it has resonance and power but not, to my mind, the concentrated force that I experienced in my session.
Herel and his wife are dealing with a big mix of people, from earnest Japanese tourists to young Australian surfers, since the camp is used by various travellers passing through the area. Some of them have never even heard of shamanism, and are nervous, or giggle loudly at this unfamiliar ritual. At one point, Herel passes around the backs of everyone in the circle, giving some of them a thump with his bear paw, though never as hard as he clouted me the day before. I wonder if they realise that they are actually being offered a precious nugget of healing, or blessing, or insight? I have a video of this ceremony though, and even viewing it ‘cold’, a long time later, it is compelling, and there is an unearthly quality to the chanting and singing of the shaman pair. I do not know exactly what the sounds mean, though it certainly sounds at times as though they are in conversation with spirits.
One study of shamanism mentions that Tuvan shamans simulate bird and animal calls to express particular emotions: that of a raven to curse an enemy, a cow to call up rain, a wolf or eagle to frighten people, a magpie to uncover a lie, a bull to demonstrate power, and a bear to convey rapture. (Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003) The horse has special properties in many branches of Siberian shamanism; it is a creature that can fly the shaman to the spirit world. The bear, hare and eagle are also particularly important in Tuvan shamanism.
I suspect that the eagle is Herel’s own spirit guide, although – understandably – he refuses to tell us what kind of creature it is. During my individual session with him, I ‘saw’ an eagle. My notes say: ‘Just the head, neck and shoulders were visible. It was quite clear and communicating with me – intelligent.’
When the ceremony ends, the mood is peaceful. The daylight has not quite gone and unexpectedly, the sky brightens and I look up to see a cloud in the shape of an eagle just overhead. Am I imagining it? No, it is there when I look on the video later. Curiously enough, this video will give me a lot of trouble; I discover that the original mini-tapes are jammed, and only after various professional companies refuse to try and repair them do I find one local man who is prepared to have a go. Luckily, he succeeds in transferring the whole recording to DVD. As I said at the beginning. strange things do happen when shamanic forces are in action.
On a lighter note, after the evening’s ceremony is over, I pick up some of the balls of dough used by the shamans, and take them back as souvenirs to the yurt that Lyn and I are sharing. I hang them in a cloth bag from the end of my bed, for want of anywhere better to put them. That night, I sleep peacefully. Lyn, however, is awake for hours, disturbed by the sound of a mouse that has detected the presence of tasty titbits and is trying all kinds of ways to reach the prize. Scuttlings, rustlings and chewings ruin her night’s sleep. The next morning, when we relate this light-hearedly, to one of our fellow Russian travellers, he takes it very seriously. ‘No, that was not a mouse!’ he pronounces solemnly. ‘That was a rival shaman come to steal the power of our shaman.’ A little far-fetched, perhaps? But there again, if I am claiming that an army helicopter might be a shaman in disguise, perhaps my ideas are no stranger than his.
As is often the way, my initial questions about shamanism gave way to a different perspective on it. My trip to Siberia, rather than achieving solid answers, showed me that shamanism is a living tradition that cannot be completely pinned down. It is in essence a shape-shifter, and will ebb and flow, finding different forms in different cultures.
I have come to realise that such a development is more important than an anxiety about inappropriate use of shamanism in other cultures, or the blurring of boundaries and nomenclature in academic studies. As Tim Hodginkson, anthropologist and musician, and former student friend of mine at Cambridge, says in his excellent papers, (see link below and Related Reading, below) shamanism is itself improvisatory. It deals with the circumstances as they are; it responds to very particular configurations of place and time.
And each of us may discover something different within its practice. Meeting the shaman gave me not just insight into the tradition itself, but a very specific outcome: it invigorated three of my major passions: the power of music and sound, the power of nature, and the world of ancestry.
Related Reading Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape, Cherry Gilchrist, Quest 2009 and e-book edition Lume 2019 Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats – Virlana Tkacz with Sayan Zhambalov and Wanda Phipps Shamanic Voices: The Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer, Joan Halifax E.P. Dutton, New York 1978 Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003 Shamanism in Siberia, V. Dioszegi & M. Hoppal (editors), Akademiai Kiado, Budapest 1978 The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul, Piers Vitebsky, Duncan Baird, London 1995 Transcultural Collisions: Music and Shamanism in Siberia, Tim Hodgkinson. Paper given in 2007 at SOAS, London; available on Tim Hodgkinson’s website.
