A recycled landscape – five thousand years in the life of a hill

I am in the early stages of planning my second book (while still writing the first one – I hate having too little to do!).  Briefly, it’s about places in the landscape which have a long tradition of spiritual significance.  Looking beyond obvious places like Stonehenge, I’m interested in holy wells, hilltops and groves, and sites where, for example, a present church overlays earlier, even pre-Christian, places of worship.  At a time when travel around the United Kingdom is constrained by regulations to control the pandemic, my early researches will mostly need to be limited to books and online, but there are a number of sites which I can get to easily from home, or which I know well, these seem like a good place to start.

Map of Hambledon Hill

Some years ago I lived in the neighbouring county of Dorset.  Specifically, I lived at the foot of Hambledon Hill, and its green mass filled the view from my study window.  In the summer, I would walk up to the top and lie flat on my back in the grass, squinting up into the blue sky and trying to spot the skylarks which I could always hear, but rarely see.  If I was very lucky, I would be visited by an Adonis Blue butterfly, a rare species which likes the chalk grassland habitat where the grass is kept short by conservation grazing.

I never felt on my own up there.   Even when there were no dog-walkers, butterfly enthusiasts or hikers, there was always a sense of people being present – as if at any moment I might glance up and see someone.  The hill felt at once very peaceful and very busy, and also very, very old.  Some places feel like that – as if the echoes of human footsteps and the shadows of their movements are left behind from the distant past, maybe even from before history as we know it.  I notice it especially in places that have been inhabited longest – the landscape of barrows or stone circles, of hill forts or cave art.  It is probably fanciful – but I think I’m not the only person who is sensitive to the fleeting impressions left by the people who were in a place long ago.

Hambledon Hill has drawn people to it for over five thousand years.  The Neolithic peoples who had started to farm the land in the valleys below built an enclosure on the top of Hambledon Hill.  It was a significant high point in the landscape, providing a good defensive position against both the east (the chalk uplands of Cranborne Chase) and the west (the fertile Blackmore Vale).  There is archaeological evidence for at least seasonal occupation over several hundred years, with remains of goods originating as far away as Devon, and some of the earliest evidence of grape cultivation in Britain.  These people buried their dead in the long barrows – burial mounds – on the crest of the hill.  The site continued to be used by the Beaker People – early Bronze Ages arrivals – but the main impact on the hill as we see it today came in the Iron Age.  Three rings of ramparts were built, changing the outline of the hill and creating an impressive defensive hill fort, complete with three staggered entrances.  The enclosure created by the ramparts contained some hundreds of small roundhouses.  Despite the scale of this endeavour, archaeologists believe that Hambledon Hill was eventually abandoned, probably about 300 BCE, possibly in favour of nearby Hod Hill, which was itself in turn appropriated by the invading Romans.

But Hambledon Hill continued to be a significant feature in the landscape, and when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the area several hundred years later they adopted the hill as a cemetery site.  Who knows whether their choice was influenced by an understanding that the long barrows were ancient burial sites?  In any event, the Anglo-Saxons identified Hambledon Hill as a suitably exalted location for the burial of their own dead.

Nowadays, the dead of the village at the foot of the hill are buried in its churchyard, but people still come to Hambledon Hill.  It is on a long-distance walking route, bringing many hikers to marvel at the view of Blackmore Vale, set out like a chessboard below.  Locals walk their dogs here, naturalists come to study the rare species of plants and insects.  And the ongoing significance of the hill, with its millennia of human history and its present role as a nature reserve, is reflected in its purchase in 2014 by the National Trust, the largest conservation charity in Europe.

Up on the hill, the skylark’s song seems timeless, connecting the stories of the people who have come to Hambledon Hill down the millennia.  Sadly the skylark is on the Red List of endangered species, so it is unlikely that many more generations of visitors will be able to enjoy their ethereal trilling high in the summer sky.  But the place has seen many species come and go, including humans, shaping it and leaving traces of their lives behind them.  I wonder what relationship the humans of a thousand years from now will have with Hambledon Hill? 

Samhain in Glastonbury – Halloween in a pandemic year

This weekend it’s Halloween – or the pagan festival of Samhain, depending on your preference.  Here in Glastonbury it’s mostly the latter, and under normal circumstances it’s marked in a big way.  For this small town, it’s not just about trick or treat, or carved pumpkins.  The Samhain procession is one of the main events of the year, with dragons (dramatic), drummers (noisy) and Border Morris dancers (downright scary).   Never mind the mass-produced fancy dress costumes of skeletons, ghosts and monsters – here it’s just as likely to be swathes of black and green velvet, horned headdresses, and real witches’ hats.  Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also at least in part about serious beliefs.

The old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced something like ‘Sow-en’ – sow as in female pig, rather than sow as in seeds) was characterised by feasting – the beasts which would not make it through the winter were slaughtered, and the harvest was in, so this was a time of plenty.  The spectre of death loomed, though – this was both the end of summer and the beginning of winter, with the leaves dying and the prospect of cold, hungry months ahead.  Many of those who feasted at Samhain would not make it through to feast again at Beltane, on the other side of the wheel of the year.

With the arrival of Christianity, 1 November became the feast of All Saints – All Hallows – where all the holy who had died were commemorated.  Until the Reformation, people were encouraged to pray for the souls of the dead, and especially their dead ancestors.   In much of Europe, this remains the time when families visit the graves of their loved ones to leave flowers.  Church services are held to remember those who have died.  It’s not clear whether the Celtic festival had these connotations of communing with the dead too, but certainly modern pagans speak of this being a time when the veil between the material world and the world of the spirits is at its thinnest, and it is possible to move between the two.  This links to folklore around Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before the festival) when this is the night for ghostly apparitions, when the dead, witches and other supernatural beings walk abroad.  And whilst many people, quite understandably, deplore the recent advent of ‘trick or treat’, with its element of threat and licence to misbehave, the history of going from house to house, often in costume, begging for food and playing pranks dates back at least a couple of hundred years in the British Isles.  In some areas it even has the name ‘Mischief Night’.  Carved pumpkin lanterns may be a recent import from across the Atlantic too, but in various parts of the country – and especially here in Somerset – turnips or mangel wurzels were hollowed out and made into lanterns, the carved faces said to represent the dead and intended to frighten.

