Living in the past – old buildings as homes and stories

A few days ago I visited Presteigne, on the border of England and Wales (the counties of Herefordshire and Powys, to be precise).  With a population of fewer than 3,000 people, Presteigne would be classed as a village in most parts of the country, but here in the remote and sparsely-populated hills it is a town, with shops and services drawing people from the surrounding hamlets and scattered dwellings.   Sheep farming and tourism are the area’s main occupations, both capitalising on the sweeping hills and valleys of these unostentatiously beautiful borderlands, miles from anywhere.

Presteigne, which is called Llanandras in Welsh (loosely translating as ‘the enclosure around the Church of St Andrew’), is a historic town and was formerly the capital of the old county of Radnorshire (now subsumed into the administrative county of Powys).  It still has the court house, now a museum, as a legacy from that era.  The town is located beside the River Lugg, which forms the border between England and Wales.  It has a long pedigree as a settlement, featuring in the Domesday Book of 1086 – however, it also has charging points for electric vehicles in the town car park, a trendy deli, a modern convenience store on the high street, and a Chinese take-away.   

Modern features notwithstanding, what struck me most on my first visit to the town was how old it feels.  In the centre, along the high street and the area around the church, the houses are hundreds of years old.  Even where the facades appear newer, the buildings behind are constructed of traditional vernacular materials such as plaster and lath, half-timbering, cob, and stone.  Some, like the building which is now a charity (thrift) shop and a barbershop, are adorned with pargetting (ornamental plaster).  Centuries seep out of the walls of the buildings.  Each is grounded, venerable, secure in its place, a survivor.    Compared with the new-build boxes in the estates on the edge of town, which we drove past on the way in, these buildings are the ancestors which simply stayed, did not crumble and die, but remained rooted here in this community.

I find it interesting, though, that the town feels ‘old’ rather than ‘historic’.  Although I’m sure there are ‘listed buildings’ here, and that there are conservation orders in place for many of the streets, it doesn’t feel like a historic theme park.  Some places I’ve been – such as Holt in Norfolk, almost completely re-built in the Georgian period after a fire, or Stamford in Lincolnshire, with its picturesque stone buildings of homogenous limestone – are cohesive, visually harmonious, easy for the local tourist board to market as ‘historic’.  Presteigne is different.  Here, the buildings are jumbled together, built over centuries, fitted into gaps left by their predecessors, form following function.  The have been re-worked over time to the needs of each successive generation of occupants, which storeys added, extensions built, windows and doors relocated or bricked up, cottages and workshops fitted into the back premises of the buildings that front onto the street.  These aren’t picture-perfect ‘period homes’ – they are simply old houses, getting on with the business of living.

The contrast with the new houses on the estates is profound.  It is, in essence, a contrast between convenience and character.  These old houses are themselves – they have mass, substance, personality – they have their own stories.  The new houses are just blank pages.  Will the stories created there leave an imprint on the new buildings in the same way they have on the old?  I doubt it somehow.  The old buildings are not simply receptacles for living in.  They are themselves protagonists, characters in their stories.  They have adapted – with varying degrees of success – to the changes in society, in the way people live, and in technology, and the palimpsests of those changes are written upon them.   Have the new houses been built to last enough centuries to gain their own palimpsests, their own ghosts, to be characters in their own stories?  Looking at the neat estates of bungalows and semis, it’s hard to imagine.  Yes, the new buildings are more economical to heat, have regular-shaped rooms, conform to modern building standards.  But with little expectation that new-builds will last more than, perhaps, 60 years, issues of sustainability must be measured against the hundreds of years of service given by the timber frames and quarried stone walls of the old buildings.  What does that difference in life expectancy say about our society’s attitude to homes, to permanence, to community?

Walking back through the high street to the car, I felt a acutely aware of the long line of people who have come to Presteign in the last millennium and more, to live, to trade, to pause – as I was doing – on a journey.  The buildings I passed have seen perhaps the last 20 generations of those people, who walked and shopped and greeted people on the street as I did that day.  And in some indefinable way, the buildings are imprinted with their presence.

Don’t go there – imagination, the weird, and why I haven’t written fiction

Recently, I have tentatively started writing short fiction again.  Apart from occasional poetry, most of what I write is nonfiction, often around history and place.  This is partly because nonfiction is my preferred genre (both as a reader and as a writer) but also because of something that happened when I was seventeen.

I have written before on this blog about the creative writing A level I did in the 1980s, which included both poetry and short fiction.  The poetry element was fine – I enjoyed it, was good at it (so much so that my work was published in a volume of examples by the examinations board) and I got a lot out of workshops with poets including Gillian Clarke.  Fiction, however, was another matter altogether.

