Alchemy and the Trickster

I’m planning to offer some intermittent and experimental posts about alchemy, based on my book Everyday Alchemy. Alchemy itself is experimental, so it may be no bad thing to adopt that approach here! Here’s the first of them. But to begin with, I’ll say a few words about alchemy and the background to the posts.

When I was in my mid-30s, I was offered an unexpected chance to write a book on the history of alchemy, for a series published by Aquarian Press. They had been let down by an unsuitable text from the author they’d commissioned, and a writer on their radar recommended me instead. ‘How hard can it be?’ I asked myself, already well acquainted with Kabbalah, Tarot and the Western esoteric tradition. Yes, I would take it on. Oh, and it had to be completed in a very short space of time – 6 months, as I recall.

I soon found out the huge challenge of the task ahead of me. Alchemy has a lengthy and complex history, and it has been practised in all sorts of different ways. It was not the straightforward task I’d envisaged. However, I was lucky to live near the city of Exeter at the time, whose university had (and still has) an excellent section on so-called esoteric subjects. I swiftly learned that I had to be perceptive and ruthless in my approach to research, in extracting the essence, doing my best to understand and clarify it, and present a reliable overview within those few months. I also had to use my own discrimination, tempered by experience of the esoteric tradition and meditation. This was necessary so that I could discard peripheral and fantastical practices which were a long way from the genuine core of alchemy. Necessity drove me here, and I think the book was all the better for it. Alchemy: The Great Work came out in 1984 and has never really been out of print since, though in different, revised and re-named editions. It was met with good reviews and acclaim, and I trembled to be unseated by an expert who knew what I had perhaps missed, this has never happened. It remains one of the very few accessible studies of the history of alchemy.

The Red Dragon of alchemy, symbolising the basic energy or life force which must be released and transformed into gold

Everyday Alchemy (2002) carries on where my history of alchemy (Alchemy: The Great Work) left off; it reveals how we can use alchemical practice within the ‘laboratory’ of our own lives to achieve change. In Cherry’s Cache, I’ve already covered one of these topics, about cooking as a form of alchemy, and I’ll be coming back to other forms of ‘diy’ alchemy in later posts. But for now, I’d like to set the scene and tell you a true-life tale. So I start today with an overview of alchemy,adapted from the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy, and end with a story about encountering a mysterious stranger in shadowy Amsterdam. This is an account of something that happened to me the year that I turned twenty-one, and which I have never written publicly about before. Is that enough to entice you to read on? I hope so!

Alchemy, broadly speaking, is the quest to make gold from base materials. It is the art of transformation. That quest in one sense eventually developed into modern chemistry, but alchemy itself has never been just about material change. It is about mystical inspiration and powerful visions, and the interaction of mind and matter.

A historical perspective: the alchemist and his assistants at work


What is Alchemy?

From the Prelude to Everyday Alchemy

The practice of alchemy stretches back for thousands of years. It was one of the esoteric arts of the ancient Egyptians, who sought the secrets of transmuting metals. Later, seekers from Greek and Middle Eastern cultures recorded their visions of eternal gold, and added practical instructions for setting up an alchemical laboratory. From the medieval period, the quest for turning base metal into gold spread into Europe. Alchemists could be found across a wide range of society, from ragged tricksters who promised instant gold in return for funds, to philosophic princes in Renaissance palaces, who shut themselves away in secret chambers to pursue the Great Work. And over in the Far East, there were yet other traditions of alchemy, which focussed chiefly on the search for the ultimate medicine, the Elixir of Life, gleaming with the golden light of immortality.

An image from Splendor Solis (The Sun in Splendour), an illustrated manuscript from the 16th century. Alchemy is rich in symbolism, and here the rising sun symbolises the creation of gold in the alchemical vessel

The aim of alchemy is usually understood as the transformation of base metal into gold. Yet this can be interpreted in so many ways: historically, some alchemists certainly concentrated on the material properties of chemicals and metals, and their work in time gave rise to modern chemistry. This in turn then started to rule out the miracles and revelations which were so much a part of traditional alchemy. Other alchemists saw their path primarily as a mystical one, where developments in the laboratory were considered only an outward sign of divine transformation in the soul. But for most alchemists, spiritual and material labours have always gone together, and been expressed through the realm of imagery. The world of alchemical imagery is a fantastic one, teeming with winged beings, dragons and serpents, kings and queens, naked lovers, and exotic birds and beasts. Imagery forms a kind of symbolic communication between the different levels of experience. For us today, it is just as important to span these different levels too. But rather than setting up a traditional alchemical laboratory, we can use our own lives as the prime material.


Alchemy is a living tradition, and has to be re-invented in each new age. However, connecting to the lineage of alchemists who have gone before us is important; the tree of alchemy has many branches, but they all connect to the main trunk, the tradition of transformation. There are ways of filling in the historical background; we have access to a vast number of alchemical tracts, which leave us with a wealth of imagery and enigmatic writings. Alchemists deliberately set out to mystify, so that ‘the wise’ might understand, and ‘the ignorant’ remain confused. They preferred to leave clues rather than recipes. But linking into the tradition is important, and one reason why I have chosen to illustrate this book with emblems from an important source, Atlanta Fugiens by Michael Maier (1617). Emblems formed part of the core material of alchemy, especially in the seventeenth century. The idea was based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the belief that you could contain a wealth of secret knowledge within one image, which only the initiated could truly understand. These complex, many-layered emblems largely replaced the more graphic alchemical woodcuts and illuminations from earlier centuries. The best emblem books were published in different languages throughout Europe, and became common currency for alchemists.

Here is Hermes, aka Mercury, the presiding spirit of alchemy and also planetary ruler of the astrological sign of Gemini. This is how Anna Zinkeisen depicted him in her Zodiac Calendar, which you can read about here

The ‘patron saint’ of alchemy is Hermes Trismegistus. This is why alchemy is also often known as ‘the Hermetic Work’. The secondary meaning of hermetic as ‘sealed’ comes from the practice of alchemy itself, and relates to the closed vessel in which much of the transformation takes place. On a more symbolic level, this signifies that alchemical work is self-contained, and must be protected from intrusion. The legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus is known as a master magician, the guide of souls, and also as a trickster figure. Although he is related to the Greek God Hermes, messenger of the gods, he is a specific personification of revelation, wisdom and the arts of transformation. He is said to have initiated the first alchemists. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, thought to have been written by the sage himself, became the key text for alchemists; it contains the famous saying: ‘As above, so below’. The first known versions of this text appeared in Arabic in the 9th century AD, but its history may be far older.

A Roman copy of a 5th c. BC Greek statue of Hermes, with his traveller’s cloak, caduceus, and characteristic hat

Hermes himself has a life stretching back beyond recorded history, and certainly beyond the classical Greek myths where he was known as a tricky messenger and a charming thief. In his earlier incarnations, he was the god of boundaries, who carried a magical staff, and was also the mediator of quarrels, as well as being healer of the sick and patron deity of trading. His role was always that of a magical intermediary, and he could communicate even with the souls of the dead. From Greece, his cult spread to Egypt, and was then taken up in the esoteric culture of Alexandria, where Greek, Egyptian and Jewish traditions combined in the early centuries AD to form the Hermetic mystery schools, which also included a strong element of alchemy. Their guide was Hermes Trismegistus, meaning ‘Thrice Great Hermes’, and many of the inspired writings of that period were attributed to Great Master Hermes himself. It is not surprising that later European alchemists also took Hermes as their patron, and aspired to follow his teachings.
Hermes Trismegistus is one of the chief sources of inspiration for Everyday Alchemy. His key symbol is the caduceus, the staff with two winged serpents winding around it. These represent the awakened energies of Ouroboros. The staff stands for the straight and firm direction of the work: our central aim of transformation. But on its own, it is not enough. There must be ways and means to achieve this end. The two serpents signify the ways in which we must be resourceful and even cunning, moving this way and that in order to reach the final goal. The caduceus thus stands for the taming and harnessing of creative power, the weaving of its three fundamental energies into a new and higher harmony.

An ancient depiction of Ouroboros in a Greek alchemical text


Hermes as teacher and messenger also shows the important responsibility of sharing any gains that you make with others. There are stories of alchemists in history who used their ‘gold’ (whether material or spiritual doesn’t really matter) to help the poor and the sick. When alchemists succeed in making gold, they are expected to go further, and create the ‘elixir of gold’, which can then be used to make more gold. In our terms, this means that by transforming our potential into gold, we create new possibilities which may be useful to others. We have a duty to bring these to life too. The caduceus is also a symbol of healing, and is still used as such over the doors of pharmacy shops today.


One of the most ancient symbols of alchemy is that of Ouroboros, the dragon or serpent which lies in a circle with its tail in its mouth. Within Ouroboros, everything is there in potential, but as yet, nothing has been realised; the dragon is asleep. And indeed, we already have everything within ourselves that we need for our alchemical journey. But first we have to wake the dragon up. Then the aroused dragon must be battled with, and its three different energies released. The skill of alchemy is to combine these energies in a new way, so that they work at their highest potential. But, as the dragon says, ‘In my beginning is my end.’ And so the symbol of Ouroboros never loses its meaning, for in a sense, the journey is never completed; each ending is followed by a new beginning. Even if we eventually arrive back at the place we left, nothing is the same: all is transformed.

Ouroboros as a dragon, as depicted in Michael Maier’s Atlanta Fugiens. I chose emblems from this set to illustrate ‘Everyday Alchemy

An encounter in Amsterdam


Sometimes, it seems that an archetype can come to life. The story which follows does not feature in Everyday Alchemy, and I’ve largely kept it private for over fifty years. I wrote it down some nine years after the event, when it was still very fresh in my mind, and what follows is largely taken from that account. ‘Chris’ refers to my former husband; at that time we were still students in our last year of university. The meetings referred to were run under the aegis of ‘The Society of the Common Life’ in Cambridge, where we had very recently been introduced to the Tree of Life and Kabbalah.

As I was at the time, around 1970 – a photo taken in Cambridge Botanical Gardens

The Story

In the spring of 1970, just after we had started going to the Common Life meetings, and learning about the Tree of Life, Chris and I went to Amsterdam. There was no special purpose, apart from enjoying the last of our student vacations and mixing with the counter-culture of the city. By this time, however, this culture was beginning to peel away for me, like a skin that I didn’t need. Another kind of world was making itself known, and the old hippy ways were less attractive now.
It was very cold, with flurries of snow, and we spent more time inside than out. One evening, we went to a bar. There followed an encounter with a mysterious stranger.


Nothing was bright or light on the night in question. The streets were dark, and the bar where we went was dimly lit; I recall nothing of his face, or how we began to talk to him. But there cannot have been much small talk before we were all into the realms of discussing psychic and esoteric knowledge. He described an experiment that he made with friends, a kind of astral projection, in which they perceived one other as bubbles, floating up to meet in the air. I didn’t know whether to accept this, or be sceptical. Then either Chris or I mentioned the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which we had just learnt to draw and name. He showed interest, and asked us what it was. One of us sketched out the diagram and we described the significance of the different ‘sephiroth’ (spheres on the tree) to him. He nodded, and replied, ‘I just wanted to see how much you knew about it.’ Not the reply of a woolly psychic relating his dubious experiences. Nor did he go on to expound his views on the Kabbalah – no, it was left at that.

The ‘Ladder’ shown here, in Robert Fludd’s engraving, is an emblem for various forms of teaching, including the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (seen below in a modern Western form), which encourage the individual to understand and experience different levels of existence, encompassing both material and spiritual worlds.

We all exited the bar together, and made our way up to the Central Station. It is only from this point that I have a vague recollection of the friend who accompanied him, but who must have also have been present in the bar. On the way, although we learned more about our new acquaintance, his identity became even less certain as he professed dual if not triple nationality, spoke alternately in French and English, admitted to being known by more than one name, was not keen to be noticed by the police, and had several countries of residence. At the station he fetched a large rucksack, full of books from a left luggage locker. He couldn’t travel round without books, he said, but these were weighing heavy on him and he wanted to give us a number to lighten his load. We took an armful from him, and said our goodbyes.


Only later did I remember that the newcomer’s entry point on the great Tree of Life is said to be at the sephira of Hod, personified as Mercury or Hermes, the quicksilver trickster. ‘Hod’ on the Tree represents the sphere of rational mind, with attributes of quick wit, mastery of language plus deviousness and playfulness. As the archetype of Hermes in particular, he is an elusive, shadowy figure, speaker of many tongues. He is a traveller of no fixed abode or name, a trickster, a bringer of books and knowledge. And he is also fond of a joke now and then.


We still have two of the books he left with us, (
as I wrote in 1979): the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and a selection from the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan. The rest of the books and papers have disappeared one way or another. I wasn’t attached to them in any way, and somehow that seems appropriate. (And now, in 2021, they are all gone…)

From ‘The Book of Lambspring’, an alchemical text of 1625. Here, Hermes performs another of his crucial roles, that of guide to the seeker. He leads him up up to a high place where he can see the terrain, the ground he has covered, the holy powers of sun and moon, and the journey he has yet to take.


Aftermath: As I’ve discovered through subsequent research, Amsterdam was once an important centre of Kabbalah teaching schools. Our own line of study in the ‘Society of the Common Life’ is said to have come to the UK from the Low Countries in the early 20th century. However, at the time, I knew little or nothing about this connection. I’ve also now made my own modest contribution to Kabbalah lore, as the interpreter of the Tree of Life Oracle, a divination system which was bequeathed to me by my mentor. Rather like the hermetic, quicksilver spirit itself, this project has bounced through three separate editions involving four different publishers. It has taken three different names, and the planned publication date for the latest edition has been changed several times over. I hope now that it will shortly be available, in August 2021. Pre-orders are welcome! Just follow this link….and you never know where it might lead you.