Black and white image of a skeleton ornament and a Green Man carving.

These characters live on the window sill in my study

Samhain in Glastonbury will be a rather tame affair this year – the rules preventing large groups gathering, intended to limit the spread of Covid 19, mean that no processions will take place.  The dark-clad Border Morris dancers will not leap, roar and whoop, whacking their sticks and running into the crowd.  The red and white dragons will not weave their way up the High Street, accompanied by drum beats as loud as fire-crackers.  The revellers, many of them robed, cloaked, masked or sporting headdresses with horns or greenery, will not process behind them, calling out to the spectators and encouraging them to join in.  The many visitors from all over the world who usually come to Glastonbury to celebrate Samhain will not be here, kept away by travel restrictions and quarantine regulations.

Death had become remote and sanitised in Western society, and the yearly round of festivals – Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day, Easter and so on – resolutely upbeat, with no acknowledgement of a corresponding darker side to life.  This year, the pandemic has meant that death has become part of public life again.  Perhaps this year, more than ever, we need to use this festival to come to terms with fear and death, and shake a defiant fist in the face of approaching winter and darkness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Here comes the dark – the end of British Summer Time

This weekend sees the end of British Summer Time, when clocks in the UK go back an hour from GMT+1 to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).  The immediate effect is to make the mornings light an hour earlier, and at the other end of the day to make darkness fall an hour earlier too.  It’s a shift which, every year, makes me mournful,.

British Summer Time is not a new invention.  Benjamin Franklin mooted the idea of ‘daylight saving’ in the late 18th century, and it was first discussed in Parliament in 1809, but did not receive support.  In 1907, however, a builder in the north of England by the name of William Willett, noticed while out riding his horse in the early morning that most people’s windows were still shuttered despite it having been light since before 4 a.m.  This prompted him to publish a pamphlet entitled The Waste of Daylight, in which he suggested putting the clocks forward by an hour, so that the morning hours of daylight could be used productively.  His ideas were eventually implemented in 1916, as part of wartime measures during World War I, although unfortunately Willett did not live to see it as he died of influenza in 1915.  Germany had brought in Summer Time in 1916 to increase productivity, and Britain followed suit in May of that year, with British Summer Time set to GMT+1 and Winter Time remaining GMT.

In the days before combine harvesters equipped with floodlights, the lighter evenings also enabled harvest work to go on for longer into the evenings.  The benefits to farming prompted the introduction of British Double Summer Time during World War II, with GMT+2 in the summer and GMT+1 in the winter.

From 1968-71 there was an experiment at leaving the clocks on GMT+1 all year round.  Although there were suggestions that the overall effect on road casualties was positive, the introduction at the same time of other road safety measures made it difficult to evaluate benefits, and Parliament voted to end the experiment in 1971.

In 2002 the EU standardised the transitions between Summer and Winter Time, so that these took place in all member countries on the last Sundays of March and October, making time difference calculations easier for businesses working across borders.  Although there are currently proposals before the Council of Ministers to end the time changes in March and October, with member countries choosing either their summer or winter times to continue throughout the year, these proposals have not yet been approved (and in any event, with Britain now no longer a member of the EU, they would not apply here).  In Britain, there have been a number of attempts to end the changes and settle on GMT+1 all year round, but again, these have not become law.  Controversy surrounds the evidence of the effects of darker winter mornings on road safety, especially around children walking to school, and also in Scotland and the north of England, where the effect would be to delay sunrise until mid-morning.  It has even been suggested that England and Wales should have a different time zone from Scotland, for that reason.  But for the moment, the current arrangements continue.

Image of a sundial at Ely Cathedral

Sundial, Ely Cathedral

Willett’s concept of The Waste of Daylight uses the language of ‘daylight saving’, which I always thought a strange notion – as a child, I wondered if there was a savings banks somewhere which stored all that lovely daylight, and doled it out as required?  Or would the daylight eventually run out if we didn’t ‘save’ it, like saving water or saving electricity?  It wasn’t until, as an adult, I read the history of British Summer Time and its importance in the World Wars that it made any sense whatsoever.  Because, to be honest, it’s always seemed crazy to me – why voluntarily plunge us in to dark evenings at precisely the point when the days are getting shorter anyway?

From about August each year I start to dread the end of British Summer Time.  The days are already noticeably shortening, and the threat of losing a whole hour of precious light at the end of the day looms large.  Frankly, I am not a morning person, and the whole business of getting up and going out to work (especially when this involves commuting) is so ghastly anyway that I don’t really notice the light levels as I’m in my own little dark cloud!  But at the end of the day, when my time is my own and I could actually do something like going out for a walk after work, or pottering in the garden, or simply getting home in the light so that it doesn’t feel as if I’ve gone a whole day incarcerated in an office without daylight, having that last hour of light stolen from me really rankles.

It’s undoubtedly better since I have been working at home, with the freedom to organise my own day and take advantage of the daylight to go out when I want.  But I still find the gathering gloom of winter mid-afternoon depressing.  Putting the lights on so soon after lunch simply in order to be able to read feels wrong, especially since I know that it doesn’t have to be this way, that it’s only because somebody, somewhere, has decided to persist with this practice of plunging us prematurely into darkness each day for half the year.

