My creative inheritance – the story of three generations of women and our textiles

I have been making things with yarn and textiles for almost as long as I can remember.  I can vividly recall the first time I saw someone crocheting (I was about four at the time), which I described as “knitting with one needle.”  Evidently I already knew about knitting with two needles!  As a child in the Netherlands I grew up around embroidery and cross stitch – my aunt used to make amazing tablecloths embroidered with naturalistic leaves, berries and flowers in tiny cross stitch, a style which is very common in the Netherlands but rarely seen here in the UK.  It always impressed me that the reverse was very nearly as beautiful as the front of her work, and I was taught that this was something to aim for.  My Oma (grandmother) was skilled in a wide range of embroidery styles – blackwork, drawn thread work, and crewel work as well as cross stitch and needlepoint.  She always had something on the go – unless she was immersed in one of her beloved English-language whodunits!

Occasionally she would knit – I have a vague recollection of cardigans she knitted for me when I was very small – but it was my mother who was the prolific knitter.   Rarely working from patterns, between the 1940s and the 1980s she produced a vast number of garments, not only the usual sweaters and scarves, but also entire dresses – with panelled skirts – fully fashioned and a perfect fit and, astonishingly, knitted from the finest 2-ply or laceweight yarn on knitting needles barely thicker than sewing needles.  She always claimed to hate knitting, but nevertheless she put a lot of time and effort into her creations, even when knitwear was easily and cheaply available to buy and knitting was no longer the necessity it perhaps was in the 1940s and 50s.  She also made her (and my) clothes occasionally, including her own wedding dress, on a 1950s Singer sewing machine with an electric motor.

Image of textile art. Skyscape in blue wool with vapour trails and clouds suggested in white and oyster silk. Image and art copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

Beacons Skyscape. Wool felt and silk. Lisa Tulfer 2012

It was probably inevitable that I would continue the tradition.  I was embroidering (including blackwork and drawn thread work) by the age of 6, and I also remember learning to knit when I was 6 or 7 – it was a scarf for one of my dolls, made out of scrap yarn in stripes of olive green and burgundy.  I made all my dolls’ clothes, sewing as well as knitting and crocheting.  Up until my late 20s (when my eyesight started to struggle) I made fine cross stitch cards and bookmarks as gifts.  After that, I moved onto needlepoint, as it is larger scale, uses chunky wool instead of fine cottons and silks, and is altogether easier on the eyes.  For a time I took commissions, creating unique bespoke designs for cushions.  In my 20s I acquired a 1930 Singer hand cranked sewing machine, which is my pride and joy, and started dressmaking.  Unfortunately, full-time work and the demise of fabric shops in the 1990s eventually ended that, but I still use the machine to do alterations, shorten trousers, and make things for the house, even if I haven’t made myself an item of clothing for many years.

Image of a hand knitted sock, with a second just begun, and a ball of yarn, in stripes of three shades of green.

I knit compulsively – I’m more than a little obsessed with yarn, especially wool and silk, and deeply in love with the self-striping sock yarn which has been developed in recent years in a kaleidoscope of colours.  I think that for me it’s often about the process of knitting – the meditative rhythm of it, and the tactile and visual enjoyment of the yarn – as much as the finished garment.  I rarely use commercial patterns, usually sketching out my own designs and often making it up as I go along.  If the yarn is colourful or has a great texture I try to keep the design simple so as not to compete with the materials.  Over the last few years I have set myself new challenges – I have learned to knit socks (my partner is now the proud owner of a number of pairs of custom socks in the knock-your-eye-out colours she loves) and also plucked up the courage to try lace knitting, with generous guidance from Liz Lovick of Northern Lace.  Both of these do require patterns, as well as intense concentration.

When I was very young, I was told I couldn’t draw.  With art therefore not open to me as a creative outlet, I turned instead to the skills I did have, inherited from the women of my family – textiles.  For me, there has always been more to making things with yarn and cloth than simply making functional garments – colour, texture and pattern are paramount.  In my late 30s I discovered feltmaking, and rather than making the clothes, wraps and bowls which many of my contemporaries created – often very beautifully – I ‘painted’ with coloured wool fibres to create wall art which was mounted and framed like a picture.  I then discovered spinning – with a spindle, still my preference, and with a wheel – and with the unique yarns I was making I started to weave.  I did make myself a scarf, and a table runner is currently awaiting its bead fringing, but otherwise everything I weave, too, is wall art.

Although I have inherited a number of things which belonged to my Dutch grandparents, I think the one I would save from a fire is a blackwork wall hanging embroidered by my Oma in 1966 – before I was born.  It hung on her kitchen wall for as long as I can remember, and now it hangs on mine.  It depicts the signs displayed outside Dutch hostelries and other businesses in former times.  It could do with specialist cleaning, but the marks on it tell the story of family life, and for me, as the work of her hands, it’s infinitely precious.

Photograph of a blackwork embroidery, dated 1966, depicting old Dutch inn signs and associated advertising slogans.