You may also be interested in

Alchemy and Cooking

Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Meeeting Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

And please visit the website that I co-author on The Soho Cabbalists

Further reading

Tigerlily in Cambridge

Tales of Tigerlily no.1

Does Tigerlily refer here to Rupert Bear’s chum, the charming daughter of a Chinese magician? No – it was the name of my vintage shop in Cambridge, purveyor of period clothing and other delights.

I opened Tigerlily with a friend in the autumn of 1974. I’d had my second baby only six weeks before, and although it seemed madness to go ahead at such a time, I’d been seized by a rush of energy after an exhausting pregnancy. It was the strangest and yet in a way the best time to do it. I was ready for some new adventures of my own, especially while the baby was portable and could come with me. Helen and I signed the lease of a Victorian two-storey shop on Mill Road, Cambridge, and hastened to open up as soon as possible.

For the previous year, on and off, I’d been nibbling around the edges of such a project, learning where to find vintage clothes, and how to sell them. Students and younger people were desperate to get their hands on Victorian nighties, collarless shirts, 1940s crepe flower-sprigged dresses, and ‘30s chiffon ball gowns. My friend already had a market stall selling these, and I’d load my small haul onto my bike and trundle it down to the city centre, for her to sell on commission.

We had the large upstairs of the shop for vintage clothes, along with bags, scarves and some period bric-a-brac. We also had the damp and dingy cellar for storage, but it wasn’t wise to keep things in there for too long! Helen took up residence in the flat at the back. Both the cellar and the flat were the source of future problems, but for now we went with it, while my friends Paul and Arunee Denison sold jewellery, largely from Arunee’s native Thailand, in the small ground floor shop.

The shop was spacious, cheap, dilapidated, but serviceable. From London rag trade wholesalers we bought cheap clothes rails; from an old-fashioned haberdasher’s shop which was closing down in Mill Road itself, we acquired tall cupboards with glass -fronted drawers, a counter, and a wooden till which pinged when opened or closed. We found a fabric covered screen to enclose a changing corner, a few mirrors, a heap of clothes hangers, and that was that. A sophisticated touch (we thought) was to bend wire coat hangers slightly, thus giving the dresses a more stylish look. Within two weeks of signing the lease we were up and running on an astonishingly small outlay. Yes, we were forever contacting the landlords about water running down the inside wall and fungus growing in the back corridor, but we made it work, and also made it look surprisingly attractive.

The only photo I’ve been able to find of our shop in the 1970s, when I was running it. You can see it squeezed in between Boots the Chemist and Hunts, where they sold sports trophies. Here’s a close-up from the same photograph, making it apparent that our shop sign was rather amateurishly painted!

However it was getting harder to find the prize items – there were very few charity shops back then, and some had already wised up to the potential of vintage, or ‘period clothing’ as we called it. Jumble sales were unreliable, although could yield up a few items. And now we needed a steady stream of stock to keep a shop going – it soon became the ‘go-to’ place for students and a whole range of clientele. New grandmothers came looking for antique christening robes for the babies born across the road in the old Maternity Hospital. Antique costume hunters came up from London to – they hoped – snatch a treasure from under our noses. Young men attending May Balls got their vintage dinner jackets from Tigerlily. We kept prices on the low side, and turnover was therefore high.

I bought a 1950s peach coloured ball gown with a label in it from a shop in 5th Ave, New York that I wore to a May Ball in circa 1980. Plus plenty of other vintage clothes besides, which I wore as daily outfits. Happy days! – Helen Balkwill, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.


Vinatge American baseball jacket – there was quite a craze for them in the ’70s

In this niche business, sources were everything. You didn’t tell your rivals where you found that 1920s flapper dress, or the velvet smoking jacket. You might even put them off the scent with vague chat about bric-a-brac shops and bequests from a late elderly aunt. London already had some prize vintage clothing stores, such as Cornucopia in Pimlico, where you could drool over extraordinary treasures, selling for sky high prices.

Below left are some examples of the elegant 1930s evening wear that came our way – the bias cut adopted in the period looked gorgeous when silk or satin was used, though must have been devilishly difficult to sew. Day dresses were cheerful, and still showing the influence of the Deco style.

So with a shop to fill, we obviously had to keep up the stock levels and find reliable sources for our supplies. Much of the fun of running such a business, of course, is discovering unexpected caches of clothes (you can see how my love of ‘the cache’ comes in here!). But nevertheless, you can’t keep a half empty shop going on promises of future surprises.

A 1940s crepe dress. Brown was a popular colour for the background, and the crepe hung well, while it was still relatively new. During wartime, clothes were rationed and new dresses scarce, so some of the dresses that we found from that period had become worn and baggy, and were almost unwearable. Some had been darned and mended over and over again. (And, by the way, it’s a myth that in those days everyone sewed beautifully. We saw many clumsy and careless attempts at stitching!) But there were still plenty of dresses which were in good condition, and easy and attractive to wear.
Genuine examples from the 1930s – the textile of the dress on the left includes gold lame thread, which gave a sumptuous look and feel. Such items sometimes came our way. The one on the right has panels made of chiffon , a fragile but ethereally beautiful fabric, creating here the look of an Edwardian train which had come briefly back into fashion.

Helen and I were independent traders, in that we kept our own stock and did our own accounts. We used coded labels and sometimes – I wince to think of it now – stapled these onto garments. OK, it was before the days of the plastic threaded tag, but even so! But we did pool some resources, and she did me a great service even before we opened the shop by sharing her prized destination with me. This was the rag market around Cheshire Street and Brick Lane in the East End of London, where she showed me the ropes. I had the car, she had the expertise, so we would drive down from Cambridge in the middle of the night, getting there in time for dawn, whatever the season. I’ll be writing about this in a later post. But I needed something more than the Brick Lane market, and the story of how I filled the gap will be told too in future posts.

A till similar to the type that we used

It wasn’t just a simple matter of filling the rails with our finds though. We had to sort, check, wash, mend, iron and price the items of clothing. Some might have to go to the dry cleaners. At that time, in what I call the ‘First Wave Vintage’ era, no one really bothered to re-make or re-shape clothes. Either they’d find a buyer, or not. The exception was turning patterned headscarves into ‘handkerchief skirts’. I wonder if that brief fashion will ever come back? And clothing could be smelly, fragile, or reveal unexpected holes, including moth damage. Once, in a second-hand clothes dealer’s attic in Inverness (not my usual geographical area!) I caught a human flea. Believe me, the usual fleas that might jump off our cat or dog and nip us are nothing compared to the insatiable, vicious attacks of the human flea, which I understand is now a rarity. I did suffer for my calling. And as someone who is allergic to dust, perhaps it wasn’t the perfect profession for me!

I should add here that I do think of my main profession to be that of a writer, but I have always enjoyed having another occupation too. I’ve inherited trading genes from generations of shopkeepers in various branches of the family, and have always found the best balance for me is to combine writing and research with a more outward-looking activity. Searching for treasures combines it all, since it’s what I do with my research in order to re-present them in my writing work, and it’s what I did in stocking both Tigerlily and my later Russian arts business.

We roped our friends in to help out in the shop, paying them a modest but fair wage to (wo)man the till, and I had my very own mending and ironing lady who coped beautifully with the jobs that I hated.

I was one of the friends Cherry roped in to help at Tigerlily! I had just moved to Cambridge and met Cherry through mutual friends – so working part-time in her buzzy and post-hippy shop suited me very well! The shop was a great meeting point of town and gown – students enjoying the wonderful clothes and bric a brac that Cherry seemed to have a real knack for finding. It was such fun going through the new stuff after one of Cherry’s shopping sprees: peasant blouses, chiffon dresses, lacy and embroidered delights, even fur coats (we were allowed in those days) some which I have happily passed on to my daughter. – Briji

And overall, Tigerlily was a great financial success, because it was run on a low budget and we could be flexible in how we ran it. I had never heard of a business plan, but it was in profit within the first month. Much later, in the 1990s, when I started Firebird Russian Arts, I knew that there would be no such easy rides this time. I found that I would have to work for three years without taking pay, run proper accounts and learn how to handle financial forecasts. (I leave you to guess how casual my Tigerlily book-keeping was). No more hippy-style set-ups! But it did give me a measure of freedom, at a time when I had small children, and it brought much fun as well as a healthy cash injection into our family life. My children have distant memories of running round the shop and climbing through the clothes rails. And if I felt like closing up early, why not? I smile today when I see the note ‘Back in 10 mins’ on the door of a small shop. I know what that means.

Why ‘Tigerlily’? Well, we played around with various names for the shop, which had to suit not just us but also Paul and Arunee’s jewellery shop below. I wish I could now remember some of the dreadful ones that were put forward! But then Tigerlily came into my mind, and everyone liked it. Later, in the 1990s, I called my Russian arts business ‘Firebird’. Perhaps there’s a pattern here, of two such juxtaposed images creating an identity – the tiger and the lily, the fire and the bird? The Firebird is a mythic Russian creature, and Tigerlily is a striking orange flower. Let’s just say, I wasn’t relying on Rupert Bear annuals for my choices!

Stories of Tigerlily still to come:


Tigerlily and the Rag Mills
Tigerlily at the Posh End
Tigerlily down Brick Lane

You may also be interested in:

Suzani from the Silk Road

A Tale of Two Samplers

And – as it’s May Day about now! – my post from last year on May Day in Padstow – ‘Summer is a-Coming Today‘.

Cherry’s Cache – A Guide to the First Year

After this post, I will be having a break from Cherry’s Cache for a few weeks. I expect to resume in early May, and will post here when there’s an exact date fixed. If you are subscribed to the email notifications you’ll automatically be alerted when a new post goes up. And in the meantime, you can continue to access all the posts already on the site. To find topics of interest, use the search button, browse the archives, or – better still! – use the guide posted below.

New season under way!

I’m now uploading new posts for the second year run of Cherry’s Cache – among other things, there will be Tales of Tigerlily, the vintage clothes shop that I ran in Cambridge. The first of these is scheduled for Sunday May 2nd and I expect to be posting every two weeks in the coming season.

The Journey

I began writing Cherry’s Cache a year ago, and launched the first three posts in April 2020. I’ve now uploaded fifty-four posts, including this one. These come to over 115,000 words collectively, which is about half as long again as most of the books that I write! (Any offers to publish a Cherry’s Cache book??) Anyroad up, as we would say in Brum, it’s time for a round-up of what’s now stored in the Cache, which you’ll find below.

It’s been an incredible, if sometimes exhausting, journey preparing all these posts, and I’ve been heartened by reader feedback. Thank you! t’s been a wonderful experience to research and write weekly, especially during the difficult days of lockdown.

If you’d like to get in touch in the meantime, there’s a Contact Form on this site, or at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk, and you’re still welcome to add comments to the posts. (Allow a day or two for a comment to be ‘approved’, if you’re not already on the contributor list.)

Just before I get onto today’s theme, I have an update on Cosmo the Topsham Cat of Character. (You’ll find his story at the end of the post this link leads to.) Cosmo has no fixed abode, but likes to enter homes as he pleases and receive food graciously from chosen hosts. He is our very own ‘Six Dinner Sid’, as per the well-known children’s story.

Recently, I noticed that two people had posted separately on the Topsham Facebook page, asking if anyone could identify a stray black cat who had begged his way into their homes, in a confident and friendly manner. I supplied a photo of Cosmo: ‘Yes, that’s him!’ they each replied. I advised them to feed him if they wished, then invite him to step out again, to continue on his rambles; no need to worry about Cosmo! He has been carving out a living in the town for years. And anyone who tries to adopt him permanently will be sadly disappointed.

Here’s my latest encounter with Cosmo, as I came down Monmouth Street on a walk around the town. Typically, he is sitting on the doorstep of a pleasing-looking house, where the owner might be prevailed upon to give him a snack.

A Year of Cherry’s Cache: my guide to the posts

So here’s a thumbnail guide to each post, in the order they were published, except for the different series, which are grouped together. You can use the link given to take you straight to the individual posts. I apologise for any vagaries of formatting pictures and text alongside each other, which at times defeated me here!

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth – An Ancestor’s Scandal

My wicked great uncle from Hemyock in the Blackdown Hills, who seduced a young lady from the village, and disowned her as he climbed higher in the world.

Suzani from the Silk Road

Beautiful embroidered hangings from Central Asia, with a history stretching back to pre-historic times. You’ll see suzani motifs decorating some of the pages on Cherry’s Cache too.

The Tidal Town of Topsham

The first of my posts about the town of Topsham where I live, on the River Exe. Follow the circuit of an early morning walk, and also discover the historic houses, the town ferry and a path known as the Goat Walk.

Alchemy and Cooking

This post combines two of my interests – alchemy, and food! In my view, cooking is alchemy and I’ve added a recipe for Bara Brith to the description of historical alchemy.

Summer is a-Coming Today! – May Day in Padstow

The glorious festival of the ‘Old ‘Oss and welcoming in May Day in Padstow, Cornwall. The streets are alive with music, rhythm, dance, flowers, gallivanting…We took part a few years ago, and long to go again

Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar

The story of a little-known but highly-accomplished artist called Anna Zinkeisen, who worked as a war artist, portrait painter, and creator of the Whitbread Zodiac Calendar, a treasure which I have in my possession.