Not everyone reacts badly to the end of British Summer Time, though.  My partner tells the story of her late grandmother, who used to relish the early onset of darkness.  She liked to draw the curtains, turn on the lights and settle down into the cosy glow of a winter late afternoon.  At this time of year she would take down her summer curtains – light and bright – and replace them with winter curtains – thicker and warmer.  I’d never heard of this practice before, but apparently many of her contemporaries did it too.  I quite like this idea of embracing the positives of the early darkness, rather than my tendency to mourn the light evenings.  I find it hard to celebrate the particular qualities of late autumn and winter, with their emphasis on home, interiors, creating cosiness and ‘hygge’, a kind of battening down the hatches against the more hostile seasons of the natural year, making a haven of light and warmth in the way that my partner describes from her childhood.

Of course there has to be darkness as a counterpoint to the light.  We love the lengthening days of spring so much precisely because we are emerging from the darkness of winter.  Without the cold of winter, with the trees bare and nature dormant, we can’t have the hopeful budding of spring and the abundance of summer.  The almost endless days of Midsummer require the counterbalancing long darkness of Midwinter.  My challenge is to adjust my thinking, to accept and appreciate the dark side of the year as much as the light side, and to find enjoyment in what autumn and winter uniquely bring rather than grieving for the light.  This winter, I will try not to wish the days away until British Summer Time begins again.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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The machine that changed the world – one stitch at a time

My pride and joy is a vintage Singer sewing machine.  It’s black and gold, is so heavy that I can hardly lift it, and celebrated its 90th birthday this year.  Built to last in an era when built-in obsolescence had not yet been invented, it is a design icon which truly changed the world, and every time I use it I am captivated again by its story.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, all sewing was done by hand.  There was no alternative to hand-stitching – every seam of every garment made, ever, in all of human history, was hand stitched.  Then, a flurry of inventors created a variety of ‘sewing engines’, which could sew much faster than any human hand.  The most enduring of these designs was patented in 1851 by Isaac Merritt Singer of New York.  A gifted salesman, he created a network of showrooms where the machines were demonstrated, showing both that they were easy to use (‘so easy a woman could use it’ – not a slogan that would, one hopes, sell many products these days, but in its time very effective) and also that clothes sewn by machine were at least as good as those sewn by hand.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Singer’s two main markets were commercial – garment manufacturers – and domestic.  It was in domestic sales that the sewing machine created a revolution.  Diaries kept by American women in the 1860s showed that they were spending the equivalent of two days a week on making and repairing clothes for their families.  A sewing machine saved up to 90% of that time, giving them opportunities to earn money either through sewing for other people or by working outside the home.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

It wasn’t just the machines themselves that changed the world – it was the way they were sold.  In the 1870s, these expensive pieces of kit were worth the equivalent of half a year’s salary for a typical worker.  Singer introduced the idea of hire purchase, where an initial deposit and regular payments would enable people to own and use a machine they would otherwise not be able to afford.  Sales boomed, and modern consumer spending was born.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

Supported by a reputation for reliability and a good parts and maintenance network, by 1918 it was estimated that one in five households in the world had a Singer sewing machine.  Yes, you read that right – one in five households in the world, for it didn’t take long for the Singer company to realise that there was a market far beyond the USA.  It started its international expansion in the United Kingdom, initially manufacturing sewing machines in Glasgow, and 1882 construction started on a new factory at Kilbowie, on the banks of the River Clyde, where John Brown’s shipyard was already a major employer of skilled workers.  The Singer factory, which at the time was the largest factory of its kind in the world, was a catalyst for the development of the town of Clydebank, and it was in this factory that my Singer sewing machine was born.

Black and white image showing the serial number of a Singer sewing machine

By tracing the serial number which each individual machine has, it is possible to find out exactly where and when a Singer was manufactured.  Serial number Y7649074 was part of a batch of 20,000 model 99K machines made in the Kilbowie factory in January, 1930.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

In 1930, the Great Depression had taken hold following the Wall Street Crash of the previous year.  In January, Buzz Aldrin (one day to be the second man to walk on the moon) was born in New Jersey, and Mickey Mouse made his debut in a comic strip.  Over the next few months, the planet Pluto would be discovered, and elections in Germany would see Hitler’s National Socialists become the second largest party in the Reichstag.  Sliced bread would appear in British shops for the first time, Sellotape (Scotch tape) would be invented, and Clarence Birdseye would sell the first frozen food.  Against this backdrop, my sewing machine emerged from the last of the 56 departments in the Singer factory, its black japanned cast iron body gleaming, the gold leaf bright and fresh, its mechanism oiled and ready for action.  I would love to know who first owned it – who first excitedly turned the key to open the domed Deco-style box – whose hands first threaded the needle, wound the bobbin, turned the handle – who first proudly wore a garment created on this machine, what that garment was, what fabric, what colour.  I imagine children’s clothes, the curtains for a first home, a dress to wear to the dance, the changing fashions and fabrics of more than six decades.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

My Singer came to me in the mid-1990s, in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  I had spotted it in the window of the sewing machine shop near where I worked, advertised as ‘refurbished’.  I was given it as a birthday present, and it’s one of the best presents I’ve ever had.  A quarter of a century later, it’s still in regular use.  It only has one stitch – a straight stitch – and it only stitches forwards (later machines had a reverse function), so modern stretch jerseys present it with some challenges, but for many years I made most of my own clothes.  I remember the first thing I made was a black velvet longline jacket, which I wore for years and years until it finally disintegrated.   These days, my Singer produces curtains and alters clothing, and it’s especially good – when fitted with the right needle – for shortening denim jeans.  Even though I neglect its maintenance, I have only once had to take it in for a service, because it was sticking – the guy who serviced it told me off for not cleaning the fluff out of the works more regularly!