To: Professor Herbert Hall Turner, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford
94 Banbury Road, Oxford March 14th 1930
Dear Professor, This new planet! As my older brother suggested the names of Deimos and Phobos for the Martian moons, I was set wondering about a name for the big obscure new baby at breakfast today. It is of course most dim and dark and gloomy. Blest if my little granddaughter Venetia Burney didn’t up and suggest a name which seems to me to be thoroughly suitable, PLUTO. I hope it hasn’t been bagged for an asteroid. He was king of the murky and mysterious nether kingdom. You see Odin was a bright god and far from appropriate; but Pluto is good. Don’t trouble to reply. I am, sincerely yours F. Madan
A visit to Epsom On a chilly, dark evening in November 2005, I drove to Epsom in Surrey, to the house of Venetia Phair, nee Burney. A small and stocky lady opened the door, and greeted me with a warm smile. I proffered a bunch of purple irises, which she accepted with pleased surprise. Now 87 years old, and still sharp and alert, she was once the 11-year old who had suggested the name ‘Pluto’ for the newly-discovered planet in 1930.
I had been researching for an MA essay, on the topic of how planets and other astronomical bodies acquire their names. If I could find Venetia – if she was still alive – it would be a wonderful opportunity to hear a ‘naming’ story at first hand. After some investigation, I managed to track her down, and wrote to ask if I might visit.
‘This new planet!’ The discovery of the planet Pluto was a major event, as the furthest-known planet from the sun. There had been two ‘new planets’ in the previous 150 years – first, Sir William Herschel had identified Uranus in 1781, after millennia in which only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were known as fellow-planets in our solar system. This was followed by the discovery of Neptune in 1846. And then Pluto’s existence, already predicted from astronomical observations, was finally confirmed by Clyde Tompbaugh, at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in 1930. Although all three discoveries were not single Eureka! moments, but the consequence of long periods of observations and analysis, nevertheless the actual moment of confirmation was hugely exciting to the world at large. In the case of Pluto, the race was now on to choose a name.
Instead of a suggestion from an august astronomer, it was, in fact, a little girl living in Oxford who named Pluto. What follows is extracted from Venetia’s own account of how it happened, as told to me that November evening. [square brackets are for my comments]
Venetia came from a family with close ties to education and academia. Her father had been much older than her mother. He was only in his fifties, though, when he died of complications following an operation, which came as a great shock to the family. Venetia was only six at the time of his death, and a few years later, at the time of Pluto’s discovery, she and her mother were living with her grandparents in Oxford.
Interview with Venetia
CG I’d love to hear from you, in your own words, what you remember of eventful day of March 14th 1930?
VP Yes of course. What happened was that the news of the discovery came out in the Times that morning, and I was at breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. We speculated, I suppose, and then I said, right off the top of my head, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ And they thought it was quite a good idea.
Her grandfather’s letters – preserved by Venetia in a special Pluto album – give a little more detail:
‘When I came down to breakfast as usual at 8am I saw the announcement in the Times and the Daily Mail of the discovery of a new planet beyond Neptune. My daughter Mrs (Ethel) Burney and her daughter Venetia, aged 11, were the only others at breakfast, and I at once said “What will be its name?” I thought of Odin, but did not like it. In a minute or two Venetia said, “It might be called Pluto.” The idea seemed good at once. She had learnt about the old Greek and Latin mythologies, and also the relative distances of the planets, at school.’
VP Anyway, I heard no more of it till about three months later.
CG Had you forgotten about it by then?
VP Oh, I think so! My grandfather [Falconer Madan] was a retired librarian from the Bodleian, and when he retired he had his special bay in the library, with all his interests, which were largely family history and Lewis Carroll. But he was a terrific person, really interested in everything. And he used to walk down to the Bodleian in the mornings and come home about teatime.
Well, on the way to the Bodleian this time, he dropped a note in addressed to Professor Herbert Hall Turner. [He was director of the Director of the Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford ] But Professor Turner didn’t actually get it until the next day because he was up in London at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, trying to think of a name!
CG So they were debating it up there?
VP Oh, they were, yes. And anyway, the next day, my grandmother and grandfather told him they would pay for a telegram to the Lowell Observatory in America.