‘Just Ordinary Girls’ – Noel Leadbeater and the Secret Army

Noel Leadbeater was the mother of a close friend of mine at school, and she never told us what she did in the war until the ban on secrecy was lifted. She worked as a morse code operator, supplying vital information to the Enigma Code Breakers, and her story is put together here for the first time.

The Unusual Exhibition

How my husband, artist Robert Lee-Wade, put on an exhibition in some stables in the south of France, with the assistance of two fine Shakesperian actors and a few horses.

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

An exploration of a little-known, but highly effective meditation allied to the Chinese ‘lady of compassion’, Kuan Yin

Mick Jagger and the Cigarette Butt

I was certainly a fan and follower of the Rolling Stones in my early teenage years. But did I really hoard the cigarette butt that Mick Jagger threw away? Of course not! Or maybe….

Meeting Walter Lassally – Cinematographer and Kabbalist

I was privileged to meet Walter Lassally, famous for his work on the film ‘Zorba the Greek’, who was a true seeker all his life. Much is known about his professional achievements, but far less about his interest in the I-Ching, astrology and Kabbala. This account opens up that significant side of his life.

Hidden Topsham – a series

Following on from my first Topsham post, ‘The Tidal Town of Topsham’, I decided to write a series about the hidden nooks and crannies of the town, and elements of its forgotten history, both disreputable and glorious. You can find them here:

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Enoch and Eli: The Heroes of Black Country Wit

Wry, sardonic, and very funny – the dry humour of Enoch and Eli and the Black Country is something I had a great time investigating! All based on the original story of two dogs locked in a room, which I recalled from my Brummie years. What happened? Find out here….

The Cosmic Zero – Getting something from Nothing

This is – unfortunately! – the true story of how my car was wrecked by a nasty neighbour who never owned up. But justice caught up with him in the end, thanks to the power of the Cosmic Zero. I also take an excursion to look at the history of this strange non-number.

A Tale of Two Samplers

This is a tale about two old needlework samplers that I have on the wall at home. I decided to try and find out the identity of the two little girls who stitched them nearly 200 years ago. To my sorrow, one child had died young, but to my joy, I was able to trace the story of Amey Ross, and her life in Lincolnshire as a miller’s wife.

Strange Signs – a Miscellany from around the World

Writing this was a personal treat, as I’ve been collecting crazy signs for years now. ‘Seat for Bored Husbands’, ‘Enjoy Christmas at the Airport’, ‘No Scratching’, advertisements for ‘Wife Cake’ and Thai massage to relieve ‘Wata in Scrotum’, they are all there for you to enjoy.

Finding Brummagem

A journey through present-day Birmingham mixes with memories of the ‘Brum’ I knew in my schooldays, in the 1960s. Will I ever sort them out in my mind? Current Brummagem is shining with fabulous new buildings, but glimpses of the old corners of the city and its canals are still there to be found.

Glimpses of the Tarot – A series exploring the 22 cards of the traditional Tarot pack

For seven of these posts, I took trios of cards, drawn at random, and reflected upon both their individual meaning and the significance they have as a triad, rather like ‘three guests at a dinner party’. And for one post I took the single card of the unnumbered Fool, and his position in our own calendar customs.

Glimpses of the Tarot 1 Glimpses of the Tarot 2Glimpses of the Tarot 3

Glimpses of the Tarot 4Glimpses of the Tarot 5Glimpses of the Tarot 6

Glimpses of the Tarot 7The Fool and his Feast

Russian Month – August 2020

‘The Russian Diaries’ describes how I bought a traditional Russian wooden house in the village of Kholui, in the 1990s. This was in pursuit of my interest in lacquer miniature boxes, and the old way of life of the Russian countryside. Encounters both heart-warming and hilarious followed.

Baba Yaga – the story of the infamous Russian witch, who lives in a house which stands on hens’ feet, who flies through the air in a mortar with pestle, who challenges young men to grow up and ‘do something’! What are her hidden attributes and origins?

The Legendary Art of the Russian Lacquer Miniature – I studied and bought these little marvels of miniature painting directly from artists and workshops over a 12 year period, and they became one of my specialist subjects as a lecturer. This is a concise introduction to how they’re made, and the stories they tell.

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home – From the mischievous house spirit, the ‘domavoi’ to the sacred Red Corner for the family icon, the Russian Home is a place where myth and family life mix in what is almost a sacred space.

The Perils of Publishing – What happens when an author’s attic gets clogged up with unsold books? Well, a trip to the local waste depot is more of a challenge than you might imagine. This was the first of my series ‘A Writer’s Life’.

Writing for Jackie Magazine – While still at school, three of us plotted to get published in Jackie, the ultimate in teenage trend. We pooled our memories for this blog. I’m proud to say that my co-conspirators went on to become acclaimed script-writers for the Archers! The second in ‘A Writer’s Life’ series.

Golden Quinces – A fruit loved in ancient times, and almost neglected in our current era. However, this ‘apple of love’ can be transformed into delicacies which will delight you, as I reveal with our supply of garden quinces.

Venetia, the Woman who Named Pluto – I met Venetia Phair, nee Burney, to ask her about how she came to name a newly-discovered planet. This is her story, of how she came to suggest the name Pluto one morning over breakfast, as a bright 11-year-old schoolgirl back in 1930. It was a race against time, to beat the other candidates…

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia – A memorable encounter with Herel, a traditional Siberian shaman from Tuva. I sat through a private session with him in his ‘clinic’, and later he and his wife came to bless our camp with a ceremony of fire, drums, chanting and – possibly! – eagles.

The Soho Coffee Bars – Why was there a sudden blossoming of the coffee bar scene in Soho in the 1950s? And what actually went on there? Historical research plus memoirs from those who there tell the story of juke boxes and espresso on the streets of London.

Keeping it Simple with Princess Diana – A Writer’s Life 3 – It fell to my lot to write books in simplified English, for students of the language. I never expected to write the biography of Princess Diana this way, though!

Following the Female Line – the significance of investigating the mother’s line of ancestors, and the stories they can connect us to. Plus a visit to a Stone Age cavern, to discover what life was like in the really early days!

The Abduction of Mary Max – How my 4 x great grandmother was abducted at the age of 13, by her cousin Samuel Phillps, mainly for the sake of acquiring this very nice house in County Tipperary. The runaway couple were pursued by the law from Ireland to France, and the racy story was reported by practically every newspaper in Britain.

Topsham Celebrates! – Our local town knows how to dress itself up for all the special occasions it hosts in ‘normal’ times, from the historic Charter Day to Secret Gardens, Wassailing and beautifully-decorated windows.

The Twelve Days of Christmas – Why they are so special both in the astronomical calendar and in or lives. ‘Time out’ for games and feasting, with a quick trip to Russia for their celebrations, and a wonderful Twelfth Night Cake – or possibly Bread – for which I provide the recipe.

Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats – An Irish monk sat up late at night, writing in his cell, in the far off days of the 9th century. Instead of continuing with his philosophical discourse, he wrote a timeless and touching ode to his cat, Pangur Ban. In fact, cats were highly valued in old Ireland, and protected by special laws. This post has been by far the most popular on Cherry’s Cache over the year, attracting around 2,000 views.

Checking in for the New Year – The tale of how I came to be writing this blog, after a memorable weekend in Spitalfields. Plus updates on posts, with further news on the Cosmo, the Topsham rascal cat, and a report on my Twelfth Night cake.

The Company of Nine – This is an investigation into the symbol of ‘Nine Ladies’ as represented in myth, landscape features such as the stone circle pictured here, and in real-life ‘companies’ of nine priestesses or seeresses.

Singing at the Holy Ground – My teenage years were full of passion for folk music, once I’d given up on Mick Jagger. Our then home city of Birmingham witnessed a great expansion of folk clubs in the 1960s, especially of Irish-led sessions. My path then led me to study with BBC producer Charles Parker, of the Radio Ballads.

The Ancestors of Easter Island describes how we found our way to a stone circle at the heart of Easter Island, traditionally used to make contact with female ancestors. Along with the cult of the Moai, the famous ‘stone heads’, this remote island is a place to understand ancestry and the importance it has in our lives. A visit to Bali also showed us a wonderful ceremony to bring the departed relatives back into the family home.

A Poem in the Albert Hall – Where does it lead when you start writing poetry? Most of the time, nowhere! But I’ve had a few surprises along the way, including, improbably, a famous singer reciting one of my poems in the Royal Albert Hall. And tracing another one in Australia, many years later.

A Coventry Quest – On the trail of a 3 x great grandfather, I tracked down his old haunts in Spon Street, Coventry, where he worked as a watchmaker. It was a day of discovering Coventry too, with its history, both rich and tragic, of ribbon weavers and clock makers, war-time bombs and scattered ancient buildings. I ended with a race against time to find my grandfather’s grave before darkness closed in.

Topsham Lockdown – a time for early morning walks, and discovering how nature took over from human noise and traffic. As well as snapping some stunning views, I also observed moments like the first day the barber’s shop re-opened their doors!

The Dartmoor Ponies – images of these beautiful, half-wild ponies, which I’ve taken over time on my visits to Dartmoor, along with some notes on the breed and the life they live on the moor.

Refugees Ancestors – a Huguenot family in Devon How my Huguenot ancestors fled from France and found a new home in Devon. After a perilous sea crossing, they were taken in by the inhabitants of Barnstaple.

Thank you for scrolling through this! I’m amazed to see how much I did manage to write and upload during the last twelve months. I’m grateful to readers, whether it’s a quick drop-in to read a single post, or regular subscribers who’ve started their Sunday mornings with Cherry’s Cache. For years, I’ve written books on commission for publishers, mostly on subjects close to my heart. But Cherry’s Cache gives me the chance to explore themes which wouldn’t form a book, or don’t necessarily have a place in commercial publishing. I’ve enjoyed it thus far, and I hope you have too!

Early plum blossom in our garden in Devon

Dartmoor Ponies

Who doesn’t love to see a pony in the wild? Each time I visit Dartmoor I keep an eye out for these ponies which roam the moorland freely, often in small herds. All the photos here are ones that I’ve taken over the years, as opportunities arise. The ponies are very hardy, and like all British native ponies, know how to seek shelter and where to find a windbreak by an old wall or line of trees. Although they appear completely wild, all of them do in fact have owners. Each year, ‘drifts’ take place, a gathering process involving horse riders, vehicles and helpers on foot, who round up the ponies from the moor and drive them into holding pens. Here they are checked over to make sure they are in good health, and some are selected to be sold off. They are sure-footed, make reliable riding ponies, and have been used by farmers, children, shepherds and even postmen for generations.

Here the ponies find shelter and better grazing in Grimspound, the prehistoric settlement dating from the late Bronze Age. Most likely the stone wall enclosure, in which dwelling huts once stood, originally contained livestock too.

Ponies have in fact roamed on Dartmoor since prehistoric times, and probably the breed standard as laid down today is akin to the type which was originally found on the moor, as is the case with Exmoor ponies. The main difference between Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies is that the Exmoor breed is sturdier, and has a characteristic ‘mealy’, ie pale or white, muzzle. Dartmoor ponies are commonly thought of as brown or bay, but other colours are ‘permitted’ – black, grey, chestnut or roan.

Groups of ponies, sleek in their summer coats, on the village green at Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The ones above have the most traditional colouring for a Dartmoor pony

I started riding when I was eight years old, and became very keen very quickly! My parents were able to let me have a riding lesson once a week, but couldn’t afford to keep a pony, so for years I helped out at riding stables to earn myself ‘free rides’. I’ve always had a great affection for British native ponies, which are full of character, clever, and sturdy, but I quickly grew too tall to ride them any more. When I lived on Exmoor I was able to fulfil my dream of owning a horse, and we took on a half-Exmoor pony too, an old, lovable rogue called Eccles. His method of escaping from the field was simply to lean his considerable weight on the fence until it gave way. On the whole, native ponies are more wily than their elegant Thoroughbred relatives.

A typical Exmoor pony, on Anstey Common. Note the ‘mealy’ nose, a distinguishing feature of the breed.

Although the Dartmoor breed is limited to ponies of around 12.2hh (each ‘hand’ measures four inches, in old money), another, larger type is recognised as the ‘Dartmoor Hill Pony‘. ‘A Dartmoor Hill Pony is one bred on the commons of Dartmoor by a registered commoner, whose sire and dam run on the said commons. This ensures that the sire has been inspected and approved by the Dartmoor commoners council as a suitable stallion to run on the commons.’ They have their own special class at the annual Widecombe Fair.

Dartmoor Hill Ponies create their own special display at Widecombe Fair (2018)

Strictly speaking, no ‘coloured’ ponies – ie mixed colours, such as black and white (piebald), or brown and white (skewbald) – are recognised as true Dartmoor ponies. (Coloured ponies in general are especially favoured and considered lucky by Romanies and travellers.) However, quite a number can be seen on the moor.

And these tiny ponies below may be the kind which were originally bred from a Shetland pony-Dartmoor cross, as working pit ponies for the mines (tin, copper and iron). As for the Shetland pony as a breed, it may look very cuddly, but is known for its stubborn and often snappy nature. It doesn’t make an ideal child’s pony, despite its appealing appearance.