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

I said at the start that the Singer sewing machine was built to last.  Sadly, the affordable high street fashions of the mid-twentieth century and the advent of competition from Japanese, German and Italian manufacturers after WWII contributed to the end of Singer company’s success.  The Kilgowie factory closed in June 1980.  Together with the closure of the John Brown shipyard a few years earlier, this led to Clydebank becoming a post-industrial ghost town in the Thatcher era.  A recent (2019) BBC television documentary (The Singer Story: Made in Clydebank) interviewed a number of former employees of the Singer factory, reminiscing about its glory days.  Their pride in their work, and in the machines they produced, shone out, and I was especially struck by the words of Anna Stones, who worked in Department 55 (the parts department).  She said “You were proud to be making a small part, and to know that it was going to be a Singer sewing machine, and that it was going to give somebody so much pleasure, and was going to be sent all over the world.”  I hope Anna would be happy to know how much I love my machine.

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

The documentary also traced the continued use of the early twentieth-century manual and treadle (foot operated) machines into the present day all over the world, including through charities like Tools For Self Reliance who collect vintage machines, refurbish them, and send them to (often women’s) development projects around the world where they become the means for people to become economically independent.  The programme interviewed young women in Accra, Ghana who were excited to have the means to become self-employed as seamstresses, equipped with Singer sewing machines just like mine.  Here’s to the Singer sewing machine – the machine that changed the world, and still goes on changing it, one stitch at a time.

Making people proud of where they live – the public art of the Glastonbury Mural Trail

A year ago this week the Glastonbury Mural Trail was launched as part of Somerset Art Weeks.  Murals have been part of Glastonbury life for decades – at least since the 1960s when Pat Leyshon decorated the front of Pat Li Shun, her business at the top of the High Street, with colourful flowers – and have always sparked controversy.  I have been visiting Glastonbury since the 1990s, and for years have been aware of various murals springing up around the town (and sometimes disappearing again by my next visit), but the Mural Trail took the concept to a whole new level.  When I came to live in Glastonbury this summer, one of the first things I did was to pick up a Trail leaflet at the Glastonbury Information Centre, grab my camera, and walk the Trail.

Image of mural

Glastonbury mural by M.O.A. (John Mason, LUVM, SYM, DMK, SIKOH)

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Drapers – artist unknown

Following the Trail was great fun – the murals are not always in obvious places, or easy to find, and that’s part of the appeal, as it becomes a kind of artistic treasure hunt.  It was a great way to explore parts of the town I didn’t know, sparking many conversations as I enlisted the help of passers-by in searching for elusive murals.  The Glastonbury Mural Trail is also a showcase of serious artistic talent.  The variety of styles, subjects and scale means there must be something here for everyone, and I even came across a few that weren’t on the Trail Map (I was to find out why later).  There’s still one I haven’t found, because it’s in a pub garden and I just haven’t been organised enough to get there when the pub is open.

Image of mural

Avalon Now, by SYM

Having enjoyed the Mural Trail so much, I wanted to know more about how it came to exist, and what the motivations behind it were, so I arranged to meet Kim von Coels, who facilitated the creation of the Trail for last year’s Somerset Arts Weeks.  Socially distanced in the garden of her Glastonbury home, Kim tells me that there had previously been a leaflet produced by Jim and Caroline at the Pilgrim Reception Centre, listing the then existing murals.  Kim – who, like me, loves maps – had produced a Glastonbury town map, and was approached by the Town Clerk, Gerard Tucker, to design a map of the murals.  She agreed, but only if the Town Council would give its blessing to the creation of new murals (subject to the necessary permissions).  The project was born.

Image of mural

Goddess Hall, by Jon Minshull

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Our World, by Jon Minshull

A Facebook group was set up, and its members started researching the possibilities.  They found that, even in a conservation area, murals could be painted in most locations, with the permission of the wall owner, provided that the wall had been previously rendered or was of block construction, and that the subject matter was not offensive.

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Wildwood (detail) by M.O.A.

Next came callouts – for artists who wanted to paint murals, for owners of walls who wanted murals, and for businesses willing to cover the costs with sponsorship.  Between April and September of 2019 Kim operated a kind of matchmaking service, connecting artists, wall owners and sponsors, and getting the necessary permissions.  As an example, she tells the story of the mural in Bere Lane, where the owner of the wall was keen to have a Viking theme for their mural, which meant that she was able to get sponsorship from Wyrdraven, the Viking shop in town.

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Glastonbury Experience (detail) by Jon Minshull

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I think this may be my favourite!  By Sikoh

The involvement of local businesses was key, says Kim, and Jill Barker of the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism helped make this happen.  Nobody got paid – there were just a few small honorariums for artist who would not otherwise have been able to participate – but sponsorship ensured that no one was out of pocket.  Support was both financial, and in kind (for example from Thorndown Paints), with some firms sponsoring the project as a whole and others sponsoring specific walls (for details of all sponsors, see the Glastonbury Mural Trail leaflet).  All wanted it to be good and successful, and the Town Council paid for the Mural Trail to be part of Somerset Art Weeks in September 2019.  At the official opening at the skate park, hundreds of people turned up, and Kim admits to being “totally blown away” by the positive response.

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Avalon Marshes by Jon Minshull

What, I wondered, gives Kim most satisfaction about the project?  She has no hesitation in replying.  For her, the joy is that it’s free, it’s accessible to anyone, whenever you want – it’s public, it’s always open.  And it cheers people up and makes them happy.  It has, she admits, been a lot of hard work, but she wants there to be murals, to have people able to paint them, and people able to enjoy them.  She loves that people who normally don’t like graffiti are embracing the murals.  Kim feels it’s important that the subject matter of the mural is “universally pleasant – who doesn’t like nature, flowers, animals, landscapes?  It’s great when art creates a conversation but that’s not what the Mural Trail is for.”  Public art, says Kim, “makes people proud of where they live” and she’s keen to take the Mural Trail beyond the main thoroughfares into “the corners” of the town.

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Sugar Skull by Sophie Alexi/The Krumble Empire

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Winged Bug by Sophie Alexi/The Krumble Empire/Doodledubz

Kim has herself collaborated in the painting of four of the Trail’s murals – whichever way I walk from home to the High Street I pass one of her creations!  I ask her which is her own favourite, and she replies that she is very fond of the mural at the side of Abbey Park (number 25 on the current map) as it was painted by Oksana Gaidasheva from one of Kim’s photographs.