VP Professor Turner thought it was a good idea, and sent a telegram on our behalf. Of course, it was entirely the decision of Lowell Observatory what it was called. But there were some very fortunate things about the suggestion. I rather believe the name Pluto had been used for a comet which had failed to reappear when it should have. And they also liked the fact that Pl in Pluto tied in with P L for Percival Lowell [who had founded the Observatory specifically with the hope of discovering this planet]. So, the Observatory accepted the idea, and eventually said that as far as they knew, I was the first person to have suggested it.
CG Do you remember what prompted you to say Pluto?
VP Absolutely no idea! I suppose, knowing the names of the planets, and knowing a certain amount of mythology. We had in particular one rather good practical astronomy lesson [at school], which was to stand outside the university parks, and in the parks there is a wrought iron gate and it had a circle in it, which was roughly of a size that you could pretend was the sun, and we then took little bits of clay with us, and moulded them into shape, made them the appropriate size in relation to each other, and planted them out at the right relative distance for all the planets, at the right places. And by the time we got to Neptune we were at the other side of the parks, about a mile and a quarter away! So I do know roughly the relative size of the planets, even now.
CG There have been some stories going round that there was some connection with the Walt Disney dog Pluto. When I looked up that on the Disney site it said the dog was named after the planet, not the other way round. Is that correct, do you think?
VP That is correct. Fortunately, yes. As far as the naming goes, though, most accounts are pretty idiotic. There’s a book called something like Brilliant Kids who made their Contribution to Science, and I am bracketed with people like Louis Braille, and the article is pure invention from start to finish.
VP Yes – they had the thesis that ‘you too might get to something if you work really hard.’ So I am portrayed as spending two or three days in the library…
CG Ah! So they didn’t want it to be a flash of intuition or inspiration?
VP Oh no, no! And then they said that I ‘went and told my father’, who’d been dead for five years! People tended to call me Plutonia after that!
CG Were you a bit of a local celebrity?
VP Hardly, I don’t think! My school enjoyed basking in it. And my grandfather handed me a five pound note, which was undreamed of wealth. He also gave the school a five pound note with which they bought a wind-up gramophone, and we had music appreciation lessons after that. But after Patrick Moore’s article, [he had written about Venetia in ‘The Naming of Pluto’, in the journal Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1984] the thing has slowly snowballed. The Americans got interested, and ever since, I’ve had interesting repercussions. There’s a school in Memphis, a private girls’ school, and one of their parents tracked me down. And I’ve got sixty-one letters from eight and nine year olds! Which were really great fun – they wanted to know my favourite colour, and did I like pets, and that sort of thing.
CG Are you still getting correspondence coming in now? Apart from people like me!
VP A certain amount. Have you been to the Leicester Space Centre? Because the chap who set it up was so interested in my having named Pluto, and tried to track me down. If he’d read the whole of Patrick Moore’s article, which he said he knew, he’d have found out that my [married] name was Phair and that I was living in Surrey. As it was, he started out from scratch, and he rang everybody he could find in the district of the name of Burney. There weren’t very many. And he then got into the local Oxford Mail. They had a big headline: ‘Venetia – Where are You?’
Anyway, eventually he traced me, and after the Planetarium was opened, I was invited to see it, and it really was a royal visit. I know now just what it’s like to be the Queen! I was introduced to every single person of the staff, and photographed, and I had to sign autographs. And when it actually came to seeing the Planetarium show, all doors were shut so that nobody could come in, and they ushered us in at the back to choose our seats. Then they let everybody else in. And of course he had to announce that I was there –
CG And everyone turns and looks!
VP Yes. I had to stand up and wave. And finally, I was taken to the part devoted to Pluto, to see a life-size photograph of me, the usual photograph at the age of 11, on the wall, with various supporting photographs, and a description.
CG It’s also like being a pop star for a day.
VP Yes, it was quite shattering. And we returned with whole carrier bags full of souvenirs. It was quite fun.
CG Going back to the time of naming Pluto, I read that one or two other astronomers who had also put in the suggestion of Pluto were a bit annoyed to be pipped to the post by a young girl. Did you hear anything about that yourself?
VP Well, I heard that two Cambridge undergraduates had suggested it the day after. And there was a little bit in Punch – ‘Cambridge young ladies must look to their laurels’.
CG The name of a planet is a really significant thing and affects our sense of the whole mythology of the planets. So some people say that the name of the planet which is chosen is actually the one acceptable to us at the time. [I have an interest in what might be called the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment.] Do you think in any way you were a spokesperson for a name that was ready to pop out?