 

Spirit of the sea – art, music and glass

There are few sounds more magical than the sound of the sea. Whether it’s the slow, breathing cadence of the beach at Aldeburgh, with the North Sea washing the pebbles up and down the shoreline with each wave of the swell, or the thunder of the storm waves hitting the breakwater at the Cob in Lyme Regis, sending a plume of white into the air, I find the sound of the sea compelling. Sadly I am rarely successful at taking photographs of the sea – in the time it takes for my eye to see the image, by brain to send instructions to my finger to press the shutter release, and the camera to respond, the scene has moved on, and the moment is lost. Writing about the sea is hard too, with words often feeling too solid to convey something so mercurial and transient.

Paintings can be more successful at evoking the sea – I am especially admiring of Maggi Hambling’s sea paintings (there’s a video here where she speaks about ‘painting the sound of the sea’, with images from her exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2010). Music can do it too, and for me the most moving examples are by Benjamin Britten (his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes) and his teacher Frank Bridge (his symphonic poem The Sea). Britten lived and worked in Aldeburgh, on Suffolk’s North Sea coast, and when I walk on the quiet beach there the soundrack in my head is his first sea interlude (On The Beach: Dawn).

My love of the sea is not sentimental. I was brought up on or near it, and I know all too well how its moods can change, and the destruction and death it can cause. It’s not all blue, bathing beaches and bobbing boats. The sea demands respect, and takes revenge on those who trifle with it. It’s also merciless to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, those who have to make their living on it and risk their lives doing so. For me, the heroes of the sea are the volunteer lifeboat crews who set to sea in the worst of conditions in order to rescue those for whom they are the last resort. Yes, the sea is beautiful, but it is also powerful and cannot be tamed by humankind.

The British coastline is shaped by that power. Breakwaters and sea defences notwithstanding, the sea has created – and continues to create – a dynamic coast. Erosion and encroachment by the sea (to stick with the North Sea examples, think of Happisburgh which is being ‘lost’ to the sea at a sometimes dramatic rate) is balanced by the creative forces of deposition (for example the giant and ever-growing shingle bank of Orford Ness).

There has been much concern, and rightly so, about the amount of plastic debris being washed up on our coastlines, and the effect of this on wildlife and the marine ecosystem. But there is something else which is regularly washed up on our beaches, which to my mind is a great example of the power of the sea at work to create something beautiful from the cast-offs of our past. I think of it as a kind of recycling, the forces of nature reworking the mundane into unintended gems. I’m talking about sea glass.

Sea glass is formed when pieces of waste glass are abraded by being tumbled in the sea for extended periods of time (sometimes decades or centuries), their sharp edges eventually ground down into a frosted smoothness and pleasing pebble shapes. I have collected sea glass for some years, and there is a vast network of collectors around the world – Instagram is a good place to see their finds.

Sea glass can be found on beaches anywhere – as with any beachcombing, the best pickings are often to be found at the first low tide after a storm, when all manner of interesting things can be washed up. Some parts of the UK coastline, however, seem to yield more glass than others – I have found a lot in the North West, and also some on beaches in North Devon and East Anglia. I hear that the North East of England is a favourite location for collectors, due to the presence of several bottle works in the 19th and 20th centuries – the largest in the country was at Seaham – which dumped their waste glass into the North Sea. I have included a few photographs from my collection, most of which I display in a large glass vase, although the best way to see sea glass and the way it plays with light and colour is to handle it. The blue pendant is a gift from my partner, who found this unusual aqua-coloured and very large piece of sea glass at Lynmouth in North Devon (other people’s partners give them gemstones. Mine gives me sea glass. I am very lucky!).

Sea glass pendant

Most sea glass is a magical pale aqua colour, but some is white, a lot is green, and other rare colours include amber, blue, orange and (most prized of all) red. As most sea glass originated as glass bottles, the abundance of any colour depends on how common the bottles were – blue, for example, started life as medicine or poison bottles, while amber bottles held spirits. Glass bottle tops are sometimes found too, as are the glass marbles which formed the stoppers of early carbonated drinks. Keen collectors have researched the origins of sea glass, which is in itself a social history and archaeology of glass. Occasionally I am lured into researching a piece – for example the reinforced glass incorporating rusting metal wire grids which occur on Crosby beach on Merseyside, which are part of the debris from buildings destroyed in WWII air raids on the city of Liverpool which was dumped there. Mostly, though, I collect it because I am enchanted by what the sea has made from our thoughtless waste. The power that destroys coastlines and wrecks ships has formed something which, in its colour and ever changing reaction to light, is a kind of echo of itself. Have nothing in your homes, said William Morris famously, that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Sea glass, I believe, is the most beautiful thing in my home.

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 very British memorial – public art in a nation of animal-lovers

I have recently written an article about Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, which will be published in the next issue of The Pilgrim.  In it, I write about The Scallop, the controversial but, in my opinion, wonderful sculpture by Maggi Hambling on Aldeburgh beach which is a memorial to the composer Benjamin Britten.