Like most children, I had always written stories.  I was also an avid reader, often of books well beyond my age group.  The town where I was at school at the time also housed the county library, and I spent a lot of time browsing the shelves, often discovering books which had not seen the light of day for many years.  One particular find was a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, which according to the date stamp had last been issued in the 1950s.  James was a revelation – obviously, I’d come across ghost stories before, but what I particularly liked about his work was the ambiguity.  His stories did not have tidy endings, they did not provide explanations for what the characters had experienced, they left possibilities open for the mind of the reader to pursue.

Fresh from reading M.R. James, then, I took on the challenge to write a short story for my portfolio.  My English class had recently gone on a field trip to the graveyard of a local chapel, which had resulted in my writing a poem (‘Churchyard on the Hill at Salem’).  It also gave me an idea for the end of my story.

I no longer have the manuscript, but the story went something like this.  Told in the first person, it concerns a teenage girl who is gradually losing her ability to judge what is reality and what is her imagination.  Strange things appear to happen to her in her ordinary life of home and school.  She thinks that a procession of men visit her mother when her father is away on business, but as she becomes increasingly detached from her own life, she wonders how much she can trust her own judgment.  She plays truant, and find herself wandering through the churchyard.  Finding herself drawn to one particular headstone, she brushes away the ivy with her hand to reveal the inscription.  It is her own name, and the date of death is the following day.

Black and white photograph of an old headstone, carved with a winged skull at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust) Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020
Headstone at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust), Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020

I was rather pleased with this story.  I felt I had managed to evoke a mood of dreamy unreality, create an unreliable narrator, and write an ending with supernatural overtones but with, to me, pleasing ambiguity.  I submitted it to my English teacher for comment.

Two days later, my teacher kept me behind after the lesson.  She had ‘concerns’, she said.  She had spoken to the deputy head with responsibility for student welfare, and they had decided to speak to me before referring the matter to the Social Services department of the County Council.   Was the story, she wanted to know, in any way autobiographical?  Was I having suicidal thoughts?  Was I living in a household that was, effectively, a brothel?

After a few seconds of stunned silence, my first reaction was to laugh – the idea was hilarious.  My mother had always made it quite clear that she didn’t like sex, that it was a necessary evil which had to be endured to have children, and that once the menopause precluded me having any siblings, sex was something she was relieved no longer to have to do.  The idea that she would have more sex than was essential for procreation was, frankly, hysterically funny.  I tried to explain this to my teacher, as delicately as possible.  She looked doubtful, but accepted my response.  My second reaction, though, was bewilderment.  The assignment was to write a short work of fiction.  I was using my imagination – both in terms of the home scenario, so different from my own, and also the supernatural element.  I was juxtaposing the mundane contexts of home and school, and weaving a story from the results of letting my brain freewheel.  Surely that was the nature of fiction – that it wasn’t a true story?  So why were they – the teachers – assuming that it was autobiographical?  Why did they think that my brain wouldn’t be capable of making that jump from what is to what might be?  Why was I getting into trouble for doing what I had been asked to do – using my imagination to create a fictional world with fictional characters and events?

Evidently what I said reassured the teachers, because Social Services were not brought in.  But the remaining short fiction I wrote for my portfolio was anodyne, tame, safe.  I made sure I didn’t give any cause for concern about my safety or my mental health.  A family goes on a daytrip to the beach, eats sandwiches, plays ball, swims, comes home.  Someone goes for a walk in the woods, sees some animal tracks and wonders what has made them.  The stories I wanted to write were very different – a family goes on a daytrip to the beach, and play with a lone child in an old-fashioned style swimming costume.  When the family swim, the child disappears.  They summon the lifeguard, there is a search.  The child isn’t found.  Cut to an Edwardian newspaper report of a drowned child on that very beach.  Or, someone goes for a walk in the woods.  They see animal tracks, and follow them.  Gradually the tracks morph into human footprints.  In a clearing, they come face to face with the creature they have been following.  But I didn’t write those stories – I played it safe.  Got a good grade.  The teachers stopped watching me.  I had learned that to write fiction that explored the possible, the unexplained, the dark places where the mundane meets the unthinkable, was a Bad Idea and would Get Me Into Trouble.  I never wrote fiction again.

Until this year.  Perhaps because I have felt unable to read fiction in the dystopian reality of Covid 19, I have started to think about writing it again.  I am dipping my toe into the dark pool of my imagination and am writing short stories set in the everyday, about the past, death, the unexplained, with supernatural elements and enigmatic endings.  What I didn’t know, aged seventeen in my provincial small-town school, was that an entire genre of weird writing has been around since the Victorian era – there is even a ‘thing’ called women’s weird – which nowadays is celebrated.  Three decades and more later, I know that having an imagination that enables me to dream up weird writing doesn’t make me weird, and this time round I hope that exploring my imagination will not Get Me Into Trouble.

Time travel – family history, handwriting, and meeting a familiar stranger

Recently I have been spending time in 1950. No, this isn’t some weird Lockdown experiment.  Nor is it one of those popular history programmes on television, where a family pretends to go back in time to another era, where they invariably find that a) everything is much harder work than they are used to, b) the food is boring, bland and monotonous, and c) women have a considerably worse time of it than in the 21st century suburbia they are used to.  My time travel is altogether more personal.