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Globe Inn mural by Oksana Gadaisheva

The Glastonbury Mural Trail continues to grow.  At the time of the launch there were 26 murals, and Kim estimates that there are another 7 or 8 now – she thinks the total will be up to 36 by the time she produces the revised Trail leaflet in a few weeks.  Some have just happened – especially during lockdown – and then she is told about them so that she can add them to the Trail.  In other cases, artists contact her – “find me a wall!” – although that’s getting ever harder as “there are only so many walls!”

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By DMK

Kim von Coels is an artist and photographer.  She also works at Heart of the Tribe, a new gallery in Glastonbury.  You can read more about the Glastonbury Mural Trail, and download a leaflet, here.  There is also a Glastonbury Mural Trail page on Facebook.  For more about colourful Glastonbury, take a look at this post on the Normal for Glastonbury blog.

Looking forward to Autumn – why September is my favourite month

I always think that autumn (fall) gets a bit of a raw deal in the popularity stakes.  Spring has lots of fans, summer is everyone’s favourite, and even winter has its proponents (due in no small part, I suspect, to the midwinter festivals of December and their associated jollification – I should perhaps note here that I am writing from a northern hemisphere perspective).  But apart from the show of colour in the trees of New England, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, autumn gets a bit of a bad press.  It’s the season when the heating goes back on, the days shorten, the casual linen and cotton of summer gives way to woollies and coats, equinoctial storms batter western coasts, and summer holidays are well and truly over.

There is one thing I hate about September – wasps.  In the UK, September is peak season for wasps, timed to allow them to feast drunkenly on the apple harvest.  As I both have a phobia about wasps and also react very badly to their stings, this makes being outdoors – and especially eating outdoors – stressful.  But other than the wasps, not only is the autumn my favourite season, September is my favourite month.

For me, the year turns several weeks earlier – usually in early August, although in 2020 it was in mid-July.  One morning, you go outside and realise that the air feels different.  It’s not necessarily colder – just different.  There is a sense that it is the beginning of the end of summer, although often the hottest weather is still to come during August.  The swifts, which have been screeching around the summer skies, are ready for their epic migration to Africa, and suddenly, from one day to the next, they are gone.

The start of meteorological autumn in the northern hemisphere is 1 September.  This makes a lot of sense – historically, the grain harvest was pretty much all gathered in by the end of August (as evidenced by Lammas (Loaf Mass, or festival of the First Fruits) on or about 1 August, in thanksgiving for the harvest.  Before modern farming practices, the land would then rest until January, when ploughing would begin for the next year’s crop.  Geese fattened on the stubble would be eaten on the feast of St Michael and All Angels, on 29 September.  St Michael the archangel is probably my favourite saint – whilst I take a dim view of his persecution of dragons (I like dragons), I like that he is the saint associated with high places, and churches on hilltops in remote locations are often dedicated to him (for example, Mont Saint Michel in France, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, St Michael’s Church on Brent Tor in Devon, and the tower on Glastonbury Tor, which is all that remains of St Michael’s Church, to name but a few).

Photograph of an Orthodox Christian icon of St Michael the Archangel

September’s weather often seems better than August (hot and humid) or October (wet and windy), and most years I choose to go on holiday then, to take advantage of the weather and also of the relative quiet once the children have gone back to school.  For September is a month of new starts, with the school year in England starting at the beginning of the month, and the university year at the end (in some universities, the autumn term is still called the Michaelmas Term).  It feels fresh, full of potential and possibilities, of projects begun in hopeful anticipation.  The days are still long – the curse of the end of British Summer Time doesn’t take effect till late October – temperatures are pleasant, and mornings start to be crisply or mistily autumnal.  The archetypal poem about autumn (John Keats’ Ode to Autumn) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44484/to-autumn has a melancholy tinge to its celebration of the season, but for me, September is more upbeat, full of promise and purpose rather than an elegy for the summer that is ended.  I feel energised, roll my sleeves up and get stuck into life and work.  Although it’s many years since the academic year governed my working calendar, I still find that this is the month when I gear up to start new work, find my mojo again, and start looking forward.

This September, I am back in Somerset, becoming re-acquainted with the landscape – coasts, hills and wetlands – ancient landmarks, and contemporary communities.  No doubt I shall be writing about some of them too.  Perhaps, especially if you are in the northern hemisphere and it’s the start of autumn where you are too, you might also like to go exploring during this month of September, watching out for the signs of the changing seasons.  Let’s enjoy it and make the most of it before the darkness of winter closes in.

Tools of my trade – techniques and technology for non-fiction writing

What image pops into your head when you think of a writer?  For many people, I gather it’s an image of a solitary figure, toiling for long hours in a shed or an attic, maybe even still writing in longhand or using a typewriter, surrounded by books and dust, and forgetting to eat.

Well, in my case, the image would be almost totally wrong.  Only almost, because I do actually work in the attic, or more accurately the top floor of an Edwardian town house (it’s not as grand as it sounds – the first occupants were glove makers, working from home, but more about that another time).  In my previous post, I write about the view from the windows.  But I am not solitary – my partner, who is a postgraduate researcher, and I share a study, with our desks facing each other across the floor of the room.  I do have quite a few books, but very little dust.  And I am keen on cooking and even more keen on eating.

Longstanding readers of this blog will know about my notebook habit, and I do write in longhand in my notebooks.  Often this is where initial ideas – or notes jotted down from reading or visits which may morph into a piece of writing later on – are recorded.  I have a general notebook, one for business-related notes, one each for the writing projects I am currently working on or planning, and one for courses I participate in.  Since I discovered the Pentel 1.3mm propelling pencil, most of my notes are written with that as I find it gentler on the hands than a pen.