Colour photograph of The Scallop sculpture by Maggi Hambling on Aldeburgh beach

There is, however, another memorial on the seafront at Aldeburgh, much loved by the town.  Between the Tudor Moot Hall and the shacks selling fresh seafood, overlooking the boating lake, stands the statue of Snooks.  Measuring approximately two feet tall, the bronze figure sits on a stone plinth, head on one side, as if watching the model yachts on the boating lake.

‘Mrs Snooks Chip Winkler,’ as the inscription on her collar says, was the canine companion of two local doctors and used to accompany them on their rounds.  She got her name from the tinned fish, ‘snook’, which was imported from African waters during the Second World War.  Although her statue is popular with the people of Aldeburgh, its seems that in her lifetime they were perhaps not always so animal-loving – there is a story that, when wandering the seafront, she would have a notice on her collar which read “Please do not throw stones at this dog.”

Dr Robin Acheson and Dr Nora Acheson were doctors in the town from 1931.  Following Dr Robin’s death in 1959, a memorial was commissioned and the original Snooks statue was created by sculptor Gwynneth Holt.  It was unveiled in 1961 by the couple’s grandchildren.   Dr Nora continued to practice medicine, including teaching first aid to the crew of the Aldeburgh Lifeboat, until her death in 1981, when her name was added to the inscription.

Snooks

This memorial
was erected
by the people
of this borough
to Dr ‘Robin’
P.M. Acheson
who cared for
them from
1931 to 1959
and to Dr Nora
his wife
who died 1981
whilst still caring.

Snooks oversaw the fun at the boating lake until February 2003, when the statue was stolen.  The consternation in Aldeburgh was such that fundraising was started and a replica was cast, which was installed later that year.  However, that was not the end of the story, because in 2012 the original Snooks was discovered at an antiques fair by dealer John O’Connor, and was returned to the town.  This original Snooks now overlooks the pond in the garden of Aldeburgh Community Hospital, which the Achesons helped found, and ‘Snooks 2’ remains on her plinth.

At Christmas 2017 an anonymous well-wisher ‘yarnbombed’ the statue – apparently fearing that Snooks might be feeling the cold, exposed to the winter gales on the seafront, the knitter kitted her out with a jacket, a scarf, and a Tam o’ Shanter  hat.

Planting a herb garden – history, food and wellbeing

Now that there is some warmth in the spring sunshine, I have planted a herb garden.  It’s a very small herb garden – a vintage Belfast sink and a couple of pots – but it’s attractive and will serve my purposes.

The Belfast sink has been empty over the winter – when we moved house last autumn we emptied out the old herbs which were well past their best, ready for fresh ones this season.  It’s lovely to see it fully planted up, beside the back door so that it’s in easy reach of the kitchen, in a corner which is a suntrap.  The challenge is to remember the watering!

Colour photograph of a Belfast sink planted with herbs, and a green watering can.

The choice of herbs for sale was a bit limited so early in the year, but the plants were in very good condition, and there’s room to pop a couple more into the gaps later in the season if I find some.  I chose two purple sages, one oregano, and two thymes (one gold, one silver).  The sages will grow quite tall, so I put them at the back, with the oregano in the middle, and the thymes at the front.  They will spread, and be able to trail over the edge of the sink.  I also bought Moroccan mint, and a medium-sized rosemary – as mint is invasive and would take over the whole sink given half a chance, and as rosemary grows large and is long lived and will soon outgrow the sink, I have put each in a separate pot.  Ideally I’d also have some chives and some tarragon, although I’ve never had much luck with growing the latter, and maybe some flatleaf parsley (which I use where recipes call for coriander, which I don’t like).

Growing herbs has a long and venerable tradition.  Used for thousands of years for culinary, medicinal and ritual purposes, they have been an enduring part of human civilisation and their cultivation is an international phenomenon.  Much of what we know in the West about herbs and their uses was written down by medieval monks who grew herbs in the physic gardens of their abbeys, and a significant proportion of modern medicines have their origins in herbal compounds, so growing them today feels like connecting with the past.

So what of the herbs in my garden?  Let’s look at their history, uses and properties.

Sage

Its Latin name, Salvia, comes from salvare, to cure, so its medicinal reputation is long-established.  It has been used to treat sore throats and digestive problems.  Clinical trials in 2011 suggested that sage’s reputation of being helpful in the menopause may have scientific backing, as a trial reported its effectiveness in reducing hot flushes.  Originating in the Mediterranean area, sage is grown around the world, thriving in warm sunny locations – so my suntrap by the back door should suit it well.

Perhaps best known in Britain for its role in sage and onion stuffing, sage is strongly-flavoured and I use it a lot in casseroles, as well as torn up and tossed with buttered pasta.  Being a ‘lady of a certain age’, I also drink it as a tea (although as I’ve only had the plants a few weeks, it’s too early to report an improvement in symptoms!).

Oregano/marjoram

Another native of the Mediterranean (this time the Middle East), this is also a sun-lover.  Its antiseptic qualities made it a medieval cure-all, and the first settlers to New England took this herb with them.  I like it with chicken, fish, or pasta, and it is delicate enough not to swamp subtly-flavoured foods.  To me, this is a real sunshine herb – just crushing the leaves and sniffing your fingers will give you a lift.