I have blogged before about the cache of family photographs and papers I inherited a while ago.  Most of them relate to the maternal, Dutch side of my family.  But there are just a few items from the paternal side, including, for some unknown reason, my grandfather’s diary from 1950. 

Detail of diary entry for Thursday 30 Paril 1950

This side of the family were Liverpool Welsh, part of the large community of immigrants from Wales which was a significant part of the population in the great port city of Liverpool, in the North West of England, from the middle of the 19th century.  A large proportion of the Liverpool Welsh originated from the island of Anglesey, off North Wales, probably due at least in part to the island’s tradition of fishing and seafaring which would give them plenty of relevant skills for working in the docks.  My grandfather was born on Anglesey into a seafaring family – he was just five years old when his father died when the ship he was skippering went down with all hands in Bardsey Sound in the 1880s.  Although the details I was told by my father are a little hazy, there is documentary evidence that my grandfather was in the Merchant Navy at some point in his life, and also that he was the captain of a tug boat based in Bootle docks.  I wonder how it felt to be able to see Anglesey across the water from the banks of the Mersey?

I never knew either of my paternal grandparents as they died long before I was born.  Neither did I ever meet most of the cast of characters whose names are familiar to me from my father’s stories and from Christmas cards – aunts, uncles, cousins.  But in this diary I get a snapshot of their lives, their preoccupations, their daily activities and their holidays, and little details such as my grandfather’s birthday presents (socks, a muffler and a neck tie).  Several weeks of the diary are devoted to the business of getting electricity installed in the house, and frustration with Mr Jones, the electrician (presumably another member of the Liverpool Welsh community), who doesn’t turn up when he’s supposed to, and goes off for days at a time to work on other houses, leaving the place a mess and the job half done.  It seems some things don’t change!

From my grandfather’s diary, I learn a lot of things I either didn’t know, or wasn’t sure about.  One of my uncles is a coal merchant, and he and his wife and young son are obviously going up in the world as they are the proud new owners of a motorcar, a pre-war Rover 10.  This same uncle upgrades his coal lorry, only to have an accident when his shiny new purchase collides with a tram cart on Derby Road, in the docks area, and has to be ignominiously towed back to the coal yard for repairs.  One of my aunts, disabled by polio as a child and still living at home aged 43, goes on holiday to London and while there marries her pen-friend (a precursor of internet dating?).  This event warrants only a couple of lines, and none of the family seems to have attended.  Did she elope?  It’s a possibility, but there is an intriguing sentence a month earlier, when the pen-friend is staying with them in Liverpool: “hoping for the best.”

There are some things which seem inconsistent to me.  His world seems very small – every day consists of shopping and housework for my grandmother, a walk for my grandfather, various uncles, aunts and cousins visiting every day to do things like help carry the shopping home, scrub the doorstep or bring round the evening paper, taking it in turns to keep them company in the evenings.  More than half of each day’s entry is pretty much a verbatim repeat of the previous day, and his life seems a far cry from the active 71-year-olds I know these days.  But the family also travel extensively – I know from photographs that my grandmother visited London on holiday in 1948, and according to the diary in 1950 various family members have vacations in North Wales, the Isle of Man, and London (in the latter case, lodging with other members of the Welsh diaspora).  They have a daytrip to see the Flower Show at Ruthin in North Wales (my grandmother’s home town).  My father at this time is living in the South West, and my other uncle is at college near Sheffield, with placements all over England and even Ireland.

Extract from diary

My grandfather’s spelling is positively Shakespearian at times, often phonetic, with a level of literacy which suggests he was not educated beyond elementary school.  However, he reads the newspaper every day (including newspapers sent by relatives in other parts of the UK), and engaging with the written word through keeping a diary is obviously important to him.  There are hints too that it is my grandfather who deals with the business correspondence for the uncle with the coal yard.

I find the nature of his Welsh identity enigmatic, too.  For example, I know from my father that my grandfather was a first language Welsh speaker, but he chose to write his diary – that most personal document – in English.  Where he does use Welsh, for example in place names, his spelling is every bit as erratic as it is in English!  As with so many in the Liverpool Welsh community of the time, much of the family’s social life is based around Welsh-language churches and chapels, although by his own account my grandfather attends less than the rest of the family – he prefers to listen to Sunday morning services in Welsh, from chapels in Wales, on the radio.

Each day’s entry starts with a report on the weather: “Very nice morning nice and clear not too cold, wind South West light” or “rather dull at first then rained hard, stoped [sic] some sunshine then more heavy showers and more sunshine. Wind about South West by South.”  Along with occasional references to going to sign for his Seamen’s Pension, it’s the only clue to his years aboard ship, where the state of the weather – and the wind in particular – would have been of utmost importance.