If I am making notes from books – generally when I am researching historical topics, and referencing academic books – or from online sources, I use a narrow-ruled A4 student pad.  This makes it easier for me to file my notes in a ring binder if I need them for future reference.

For the actual writing, I use my ancient laptop (I really must upgrade it sometime, as it’s getting slower and slower) which I back up regularly.  Mindful of the importance of an ergonomic workstation, I use a separate keyboard and mouse, and my chair and desk are at the right height for me.   I loathe conventional office chairs, so my chair is an early 20th-century ‘smoker’s bow’ which originated in Pembroke College, Oxford, until it was sold off when one of their buildings was re-built.  It has a pleasing patina of age and use, and is built for comfort.  And to celebrate my move to Somerset, I recently treated myself to a new desk, made from reclaimed timber by Pegasus Furniture.

Picture of a desk with laptop, keyboard, diary, pens and books.

Planning a new piece of work – and the steps involved in making it happen – is done in two stages.  The first involves a large sheet of paper, a lot of lovely coloured pens, and often my partner to act as scribe and to challenge my thinking and provide research tips.  The ensuing mind map is then transferred to Trello (my planning tool of choice) as a series of colour-coded lists.  The book I am currently writing has an introduction and 12 chapters.  Each has a Trello list, with the structure, visits, research, reading, interviews, photography etc required for each chapter listed, with notes to myself where appropriate.  I find that working with Trello helps me to keep on top of the various strands of research, and allows me to have an easy overview of what needs to be done – geographically, for example, while I am visiting Hadrian’s Wall to do research for one chapter, it makes sense on the same trip to schedule a visit to Lindisfarne for another chapter; and I see that three chapters will require expertise from the British Museum – maybe I can cover all three on one visit to London?

For each chapter, I first sketch out where I see the chapter going – what I want to include, what angle I am taking, why this chapter is in the book, who are the key people to interview and why, and insights from previous visits where relevant.  Then I do the research, do the site visits and interviews, take photographs were possible, and take lots of notes and voice recordings of my impressions.  Later, these are all collated and, once I have created a detailed structural plan of the chapter, written up into the first draft.  It’s a slow process but it allows for rigorous background research and fact checking, as well as giving me time for ideas to develop as I reflect on, and respond to, what I have experienced.

It may come as a surprise to some people that the actual writing is a relatively small part of the process.  Bear in mind that I write non-fiction, so although what I write is filtered through the lens of my own personal perspective, experience and personality, it is based on something external.  Most of what I write about involves history or place, or both, and therefore writing about it requires close reference to the place, object, event or person that is my subject, and to what is known about it.  For example, my personal reflections on the music of Benjamin Britten in a recent piece for Issue 5 of The Pilgrim are informed and enriched by studying his life and work, as well as by experiencing for myself the sights and sounds of the beach at Aldeburgh which is the setting for his opera Peter Grimes.

No two writers – not even two non-fiction writers – will approach their work in the same way, or use the same tools and technology in their writing, but this is how I work.  The process evolves, too – prior to my discovery of Trello, I used whiteboards and a lot of coloured maker pens and sticky notes.  Trello is essentially a digital version of this, which has the advantage of leaving my walls free for inspiring art!

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The view from here – first impressions after relocation

Readers of my last post will be aware that I have just moved house, and will hopefully forgive the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks.  To begin with, of course, we weren’t able to engage with the town and surrounding area as much as we would have liked because of the tedious but necessary business of unpacking, spring cleaning the house for a nice fresh start, and generally getting very tired and achy!  However, the particular bonus of this house is the view from the study, which is on the top floor.  It has windows front and back, giving panoramic views of the town of Glastonbury and the surrounding countryside.

One way, the view includes the iconic Glastonbury Tor, with its medieval tower of St Michael (all that remains of the church which used to crown the hill).  A site of pilgrimage since at least medieval times, the Tor continues to draw modern day pilgrims and visitors, who climb it for a variety of reasons – spiritual, sightseeing or artistic.  Since we have been here, I have never seen the Tor without people on it.  Even at night, the lights of people’s torches (and, at Lammas, a fire spinning display) are visible, and when the Sturgeon Moon rose last week there were dozens of people on the Tor to witness the moonrise.

Photograph of Glastonbury Tor, with a road in the foreground and trees framing the view.

Country road leading to Glastonbury Tor – image copyright Robert Bruce 2020

Below and to the right of the Tor, the view takes in the rooftops of the town – mostly red pantiles – and the gardens of the townhouses, built on land which, a century or two ago, used to be orchards.  The tower of St John’s church rises above the rooflines, and at the moment a pair of peregrine falcons is raising a brood of chicks on the tower – the young’s raucous cries echo across the town when the parents arrive with food.  They are so loud, even at this distance, that for a couple of days I thought one of the neighbours had a particularly noisy parrot!  It’s such a privilege to see these amazing birds soaring above the town.

Further to the right again is Wearyall Hill, where Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have planted his staff in the ground, which grew into the Holy Thorn, a thorn tree which bloomed twice a year – at Christmas and Easter – and whose successors still grow at various locations around Glastonbury.  Sadly the successor which grew on Wearyall Hill has now been removed due to persistent vandalism.

Beyond Wearyall Hill are the Polden Hills, where the modern A39 main road follows the ancient ridgeway to Avalon.  During the catastrophic floods in the winter of 2013/14, my usual commute across the Levels was under several feet of muddy water, so I drove along the A39 instead, looking out across floodwater as far as the eye could see, with only the odd tree or rooftop sticking up above the water.  It gave an insight into how these marshy lowlands might have looked before sea levels fell, and the land was ‘improved’ for farming.

From the other window, the sweep of the Mendip Hills runs east to west in the distance.  From this window, we can see dramatic sunsets – the skies in this part of Somerset are particularly striking, which I have always attributed to the conjunction of the open flatlands of the Levels and the way the light reflects off the Bristol Channel.