Thyme

Prescribed by the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper as a treatment for whooping cough in children, thyme has long been regarded as having antiseptic properties and being useful in respiratory conditions.  It’s a staple culinary herb (although incredibly fiddly to prepare, as you need to strip the tiny leaves from the woody stems) and gives a fresh, warm flavour which is hard to beat.  Pretty much all ‘mixed herbs’ include dried thyme, but it’s less potent when used fresh and partners well with rosemary, oregano and sage.

Mint

The Moroccan mint I’m growing is a kind of spearmint, so it’s warm in flavour rather than cool peppermint.  Its culinary uses are almost endless – salads, mint sauce, cakes, desserts, cold drinks, and mint tea, for example.  Humans have used mint for a long time – it has been found in Egyptian pyramids dating from 1000 BCE, and the Greeks and Romans used it – but curiously it only came into widespread use in Western Europe as late as the 18th century.  Medicinally, it has been used to aid digestion, and specifically to deal with wind, which may be the reason for the popularity of after dinner mints!

Rosemary

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Since antiquity rosemary has been believed to help strengthen the memory, and it is still used in Greece in the homes of those preparing for exams.  Another herb which likes hot, dry conditions, rosemary has a pungent, invigorating flavour and aroma – and the white, lilac or blue flowers are adored by bees and other insects.  I have always grown rosemary, and use it generously in cooking.  The traditional partner is, of course, roast lamb, but I use it (either as whole sprigs, removed before serving, or finely chopped) in almost anything that’s going to be cooked for a while – casseroles especially.

Photograph of a chopping board with chopped herbs and a large kitchen knife.

Whilst the whole ‘grow your own’ phenomenon may require more space, time and energy than many of us have available in 21st century Britain, it’s possible to have a herb garden in the smallest of spaces – in a pot or in a window box, or even indoors on a windowsill at a pinch.  And nothing beats the pleasure of cooking with herbs that you have grown and harvested yourself.

 

Marking time

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by history, and in particular ordinary people and how they lived their lives in the past.  I am especially drawn to explore and respond to objects and artefacts – the more domestic the better.   My friend Gina also knows this, and she told me the story of her clock.  I’m grateful to her for allowing me to write it up and share it with you.

Gina has a clock.  It’s a longcase clock, the kind that is usually called a Grandfather clock.  Nothing very unusual about that, you might think, except that the mechanism (and probably the case) of this particular clock is 200 years old – and for most if not all of that time it has belonged to generations of Gina’s family.

Image of clock face with roman numerals and fanciful birds above.

The family story, Gina tells me, is that they have owned it from when it was first made by John Wreghit of Patrington, Yorkshire.  I have done some research, and have found that John Wreghit (sometimes Wreghitt) was born around 1769 and died in 1845.  He is buried in the churchyard of St Patrick’s Church, Patrington.  He was apprenticed to Edward Hardy, clock and watchmaker of Kingston upon Hull, in December 1785, and in due course he himself took on an apprentice, John Potchit, in March 1801.  An apprenticeship lasted 7 years.  John Wreghit is listed as a watch and clock maker in trade directories between 1801 and 1841. In 1798 he married Ann Hopper.  It seems their son James followed his father into the clockmaking trade, before dying in 1831 at the young age of 29.  John and Ann had a number of children, not all of whom survived into adulthood – they reputedly had 9 daughters,   one of whom, Margaret, married a John Rank.  Margaret and John Rank’s grandson was Joseph Rank, who founded one of the largest flour milling and bakery companies in the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries, and which survived as part of Rank Hovis McDougall until 2007.  Joseph Rank was a significant philanthropist, and was father to the even more famous J Arthur Rank.

The early years of the clock’s life are not recorded, but it is known to have been in Gina’s family by the beginning of the 20th century.  Gina remembers the clock “when I was knee high”, when it was owned by her Great Aunt Ada (her grandmother’s sister) and Great Uncle Albert.  “He was an ancient and very grumpy old man in a chair when I knew him – he must have been in his eighties when I was tiny.  They lived in a prestigious street in Hull.”

Early 20th century black and white wedding photograph

Ada and Albert’s wedding photograph has been handed down to Gina, and she now has it framed and displayed next to the clock.  The clock itself has been recently restored, and now ticks and chimes at the heart of Gina’s home.

Gina often thinks of what the clock has witnessed in the past two centuries.  It has marked births, and deaths.  Family members will have checked the time in trepidation, and in hope, as it measured the significant events and everyday rhythms of their lives.  Time will have seemed to crawl on dull days, or before some eagerly-awaited event, or flown by during family celebrations.  The clock will have made sure that children got to school, and grown-ups to work, on time.  The chimes will have counted down the hours during sleepless nights, and chivvied the tardy along by day.  The clock will have been the beating heart of a succession of family homes.

And now, each tick and chime connects Gina with the people, her kin, who stand behind her through those past two centuries.  I wonder if John Wreghit, as he crafted its mechanism in the days before Queen Victoria, could ever have imagined the significance and legacy his craftsmanship would have.