I have written about the personal nature of handwriting, which gives an immediacy and intimacy that cannot be replicated by the typed or printed word.  Through this diary I have spent time with someone who is at once both familiar and a stranger.  I know of him, but almost everything I knew before reading this was mediated through my father, who was a fairly unreliable narrator.  I never knew my grandfather – but although I never met him in person, I have here in my hand a book which he held, every day of the year.  I have his words, written with a fountain pen, the quality of his handwriting reflecting his state of health on any given day.  I can see where he has gone back and added in an afterthought, or corrected a mistake in the day’s chronology.  This man is responsible for a quarter of my genes, and this is the first time I have had any physical contact with him.  When I turn the pages, I am touching his fingerprints.  This is the closest I will ever get to him.

The last full entry in the diary is for Boxing Day, Tuesday 26 December 1950. He writes:

“In the afternoon R and B came up for us all to go to there [sic] house for a party, but owing to the coughing and spitting I stayed at home.  I hope that they will have a good time there.”

The following day he writes only “Nice day” – not even a weather report.  Within a fortnight, just a few days before his 72nd birthday, he is dead.

Front of diary - 'Letts Desk Diary 1950'

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 promise of light and life – Imbolc, Candlemas and St Bridget

Today, the first day of February, is the festival of Imbolc (the ‘b’ is usually silent).  A pre-Christian festival celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring, it marks the point in the year when, although some of the worst weather might still be to come, nevertheless the first signs of hope and life are emerging.  Days are noticeably longer, trees are budding and the catkins are out (though as a hay fever sufferer with a particular sensitivity to tree pollen, I’m less thrilled about this last development).  The plump, green shoots of flowering  bulbs have nosed their way out of the cold earth, and the first of them – aconites, snowdrops, crocuses, even the occasional daffodil – are blooming.  Their splashes of yellow, white and purple are the first colour after the monochrome months of winter.

The beginning of February has been a popular time for festivals.  In the Christian era in Ireland, the date became associated with St Bridget (Brigid, Bride, Brighde, etc), second only to St Patrick as the country’s principal saint.  She in turn was conflated with the great pagan goddess of the same name.  St Bridget was invoked by metalworkers, in healing, and in warfare, as well as in connection with fire and thunderstorms.  By the 18th century it was believed that Bridget would visit the homes of the virtuous on the night before her feast, and bless the inhabitants.  In some places, offerings of food – cakes or bread – would be left on window sills for her, but more usually a cross would be woven out of rushes or straw, and hung near a door or window to welcome her.  This custom has been widely adopted well beyond Ireland, and is popular in the neo-pagan community as a way of marking Imbolc.  There are even tutorials on YouTube to teach you how to make a St Bridget’s cross.  I made mine yesterday, although as I didn’t have any rushes or straw to hand I raided the garden and used the dried stems of a large ornamental grass instead.  Traditionally, the crosses are left up all year, the old cross being burned when the new one is made.

Mono photograph of a St Bridget's Cross.

The second day of February is the Christian festival of Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  In the Gospel of Luke, the baby Jesus is taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents, for his mother to make the traditional Jewish offering to purify herself.  Under Jewish law, this happened 40 days after childbirth, so once the Church had fixed the birth of Jesus to 25 December, this festival took place on 2 February.  Little is known about how it was celebrated in the early Church, but by the end of the seventh century it had reached Britain, and a couple of decades later the Venerable Bede described rituals including candlelit processions.   Maybe the candles harked back to the words of Simeon, the old man at the Temple, who recognised in the baby Jesus as the Messiah who would be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’?

As well as giving their name to the festival, candles were a major part of the customs that marked it, with candles being blessed and used in procession.  They were then either burned in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, or taken home to be lit to protect the household against illness or storms.  The Reformation saw the end of these customs, the blessing of candles being seen as superstitious and the making of magical objects, and the customs of Candlemas lay dormant until the nineteenth century, with the revival of interest in the pre-Reformation Church and medievalism.

Candlemas is traditionally the very end of the season of Christmas, and in some places the evergreen decorations are not taken down on Twelfth Night but kept up until Candlemas – an echo, perhaps, of the Imbolc celebration of the end of winter.  Those shy harbingers of spring, snowdrops, are also known as Candlemas Bells, because they flower at this time.

Photo of hand cupping a snowdrop.

February festivals have a long and varied history – to the Romans, February was a month of rituals of cleansing and purification, in preparation for the new life of spring.  Those of us who still practice ‘spring cleaning’ are following in a very long tradition!  Next time you wash your curtains, go down to the recycling centre or take your unwanted clothes to the charity/thrift shop, you can remind yourself that you are taking part in a spring ritual which has being going on for over two thousand years.  Like the Romans, we can start to think beyond nesting, hibernating, snuggling down in our homes and look ahead to longer days, open windows, warm sunshine.

This is the point in the year when we can feel a shift from passive winter to active spring.  No longer are we hunkered down, waiting for the dark and cold to pass – now we are looking forward to new life, new growth, warmth and light.  Next stop, spring flowers and baby birds everywhere!  There may still be snow and storms and dark days to come, but psychologically the worst of winter is behind us.  This is a time of promise.  Spring is coming.