VP I’m sure the name was ready to pop out. I could also say that I was very, very lucky. Being in the right place at the right time was what it came to, with the right relations. But I didn’t feel particularly a spokesperson. The name was just an idle suggestion. But the interest in it has gone up steadily.
CG I’d love to know just a little bit about your life since then. You were a teacher? Is that right?
VP Well, I started by training – it took me two goes to get into Cambridge. I went up to Newnham in 1938. I read Economics, actually, and then I took articles to become a chartered accountant, which I did during the war, in London. I passed the exams after three years, all quite fun because for the intermediate exam we were somewhere in the City, and we were going down under our desks at intervals [presumably because of air raid warnings]. I gave that up when I got married at the very end of 1947, and we came to live in Epsom. My husband taught at Epsom College, and when our son was at prep school, I got a chance of teaching at a small private school. History –swatted up the day before! I mean, I knew some history of course. I’d done my entrance exam in history to get into Newnham. Anyway, I did that until the school packed up, and then I saw a part-time job for an Economics teacher at Wallington Grammar School. Fortunately, economics hadn’t changed very much since I came down! So I did that until I retired in 1983, when I was 65.
CG Did you have a continuing interest in astronomy?
VP Well, only in the way that it is incredibly interesting to think of these enormous distances, and so on. And to go out and recognise a few constellations, that sort of thing. But the idea of learning spherical trigonometry or whatever…
CG One thing too many!
VP One thing too many, yes.
At the end of our talk, Venetia told me that although she’d been interviewed by journalists on many occasions, no one had ever brought her flowers before. We subsequently exchanged Christmas cards, and I was very sad when I heard a few years that she had died, in April 2009.
A space mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, and conducted a 6 month reconnaissance flyby in 2015. From the data and photos collected, much more information has come to light about the planet. I believe Venetia was invited to attend the launch, but at her advanced age it wasn’t a practical proposition.
A simple student guide to Pluto can be found on the NASA website here, and mentions Venetia in the account of its discovery.
But is Pluto still a planet? Pluto’s status has been kicked around like a football over the last fifteen years or so, and is officially demoted to dwarf planet status. But some call it a ‘small planet’. In 2014: ‘The decision did not sit well with the public. Some amateur stargazers and some astronomers thought it rather arbitrary. As the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics put it in a press release, “a dwarf fruit tree is still a small fruit tree, and a dwarf hamster is still a small hamster.”’
And recently, this Center held a debate and let the audience vote. ‘The result: “Pluto IS a planet.”’ . However, it seems the argument is still unresolved, with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine coming out strongly in favour of Pluto’s planethood. For astrologers, Pluto is most definitely a planet with its own symbolic meaning in our solar system, so I shall continue to credit Pluto with this status.
An occasional series exploring images of the Tarot cards
This was actually the first trio of cards which I drew, but I decided it was a tough one to start with. So I’ll make it the second of my series on Tarot cards, and their imagery, history and meaning. The cards are the Star, the Hanged Man, and Death. And before you flinch at the mention of the last two, I have to say that this trio is one of the strongest grouping there can be in the Tarot to signify hope and new beginnings. The Star is indeed sometimes called ‘The Star of Hope’, the Hanged Man may in fact be choosing to turn his world upsidedown, and on the Death card there are signs of new beginnings as the old order breaks down and a new one simultaneously begins to grow. It’s a message we could all embrace.
THE STAR (no. 17) The Star is akin to Temperance, in that an angel in one and a naked girl in the other pour water from two jugs. But here the water is poured out, one jug pouring into the waters of what could be a river or lake, the other onto the ground. This is a card where nothing is kept back. Nakedness, openness, and giving forth characterise the figure of the Star. She can be interpreted as hope, generosity and healing. In addition, stars were often believed to be souls which had migrated from human life to the heavens, and the bird on the tree usually symbolises a messenger from the world of souls.
It’s possible that this card could also be a sign of initiation, or an inner journey in the context of myth and tradition. The collection of myths surrounding the related goddesses Ishtar and Anahita from Babylonia and Iran carry a startling likeness to ‘The Star’. Ishtar is known as “The Star of Lamentation”; Anahita is the goddess of the heavenly waters that flow from the region of Venus among the stars. In one of the key myths, Ishtar travels to the centre of the underworld to fetch the water of life to restore her dead lover, Tammuz. She passes through seven gateways, leaving behind one jewel at each portal, until she arrives naked at the sacred pool. And in this underworld, the souls of the dead are represented by birds. Although it may be hard to find a direct historical link, such myths can have a resonance which finds its way into another form.