Lost people, lost stories – the mystery of the silver locket

In the window of a local charity shop is a silver locket.  I walk past the shop most days, but today something catches my eye and makes me go back for another look.  The locket is priced at £8, and is battered, with a mismatched chain, but what attracts my attention is that it still has old photographs in it.  On a whim, I go into the charity shop and buy the locket.  The volunteer seems a bit bemused about why I am so sure I want this particular piece, but I feel that I can’t simply walk by and leave it there – this was someone’s life, someone’s loves, someone’s history, and it’s too sad to just let it go.  I decide to write about it.

Image of a silver locket, with three black and white photographs in it.

I like detective work, and my partner is an experienced researcher, so between us we should be able to find out a bit about the locket and its history.  First of all, I clean it up and repair the chain.  The locket is stamped ‘Silver’, not hallmarked or marked 925, but that’s perfectly usual for small 20th century British silver items and doesn’t help us much.  The chain is newer and not such good quality as the locket, which is machine engraved and quite heavy.

Image of a small black and white photograph of a middle aged woman with dark hair.

Inside, there are three photographs – a middle-aged man on the left, and a middle-aged woman on the right with another photograph half tucked behind it.  With the tip of a penknife I carefully prize the clear plastic cover off the right hand side, and take out the photographs.  The middle-aged woman (let’s call her Mum) is standing in front of a sash window, which has net curtains.  If this is her home, she probably cursed when she saw the photograph, because the curtains aren’t hanging straight!  She’s wearing a striped dress with a wide, white collar, fastened with a brooch, possibly a cameo (my partner tells me that the style is 1930s or 1940s, as is the man’s shirt collar).  She smiles gently, straight into the camera lens.

Image of a small black and white photograph of a teenage girl with dark hair.

The photograph which is tucked behind Mum is of a young woman, perhaps in her teens, with a dark wavy bob.  She is side on to the camera, and looking down – the photograph is cropped, so we can’t see what she’s looking at – something in her hands?  A book?  A kitten?  A flower that she has picked?  This one is also outdoors, but on a path beside an old building with trees and what looks like creeper.  The sun is shining.  Is this her home, or is she on a day out somewhere?

Image of a small black and white photograph of a middle aged man with dark hair and glasses.

I wield the penknife blade again, this time on the left hand side, and remove the photograph.  I turn it over, and this time I’m in luck – there’s faint pencil writing on it.  ‘Dad Taken L……. 1939’.  My partner was right about the dating.  It’s really frustrating that the location is so faint and impossible to read, despite my efforts to digitally enhance my photograph – if you can make it out, please contact me!  Dad has a moustache and round spectacles.  He wears a white shirt, a tie with broad stripes, and a waistcoat.  Like Mum, he’s standing in front of a sash window, although it’s hard to tell if it’s the same location – the frames certainly look similar.  He is dark, too, much thinner than her, and with a serious expression.  The reflections in his glasses mean we can’t see his eyes.

Image of back of small photograph, with pencil writing.

Who were they?  Is the girl with the dark hair the owner of the locket, or maybe her sister?  Posing for the camera in his shirtsleeves in the summer of 1939, in the calm before the storm, little does Dad know that only a few weeks later the country will be at war again.  He is old enough to have served in WWI, but too old for active service in WWII – he will likely go into the Home Guard, or be an ARP warden.  Mum will have to grapple with rationing, clothing coupons, and making sure that not a chink of light shows through those net-curtained windows.  The girl will be old enough by the end of the war, if not at the beginning, to serve in the forces or the Land Army, or to do a job vacated by a man who is away fighting.  If the photographs are from near where I found the locket, in Norfolk, she may fall for one of the American airmen at a local base.  Did these people, and the house, make it through the war, or was this locket worn as a memorial when all that was left was the rubble of an air raid?  Was the locket loved and cherished, worn daily until arthritic hands could no longer manage the clasp?  How did it get so battered, almost as if it has been trodden underfoot?  And eight decades on, how did this precious memento of the summer of 1939 and three people’s lives end up, unloved and unwanted, in a charity shop in Norfolk?

If you know who the people in these photographs are, please get in touch!  And please share this post on social media, so that as many people as possible can see it and maybe we can solve this mystery together.

Image of silver locket.

This week I have been mostly – researching

I was recently commissioned by a literary webzine to write a piece on Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales.  This was one of a number of possible ideas I had pitched to the editor, but I must admit I was thrilled that this was the one they wanted, as it’s a place that’s very dear to my heart.

West doorway of Strata Florida Abbey. Mono photograph.