If you would like to know more about the festivals of the year, their origins and traditions, I highly recommend the following books. The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton provides an academic but very readable introduction, while Glennie Kindred’s Sacred Earth Celebrations is the best guide I have found to the festivals of the Wheel of the Year as celebrated by the pagan community today.

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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Personal writing – reviving the lost art of the handwritten letter

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  I gave up on them many years ago, dispirited by the trail of broken ones in my wake.  In 2021, though, I have decided to try something.  I want to resurrect the practice of keeping in touch with my friends by writing letters – letters written in actual handwriting, with pen and ink, on real paper, sealed in real envelopes (not envelope icons) and sent by snail mail with proper invented-in-1840 postage stamps.

A few of my friends wrote handwritten cards during the first lockdown, and receiving them was lovely – so much more personal than a comment on a Facebook post.  But it wasn’t until I was writing a recent post on this blog (In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels) that I started thinking about the importance of the personal connection that handwriting gives, especially at this time when so many forms of personal connection are impossible because of restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.  It seemed strange to me that I know the handwriting of Eadfrith, a scribe-artist on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in c.700CE, and Aldred, a priest-scribe in the north of England in the second half of the 10th century, but have no idea what the handwriting of most of my friends looks like.  Friends whom I have known a long time – before social media, text and email became the currency of communication – did used to write, but now it’s mainly just a line in a birthday card and their signature.

An image of a page of handwriting

Regular readers will know about my addiction to notebooks.  This habit extends to some degree to stationery in all its forms – I have drawers full of sticky notes, pencils, coloured marker pens, highlighters.  However – and this is an indication of how long it is since I wrote a personal letter by hand – I had no writing paper or envelopes – only A4 printer paper and soulless DL envelopes for business letters.  So my first challenge was to find some suitable correspondence stationery.  This proved more difficult than I expected – my local stationers had only a very basic, rather scratchy pad and no envelopes.  I wanted my journey into handwritten letter writing to be a tactile and sensory experience, both for me and the recipients, so I wanted a bit of luxury.  OK, I wasn’t quite going to the lengths of the Lindisfarne Gospels and writing on vellum with handmade inks and gold leaf, but I wanted something a bit special.

In the end I compromised, with paper and envelopes from a brand (Basildon Bond) that used to be ubiquitous in my youth in the 1980s but which I could now only track down online.  It’s cream, and smooth, and a pleasure to write on, but next time I might go for something a bit more fancy from a specialist stationers.

That was the paper and envelopes sorted out.  Stamps were bought from the Post Office when I was in there anyway before Christmas to post some gift parcels.  The modern self-adhesive stamps are less environmentally friendly (with all that backing paper, which is coated so it can’t be recycled) but I don’t miss the foul taste of the ones you used to lick.  All that I was still missing was a pen and ink.  Now, I am almost as obsessive about pens as I am about notebooks, and I’m very particular about what I like to write with.  Even my ballpoint pens are carefully selected – fine point, black or purple ink, slim body – and inevitably I own a fountain pen.  Having owned Parker pens since childhood, I finally abandoned them a while ago as I was tired of the ink blobbing and I found the barrels too chunky for comfortable, sustained use.  I sought inspiration online, and found a Japanese company called Sailor who produce inexpensive fountain pens with fine nibs as standard.  Their inks also come in funky colours, although so far I had only used black.

Let me tell you about the history of the Sailor brand.  Early in the 20th century, a Japanese engineer was inspired by a fountain pen brought from England by a friend who was a sailor.  The engineer determined to manufacture high-quality fountain pens in Japan, and became the first to do so.  The brand, as its name suggested, travelled across the world.  Even their entry-level pen (which I like because it is lightweight and fairly slim) is robust and pleasingly engineered, with the fine nib that is characteristic of Japanese writing implements and which I really like.

Fortunately, my favourite pens supplier, Cult Pens, stocks Sailor ink cartridges, and an exciting lumpy parcel soon arrived.  I was ready to write a letter.

Handwriting a letter is a very different experience to handwriting notes from books, articles and websites, which I do a lot when researching.  It is sustained, focussed, and it’s about the writing process and how the reader will engage with the words rather than just recording notes for future reference where, as long as it makes sense to me, that’s fine.  A letter is written with the recipient in mind, sifting through all the possible topics to tell them about things which will interest them, which you want them to know about, and which strengthen the bonds of friendship between you.  As a writer, especially someone like me who often writes for unknown readers on the other side of the world, it’s quite a shift of mind-set.