It’s always a delight to come across ponies on the moor or even ambling through a village. But it’s worth noting that although they are are not completely wild, they are not tame either, and shouldn’t be encouraged to hang around car parks and picnic spots for titbits. It’s a danger to the ponies themselves to wander on the roads, and they can become greedy and bad-tempered if given so-called ‘treats’, which may in any case do their digestions harm. Dartmoor ponies get all they need from the moorland grazing.

Some final photos follow, from the different hills and commons of Dartmoor.

Although I’ve officially given up riding now, I was delighted to take the opportunity to ride out on Dartmoor – though not on a Dartmoor pony! Thanks to Helen Newton for the chance to ride Kavi on several occasions, ambling through the village of Lustleigh, and fording the river at the ancient Hisley Bridge .

You may also be interested in:

Dartmoor 365 – a Facebook group based on the book by John Hayward which explores every square mile of the Dartmoor National Park. This is where people share their experiences and photos of visiting the individual squares. In ‘normal’ times, we have an annual cream tea meet-up as well! Pictured here is Rob Hayward, son of the Dartmoor 365 author, who along with the Facebook group’s founder Anthony Francis-Jones, keeps the book updated.

Chris Chapman, photographer has been living and filming on Dartmoor for about forty years, and his film ‘Wild River, Cold Stone’ pays homage to this unique landscape and way of life. You can watch the trailer in the clip below. He is also co-author of The Three Hares: A Curiosity worth Regarding, the only comprehensive study of the Three Hares motif which turns up along the way from the Silk Road to Dartmoor churches. (A topic which I hope to tackle in a future post!)

Refugee Ancestors: A Huguenot family in Devon

On the first of December, 1685, a band of bedraggled refugees landed at Appledore in Devon, and made their way to nearby Barnstaple. They were both sea sick and hungry after a difficult eleven day crossing from the West coast of France. Among them was my 6 x great grandfather, Louis Mauzy, a Huguenot minister, along with his wife Suzanna and at least two children. All the refugees on board the ship were Huguenots, fleeing a new wave of French persecution against their Protestant-based religion. Although they had no friends or contacts in this area of Devon, they were welcomed with open arms by the inhabitants of Barnstaple, who rushed to find them bread to eat, gave all of them lodging and hospitality in their homes, and then helped them find their way into new lives here.

An aerial view of Appledore as it is today, on the banks of the River Torridge

This dramatic story might never have been recorded, but for the diligence of fellow-refugee Jacques Fontaine, who had helped to organise the escape. Many years later in 1722, as Jacques reached the final stages of his life, he decided to write up his life story for the sake of his children and descendants. He made two copies by hand, to try and ensure that it would never be destroyed, and you’ll find the touching way in which he addressed his descendants at the end of this blog. It’s a rarity to find such an extended and accessible memoir from this period.

I have a particular interest in life stories, and have coached many courses and individuals to encourage memoir-writing, along with writing the book Your Life, Your Story. What we don’t write down may soon be lost, so it’s a huge gift to posterity to tell a life story, in full or in part. Thanks to Jacques’ resolution to preserve his story, we have a remarkable first-hand account of the flight of this group of French Huguenots from their homeland to begin new lives in England, and later in Ireland, both in Fontaine’s case, and in that of my own Mauzy ancestors. Jacques’ full-length memoir is entitled Persécutés pour leur foi: Mémoires d’une famille huguenote (Persecuted for their Faith: Memoirs of a Huguenot Family), and written in a very direct and engaging way. (The subsequent translation is a different matter, as I’ll explain later.) Extracts are included here, to bring to life his riveting account of this extraordinary journey. You can read the full set of extracts that I’ve translated via a link to a PDF at the conclusion of this blog.

Huguenot Ancestors

I knew that we had one prominent French Huguenot line in our family tree on my father’s side, which is that of the Despards, who arrived much earlier, at the court of Queen Elizbeth I in the late 16th century, and settled in Ireland as engineers and miners. I plan to write a blog about them in the not-too-distant future, celebrating my illustrious Despard cousin ancestor, the famous Col. Edward Marcus Despard (1751-1803), who fought alongside Nelson, was hanged as a radical, (or as a traitor, depending on your point of view) and who features, in a fictionalised version, in the television series of ‘Poldark’!

But as for the Mauzy family, I knew nothing, except that my 6x gt grandfather Louis Mauzy had been born in France and somehow ended up in Devon. His granddaughter Elizabeth, like my 7 x gt grandmother Alice Despard earlier, later married into the Irish line of my family. Living in Devon myself, I was curious to learn more about the story of how they arrived on these shores.

And I owe it to Jacques Fontaine’s enthusiasm for detail, that the name of my grandfather is actually recorded in his account of the escape from France. I’d probably never have found it though without an internet search for the uncommon name of Mauzy, which led me to the French edition of the memoir, available as a printed book. If I’d simply looked at the English translation, I wouldn’t have found it, as it only refers to a ‘Huguenot Minister’. This English version was produced in 1838 by one of Fontaine’s descendants, and omits many other chunks of text; it also changes the tone, endeavouring to make it consistently solemn and pious throughout, instead of the mix of entertaining digressive rambles and changes of mood which Fontaine himself employed, in an engaging way. If by any chance you’re eager to delve into this life story, I suggest you try the French text if you possibly can, as it has a wealth of detail and genealogy excluded from the later translation.

One of many studies of the Huguenots, and of how they entered into the social fabric of the countries where they took up new lives

The Huguenots flee from France

Who were the Huguenots? They were principally French Protestants who emerged in the wake of the 16th century Reformation, and followed in particular the doctrines of the religious reformer Jean Calvin. (The origin of the name Huguenot is uncertain, but is probably taken from Dutch or German allusions.) They came under attack from Catholics in France, and many were killed in ambushes and by raiding parties, especially in the infamous St Bartholemew’s Massacre of 1572, the time when the Despards in my family tree fled to England and Ireland. For a while, peace between the two religious factions was restored by a treaty known as the Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598. But this stability eventually broke down, and under King Louis IV, persecution of the Huguenots began again. When King Louis XIV ascended the French throne in 1643, it escalated to the point where he directed troops to seize Huguenot homes and force them to convert to Catholicism. Then in 1685 Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, otherwise known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made Protestantism illegal. More bloodshed ensued, and over the next several years, over 200,000 Huguenots fled France for other countries. You can read the full account here, and another produced by the UK Huguenot Society here.

The infamous massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572, painted by François Dubois. No one knows exactly how many Huguenots died, but the number is estimated to be between 3,000 and 50,000

It now becomes clear why this particular party of Huguenots fled to Devon in 1685. But this order of 1685 also forbade Huguenots to leave France, so anyone who wanted to make a run for it had to do so with great secrecy, as Fontaine’s story reveals. Patrols were out, looking for would-be deserters. Anyone caught trying to escape would be punished: the men condemned to row on galley ships, and the women imprisoned or sent to convents. ‘Convert or be enslaved’ was the message. The Huguenot Society tells us : About 200,000 Huguenots left France, settling in non-Catholic Europe – the Netherlands, Germany, especially Prussia, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and even as far as Russia where Huguenot craftsmen could find customers at the court of the Czars. Many of the Huguenots were well-educated and highly skilled in trades such as weaving, engineering, goldsmithing and clock-making, so their exodus deprived the country of a whole class of professionals and artisans.

But one thing puzzled me: in Fontaine’s account he says that while he and the others had to hide while waiting to board their ship, terrified of being caught, Louis Mauzy and his family were already on board, with a passport to leave. Then I discovered that Protestant Ministers were in fact ordered to ‘expatriate’ at this point in time. So to keep his faith, and to keep his family safe, Mauzy was compelled to leave his homeland.

A scene of Huguenot emigration, painted by Jan Antoon Neuhuys

And then, reading further, I learned that, as it happened, this turned out to be his sole chance to escape. The English translation of Fontaine’s memoirs gives a note that: ‘In 1686, The enactments were still more severe. A Protestant taken in the act of public worship was punished with death, and all Protestant clergymen whether natives or foreigners were to be executed. To increase the vigilance of the soldiery, a reward of three or four pistoles [gold coins] was given for every Protestant that was taken up.‘ (A Tale of the Huguenots, Jacques de La Fontaine, translated 1838, p100). So as it turned out, Louis Mauzy had only a few short months to make good his escape to England, during the brief period when he had been ordered to leave. If he had tarried, he and his family would most probably have been killed. Louis Mauzy brought with him his wife Suzanne, née Sannager, and at least two children, a girl also called Suzanne, and my future 5 x gt grandfather who was probably christened Louis, but known later as Lewis, in the anglicised form.

An article on ‘England’s First Refugees’ notes that ‘comparatively few refugees came in 1685, the actual year of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, or in 1686’, so it was only the brave or desperate few who took their chances at this period. I will now let Jacques Fontaine’s story take over.

A historic map of the complex coastline around La Rochelle and La Tremblade, which required much careful plotting to forge a safe route for the escaping Huguenots, plus dealing with tricky winds and currents.

Mémoires d’une famille huguenote

Chapter IX p. 127
In November 1685, Jacques Fontaine realised that it was the moment to try and escape from France with his own family, which included a sister-in-law and a niece. ‘I offered others the chance to come, but the response was that it wouldn’t only be foolish, but simply crazy, to risk such great dangers, since the coasts were all well-guarded, both on land and at sea.’

They arrived at a place called La Tremblade, not far from La Rochelle on the west coast ‘We stayed with a drunkard who was to be the pilot for the English vessel and who spoke English, and because of whom we ran a thousand risks of being discovered due to his carelessness and inebriation.’ After waiting for a few days, they were told that they could leave the next day, and ‘the drunkard’ ordered them to wait for him on the beach at Mus-de-Long. Here he intended to pick them up his boat. ‘We left at night, with a couple of horses to carry our small amount of luggage. Once on the beach, I made a speech to those there, and said a prayer for our situation…a prayer which was definitely uttered from the heart as much as from the mouth.´ They weren’t alone: ‘We were among some 40 or 50 people on the shore, nearly all of them young men and women.’ Things did not go as planned: ‘Some of them didn’t take all the precautions necessary to conceal their escape, with the result that the papists [Catholics] were forewarned, and sent orders that the ship should not depart; therefore, we remained in the dunes the whole day.’

There was a further scare, as the parish priest from La Tremblade had decided to take a stroll in those dunes, with his dog and a companion. ‘They were almost upon us; we had placed ourselves between two little hills of sand, and we could see the dog… But, by divine providence, two poor fishermen, who had already seen us [and were sympathetic to our plight] …made them believe that they were off track. They assured them that if they continued in this direction, they would get lost in the hills of the sand dunes.’ The fishermen thus successfully diverted the priest and his friend onto another path.

Earlier Huguenot refugee journeys in the 16th century, which helped to lay down tracks for those escaping later on.

Since the first attempt at boarding the ship had failed, Fontaine and his family party returned to La Tremblade:

We lodged at the home of a local townsman, where fifteen or twenty of us spent the day hiding in his house. He took us in very reluctantly, as they’d been searching all the houses in order to discover where we were. He was in a terrible state of fear…, because he would have to pay a fine of a thousand ecus if he were caught harbouring a Protestant. Night having come, he finally decided not to run such a risk, and ordered us all to leave his house; this was a little uncivil, but his reasoning was understandable.

“I have,” he said, “damned my soul in order to save my wealth, and I would lose it to save yours! No,” he said, “either do as I do or take your chance elsewhere.”

We considered this treatment to be rather cruel, but we had good cause to thank God later, since less than half an hour after we had left, the authorities came with some soldiers, and visited the house of our host, where they didn’t find anyone hiding. We hid ourselves again as best we could, one here, another there, among the poor sailors’ wives who we found far more charitable than the rich people, and thus we spent the next four or five days.

The area around La Rochelle itself was at this period largely Protestant, which also helped their chances of escape. But their troubles weren’t yet over. The captain of the English ship eventually arrived, but told the group they would have to follow him in their little boats to a place on the coast where he could pick them up unobserved once he’d cleared customs and finished with the official paperwork.

In the dusk of the same evening, on the 29th November 1685, we went on board a little open launch – my fiancée, her sister, my niece and me, two lads from Bordeaux and six young girls from Marennes, and, under the cover of night, we passed the guard boats on the Seudre and got through the current of Oleron without being spotted. Then at ten o’clock in the morning, we got soaked near the Ile d’Aix, at the tip of the Ile d’Oleron. There we waited until our ship appeared. We’d given an order to our boatman that if we were pursued, he should beach his boat as fast as he could, and then it would be simply a question of “Run for dear life!”‘

However, Jacques Fontaine had been lame ever since childhood, when a doctor failed to diagnose his broken leg. Running away was something he couldn’t do: ‘As for myself, who couldn’t count on my legs to carry me off, I had my gun and a pair of pistols, and was resolved never to sell my life and be taken alive.’ All went well though to start with, and they had already exchanged the agreed signals with the English captain, when suddenly: ‘We saw a royal frigate, which was used solely for checking ships, to make sure that no Protestant left the kingdom; if they found any, they sent the men to the galley ships and the women to convents.’ Their own boat lying at anchor would most definitely attract suspicion. ‘And we were only a canon ball’s length away from them!’ The escapees were in a state of utter terror.

A portrait of Jacques Fontaine. He is at pains to explain in his autobiography that the family was once called ‘de la Fontaine’, implying nobility.