When I was 17 (a very long time ago), I was at school in North Wales and doing an innovative A level English course which included a large element of creative writing – this was very cutting edge in the 1980s!  My group – there were just 5 of us doing the course – was taken on a number of field trips to provide inspiration for our writing, and one of these was to Cymer Abbey, near Dolgellau.  Cymer was a small Cistercian abbey (the Cistercians were the ‘back to basics’ order of monks which emerged out of the Benedictine tradition at the end of the 11th century.  They were into simplicity, austerity and self-sufficiency).  Cymer was founded in 1198 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.  We spent a couple of hours there, taking in the peaceful location between the hills and the Mawddach river, beside a small farm, in the spring sunshine.  We learned about the silver gilt chalice and paten (vessels used in the Mass) which had been discovered in the 19th century, treasure which was believed to have been hidden by the monks to keep it safe from the king’s men when they came to close and ransack the monastery.  This is the poem I wrote:

Cymer Abbey

The ruins lie like a cracked skull,
empty arches like toothless jaws:
bare homes of stolen treasure.
Each stone is a tombstone for a soul
through the processions of the past.
Chants sound in the vacant roof,
scents of incense in the mists of history.
The pale, thin, golden light of dawn
upon the parchment walls –
the candlelight of centuries.

OK, it’s a bit ‘A level creative writing course’, but I can kind of see why I ended up a writer, and especially a writer who loves writing about place.

My next brush with the Cistercians was a couple of years later – I was at university in West Wales, and every October a group of students would go to Strata Florida Abbey to hold a service in the remains of the abbey church.  In practice, this usually meant a service in the little Georgian parish church next door, as the weather in late autumn in Wales was rarely conducive to outdoor services in the ruins!  The video of that first visit still plays in my head – the little coach winding past the vastness of Tregaron Bog (Cors Caron), the village of Pontrhydfendigaid and the sudden right turn into an insignificant residential lane.  The lane continuing out into the countryside and then, round a corner, the first sight of the abbey ruins – in particular, the iconic west doorway.  At that point, I hadn’t read about the abbey or seen pictures of it, so I had no idea what to expect, except that the people who’d been before said it was rather special.  They weren’t wrong.

Mono photograph of detail of finial on west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey.

The abbey nestles between the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains and the River Teifi.  Even with the later house built over part of the cloister, the farmyard next door, and the parish church and extensive churchyard beside it, Strata Florida has the peace and beauty characteristic of Cistercian sites, chosen as they were for their remoteness from ‘the dwellings of men’.  The west doorway is unique in its architectural style, the spiral triscele finials a nod to the Celtic culture of the generations of Welsh princes and bards who were buried here.  I decided that I would love to be buried here, too.

In the years that passed, I visited Strata Florida whenever I could (easier once I was a grown up with a car!), and a few other abbeys too.  In my 30s, I went back to university part time for a Masters degree, and two of the modules available were on the Cistercians, because a professor in the history department just happened to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Cistercians.  Inevitably, perhaps, I ended up doing my dissertation on the Cistercians, with the title Living Water: a study of Cistercian water management in the context of twelfth and early thirteenth century monastic water systems, with particular reference to selected Cistercian sites in England and Wales (including, of course, Strata Florida!).  I have explored the latrines, drains, troughs and water pipes of almost every Cistercian monastery in England and Wales where there are any ruins remaining.  I have even infected my partner, who is, as I write this, wrangling an essay for a module on the Cistercians for her Masters degree.

Mono photograph of detail of west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey

You would think, then, that I wouldn’t have to do any research for the article I’ve been commissioned to write.  But, frankly, any excuse to get the books out again!  And fact-checking (dates etc) is important.  Also, scholarship does move on.  There have been a number of archaeological digs and research projects since I last wrote about Strata Florida, and Cadw (the Welsh government’s heritage agency, who owns and cares for the site) now has a visitor centre and facilities, as well as an excellent web page.  My most recent visit was in late 2019, and I was able to take some photographs, to accompany the article and this post.

When the article is published, I’ll post a link to the webzine.  Meanwhile, if you don’t already follow this blog, and would like to have future posts drop into your inbox, why not follow TheThreeHaresBlog by email?  I post on average about once a week.  Thanks!

Colour photograph of books about Cistercians, and a notebook.

The Festivals of Midwinter: Solstice, Yule, Christmas

December is always a struggle.  I have found  this year worse than most, with relentless rain, gloomy skies, and the lights on by 2.00pm.  To be honest, here in the UK I find it increasingly difficult from late October, when the clocks go back and evening draws in when it’s still afternoon.  I count down until the shortest day, 21 December, the Winter Solstice, when the days start to lengthen again.

Apparently, it’s not just me.  This sense of the year dying around Samhain (the end of October) to be re-born with the lengthening days after the Solstice is a part of many pagan traditions.  Festivals at midwinter seem to have been a part of human life in the north of Europe for as long as anyone knows.  And of course there is Christmas!  Curious to understand more about the origins of how we celebrate, and which of those traditions are truly ancient, I have spent the last few days reading The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, professor at Bristol University and an expert on folklore and paganism.

Professor Hutton’s research methods are very thorough, and he explores traditions and what we think we know about their origins, teasing out what the evidence really is, and establishing when traditions were actually first recorded (often much later than I expected).