Sunset over rooftops

In between the unpacking and cleaning, though, we have managed to wander into town from time to time.  Glastonbury’s High Street is not typical of a small town in a rural county – for ‘normal’ shopping, you need to go a couple of miles down the road to Street, which as well as a ‘normal’ high street has the country’s first shopping village, built on the former Clarks shoe factory site.  Glastonbury’s retail offering is something else entirely – crystals, books on esoteric subjects, tie-dyed clothing, Buddha statues, candles in all the colours of the chakra rainbow, Goddess figurines, Green Man car stickers, herbs and incense.  Buskers can include dreadlocked drummers, haunting folk singers, or jazz saxophonists.  At the Tuesday market, you’ll find the fast food outlets selling not hot dogs but vegan falafels.  It’s lively, chaotic, a bit ‘lived in’, and there’s something unexpected around every corner.  I’ve been walking – and photographing – the Glastonbury Mural Trail, which I will be writing about in a future post, and it has taken me to parts of the town centre I never knew.  And of course when the current heatwave abates a little, we will climb the Tor again (and take binoculars to try to locate our window!).

Photo of colourful mural in Glastonbury

I mentioned Joseph of Arimathea and Avalon in passing above  – Glastonbury is full of history, legend and myth, and a huge amount has been written about the various themes associated with it (Avalon, King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea, Gwyn ap Nudd, the Holy Grail, the Glastonbury Zodiac, the Goddess, Nolava, the Chalice Well, Bridget, and Glastonbury Abbey as a site of Christian pilgrimage, to name just a few).  This isn’t the place to add to that, although I’m sure I will be touching on aspects of it in this blog from time to time – it’s impossible to live in Glastonbury and not engage with the various strands of spirituality and legend which are the town’s raison d’être and, frankly, why would you not want to?!  Glastonbury is unique, crazy, enchanting, infuriating, but never boring.  If you would like to know more about Glastonbury* and its vibe, I recommend Vicki Steward’s excellent blog, Normal for Glastonbury.  She has recently produced a book, also called Normal for Glastonbury (available as an e-book and in print), which pulls together a selection of her blog posts – her portrayal of Glastonbury life is humorous and well-observed, and makes a very good read.  Again, highly recommended.  And no, I’m not on commission!

* When I talk about Glastonbury, I mean the town in Somerset – not the world-famous festival, which in fact takes place in a field a few miles away.  If you watch footage of the festival, you can see the Tor in the distance, behind the Pyramid Stage.

The next chapter – relocation and the art of moving house

I promised in my last post that I would let you know why I have been writing fewer blog posts recently.  Well, for the last few weeks I’ve been tackling practical jobs and to-do lists, while trying to get ahead with deadlines for commissioned articles in order to create a few weeks’ breathing space for myself.  The thing is, I’m moving house next week.  Not just moving house, but relocating to the other side of the country.

When I left Somerset some years ago to move in with my partner, I didn’t imagine I’d be going back any time soon – but life (and my partner) had other ideas, and earlier this year the decision was made that we would relocate.  We’ve always been great at timing – for example, we booked the Registry Office and only weeks later realised that we’d picked a Bank Holiday weekend, thereby condemning ourselves to a future of trying to book anniversary dinners and weekends away at peak holiday time.  In this instance, no sooner had we decided to start a long-distance house hunt than lockdown was announced.  However, despite all the obstacles and frustrations, and with a lot of help along the way from Robert at Robert Bruce Relocation, four months on we have found our new home and are preparing to move.

For a number of excellent reasons, I have moved house quite a few times since the turn of the millennium.  This is what I have learned about moving house:

  1. If you can avoid moving, do so. It’s expensive, stressful and time-consuming.  You need to be very convinced that the benefits of your new location are worth the upheaval.
  2. If you can’t avoid moving, it’s great if you can keep the move local.  Long distance moves are exponentially more stressful and fraught with complications.
  3. Ensure that you have the following items in your possession (not on the lorry):
    • toilet roll
    • emergency chocolate
    • a kettle and/or whatever you need to make and drink hot drinks of your choice, including at least one teaspoon
    • cleaning materials (your new home will never, ever, be as clean as you’d want it to be when you get there)
    • keys to your new home AND to your old home (you’ll need to lock it up after you!)
    • the keys to your car (sound obvious? Maybe, but a friend of ours managed to leave their car keys in the drawer of a dresser which was loaded onto the removal lorry…)
    • if you are as paranoid as we are, all important personal documents, your passport and driving licence
    • phone chargers
    • hand soap and a hand towel (to go in the bathroom when you arrive, together with the toilet roll)
    • a toolbox (there will always be something which needs tools in the first 48 hours, while your stuff is still in boxes)
    • a doormat (saves a lot of floor cleaning)
    • at least one bin bag
    • a meter key (you’ll need to take meter readings at both ends for the benefit of the utility companies)
    • hand luggage (a couple of changes of clothing, your daily toiletries, and a bath towel) to tide you over until you can start unpacking
    • Paracetamol
    • a mobile phone, for guiding the driver of the lorry when they get lost, photographing the meter readings, and using as a torch to find the stopcock in the back of the cupboard under the sink.
  1. Find out (ideally before you get there) where your nearest hardware shop or DIY store is. You will need at least 5 things in the first 48 hours.
  2. Find out where your nearest takeaway is. You’ll need it for several days.  Make sure you know where your plates and cutlery are (or add a picnic set to the list in point 3 above).  Eating egg fried rice out of the carton with your fingers is not recommended.  Trust me on this.
  3. You will need to leave your fridge and freezer to stand for a while to settle after their journey. Just make sure you remember to switch them on at some point BEFORE you do your first large food shop.
  4. Write your new address down somewhere or store it on your phone. You will go blank when asked for it.  For several weeks, possibly longer.
  5. There will always be at least one Really Important Contact whom you forget to notify of your change of address. Just make sure it’s not your bank.
  6. The spare light bulbs from your old home will never fit the light fittings in your new home.
  7. It is a universal law that the more you spend on curtains, the less likely they are to fit in your next home.