The officers did indeed search the main ship, and this is where Fontaine refers to my own great grandfather, Louis Mauzy, mentioning that he had already boarded: ‘They searched everywhere in the ship. But no one was hiding on board; only M. Mauzy, a minister, and his family were there, with their passport. What a blessing, Lord, that we hadn’t already managed to get to the ship! If they had been delayed until an hour later, they would have found all of us.’ They still could not board however, but had to try and keep up with the ship to a place where it would be safe to embark, while at the same time not giving the officers any cause for suspicion. ‘When they had finished, they ordered the English captain to set sail, which he did, and he left with a favourable wind, leaving us behind, and with the frigate positioned nearly between us and him. This was a terrible crisis, because if we returned to La Tremblade, it was a hundred to one that we would not be able to escape.’ The little boat they were waiting in would arouse suspicion if it was still there: ‘The poor boatman, who only had his son as crew, wailed and lamented his plight and that of his son, persuaded that only the hangman’s noose awaited the two of them, since he had already changed his religion.’ This was a real crisis.

Finally, Jacques came up with a ploy to explain convincingly why they were anchored in this spot. The Huguenots would hide at the bottom of the boat, covered by an old sail, while the boatman blamed his presence on unfavourable winds. Fontaine, rather proud of his ploy afterwards, told the boatman what to do while the officials made their inevitable inspection: ‘If those on the frigate asked him where he was going, he would say:”From La Rochelle, and I want to go to La Tremblade.” If they asked, “And what have you got on board?” “Only ballast.”‘ The boatman must also pretend that he and his son were drunk and incompetent, presumably to heighten the impression of poor judgement!

An artist’s impression of Huguenot refugees arriving at Dover. The scene appears to be set at a similar period to the emigration of the Fontaine and Mauzy families, in 1685

It worked! They were then able to board the ship piloted by the English captain, and endured an eleven day crossing, with strong head winds and little to eat and drink. ‘At last we disembarked on the 1st December (old style calendar) at Appledore, in the Bristol Channel, at the mouth of the little river, which flows to Barnstaple. Having paid for our passage, your mother and I only had twenty gold pistoles [gold coins] left between us; but God, who had not led us to a safe country only to let us die from hunger, touched the hearts of the chief citizens of Barnstaple, who having sent for us, all twelve took one or two of us into their homes and treated us with incredible gentleness and friendliness, each taking as much care of the French person they had in their house as if we had been their children or their brothers, meaning that God allowed us to find fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters amongst strangers.

That first bite of fresh bread, given by welcoming strangers, made a huge impression on Jacques and his fellow refugees: ‘I am also compelled to remember, with gratitude for Divine Providence, that first mouthful of bread which I ate, having disembarked in Appledore. Our joy at being safe, and the privations we suffered in the ship, added to the usual purgations from being at sea, with myself in particular being the one most afflicted by sea sickness, led us now to having a great appetite, with the result that the most urgent thing (after giving thanks to God) was to ask for some bread.’

The shoreline of Appledore, as it is today.

But it only took a minute or two before Fontaine, who was an astute trader, as well as preparing to for Protestant ordination, saw a perfect business opportunity:

‘They gave us ‘biscuits’ [baked roundels of bread], as big as plates, which in France would be worth around two sous apiece; and, when we came to pay, they asked us to pay only half a sou for each ‘biscuit’. I was impressed with their good price, but because the man we were talking to spoke only very poor French, I thought he had made a mistake; after asking him several time he always said that each biscuit cost half a sou. Unable to believe this, I gave a little girl a marked sou, and told her to go and buy me bread with this amount. She went to the baker and brought me back two of these biscuits or galettes. That confirmed the price to me.’

The bread, and thus the wheat grain it was made with, were very cheap. He began to hatch a plan: ‘At first it occurred to me that anyone who could send grain to France would make a considerable profit; but my fiancée and I only had twenty pistoles left.‘ He lost no time in checking out the grain market in Bideford the next day, accompanied by an interpreter, and then in borrowing money from other refugee friends already based in Plymouth., and thus he started making his first deals on English soil. One of his projects soon afterwards was to import fancy French items and sell them through his own shop in Exeter – brandy, tobacco and fine wine being among the goods.

Images of Appledore, taken on our visit there in 2018. Many of the houses and quaint cottages in the town date from the period of the Mauzy family’s arrival in 1685. The Customs House would surely have been an important place!

Fontaine’s story continues in the memoir, as he moved with his family to Taunton, where he ran various import and export schemes, some more successful than others. Eventually, they settled in Ireland where a kaleidoscope of adventures continued, including inhabiting a ‘haunted’ house in Dublin and dealing with pirates off the coast of Cork. Jacques died in 1728, aged 70, having written his life story, and prefaced it with this touching dedication:

My dear children,
Having observed the deep interest you have taken in all that has befallen your ancestors, when I have related their adventures to you, I am induced to write down their history for your use, to the end that the pious examples of those from whom we derive our origin may not be lost to you, or those who succeed you.

Translation: With grateful thanks to Gill Yates, who helped me to translate these extracts, and more of the text, from the French. You can read the full text of our translations as a PDF file using the link below.

Barnstaple, in a historic photo from the 19th century. The old buildings on the left were probably there when the refugee party was lodged in the town.

The Mauzy family

But what of the Mauzy family? After this tantalising, eye-witness glimpse of my ancestors on the boat, it’s back to the records, which are scanty. However, the basic outline of their lives is that Louis Mauzy became the pastor of the Huguenot congregation in Barnstaple in North Devon. His daughter Suzanne married André Majendie, and they settled in Exeter where André became a minister for the Huguenot Congregation, possibly at the ‘French Church’ of St Olave’s, or more likely at the second French congregation which existed in the city, its meeting place unknown. Suzanne died as a widow, in Dartmouth on the south Devon coast, leaving her ‘garden’ to her daughter Charlotte, and her ‘silver candlesticks’ to her son John James, along with other bequests. She was buried at St Petrox , an ancient church which stands on the rocky peninsula at the end of the estuary, looking out at the sea which featured so dramatically in Suzanne’s life; she had been one of the refugee party, on board in 1685.

Louis’ son Lewis Mauzy (my 5 x gt grandfather) became a doctor of medicine, married Anne Hutchinson in about 1705, and lived in Exeter; he also left a will when he died in 1727, which establishes some of the family connections. True to his Protestant ethics, the will opens with the mournful instructions: It is my desire to be buryed in the most private manner my body to be laid in a plain black coffin without any Binding and carried to the Grave by six honest and ordinary Men without any other Bearers or Mourning. We do not know as yet where he was buried.

Lewis and Anne had at least five children, one of whom, Elizabeth, married into an Irish Protestant family (with names Long and then subsequently Phillips) and became my 4 x gt grandmother. Among the children of Lewis and Anne is a son, also called Lewis, who graduated from the University of Oxford, where he is recorded in the alumni lists.

St Olave’s Church in Exeter, which served the French Huguenot congregation at one period

I never expected to find a Devon connection in the Irish side of my family history, or to have a first-hand account of how these ancestors escaped from France. They were refugees, and they were welcomed into Devon, which has given me pause for thought in these times when we have our own refugee crises. In one sense, they paved the way, and indeed, the word refugee is said to have come from these Huguenots who fled in fear of their lives. They certainly enriched the life of those countries which which took them in, as they brought their considerable talents and skills with them.

My task here has been to tell just one family story, backed up by reliable sources, but without the expertise of specialist researchers, who devote themselve to the task of Huguenot history. As soon as I can, I plan to go back to Appledore and Barnstaple and look at these places with new eyes, knowing now that this is where the Mauzy family and their fellow refugees landed and began their new lives.

The cross which is the symbol still used by descendants of emigrant Huguenots

Further reading:

Papers

‘The Huguenots of Devon’ – Alison Grand & Robin Gwynn, Devonshire Association Transactions, Dec 1985 (117: 161-194)

‘The Huguenots in Exeter’ – Col. Ransom Pickard, Devonshire Association Transactions, June 1936

‘The Mauzey-Mauzy Family’ – Armand Jean Mauzey, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Jan 1950 (pp 112-119) sourced in JStor

Internet articles

Devon Huguenots – John Lerwill

Devon Towns and Huguenots

Huguenots and Walloons in Devon

Other stories from my family history

The Abduction of Mary Max

A Coventry Quest: Finding a Grandfather

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

Following the Female Line

Glimpses of the Tarot – 7

The Magician, The Wheel of Fortune, and The World are the last trio of cards in this series. (Images above are drawn by my husband Robert Lee-Wade, for my book Tarot Triumphs.) ‘Glimpses of the Tarot’ has now covered the 21 numbered Trump cards of the Tarot pack, plus the unnumbered Fool, who danced his way merrily into a separate post, called The Fool and His Feast. Together, these 22 cards form what is known as the Major Arcana. The other 56 are called the Minor Arcana, and are the equivalent of modern playing card suits, with an extra court card for each suit. In traditional Tarot packs, these are not pictorial, and it is the twenty-two Trumps which carry the strongest symbolism and scope for interpretation.

As I’ve mentioned before, for this project I drew the cards sight unseen in their sets of three, to present me with a fresh view of how they may combine. In writing this series, though, I did not stick entirely to these trios in the order that they turned up, as I wanted to create enough light and shade in the sequence of my posts. And I’m very glad that I left this set of three till last, as it’s very much an ‘all systems go’ combination, bringing about a new way forward. It just so happens as well that The World is the last numbered card in the sequence of Tarot Trumps.

All three images have movement – the quick moving hands of the magician, the turning of the Wheel of Fortune, and the dance of the naked female in the oval shape which here signifies the World. Together, I suggest that they imply creativity, the taking of opportunities, and the celebration of life. So as to make genuine progress, there should be watchfulness rather than reckless abandon; take care not to fall into grandiose illusion over one’s powers, be ready to accept that if you rise on the wheel, you will also descend one day, and also that any success in the eyes of the world will expose you to the gaze of others, and their judgements. But there is such joyous energy in these cards, that the way forward lies in action, not in delay or being over-cautious.

A traditional representation of the Tarot Magician, from the French Madenie pack

The Magician (1)

So what is magic? I have never found one single answer to this, but I’ve certainly come across ways of understanding it. One perception of magic is that it comes about when another level of reality enters our own, and that the practice of magic may be the act of inviting it to do so. Perhaps, too, we have our own magical resources to draw on – our powers of intuition, of using true will (the quiet kind, not the noisy shouting of our desires), or encouraging the creative spirit to manifest. I once heard a story about a brother and sister who I knew. The brother asked his older sister for her help when he was starting out in adult life: ‘I need to get a job, Sis – can you teach me how to do a bit of magic so that I can get one?’ He knew that she was interested in such things. ‘No, I can’t,’ she answered. ‘It’s not ethical and, besides, you’d never understand.’ A few weeks later he phoned her again: ‘Guess what? I’ve got a job! I cut my hair and bought some new clothes and they took me on. So I didn’t need magic after all.’ His sister sighed. ‘Brother,’ she said, ‘you will never understand magic!’

Above: two striking images of the Magician from Renaissance Tarot packs, commissioned for wealthy clients. One is fierce, and giant in stature, while the other seems thoughtful and laid-back.

Even when supernatural powers elude us, we can all use our wit, common sense, and power of attention to create truly marvellous effects. I’ve written about the Magician thus, in Tarot Triumphs: ‘The image represents the tapping of energy, and ways of directing this force with precision and skill. To keep this flow of creation going, however, one has to recognise that all the things one can achieve in this world are, ultimately, games and illusions. But play, colour, delight accompany this revelation. On the Magician’s table, we see the tools which are considered to represent the four elements, continuously in movement, forming different combinations every moment. The dice or counters stand for earth, the cups for water, knife for fire and wand for air. The Magician knows how to make the best of all the opportunities that each of these moments affords.’

The Wheel of Fortune in the traditional and popular Marseille pack

The Wheel of Fortune (10)

The wheel turns, cycles repeat themselves. We cannot avoid this, but we can try to understand the best times to act. Do you start a business, for instance, when the economy is flourishing, so that you can cash in on the upward trend? Or do you, cannily, go in right at the bottom of the cycle – if you can indeed spot when that is – so that the only way now is up? If you have a very clever plan indeed, you could even start an enterprise on the downward part of the cycle, as you know that the wheel turns in time, and at present there may be bargains to acquire. Any of these, of course, implies risk – no one is lucky all the time.

The skill of using the changing fortunes shown on the wheel – the King rides on the top, and becomes a monkey or other beast on descent – is to develop powers of recognition, along with a degree of detachment. Firstly, there’s the need to recognise that there will always be cycles, and that nothing stays in the same place for ever. It’s extraordinary how in some boom periods, a kind of delusion takes hold – that the price of houses, or tulip bulbs, or dot com companies, for instance, will simply go on rising, and rising. The wise man or woman stands back from this, studies history, and takes a cool view of the prospects.

The second factor is developing a sense of when is the best moment to take action, in whatever form may be relevant. Here, you need to consult your own lodestone of judgement: studying what others say is important, but weigh it up against your own experience. However, even with the necessary knowledge, it’s often that nudge of ‘now’ from within which is the surest guide in the end.

And thirdly, recognising when the boom is over, and retraction is necessary, may save serious loss or even ruin. Holding on, hoping for just that bit more, has tipped many from success to ruin. This can apply not only to material gains, but relationships which never quite make the grade, or the time to step down from a job or position of authority. It can be hard to let go.

A more romanticised Wheel from the 18th c. Swiss Tarot, with ‘Lady Fortuna’ turning the handle.