Of course, some of this is more widely known and I’d come across it already.  For example, there is no biblical foundation for 25 December (or indeed any other date) for the birth of Jesus.  Professor Hutton identifies the first mention of that date in a calendar of Christian feasts in 354 CE, probably in Rome, and finds an intriguing quote from the Scriptor Syrus in the late 4th century, who refers to it being the ‘custom of the pagans’ to celebrate the birthday of the sun on 25 December.  This continued to cause confusion during the next couple of centuries at least, with church ‘fathers’ begging believers to remember that they should be worshipping Christ, not the sun, at these festivals!  In the 5th century, one Maximus of Turin wrote delightedly about the appropriation of a pagan festival of sun worship for Christian use.

And of course there’s Saturnalia, the Roman midwinter feast, held on 17 December and the days following.  It included, says Professor Hutton, a lot of the elements we still recognise:  gifts, candles as symbols of light, the closure of shops, schools and law courts for the duration of the festivities, and (a precursor to the medieval custom) the usual order turned upside down, with masters and mistresses waiting on their servants.  Kalendae – at the beginning of January, dedicated to the two-faced God, Janus, who looked both back at the old year and forwards into the new – saw more giving of gifts, this time figs, honey, pastries and coins.

Photo of a quarter of a wreath, in mono with a pop of red for the berries.  Image copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Evergreen wreath

Professor Hutton points out that the with the spread of Christianity in Mediterranean countries, Easter became the principal festival of the year – but in northern Europe, the colder, darker winters meant there was still a need for merrymaking at midwinter.  “The habits of a midwinter festivity had come by the dawn of history…to seem a natural one to the British,” he says.

The Christian calendar absorbed the idea of a season of festivities around midwinter, with the Nativity celebrated on 25 December, St Stephen (the first martyr) on the 26th, St John the Evangelist on the 27th, the Holy Innocents (the children massacred by King Herod in an attempt to eradicate the infant Jesus, mentioned in Matthew’s gospel) on the 28th, the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, and Epiphany (originally the baptism of Christ, later eclipsed by the celebration of the visit of the wise men) on 6 January.

The Anglo Saxons didn’t use the word Christmas (‘Cristes Maessan’) until 1038 – before that it was simply ‘midwinter’.  It was obviously important though, as a 12-day break from work for servants was enshrined in law by Alfred the Great in 877 CE.  The word ‘Yule’ arrives with the invading Danes in the 11th century, although Professor Hutton says that the derivation of the word “has baffled linguists.”

However, he says, we know a fair bit about midwinter/Solstice/New Year revelries, because of the attacks of churchmen upon them – especially the various divination practices, to see what the new year would bring, some of which were still being recorded by 19th and 20th century folklorists.

Some practices which we may think of as ancient are, according to Professor Hutton’s researches, fairly recent (or in any event, there is no evidence for them, and they are not mentioned, before a relatively late date).  For example, the use of a wassail bowl was first recorded in the 1320s; mummers and other kinds of ‘disguising’ were a medieval phenomenon, and mistletoe does not put in an appearance until the 17th century, with the association with kissing being a whole century later still.  Yule logs were common from the 1600s to the late 1800s, and hobby horses were around from the late 15th century through the Tudor and Stuart periods, with other animal-head processions (including the Mari Lwyd in Wales) being mostly recorded in the 19th century.  Although folklorists believed they were of pagan (i.e. pre-Christian) origin, Professor Hutton can find no evidence for their earlier existence.

Colour photograph of Yuletide Green Man plaque surrounded by holly.  Image Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Yuletide Green Man

So, what customs have persisted which actually, possibly, genuinely are ancient pagan customs, which have survived by being adopted and adapted by Christianity after the church very cannily decided to celebrate the Nativity at the time of the pagan midwinter festivals?

  • Evergreens. Greenery was used for festivals in pagan Europe, and its use was generally adopted by the Church, especially in England.  Holly and ivy were originally favourites, with bay, rosemary, yew and box (and, in the 17th century, mistletoe) being added in over the centuries.  Do remember, though, that most of these are poisonous, so keep them (and especially the berries) away from children and animals if you decorate your home with evergreens this midwinter.
  • Lights and candles. On the shortest day of the year (or thereabouts!) it’s traditional to have lights and candles to symbolise the lengthening days to come, light overcoming the darkness, the start of the ascent to summer.
  • Partying. The giving of feasts (especially by landowners/masters for their tenants/workers) has been a recurring theme for two millennia.  So, when you are at the office party, remember that this tradition goes back to Roman times!
  • Presents. The exchange of gifts has been a feature throughout much of the history of midwinter celebrations, although the exact timing (anywhere between 17 December and 6 January) has moved over time.
  • Misrule. In Tudor times, the Lord of Misrule would preside over often riotous jollification, where the usual norms of behaviour were cast aside, often with the assistance of masks to aid anonymity – even at the royal court had a Lord of Misrule.  The idea of turning the hierarchy of society upside down at midwinter has persisted since Roman times.  Its medieval incarnation as the Feast of Fools, where junior clergy and choristers took over (and subverted) the liturgy, persists in the practice of electing a ‘Boy Bishop’ in some English cathedrals.  And more generally in society there is a sense that anything goes at Christmas.