Image of a page of handwriting, cropped diagonally

Of course, I’m not going to give up social media, and often knocking off a quick email, text message or WhatsApp is still a great way of keeping in touch with people in the moment.  But handwriting a personal letter gives another dimension to communication between two people – it’s considered, takes longer (not only because I now type far faster than I can handwrite, but also because the letter takes a day or two to reach its destination) and is more tactile.  It’s an artefact in its own right, its meaning more than just the words it contains.  A letter can be eagerly awaited, re-read, treasured, as our forebears knew.  It saddens me that future generations will not have the personal glimpses into our relationships that we do when we rediscover old family letters – no love-letters, no postcards from the seaside, no homesick letters home.  I do wonder if the historians of the future will find it harder to gain an insight into our lives – will our emails and texts have quite the same longevity and value?  I am not trying to turn the clock back on technology and its effect on the way we communicate, but I am committing to handwriting at least a letter a month, in the hopes that the personal touch will give, for their recipients, a little added value to my words.

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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Walking in a Winter Wonderland – a walk down Glastonbury high street

In a normal year, the centre of Glastonbury would be bustling at this time of year, with shoppers visiting the many emporia of alternative retail culture in the town.  This year, it has been very different – because of social distancing rules, there has been no Frost Fayre, and far fewer visitors than usual for the Winter Solstice.  Nevertheless, the shopkeepers have done a wonderful job of decorating their windows, in defiantly bright contrast to a season which has seemed even darker than usual this year.  I would like to share with you a walk, in pictures, down the High Street to the Market Place and along Magdalene Street, after dark.  For me, the lit windows are like magic lanterns or stained glass, glowing with light and colour, with images and symbols which bring out different aspects of the seasonal festivals.

Let’s start on the High Street.  This is one of my favourite shops, with its Art Deco window panels and kaleidoscopic lanterns.  The big lump in the middle of the display is myrrh – one of the three gifts traditionally brought to the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem, by the wise men who came from the east.  There is something of the souk about this shop, and the owner always keeps an incense burner alight outside the door, sending exotic fragrances out into the Somerset town.

Just across the road, I like the whimsy of a gift shop wrapped up like a present, picking up on the tradition of exchanging gifts which has been part of midwinter celebrations for millennia.  I don’t envy them fixing those lights up on the roof!  I know it’s a shop which sells lovely things, and it looks very inviting, but this evening I’m photographing, not shopping, so I keep walking.

This shop has been recently refurbished, and the gilding of the lettering catches the light (gold, frankincense, myrrh).  This shop sells mostly Indian items, and its window display is full of little lights, hinting at Diwali.  The top floor, which I must admit I have never noticed in daylight, has a rainbow of lanterns suspended from the ceiling.  I think they go very well with the municipal Christmas tree on the front of the shop.

The Green Man is a significant folkloric and pagan symbol, and at this season of evergreens he is everywhere in Glastonbury.  This is a particularly fine example, framed by greenery and bringing a touch of the wildwood to the high street.

More Green Men here too, who have been joined by Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god.  The interweaving of traditions and beliefs is a major feature of Glastonbury, and is reflected in the range of merchandise which shops offer to modern-day pilgrims and visitors.  It is said that over 70 religions and beliefs are represented in the town, making Glastonbury perhaps one of the most spiritually diverse places on earth.

But amid all the paraphernalia of spirituality, people’s physical needs are catered for too, and the baker’s shop has a cornucopia of seasonal goodies in the window.  The mince pies look delicious, and I don’t even like mince pies!  Let’s hope the Scandi-style elves in the display don’t eat them all…

Across the road, one of Glastonbury’s best-known shops covers all the bases for seasonal gift-buying – a witches’ calendar for 2021, a cushion showing moon phases, a Green Man apron, magic spell kits and oracle cards, and a book on the Winter Solstice.  There is a tree, with snow-filled baubles, and a wreath with greenery and berries, and also the Tree of Life.

The next window seems quite conventional, for Glastonbury – a Christmas tree and Santa Claus.  But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not exactly the Santa of popular culture – this chap is nearer to the old images of Father Christmas, looking rather as if he’s just come walking out of the forest with an armful of kindling for the Yule fire.

A couple of doors down, we have more trees and another Father Christmas – but again, he isn’t the scarlet-clad figure with the sleigh and the ho-ho-ho.  This one is dressed in brown, smiling benevolently amid frosty-white trees, lit with cool whites and blues and populated with cuddly woodland animals.  It looks like an illustration from a children’s book, and I’d love to read the whole story.

By way of contrast, the next window has nothing conventional about it at all – there may be a wreath of leaves, but they frame a seated figure of the Buddha, reflected to infinity in a circular mirror, and flanked by a pair of angles who look like they were crafted by Jacob Epstein.  Cascades of light and washes of colour create an ephemeral magic.

We have reached the bottom of the high street, and turn left into the Market Place.  Here, there’s a clothes line of colourful stockings, strung above a vast selection of crystals.  A decorated Christmas tree sits beside geodes and ammonites, which are echoed in the signage above the shop window.

In the toy shop next door, the stunning wooden fairy tale castle which is a permanent fixture has been joined for the season by a couple of Nutcracker figures and a very cute reindeer in a winter wonderland that is all sparkle and ice.  The nod to continental Christmas customs is continued in the Nordic bunting across the window.