The World (21)

The World turns. The tread of the dancer keeps the eternal movement going, while at the fixed corners, the four sacred creatures watch the dance of life revolve. The image is a fascinating hi-jacking of medieval Christian imagery – such a framework usually surrounded the figure of ‘Christ in Glory’, not a dancing girl. But she may have her own powerful meaning, since in Renaissance Platonic symbolism, a naked dancer may represent the ‘Anima Mundi’, or the Soul of the World. (I’ve written about this in more detail in Tarot Triumphs.) This symbol as a whole can therefore unite male and female forces, and, as the last numbered card in the pack, it indicates completeness. The spiritual world and the material world are conjoined.

In everyday life, however, this image can of course take on a more individual or pragmatic meaning, and may indicate a person or situation where there is real harmony and contentment. Sometimes ‘The World’ tells us that everything is going along as it should, and that it is unnecessary to disturb the balance.

Here then is a card that can symbolise fulfilment, as well as reminding us that our lives are forever in motion. It’s a fitting place to end not only the entire Tarot pack, but the sequence of trios of cards which I’ve explored in this series of posts. Energies are finding a good outlet, progress can be made, and a well-balanced situation can be established.

The three cards from the rather primitive, but effective Italian woodblock set known as the ‘Bologna Tarot’

And finally…
I’ve enjoyed writing this, though it has challenged me – as indeed it should! I hope I’ve shown how the symbol on each Tarot card has its own inherent meaning, but that in relation to others, new aspects of that symbol come forth. In combination, the cards can give a picture of a relationship, a situation, or whatever subject the question may be about.

In Tarot Triumphs I have set out a sequence of guidelines for making your own connection with the individual cards, then learning different ways of reading them in answer to a question, from simple starting points of three- and four-card readings, to a more complex twenty-two-card reading, known as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. Whether you wish to read Tarot, or just to learn more about these rich, enigmatic and powerful symbols, I hope you’ll find much to interest you there.

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!

You may also be interested in:

The other posts in this series are:

Glimpses of the Tarot One – High Priestess, Lovers, Strength

Glimpses of the Tarot Two – Star, Hanged Man, Death

Glimpses of the Tarot Three – Temperance, Justice, Chariot

Glimpses of the Tarot Four – Hermit, Emperor, Moon

Glimpses of the Tarot Five – Pope, Tower, Judgement

Glimpses of the Tarot Six – Empress, Sun, Devil

The Fool and his Feast TheTarot Fool and the Festival which celebrates him

Lockdown Topsham

From the start of lockdown in March 2020 until the end of July, I walked a two mile circuit around Topsham very early almost every morning. I set out usually before 7.0 and sometimes as soon as 5.30am, when it was light enough to see my way. It was a spontaneous urge to be up and out before the day got busy, and the pathways too crowded for social distancing.

The images and reflections which follow are my personal experience of this, as homage to the great beauty of the area, and as keepsakes from what we will surely look back on as a very strange time. They are just what I chose to photograph on my walks, rather than a comprehensive diary, and are not arranged here in date order. I hope you will enjoy this excursion through dawn scenery and the curiosities of lockdown Topsham.

The Goat Walk, still deep in shadow at dawn over a high tide on the River Exe

My usual route took me along the River Exe from Ferry Road to the quayside, then up the Strand with its historic, Dutch-styled houses to the Goat Walk, a narrow path which runs above the river bed. At the end of this spit of land, I would turn into the two community-owned fields to have a taste of the countryside, before continuing down Bowling Green Lane, with the bird reserve in the marshes on the right.

A frieze of geese, in the nature reserve

From the end of the Lane, a sharp uphill turn led to the top of Monmouth Street, and back down to the quayside. There I often walked home past the shops on Fore Street to reach our own front door.

The images below show the emergence of spring and into early summer in the Bowling Green Lane area


Sometimes I had a change, walking first through the town and out again past the Bridge Inn, crossing the River Clyst towards Darts Farm, but turning off first on the track back to Topsham.

The road past the Bridge Inn, then Dart’s Farm fields, and a figure appearing out of the mist
This was taken at 7.06 am on April 21st. It’s the ‘Dart Fresh’ crew, getting ready to take their fresh food supplies to grateful customers all over the area. I can testify to how far afield they travel, since when we took a break on Exmoor at the beginning of August, their van was the first thing we saw arriving at the remote moorland village of Simonsbath!

All this time, I marvelled at the changing seasons, with the first green of spring, and the growth of flowers and leaves into summer. I noticed the light changing too, as dawn grew later.

Dawn over Bowling Green Marshes – and what are those strange trails in the sky? So few planes were flying then, in April, that any sign of them caught our attention.

I did not set out to keep a record of lockdown, but I always took a phone or camera with me, and snapped what was beautiful or interesting, which means I do have some images directly related to the lockdown itself, which include those taken out and about in the town later in the day.

Upended tables at the closed Passage Inn look like a strange invasion of stick insects. Below, our cat Zaq and Rupert the bear in lockdown (the town organised a ‘Bear Hunt’), and a cheerful message on the walkway over the River Clyst.
June and July – The barber’s shop re-opens at last! The Art Shop opens its doors, with a new display to tempt people in, and moving house is allowed again.


There was a camaraderie about those walks. We were a scattered band of people who loved the peace and freshness of the early morning, and who wanted to beat the risk of finding ourselves in crowded places later in the day. Some faces were familiar, others new to me. I often exchanged greetings with our friend who takes weather photos for the BBC, and with another who plays the church organ, and I also became acquainted with a lady who always walks when she comes off night duty at an emergency call centre. Although the circumstances were harsh, there was something very special about those walks, and about the changing beauty of the scene. The weather was exceptionally good during those few months; bird song was crystal clear, roads were quiet, air unpolluted.

Suddenly, it was wisteria time!


From August, everything changed, both with the easing of restrictions and my own circumstances. The early walks came to an end. Perhaps I will begin them again this spring – but this time I hope it will be on the basis of wanting to do so, rather than from the pressures of lockdown.

You may also be interested in:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Topsham Celebrates

A Coventry Quest: Finding a Grandfather

Family history is a quest, and the act of going out on site visits to do your research can be a story in itself. If you visit the places where your ancestors lived and worked, it can become a magical journey where surprises and discoveries abound. Savouring the atmosphere of ancestral haunts and walking the landscapes where they too walked can bring a kind of knowledge beyond that of hard facts.

In this post, I have written up one of my own quests on the trail of the ancestors – a trip to Coventry to discover more of my 3 x great grandfather, watchmaker Daniel Brown. I wrote it down a few years ago, in such a way that I could share the story with others, but it has never seen the light of day until now. I offer it here, after giving it the cold editorial eye, and a sprucing-up.

For those interested in doing something similar, I’ve added tips and suggestions about the process at the end. It’s worth making a special undertaking to do this. While teaching life writing and family history courses, I’ve often encouraged people to set up a ‘quest’ and write about their discoveries, and it’s always been exciting and moving to read their stories.

Spon Street, Coventry, photographed on the morning of our visit

Arrival in Spon Street

‘Is this Spon Street?’ asks my husband, in mild disbelief.

We gaze down the narrow city street, studded with a mixture of nightclubs and kebab takeaways, bridalwear shops and ‘the last proper butcher’s in Coventry’. It’s a wet, cold Saturday morning, and the street is deserted. Is this really the historic quarter, the street once filled by hundreds of craftsmen: dyers and weavers, shoemakers and watchmakers? The Coventry websites call it ‘the town’s finest renovation project’, but it seems a little sad right now. The photos they show, a real dream of an ancient street, obviously must depend on where you point the camera. Historical in part, we concede, noticing some exquisite groups of half-timbered houses dotted along the street, among the Victorian and ‘60s infill. We are here to follow up one of those former inhabitants, my 3 x great grandfather, Daniel Brown, watchmaker of Spon Street in the late 18th century. And even though first impressions are not quite as expected, we’re ready to take what the city can offer us.

I was last in Coventry when I was at school in Birmingham. Coventry wasn’t a place you came to then except to see the new cathedral, or, in my case, to listen to the Rolling Stones. It’s not familiar, although I can still recognise the ‘modern’ shopping precinct of the late 1960s where I looked in vain for trendy clothes, now smartened up with a glass roof. We aren’t here to cover my old trails, though, but rather to find new ones. When you’re hunting ancestors, even in a place you know well, you inevitably see your surroundings in a different light, and explore nooks and crannies which wouldn’t have attracted your attention before. Even the air smells different when you’re on the trail; often, a strange magic creeps in, and such days remain glowing in the memory.

One of the truly old houses in Spon Street

So here is the background to this particular quest. Daniel Brown was born around 1768, and lived in the labyrinth of workshops in Spon Street for most of his life, practising his skills as a watchmaker. He married a woman called Anne –surname possibly Fulford – and they produced a family of some five children. One of these children, James, became my 2 x great grandfather. It seems that Daniel’s own father, Isaac, was a weaver, and since James reverted to the weaving trade, Daniel is the only watchmaker in my line, and of great interest as such. What can Coventry tell me about him?

He must have done well at his trade, since at his death at the age of 81 in 1849, he had money and property to leave in his will, an estate worth about £25,000 in today’s terms. Daniel’s first will had me fooled, though: it was a draft prepared less than ten years before his death, written in an almost indecipherable hand. I assumed it was his final will, but when I’d finally transcribed it, I thought it might be prudent to check for a proven will. There was one – much more legible this time, but oh, what had the old so-and-so done? He’d gone and got married again, in 1844, at the age of 76, to one Sarah Stone. Both their ages are coyly concealed on the marriage certificate, which declares simply that they are ‘of full age’. Well, it must have been obvious in Daniel’s case, but I’d like to know if Sarah was a tempting young wench, or a shrewd elderly widow? At any rate, Sarah comes in for the sum of 10 shillings to be paid to her ‘at the end of every week’ until it reaches a total of £300. This surely shows an astuteness in Daniel’s control of his money – if she was a gold digger, she would only be in line for a share of his assets and if she died soon after him, the residue of the bequest would pass back to his own family. Other bequests are to his children and grandchildren, who each receive a decent legacy. All, that is, except for my 2 x gt. grandfather James, who obviously owed his father a packet already, since Daniel’s will offers to write off James’s debts, but little else.

St John’s Church, Coventry, where my 3 x gt grandfather married twice, the second time in his late 70s. Below is the carving of the Green Man, which might have given him pause for thought then.

In the city centre itself, we admire Lady Godiva’s statue, a legend which is a tribute to the independence and feistiness of the inhabitants.

Robert is casting an artist’s eye over the sculpture of Lady Godiva who rode naked through the town in order to save the townspeople from punitive taxes. You can read the story and see another striking image of her here.

Discovering the city

We pay the steep entrance fee into the Cathedral to see not only the famous Graham Sutherland tapestry, but the Piper Baptistry window, the Whistler angels etched on glass, and the Frink choir stalls. The more we gaze, the more I appreciate this incredible building and its art, far more than I did in my restless teenage years. Yet I’m assailed by a sharp sense of the sadness and anger embedded here, in the juxtaposition of the new Cathedral and the ruins of the old, following the horrendous destruction of the Blitz. Witnessing this contrast, though, helps me to get a perspective on the longer history of the city. Although my direct-line descendants moved out to the nearby town of Bedworth, Coventry must still have been imprinted in the family story. My sense of the old Coventry as a productive, busy place, fostering independent craftspeople and small businesses, has now been heightened by the contrast with its post-war trauma. Indeed, almost anything you see and experience on a family history quest is likely to feed your knowledge, and fire up your imagination. You can never achieve this in quite the same way from research carried out at a distance.

The wonderful Baptistry window by John Piper, in Coventry Cathedral

I am eager to visit the ribbon weaving display at the Herbert Museum and City Art Gallery. Many of Daniel’s relatives and descendants, including my great grandmother, worked in this industry, often from as young as ten years old. In the 19th century, beautiful and intricate silk ribbons were woven to adorn ladies’ costumes, and both Coventry and Bedworth depended economically upon this trade. The industry continued through the era of hand loom weaving into that of machine weaving and jacquard looms, which were capable of reproducing complex patterns. The Museum has a stunning example of a jacquard loom, and a video of the monster at work. (You can see below an example of an earlier hand loom on the left, and a jacquard on the right.)

The images below show the types of decorative silk ribbon that were being woven in Coventry and the surrounding areas in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These are in pattern books, preserved at the Herbert Museum.

Ribbon weaving was often done from family workshops, sometimes situated on the top floor of their cottages for maximum light, but later subsumed into fully-industrialised factories which swallowed up their children for the workforce. Cash’s (of school nametapes fame) is probably the most famous of these old Coventry firms. At the Tourist Information Office – another source of local wisdom – the woman at the desk told me wryly that most of the Cash’s name tapes are now woven in Turkey, although some decorative bookmarks are still made locally as souvenirs. Now, in the Museum, we admire the sample ribbon pattern books dating from the 1840s, the time when my Bedworth ancestors were in the trade. There’s also an account of the terrible times of hardship that hit the ribbon weavers after the tariffs were lifted on the import of French silk, causing a major slump in home production. Famine struck both Coventry and Bedworth, soup kitchens were set up, and charitable funds were used to send whole families abroad to the Colonies. My great grandfather was fortunate in that he spotted the opportunity to work on the railways, which gave the chance for a family to move, something very difficult at the time. (He ended his career as signalman at Althorp Park Station, known these days as the stately house where Princess Diana lived.)