So, as the dark descends on the shortest day of the year, let us light candles and Christmas lights and affirm that the light will always triumph.  Let’s deck the hall with boughs of holly, toast each other with ‘Wassail!’, exchange gifts, and generally let our hair down.  Because in the ancient times when those customs originated, as now, in Professor Hutton’s words, “feasting and entertainment were in themselves fundamental responses to the tedium and melancholy which a northern winter could engender.”

 

This article is based on The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press 1996 (new edition 2001).

 

Norwich’s Writing Quarter – a day at the National Centre for Writing and other explorations

I wonder how many of you regard a day’s professional development as a self-indulgence?  I suspect it may be something unique to writers and other creatives, but I was struck by the use of the words ‘self-indulgence’ no fewer than three times in the first hour of Saturday’s event at the National Centre for Writing.  It seems that a lot of us have difficultly permitting ourselves the investment of time and money into our development as writers.

The National Centre for Writing (formerly the Writers’ Centre Norwich) is based at Dragon Hall on King Street in Norwich, and provides resources, mentoring and events for writers – both online and face to face.  Saturday’s event was entitled The Writer’s Roadmap, and took place in the great hall, upstairs at Dragon Hall.  The wonderful Florence Reynolds is the Programme Officer, and welcomed us to a superbly organised day in a unique venue.

I should warn you (if you haven’t already gathered from elsewhere in this blog) that I am something of a medieval history nerd, so spending a day in Dragon Hall was, frankly, distracting!  According to the Dragon Hall website, there has been a building on this site for more than a thousand years – Florence told me that there is evidence of a Saxon post hut beneath the undercroft.  The present building was built around 1430 by a merchant, Robert Toppes, although one of the outbuildings is believed to be a century older.  Originally a trading hall, it backed on to the River Wensum, which via the River Yare gave access to the North Sea at Great Yarmouth.  It was part of Norwich’s major role in the trading of wool and textiles, especially to and from the Low Countries, during the middle ages, on which the wealth of East Anglia was built.  Now a Grade I listed building, parts of it have at various points been houses, tenements (housing up to 150 people in the 19th century), a pub, a butchers, and the rectory for nearby St Julian’s Church (of which more later).

We were upstairs in the Great Hall, where the one remaining carved dragon (there were 14 originally) has been rescued from under a pile of rubbish in an outbuilding, restored, and put back where it belongs in the beams of the splendid roof.  Another treat was the remnants of Victorian wallpaper, which Florence pointed out.  It’s lovely that NCW are so evidently proud of the building, and great to see that it’s in daily use and living again.

The event was both enjoyable and very useful, an opportunity to meet with other writers (we tend to be a fairly solitary lot) and also to get some high-quality input from writers with a wide range of experience.  Molly Naylor, who described herself has having a portfolio career which includes poetry as well as writing for stage and screen, spoke about working across boundaries of genre, and the importance of finding our unique ‘voice’.  Victoria Adukwei Bulley spoke about opportunities for residencies and commissions, and showed us some of the output from her residency at the V&A.

But the highlight for me was Edward Parnell, who took us through his experiences with getting his first (prizewinning) novel published and then moving, almost by accident, into creative non-fiction.  As a writer of non-fiction, I often feel that writers’ events and courses aren’t really for me as they tend to focus on fiction and/or poetry (very occasionally scriptwriting) but never non-fiction.  It was a treat to be at something which was explicitly for writers like me – and as well as being an engaging speaker, Edward was generous with his time, staying around to chat afterwards (and signing a copy of his non-fiction book, Ghostland, for me!).

At lunchtime I went exploring.  The Church of St Julian is literally across the road from Dragon Hall, and I had intended visiting many times when in Norwich but never quite got around to it because it’s a little way from the city centre.  This is the place where the woman known as Mother Julian or Julian of Norwich lived as an anchoress (a hermit attached to a church) during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  Her cell has not survived, but a chapel has been built on the presumed location, on the south side of St Julian’s Church, and there is a shrine to her there, as well as an information centre just up the hill from the church.  Julian (note – the name we know her by is the name of the church she was attached to; we don’t actually know what she was called) wrote the earliest surviving book in English by a woman, the Revelations of Divine Love.  This work was the result of a mystical experience when she was seriously ill and near death, and was revolutionary in its emphasis on God as ever-loving (not a concept the medieval church embraced).  It survived though convoluted channels of transmission in the UK and Europe, mostly treasured by nuns, and in the 20th century became a classic text of Christian spirituality.  Perhaps the most-quoted line is “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

This part of Norwich is becoming the Writing Quarter, with the National Centre for Writing now based here, and with the history of the first female author in English at St Julian’s.  And from 2020 the Norwich Printing Museum (formerly the John Jarrold Printing Museum) will be relocating to new premises in the restored St Peter Parmentergate Church on King Street.  The collection tells the story of the printed word since the middle of the 15th century when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type for printing and the age of the printed book was born.  For anyone interested in the written word, a short walk around King Street in Norwich will take you from Julian’s quill, to the printed book, to the laptops of today’s writers.