And so, finally, we come to Magdalene Street, and the last of the lit shops.  In a building which is one of only three in Glastonbury to survive from the 15th century, a handsome reindeer follows a trail of shining stars, with the inky-black winter sky above.

Whichever of the midwinter festivals you celebrate, may I send you – despite the particular challenges of this year – peace, love and happiness.

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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In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels

For the last few weeks I have been researching the Lindisfarne Gospels for a chapter in my book, and writing an article about them for an e-magazine.  For those of you not familiar with the Lindisfarne Gospels, they are a lavishly illuminated hand-written book of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament, in Latin, produced by a scribe-artist called Eadfrith around 700CE, in the monastic community on the island of Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in North East England.  About 250 years later, a word by word translation (or ‘gloss’) in Old English was added above each line by a priest-scribe called Adred, at Chester-le-Street where the community was then living, having fled the island after raids by Vikings.

Incipit, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.027r

The art of the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite widely known today – the manuscript has been digitised and is available on the British Library website, and its motifs are used on all manner of historically-inspired merchandise.  But, though beautiful, the art is not what excites me about the Lindisfarne Gospels.  What makes my heart beat faster is that sense of glimpsing into the distant past something which connects us physically with the individuals who created it more than a millennium ago.

Far from being dry and academic, my research has been a fascinating journey into the England of the early medieval period – what used to be called the Dark Ages, between the departure of the Romans in the 5th century CE and the Norman Conquest in 1066, during which time it was thought that culture, learning and civilisation were largely absent.  Historians think differently now, in no small part due to the artefacts produced in this period which have been found in various excavated hoards, and probably most famously at the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo which was excavated on the eve of World War II and which was found to contain jewellery of breath-taking beauty and craftsmanship.  The sophistication shown in the illuminated manuscripts of the time is now seen, not as an exception, but as representative of the high standards of creative skill on the part of the peoples of the time.

Carpet page, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.026v

In an era before print, the production of a book – even the most plain and workaday one – was a major undertaking.  First, the vellum which formed the pages had to be prepared from the skins of young animals – calves or lambs – and trimmed and pricked in preparation for the binding process (making the Lindisfarne Gospels required the skins of almost 150 calves).  Lines had to be marked out on the page (Eadfrith invented the lead pencil, and the lightbox, to do this).  Ink had to be prepared, using oak galls and iron.  Feathers – ideally big sturdy ones like the flight feathers of swans – had to be trimmed into pens.  Then the scribe had to copy the book painstakingly from an exemplar, without the benefit of electric light.  It could take years to produce a book – years of dedication, focus, bad backs, cold, working in a scriptorium lit only by south-facing windows in the summer and candles in the winter.  A number of scribes left notes in the books they produced, complaining about their discomforts – issues around health and safety at work and RSI are not new!

The Beatitudes, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.034r

What I love about these documents, though, is the immediacy of something which was produced by hand.  Just as our own handwriting is distinctive to each of us, it is possible to identify individual scribes by their handwriting.  Often, teams of up to half a dozen scribes and artists would work on a book – the Lindisfarne Gospels are unusual in having been written by just one man.  It is thought that it must have taken Eadfrith several years to produce the text and illustrations for this work.  It can be a stretch of the imagination, in 21st century Britain, to imagine the life of a 7th century monk on a windswept island in the North Sea, toiling on this work of great beauty, to the glory – as he would have seen it – of God.  Even as a visitor to Lindisfarne, it’s a challenge to look beyond the cafés and gift shops, the retreat centre and the museum, and the ruins of the later Norman priory, and picture this as a working monastery, its central work of prayer and worship buttressed by farming, fishery and the creation of high-quality books.  Seeing the personal handwriting of one of those monks, the strokes made by his pen, the drawings and embellishments he drew in the colours he chose (and created himself from mineral and plant pigments), brings him within reach.  Just as when, while researching your own family history you come across a 1911 census return in the handwriting of an ancestor you have never met and who died long before you were born, it makes them more real, so seeing Eadfrith’s handwriting brings him to life for us.

And in the Lindisfarne Gospels we are lucky enough to have the handwriting of two identified people.  I mentioned earlier that an Old English word-for-word translation (or gloss) was added in the middle of the 10th century.  We know that the man who did this was called Aldred, because he left us a note (a colophon) at the end of the Gospels to tell us so.  He also names Eadfrith as the original scribe/artist, as well as crediting the people who bound the book and made a jewelled cover for it.  By translating the text into English, Aldred was part of a movement championed by King Alfred (‘the Great’) in the late 9th century to make English a language not only of the people but also of learning and religion, alongside Latin.  Here we not only have Aldred’s handwriting, we can also see him wrestling with language as he frequently offers several alternative translations of Latin worlds into Old English.  Anyone who has ever attempted to translate from one language to another will relate to this!