Despite all that, I am excited as well as apprehensive, and very much looking forward to being back in Somerset.  It’s the place where – notwithstanding a mixed heritage and a nomadic childhood which left me feeling rootless – I have felt most settled and at home.  Thanks in no small part to the decluttering process which I have written about in a previous blog post, this move isn’t as daunting as some have been.  Wish me luck – I’ll see you on the other side!

Photograph of colourful mural of Glastonbury Tor.

(Can you guess from the photograph where we are moving to?)

 

A writer’s desk – my working environment, coffee shops and the view from the window

It has been a bit difficult to concentrate on writing blog posts recently, for reasons which I will tell you about very soon, but it’s given me the chance to think about how and where I work best.  For one thing, I have been choosing a new desk, which proved to be a surprisingly fraught process.

My current workstation is a little computer desk on the large and sunny landing with a view over the fields.  The landing also has my reading chair, a compact 1920s armchair which nobody but me finds comfortable.  I love working here – but the desk itself is just too small to spread out my books and papers – things keep falling off the edge!

Over the years, in various work contexts, I have occupied a large open-plan office (my idea of hell), my own room (nice, but a bit isolating – I tend to get engrossed and forget about meal times), shared offices (the success of this depends on whom you are sharing the office with!), and dual-purpose space (desk in guestroom or dining room).  The common factor is having my own desk.  Having recently read about various free-ranging creatives who work anywhere, as long as they have their laptop with them, I toyed with the idea of giving up on a desk altogether and being a roaming writer.  I can see a few issues with this.  Firstly, the cost.  Most of these free-ranging creatives seem to work in coffee shops.  As it’s not reasonable to expect a retailer to provide a table for hours at a time without income from the sale of coffee, this would seem to be expensive compared to using one’s own home which one is paying for already.  Secondly, the effect on my waistline – the purchase of coffee is inevitably accompanied, at least some of the time, by the purchase of cake.  Thirdly, the effect on productivity – with the best will in the world, if I have editing to do, or a complex piece to research which involves not only internet searches but reading books, this requires a level of uninterrupted concentration which is not really possible when out and about.  (Fourthly, we have the current restrictions on visiting coffee shops etc because of the pandemic, but hopefully this is a time-limited problem).

Last but not least, I like my favourite resources within easy reach of my workstation. A diary (page to a day, so that I can write my to-do lists alongside appointments and deadlines), notebooks (one for each current project – see my recent blog post about my notebook obsession), pens and pencils, a mousepad and mouse (I have never been able to get on with the integrated ones on laptops), a coaster for drinks.  I also have at least one ‘to read’ stack, of books and papers relating to whatever I am currently working on.  It could be argued that I should tidy these away on a bookshelf and bring them out when required – except I know from experience that this would ensure I never get round to reading them!  Sometimes there’s a vase of flowers, or crystals (currently a big piece of fluorite), or an interesting pebble I’ve found on the beach.

In short, my working environment isn’t particularly portable.  I’m happy to spend the occasional few hours elsewhere with my laptop, but I am most settled, and concentrate best, at my desk.  As I’m now writing full-time, therefore, it seems not unreasonable to treat myself to a good desk that does what I need it to do and is aesthetically pleasing – I have to look at it all day, after all.  Simple, you might say, just go and buy one.  Yes – but which one?

I’ve had to work out how big I need a desk to be, in order to accommodate my laptop, all the stuff mentioned above, and have space to spread out books and papers when I’m researching.  I have learned the hard way that I need to get the height right, too, in order not to damage myself in the long term.  Also, what kind of desk do I want to look at every day?  I browsed a lot of office furniture catalogues and felt uninspired – I really don’t like the corporate, nine-to-five look of most of them.  My desk may be my work space, but it’s still in my home, and it would be nice if it was pleasant to look at.  What kind of ‘look’ does the rest of my furniture have?  A lot of it is quite industrial (for example, the coffee table is made out of reclaimed timbers from Indonesian fishing boats).  Something artisan-made from reclaimed wood, then?  Eventually, I found just the thing on Etsy – made to order, to my size specifications, using scaffolding planks and industrial steel.  It is being made as I write this.

I mentioned earlier that the landing where my computer desk is situated has a view over the fields.  I have discovered that having a workplace with a view is something of a mixed blessing.  Some years ago I moved into a house and chose the larger bedroom as my office because it had stunning views across the rooftops to the hills beyond, complete with sheep (whose bleating was just audible with the window open).  It seemed a waste of the view to use that room as a bedroom.  I positioned my desk in front of the window, to get the full benefit of the view.

View from window, showing rooftops and distant grassy hills.

Reader, a week later I moved the desk.  I was getting precisely no work done.  I spent hours gazing out of the window, watching the sheep move around their fields, watching the birds in the gardens, watching the light and colours change on the hillside as the sun moved around during the day and the shifting clouds cast their shadows, watching the rain sweep through the valley, watching the flock of racing pigeons which went for a fly about at 3 o’clock every afternoon, watching the bats at dusk.  In order to get anything done at all, I had to move the desk to the side, and only allow myself gazing time when on a coffee break or having an eye rest.

Here, instead of sheep, there are a pair of muntjac deer, who graze the field and occasionally venture into the neighbour’s garden to drink from the pond; a barn owl who quarters the field on silent wings, hunting, at dusk and dawn; a kestrel who hovers, defying gravity, high above the field, occasionally dropping like a stone into the grass and emerging with whatever hapless rodent is his dinner for today; tinkling flocks of goldfinches; a pheasant, whose call reminds me of vintage car claxon, and his girlfriends; a pair of red-legged partridges, with their Egyptian eyeliner, who also visit next door’s garden; and an enormous hen buzzard who circles on thermals over the field before sliding off downwind beyond the oak trees.  It’s very distracting – but it’s a nice problem to have.