Other images of the Star may show an astronomer, or simply a maiden carrying a star symbol. These are on the left from the Jacques Vieville, pack, Paris 1650, a very early ‘Marseilles’ Tarot, and on the right, from a modern reproduction of the 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack.
The Star can thus symbolise the heart of the matter, where there is no further secrecy or pretence. Here, there is giving and receiving through the outpouring of living water. The Star gives all she has, without stinting. It may indeed be a hard journey to reach this point, but this is where hope is renewed.
DEATH (no. 13) In many early Tarot packs, Death was not named. The act of naming might invoke his fearful presence, so it was safer to include him only as an image, along with his number, the so-called ‘unlucky’ thirteen. People were all too aware that the ‘grim reaper’ with his scythe could strike suddenly, and that he had no pity on those from any station in life. In the Middle Ages, images of Death were often shown as slaughtering the Pope or Emperor first, to make a point that those at the top of society were no more protected from his blow than the poor and humble. However, there was also entertainment value in Death; then as now, people liked to frighten themselves with the macabre, and the ‘Triumph of Death’ as a spectacle on the streets was a surprisingly popular part of street carnival celebrations.
Death as a Tarot Trump has gained a bad reputation, unsurprisingly. But if we look more closely, we can see that in nearly all the different Tarot packs, the image shows new life springing from the earth around: heads, hands and plants poke up from the ground. Death promotes fertility, as withered plants and old bones break down and form compost. Nothing is lost, only transformed. We can hope for new growth in the future, even when matters seem bleak.
Death in a Tarot reading is very rarely an indication of physical human death. In the Fool’s Mirror layout which I describe in my book, all 22 Tarot Trumps are used – the situation they reveal depends upon their ordering and their relationship to each other. Plainly, Death could not mean literal death on every occasion, as it will always be there in the reading! It does imply change though, and bidding farewell to the familiar can be painful. But from this comes new growth.
THE HANGED MAN (no 12)
The Hanged Man is not what he might at first appear to be – a criminal hanged, or a traitor suspended by his feet, according to the Italian custom. In nearly every Tarot version, he looks calm and happy, a man who is in control of what he’s doing.
There are historical accounts of acrobats and gymnasts who did tricks very like this, suspended from a rope or a pole. Sometimes they performed high up on the rooftops to entertain visiting dignitaries in Paris or London, astounding them with feats of balance and upside-down contortions. In modern times, an itinerant acrobat in France was spotted holding himself in just the same position as the Hanged Man of the Tarot.
And the ‘Tarlà’ Festival of Girona, still current in north eastern Spain, involves hanging a life-sized dummy dressed as a jester from a pole placed high across the street. He is said to commemorate the time of the Black Death, when citizens were confined to their quarters to sit out the plague. To relieve the fear and the tedium, a young acrobat, Tarlà, entertained them with displays of swinging and hanging from these poles.
So the Hanged Man may be someone who chooses to be upside-down, and has trained himself to do so. In this light, the main meaning of the card is skill and balance, and indicates a willingness to enter the world of topsy-turvy. The Hanged Man frees himself from conventions. He is also similar to a shaman on a vision quest, relinquishing normality to receive gifts of prophecy and healing, just as the Norse god Odin hung upside-down from the sacred world tree for nine days and nights, in order to acquire divine knowledge. Ideas of acrobat and shaman do combine well here, for both are entrusting themselves to a reversal. The acrobat must trust his training and the strength of the rope. The shaman goes willingly into the unknown, ready to be shaped by what he encounters there.
Tarot Triumphs – In 2016, my book Tarot Triumphs was published by Weiser, USA. This marked a very special moment in my life, as I first became interested in Tarot as a young student, way back in 1968. I spent time in the early ’70s researching its history, looking at historic packs held by the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and reading whatever I could lay my hands on. Over the years, I learned more about Tarot symbolism, and using it for divination, and became heir to an unusual system of reading the cards known now as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. The chance to write this book was also an opportunity to explain this, and reveal my findings during what is now nearly a lifetime’s interest in these enigmatic and intriguing cards.
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