Aldred’s colphon, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.259r

In these times of emails, word-processing and SMS, handwriting is becoming a dying art.  In one way, that doesn’t matter – as long as we are communicating with words, it’s irrelevant how they are produced – but in other ways we are maybe losing something.  There is no digital equivalent of the personal, intimate legacy of someone’s handwriting – the notes and letters of past generations, which are often all we have left of our own families – and future generations will not experience the particular thrill of poring over a hand-written document produced by known, named people over a millennium ago.  I wonder what ways they will have instead to connect to the human individuality of the people whose words they are reading?

My article on the Lindisfarne Gospels is published in Issue 7 of The Pilgrim, which is available online here.

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!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Midwinter festivals of light – why we need them more than ever this year

A couple of nights ago a lantern appeared in the window of a house round the corner, with banners wishing passers-by a ‘Happy Hanukkah.’  In my street, each evening sees more Christmas lights wrapped around shrubs or strung up in windows.  A few weeks ago, millions of people celebrated Diwali, the festival of light.  Very soon, we in the northern hemisphere will be rejoicing that the shortest day has come and that, with the Winter Solstice, the world is moving back towards the longer, lighter days.

Until recently, I wasn’t an enthusiast for festive lights – a pyrophobe since childhood, the risks of fire associated with strings of electric lights always put me off having them on the tree.  But these days, lights are safer and the bulbs cooler, and there are even battery-powered ones available which don’t require power cables snaking across the room to trip up the unwary, and my partner has always liked lights, so for the last few years I have joined in quite happily, if passively.  This year, though, has been different.

Not only have we used our ‘old’ lights but we have been out and bought three sets of new ones.  We have lights in the Christmas tree.  We have lights in the front window, and we make sure they are switched on as soon as dusk falls to cheer passers-by.  There are five metres of lights draped around the fireplace.  A glass vase has been filled with tiny LED lights.  There’s a candle in the festive wreath on the coffee table.  There’s a candle on the dinner table.   There is sparkly tinsel everywhere to reflect the lights.  The only reason that there are not more lights is that we have run out of sockets to plug them into!  This year, it feels particularly important to participate in lighting the dark evenings of the last weeks of the year.  Each evening, the switching on of the lights creates a glow of positivity and cosiness in our home, whatever is going on in the world outside.

I find it interesting that, over thousands of years, religions and cultures across the world have felt the need to develop customs and festivals associated with light in the darkest time of the year.  In Judaism, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the story of how one day’s supply of blessed oil miraculously lasted for eight days, so that the menorah (branched candlestick) could be kept lit until new oil could be prepared.  Traditionally, a nine-branched menorah is lit during the festival (one light for each of the eight days of the miracle – the ninth branch holds the light from which the others are lit).  Across the world, Jewish households place the menorah in windows which face the street, and it is a time of feasting.

 Diwali is also known as the Festival of Light.  Its name derives from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning ‘row of lights’ and is celebrated as a religious festival by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.  It represents the triumph of light over darkness (and by extension the triumph of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance).  Homes, temples and businesses are decorated with lights inside and out, and the skies are lit by fireworks.  And there is, of course, feasting.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians call the Light of the World.  Although the date of his birth is unknown, celebrating it around the time of the pagan midwinter festival has been the custom in the northern hemisphere for many hundreds of years, and a wealth of imagery in art, carols and literature places the Nativity in snowy scenes, with the Star of Bethlehem clearly visible over the stable in a dark, frosty sky.  Candles figured largely, with real candles shown on the first Victorian Christmas trees when the custom was imported from Germany (allegedly introduced by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert).  As you can imagine, the idea of lighted candles amongst the resinous branches of fir trees is the stuff of nightmares for me!  Christianity borrowed many of the midwinter customs of the peoples it converted, including – perhaps inevitably – feasting.

Image of a string of electric lights

Here in Glastonbury, there are probably as many people preparing to celebrate the Winter Solstice, or Yule, as there are those who celebrate the Christian Christmas.  Most of us will have a fusion of customs – lights will mark the ‘Light of all people’ who came into the world at Christmas, or the triumph of the sun as it defeats the darkness of the longest night.  We sing the carols “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” and “The Holly and the Ivy” and decorate our homes with the same evergreen branches which have been a staple of midwinter celebrations for millennia, symbolising the continuity of life even in the dark depths of winter.  Normally, of course, there would be feasting – roast birds, Christmas pudding and mince pies all part of a rich heritage of midwinter jollification going back to before records began – but in this year of Covid-related restrictions there will probably be rather less feasting than usual.  Certainly the family and community feasting of Diwali and Hanukkah have already had to be more subdued this year.

But in a year that feels dark, sad and fearful for many, it feels like an act of defiance to light the candles and switch on the lights.  Our community celebrations may be muted, and our feasting limited to our own households, but we can still shine our lights into the darkness and say that we are still here, we are still celebrating, and that we know that light will overcome the 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!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com