The plight of the ribbon weavers, from an information board in the Herbert Museum

Winners and Losers

On these quests, not every plan may prove possible. It seems that I can’t make the special visit that I’d been promised earlier, to see the rest of the ribbon weaving samples in store. It’s Saturday, and curators only work Monday to Friday, I’m told. Another time, perhaps. Indeed, I’ve learned from past experience, that it’s more rewarding to stay with what can be done, than to fret about what can’t. Perhaps I can take this enticing option on a future visit.

But, to balance this up, contrary to what the website says, the History Centre is open on Saturdays. An inviting, glass-walled library on the ground floor of the Museum, it is available for any walk-in visitors who’d like to consult shelves of local material, with the assistance of knowledgeable volunteers. We only have a short time, but some quick browsing produces a possible match for Daniel in the apprenticeship records and a plot number for him in the London Road Cemetery. This will at least give us a chance to see his gravestone; I discovered a picture of his memorial stone on a website a couple of nights ago.

A map of the London Road cemetery area. I wish I’d taken one of these with us! The location on the left hand side, with the Non-Conformist Chapel, is the area we needed.

We return to Spon Street, which is now looking a little brighter, with a few visitors in its shops and cafes. This was once a major highway into the city, and has been an important part of Coventry’s trading quarter since medieval times. But apart from the recent historic reconstruction at the inner end, little now remains of the cottages and bustling workshops which once flanked it for the best part of a mile. The city ring road has cut through it, and the two parts are severed, and only accessible on foot. The move to the era of ‘Car is God’ has created some truly terrible town planning in the Midlands, as I’ve written about in ‘Finding Brummagem’. The outer stretch is quiet now, leading us past blocks of flats, deserted open grassland, community centres and an occasional old cottage. But the sense of space is opened up, and it’s possible to project the imagination even further back in history, to a time when the area was rural. The river Sherbourne, which the dyers once used, is still racing along behind a row of houses, and on the old stone bridge which crosses it, you can stand and dream of life gone by.

The River Sherbourne, once semi-rural and passing weavers’ and watchmakers’ cottages. Now it passes through new housing estates.

Two o’clock, and we haven’t had lunch yet. (Food is always important on my quests. Fuel is definitely needed.) Oh, and the Watch Museum is open in Spon Street as well. Another piece of good fortune, as it only opens for a few hours twice a week. Can’t miss that. So shall we try the cemetery too? I steal a sideways glance at my husband. He doesn’t look too jaded, so maybe something to eat will strengthen us enough to complete the quest. We go for coffee and sandwiches in a bistro operating in one of the reconstructed 17th century houses, then stroll over to the Watch Museum. This consists of a very decrepit block of cottages, which lead back from the street into a courtyard.

‘Come out to the back!’

A museum guide beckons us eagerly. He throws open the door to one of three privies, lovingly restored. A hundred and eleven people once lived and worked here, and they had to share the facilities.

He scratched his head. ‘Some tourists have borrowed our bowler hats,’ he says, and shows us to where a couple of visitors are posing bowler-hatted for their photos against the back wall of the final cottage, which has a gaping crack running from top to bottom.

The inside rooms on show are incredibly dilapidated too, with flaking, distempered doors and bare floors, but they give me a sense of the old way of life more vividly than an artistic reconstruction. Was Daniel’s life this hard? Did he have to squirrel away his money to improve his lot?

‘Spon Street, Coventry, West Midlands. The Spon Street building, now almost a skeleton stripped of its fabric, was built as a pair of semi-detached houses, probably in the 14th century. Markings on the end truss indicate that the timber framework is to be taken to pieces carefully and possibly re-erected. June 1963.’ From a newspaper article about the re-construction of Coventry, which also included the photo of the River Sherbourne above

We admire the selection of Coventry watches on display, and I wonder about Daniel’s status. I’ve found him listed in the watchmakers’ records for the town, but I don’t know if he worked entirely on his own account, or as a piece-worker for one of the local firms? I’m told by the guide that watchmakers could do either, or both, but that individual watches were rarely signed as many watches were composite productions. I’ve already seen in my research that the censuses of the period reveal many dial-makers and watch-finishers, as well as watchmakers proper. So finding a ‘Daniel Brown’ watch remains a dream for me.

‘Most watchmakers were apprenticed, and the first thing they got when they’d served the apprenticeship was the sack,’ the guide informs us. ‘They had to make shift for themselves, then. But they were also freer to do what they wanted. Look out for a marriage at around the age of twenty-one. They weren’t allowed to marry before that. It can help you with knowing the age of your ancestor.’

I check my dossier. ‘Twenty-four,’ I say.

He nods sagely. ‘Sounds about right. They tended to marry as soon as they could.’

A restored weaver’s house in Spon Street

I buy a booklet produced by the Museum, describing a historic watchmakers’ trail around the city, and then we’re off to our final stop: the London Road Cemetery. We are back in the car, and snarled up on the Coventry Ring Road, which was probably devised by planners when they were in a sadistic mood. Poor old Jane, our Sat Nav voice, can’t cope with all their loops and kinks. We circle around the city in the wrong direction. Eventually, as navigator I tell Robert to take the next road off the demonic ring.

‘Where’s it going?’ he asks.

‘I don’t know. I don’t care. Anywhere is better than this.’

There were plenty of watering holes around Spon Street and Spon End. This one was apparently called ‘The Old Windmill’, but known at one time as ‘Ma Brown’s’. Could Ma Brown or Sydney Brown have been a relation, I wonder?

Jane recovers her sanity and coolly directs us to the post code for the cemetery. And that’s where she can help no further. We only have a vague memory of the plan we consulted at the History Centre, with its numbered section and grave. We drive all around it, finally choose one of the unmarked entrances, and drive the car a little way in. It’s late afternoon now, and the place is practically deserted. We wander through the vast graveyard, looking for older stones that will show us we’re in the right area. But only modern graves catch our eye, some vividly decorated with pink flowers and teddies. Who can we ask? There’s one mourner by a grave, but he is truly mourning, wiping away tears. I decide to go through an iron gate in the wall – shades of The Secret Garden – to see if the old area is beyond there. It’s getting dusky, and I hesitate when I see three lads who look as though they might be drug dealing. Ah no, here comes a safe-looking middle-aged couple with their shopping. They tell me, rather vaguely, that there’s another complete section of the cemetery we need to find.

‘Where the Rolls Royce factory was. You know,’ she says helpfully.

‘No, I’m sorry, I don’t,’ I reply. ‘Do you know what road the entrance is on?’

‘No, haven’t a clue,’ answers her husband.

We decide to try again. This time, we find a friendly Irish lady tidying up a grave. She’s driven her car right up to the graveside. ‘Have to be careful. People have been robbed here.’ She tells us that there is a Chapel, and an older graveyard around it. ‘Just up there.’ She waves her hand vaguely.

Thank you, thank you. By now, Robert is using his visual skills as a professional artist and is consulting the photo of the gravestone.

‘Look at the shape of it,’ he says, tracing the indentations and angles cut into the top of the stone. He also has stonemason ancestors, so I’m trusting his instincts to spot the right one.

But we can’t find anything. We ask another man, also Irish as it happens, who shakes his head. As we head towards the exit, we see a very organised-looking lady tending a grave. I say it’s not worth asking, but Robert says we should give it one last shot.

‘Of course,’ she says. ‘You need to go out of here, and then find the other entrance, the original one. It’s just down the road.’

The old Non-Conformist Chapel, in the section of the cemetery where Daniel Brown was buried. This family line is mainly Baptist, so it’s possible that Daniel was as well. (Non-Conformists often married in Anglican churches, and were sometimes required to do so by law.)

Ah, it’s in a different place altogether! The cemetery was opened in 1847 and since then, the railway line has sliced it in half. We pick up the car which is languishing near a cedar tree, and drive out, round, down – and there it is – the older, grander entrance to the original cemetery. Daniel Brown was one of the first to be buried there in 1849.

Four magpies bounce across the path.

‘A boy!’ we say excitedly, in line with the old children’s rhyme. But will we find our man?

We search the first area without any luck, and I am thinking that it’s nearly time to go home. The air is darker, the mood is eerie, and we’re in a place where the dead are thick in number and the living very scarce. We are the only ones, in fact.

Then we spot the Chapel, further along. It’s a kind of strange, mausoleum type of building and with it comes a whiff of the Victorian cult of death. We move towards it, through the obelisks and the forest of stones, both plain and elaborate, some now leaning at an angle or almost swallowed up by the trees.

‘I’ll take this side, you take the other,’ I suggest.

Five minutes later, Robert calls out: ‘Found it!’

And there he is. ‘Daniel Brown, departed this life June 21st 1849 aged 81 years. And of John Brown, son of the above, who died Dec 5th 1855, aged 58 years.’

‘Hello, grandpa,’ I say softly.

Websites for Coventry history
Cash’s weaving, Coventry
Coventry Watch Museum
Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
Spon Street, Coventry – Coventry Walks website , Historic Coventry
Article on the changing face of Coventry, with photos of historic buildings in Spon End

Tips for a Family History Quest

Planning and carrying out the quest
Plan out your day, but allow for the unexpected as well. Following up new leads is half the fun!
Think about your route in advance, especially if it involves finding car parks in towns. It can save you time and frustration.
It can be more fun and give support to have someone with you, but be up front about the fact that you’ll be focused full-time on following the trail. Don’t plan extra side trips.

Suggestions for what to take
A small dossier of relevant material, eg local information and notes on family records. (Keep it light and compact – it can be difficult to find something quickly from a big sheaf of papers.)
Recording materials, such as a notebook, camera and a voice recorder, which can be on your phone.
A relevant map if possible. Ordinance Survey maps are useful for detailed navigation in the countryside (or the equivalent outside the UK); for a city, you can probably download a visitor’s map from the internet.

While on the trail
Ask for help from locals – anyone from a farmer to a museum attendant may have valuable clues for you. If you tell them you have family connections they may open up, and give you much more detailed information.
Buy local leaflets or booklets, on anything from folklore to churches. If you don’t have time to look at them while you’re on your quest, they may be really useful later. It’s much harder to track them down when out of the area.
Follow your nose – it may be the best guide that you have!
Be philosophical: you may be thwarted on some counts, but find wonderful new avenues to explore too.

Afterwards
Do write up your quest within a few days. If you’re short of time, just make notes, but make them as full as possible. It’s extraordinary how quickly we forget details.

Set yourself a reasonable length to write to – about 1500-5000 words is usually plenty. If you make it much longer, it may be too much of a project and never get completed. It’s better to make the first account precise, and expand it later, if you wish.

There’s always scope for editing! Sometimes the story comes out in a rush, which is great for conveying energy, but be ready to check and prune it later.

Share it with others – it makes a wonderful bulletin to circulate to other family members. Everyone loves to read a story.

Reflect on what questions have arisen out of your quest. You may end up with more questions than answers, but they may stimulate further research, and might even pave the way for the next quest.

You may also be interested in these other family history posts:

The Abduction of Mary Max

Following the Female Line

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

Glimpses of the Tarot – 6

The Empress, the Sun and the Devil

Today’s cards are The Empress, The Sun and The Devil. In this Tarot post, I’ll focus in particular on the relationship between them, and what it means to interpret a triad of cards.

Images below by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA for Tarot Triumphs. It just so happens that the Devil comes out larger than the others in my photographs!

The Triad

Every trio of cards presents its own challenge, because taking the symbols in combination is very different from studying each archetype in turn. We need to learn about them individually first, to grasp their essence, but the real magic of the Tarot comes about when we look at the dynamics between a group of cards. Three is the basic minimum for such a relationship; a solo card is a world unto itself, two cards form a polarity – useful, but goes nowhere except back and forth – but three cards immediately form their own connection. It’s rather like putting three guests together at the dinner table, and wondering how they’re going to react to each other. Will the regal Empress tolerate the sunny-natured, but over-exuberant guest on her right? And how will that sardonic-looking businessman on her left tell her what she needs to know, but doesn’t want to hear, that her financial investments are at risk? He won’t get any thanks for it, that’s for sure. You could invent a multitude of stories about such characters, in keeping with the Tarot archetypes. These particular three strike me as being awkward companions – strong-willed, full of drive and energy, and no doubt opinionated. That’s my immediate take on these three guests, but there are many, many more ways in which you can
tell the story of each triad of cards that is picked, and the situations they create.

Indeed, if you like writing fiction, the Tarot offers a good stimulus for creating characters and plot lines. Pick between three and seven cards, and see how they appear to combine and interact. An opportunity once came my way to do just that, when I was invited to submit a story based on a combination of five Tarot Trumps, for an anthology published as Tarot Tales. It is usually more fruitful to pick your cards blind, so that you have something of a surprise, which can be more of a stimulus for the imagination. Or if you already have a particular character in mind, choose the card which represents that person best, and then draw the accompanying cards at random. Not all the cards represent human figures, of course, but there’s always a way of imagining a person emerging from the symbol -a gambler from the Wheel of Fortune, a romantic novelist from the Moon, or a recycling expert from Death! They can be as light or as serious as you wish.

Images of the three cards from the French ‘Conver’ pack from around 1760

A three-card reading, as I write in Tarot Triumphs, is a useful starting point for interpreting a real-life situation too. ‘This is a simple, but effective way of reading the Tarot, and a good place to start, if you are a novice. It is also a useful method for any Tarot reader, to give a snapshot reading for an individual, or if you want to obtain a quick take on a situation. Ask the individual to phrase a simple question and invite him or her to pick three cards from a set of Tarot Trumps which you have shuffled. This is also an effective way of getting to know the Tarot Trumps, playing with them in threefold combinations and seeing what that triad suggests to you. As one of my own Tarot instructors said, ‘After all, Tarot is a game!’ (Historically this was true too, and various versions of full Tarot packs, with the four suits included, were used for card games.)

I’ll take the current cards one by one here, then suggest how they might be seen in conjunction with one another.

The Empress

The Empress represents worldly feminine authority, and she is also a symbol of fertility. In many of the traditional packs, her voluptuous curves hint at pregnancy, so she has a dual role. As the highest female authority in worldly terms, she helps to guard civilisation, and represents the power of the land. But her role as the mother of heirs is also implicit. She is both an earth mother, with the warmth and nurturing that this implies, but also the strict keeper of the hierarchy and of law. Although an Empress as such might seem rather remote from modern life, we do have our female prime ministers and presidents and members of royal families, all of whom have a particular position of authority. And if you take that into domestic life, even a so-called ‘ordinary mother’ usually operates from a mix of maternal love and strong authority. Both are needed and expected, with the important empathic and emotional bond between mother and child, but also the more detached structure she employs, employing rules and routines to govern behaviour and help the child’s development. The Empress, therefore, can be seen as a stern, controlling woman, which is her predominant feature, but she also carries an element of fertility and sexuality.

A woodblock print Empress from the Bologna pack, contrasting with the finely-painted reproduction of the Empress from the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned by nobility.

From the standard ‘Marseilles’ Tarot pack

The Sun

Unlike the complex, elusive Moon, the Sun shines forth in its simplicity. Its qualities are truth, openness, warmth, and generosity; it could also indicate friendship in a reading, along with trust and personal integrity. Thus the Sun in a prominent position may denote new energy and growth, or the healing of a rift. All in all, it speaks of creativity, love and joy. Every Tarot Trump has its downside though, and the Sun can also signify excessively high spirits reckless enthusiasm, or over-indulgence in pleasure. Too much sun can burn the skin, or even make us ill! Historically, there have been different versions of the card, but the prevalent image is that of two naked children playing innocently under the Sun’s rays. And it may be a very ancient motif, as male twins have been associated with the Sun since the Bronze Age.

A less common image of the Sun, with a naked youth on a prancing horse, bearing a flag. From the early Vieville pack, of the 17th century.
A racy looking Devil from the Bologna pack, with his henchmen chained at his side

The Devil

We don’t tend to see the devil as a significant force in our lives any more – or at least, we describe malevolent forces in other ways. But let us not assume that this Trump has lost all his significance. Although the Devil in a reading does not for the most part represent evil, it can certainly indicate people or situations that are diminishing our capacity to act, think or feel. The two little devils chained to his plinth have no apparent means of escape. Awareness of this bondage is therefore the first step towards liberation; to have a chance of becoming free, we first need to recognise that we are enslaved. We may need to use intelligence, compassion, or even cunning to release the ties that bind us in an unwelcome way, and to move on. However, sometimes the Devil indicates that this is a situation of very limited choice, and that we have to act from necessity, rather than personal desire. It may be time to ‘do what must be done’ in a difficult situation to stop poison spreading, or to prevent further enchainment. It may be time to blow the whistle, file for bankruptcy, or get the police involved. Unpleasant choices must be made; the Devil must be faced. “Take what you want, and pay the price,” is another relevant saying: the Devil is a reminder of the bill that must be paid.

A gallery of grotesque Devils

The Trio

Although there are different possible views of the relationship between these three cards, I am drawn to see the Empress as ‘lead’ card here, and the other two as dual aspects of her nature. This is only one of many interpretations, but it does integrate the seemingly opposed forces of her accompanying emblems. The Empress has both sides to her – the warmth and fertility of the sun’s rays, and the often unwelcome, punitive aspect of the devil. She may be gracious and generous, but she is in charge and will wield her power to cut off argument. She can be playful and tender in intimate situations, but is dignified in her outer role as ruler, mother, politician. But I invite you to try other ways of looking at the triad: what happens if the Devil or the Sun is the dominant card? Or if the three form a kind of circuit, where the energy generated courses between them?

In fact, a triad of cards doesn’t always give you a sense of a stable situation, and to anchor this, introducing a fourth card can help, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs (p. 89). A simple four-card reading involves choosing or picking a single card ‘significator’ to start with. It can act as a centre to the triad of the other three cards, or they can be laid out from left to right as past, present and future. With a fourth card, you have more context to work with, and possibly a time frame.

Reading the Tarot is not for everyone, but I hope by going deeper into the symbolism of the Trumps, I can show that they can be carriers of wisdom and generators of creativity, as a fascinating set of archetypes in their own right.

‘Cherry Reading the Cards’ by Robert Lee-Wade RUA. The set depicted here is the Rider-Waite pack of 1909, which is fully pictorial in both Major and Minor Arcanas (Trump cards and suits). It draws from traditional designs, but is also strongly influenced by the symbolism of the esoteric Golden Dawn movement.

You may also be interested in:

Glimpses of the Tarot 1

Glimpses of the Tarot 2

Glimpses of the Tarot 3

Glimpses of the Tarot 4

The Fool and his Feast

Glimpses of the Tarot 5

A Poem in the Albert Hall

Part Four of A Writer’s Life

I became intoxicated by poetry in my teenage years. At school, we plunged deep into the Metaphysical Poets, were thrilled by D.H. Lawrence, and learnt to love Wordsworth. I also craved more recent poets untouched by the exam syllabus. I managed to put together enough money to buy paperbacks of poetry with titles such as Beat Poets and Jazz Poems, and by authors such as e.e.cummings and Laurie Lee, and Liverpool Poets like Roger McGough. Diving into these chimed in with our growing sense of the new freedom of the 1960s.

Some of my poetry collection from that period; I loved this innovative series of anthologies, which were – just about! – within my budget

This is, I admit, a prelude to talking about my own poetry. Of course, writing heartfelt poems is what teenagers do, and of course I was influenced by all the above poets, leading to some cringe-making lines. But nevertheless, some of those poems did come good, and two have stories attached to them, which I am about to tell. I still have my ‘Poems’ notebook with its marbled hardback cover and I find I can bear to read most of those written down there. And the earliest poem I have on record is far distant enough to be entertaining – we were instructed at school to write something epic about the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s my effort, aged about twelve – the only thing I’ve ever preserved from my school exercise books.

Those of you who’ve read my blog before may remember how I began writing for Jackie magazine while I was still in the Sixth Form at school. That was in October 1966, and emboldened by this moderate success, I decided to try my luck with poems. Not to Jackie, of course, but to the prestigious ‘Poetry Review’. I’m afraid I don’t remember how or why I came to choose that august publication, but it was certainly a daring move. I had the naivety to give anything a shot, and – I suppose – thought I might as well aim high. My diary of Jan 7th, 1967, records: ‘The other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!)’.

To my astonishment, I had an encouraging letter back from the editor – which, sadly, I haven’t kept – saying he’d like to publish the one called French Boy, for a fee. I think it was around two guineas. And so it was duly included, in Autumn 1967 issue. He also asked if I could send him further poems in future. But, with the carelessness of youth, I didn’t get round to doing that. Life was opening up at a rapid pace – I was at Cambridge university by the time it was published that autumn, and was distracted by a myriad of other exciting possibilities. I even lost or threw out the edition of Poetry Review containing the poem. (Here are a couple of others from around the same era, which I discovered on the internet.)

Fast forward to 2005, when I visited my daughter in Australia, while she and her boyfriend were living in Sydney for a few years. I’d rented a studio flat nearby, but as it wasn’t available for the first few days, I had to look elsewhere for a bed. Two old friends of mine from astrology circles, Derek and Julia Parker, had emigrated to Sydney not long beforehand, and when I contacted them, they said they’d be delighted to put me up for the interim. Julia is an astrologer of repute, and Derek a man of broad literary accomplishments; together they’d written the best-selling ‘The Compleat Astrologer’.

Below: Derek and Julia Parker during my visit to Australia, and their best-selling treatise on astrology

Somehow, during one of our delightful catch-up conversations, I mentioned the Poetry Review and how I’d had a poem published there as a teenager.

‘But I was the editor at the time!’ said Derek.

I had completely forgotten the name of the kind editor but, yes of course – it came back to me now! ‘I don’t suppose you have a copy of that issue, do you? I no longer have mine.’

‘Of course,’ he said, and pulled it down from the shelf.

I took the photocopy he made me, and vowed never to lose sight of it again. Yes, I can criticise it – but it did make the pages of a worthy poetry journal. And how foolish I was not to take that further. I still occasionally write poetry, but the chance to really build it as a craft has passed now.

The poem is one of a group I wrote about a rather miserable French exchange with an uptight family whose holiday home was in an uninteresting area of sand dunes and summer villas, full of moderately wealthy bourgeoisie and their offspring. Appearances and conformity were the rule of the day. The visit inspired a number of complaining poems on my part – which I won’t bore anyone with – and this one was about a lad who was a little too good to be true in appearance, and a little too vain to be likeable.

French Boy
 Zut he said neatly
 And opened two rows of white teeth
 to grin charmingly.
 His slim brown fingers
 plucked the strings precisely
 and his blond hair
 was oh so shiny,
 trimmed
 with an enchanting touch,
 a casual touch.
 The golden Apollo muscles
 Rippled
 beneath his blue shirt.
 The careful notes
 flickered and broke.
 Zut
 because this, too,
 was part of the flawless
 brown shell
 Poetry Review – Edited by Derek Parker
 Vol LVIII, no. 3, Autumn 1967.

The Albert Hall
At the same time that I submitted the poem for Derek’s attention, I also sent one off elsewhere. The diary tells the tale – here’s the full entry:

Diary entry for Jan 7th 1967
Most extraordinary thing happened today. Yes actually HAPPENED!!! Well the other day I sent off some poetry to Poetry Review for criticism (took great courage!!) I was typing some poems out and came across the ‘Folk Club’ one which is rather frivolous to put it mildly. Typed it out then thought I’d better not send it with the rest cos it wasn’t really the same kind of thing. So I sent it off to ‘Sing’, one of the folk song magazines – didn’t even know if it was still in print. Expected it back with a note saying ‘What the hell did you send us this for?’ Well today the phone went for me, and a voice said, ‘This is Eric Winter, Editor of ‘Sing’’. He said how much he liked my poem and said they would print it next issue, and also he showed it to Pete Seeger last night who also liked it, and gave a recital of it at his concert in the Royal Albert Hall! Complete with actions – and apparently the audience loved it! Then E. Winter wanted to know if I’d written any more poems, prose, songs etc and if I’d send him some, and come and see him if I was in London at all. V. Flattering! Great – it’s a big laff, but that’s made my day.

Pete Seeger performing in the same year, 1967, at a TV show in East Berlin. (Photo by: Zentralbild/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Eh? What? Pete Seeger read out my poem? I had almost forgotten about it, or assumed it was a distorted memory – but the diary doesn’t lie. (Truly, it doesn’t!) Again, I can only blame the casualness of youth. And perhaps an element of not enough self-belief. As I’ve said since to other budding writers, you have to take your achievements seriously. Surprisingly, it is too easy to assume that a success – maybe in a competition, or in getting a story published – was a fluke. That anyone could have done it, and that it doesn’t indicate any real value. But this shrugging off of success is as much of a trap for a writer as is being too conceited about one’s chances. So, please take a lesson from me in this respect. Cherish what you achieve, and build on little successes.

The Royal Albert Hall – Eek! Did my poem really get heard by an audience there? Does anyone remember, I wonder?

Here’s the poem – it’s based on the folk club in Birmingham, which I’ve written about in ‘Singing at the Holy Ground’.

Folk Club (March 1966)
 Fred plays the guitar
 brrm brrm brrm brrm
 and we all say
 well done Fred
 what was that you played?
 and drink our beer.
 And Fred says
 this song is called and it comes from well
 actually I learnt it off a fellah named
 sorry if I forget the words I only
 worked it out last well here goes – 
 brrm brrm brrm brrm
 clap clap clap
 well done Fred
 because everyone likes Fred
 and we drink more beer
 and say o look here comes Clive,
 but which Clive is it?
 well tonight it is big Clive
 and he has had all his long black curls
 CUT OFF.
 Gasps.
 Well they were an institution
 you could laugh or rave or scream
 or maybe even tell the time by them
 if you tried hard enough.
 you please yourself.
 but now he looks like a new shorn sheep
 well I suppose he is in a way.
 brrm brrm brrm brrm
 sssh - tell me later.
 he’s out of tune and i don’t like his voice and
 brrm brrm brrm brrm brrm
 ALL JOIN IN THE CHORUS
 tOOralay tOOralay tOOralay o!
 and haul away Joe
 cos we’ll all kill Paddy Doyle for his boots
 would you all take your glasses downstairs please. 
 singing whackfoldedaddyo and we’ll all go together
 Brrm brrm brrm.

At the Holy Ground folk club with the Munstermen, 1965.

And no, I didn’t keep a copy of ‘Sing’ magazine where it was published. And no, I didn’t follow up by sending Eric Winter other contributions. Sigh. As I said, please don’t take a lesson from me.

But if you’d like to read one of my more recent offerings, here’s a selection: