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.

Portraits of the past – my family history in photographs

Last year I came into possession of a large collection of family photographs.  I am the last person standing on that side of the family, so on the death of the last of the previous generation is all passed to me.  We’re not talking a few albums here – the collection completely filled the back of an SUV!  Most of the albums were in poor condition and had been stored in damp or dusty places, so a priority was to remove all the photographs (copying the annotations onto the back of the photos where appropriate) and throw away the wreckage of the albums.  There were also a lot of loose photographs, as well as some in frames (many with broken glass).

Eventually, I was able to group them into rough families, eras and locations.  There were a huge number of duplicates, so the first edit was to choose the best of the duplicates, again copying any annotations, and put aside duplicates for cousins in America if they were likely to be of any interest to them.  Then, I went through each group of photographs, weeding out any which were of no particular family history interest, or where the features were blurred, or choosing one from a series of almost identical shots (there were lots of these, especially 1950s landscapes.  It was apparently a thing in Scandinavia to take many photographs of the back of people standing in a field gazing at distant hills…).

After many evenings and weekends of going through photographs, peering through a magnifying glass at blurry faces, and getting very dusty, I have now whittled the collection down to a single crate, all divided into acid-free archival envelopes labelled with details of the contents (pre-war Holland, Helsinki Olympics 1952, holiday to Wales July 1961, etc).  I also started a notebook, with a page for each year, so that I could track the events and movements relating to the various strands of the family.  One wet Sunday afternoon this winter I plan to create a timeline from the notebook, which colour coding for each branch of the family, for the whole of the 20th century (and also scanning the most interesting ones of shared ancestors to send to my American cousins).

This side of my family is Dutch (via military service in the Dutch East Indies and internment in Japanese camps during WWII), with various members emigrating to America, Finland and Britain.  It has been a fascinating – and occasionally harrowing – exercise to follow individuals from newborns, through rites of passage, family memories, pets and holidays, to ageing, and in one case, death (it seems it was the fashion to take open casket photographs in 1940s America).

I have glimpsed the interiors of Dutch colonial houses of the 1930s, Scandinavian holiday shacks in the 1950s, and American ranches in the 1970s.  I have found that some of the stories I was told as a child were true, and others were not, while still others have got garbled in the telling.  I have been saddened by the toll that WWII took on my grandfather (he was in his 60s when I was born, so I never knew him as anything other than old).  I have been moved by how much my teenage grandparents were obviously in love, in photographs from their courting days which I had never seen.  I have seen my own features and expressions looking out at me from the faces of long-dead relatives.  And I now have a much clearer sense of who I am, and where I have come from.

The art of transformation – meet the upholsterer!

I am fascinated by the skills of artisans and craftspeople, and knowing that my next door neighbour is an upholsterer, I simply had to interview and photograph her for this blog.  Hannah Spalding’s workshop is in an outbuilding behind her house, which is a converted pub.  Her commute is a few steps across the pretty courtyard, into a realm of fabric and furniture, where wonderful transformations are wrought and sad, tired pieces are given a new lease of life.

Hannah working on a balloon backed dining chair

I visited the workshop on an autumn morning, and was curious to know what brought Hannah into this trade.

How did you come to be an upholsterer?

“I’ve been fascinated by fabric and fashion since I could thread a needle – which according to my mum was before I could speak!  Growing up, what I wanted for my birthday was fabric, sewing kit, a sewing machine.  What interested me wasn’t really the fashion side, it was the making – the trade side of sewing, how to put things together.  I started making clothes – terribly badly, at first! – and I did Textiles at high school.  But it wasn’t an option at A level, so I looked at the College of West Anglia prospectus, and it fell open at hairdressing, so that’s what I did.”

Upholstery tools

Did you actually want to be a hairdresser?

“I hated it!  I left my job, with no idea of what I wanted to do.  I friend of my mum’s needed a cleaner, and by word of mouth I was soon fully booked.  What had started as a stopgap turned into 3 years’ work.  But I was still sewing, moving onto furniture rather than clothes.  Someone I cleaned for asked me to cover some dining chairs, and I said I’d give it a go.  They turned out well, and again by word of mouth I was getting upholstery work.”

Black and white photo of Hannah, framed by the back of the chair she is working on

So how did it become a business?

“My friend Ash said ‘why don’t you do this as a business?’ but I felt it was a big step – I had a mortgage by this stage.  But Ash didn’t give me any choice, he set up a Facebook page for me, and I was soon reaching more and more people.  I cut down the cleaning job by first one day a week, then two, then three.”

What has helped you build your business?

“The support from my husband and my family was the reason I succeeded in building the business.  Their support was unfailing!  They didn’t once say ‘are you sure about this’ – it was ‘yes, this is what you are meant to do’.  My dad went back to Holland to see his family, and it turns out that there have always been upholsterers in the family – the details are a bit foggy, but they definitely had shops selling blinds and furniture.  I am the last upholsterer in the family – and Dad came back with a van full of upholstery supplies from family members!  Even family I didn’t know were supportive, and interested in my carrying on the family tradition.”

Close up of Hannah's hands as she works on a chair. She has a measuring tape tattooed on the inside of her index finger.

Have you always had your own workshop?

“For several years my workshop was my mum and dad’s house, until we moved here three years ago.  I gave up the cleaning completely 2 years ago.  It was worth doing things slowly – I’ve been able to take my time and make sure I’m doing it right.  Mum and Dad have been so supportive – when I was working at their house I took over one room completely, and there was often furniture stacked up in the lounge waiting to be worked on!  At the start, I would work insane hours – 6am to 8pm most days.  They’d just bring me cups of tea…

It was a dream come true when we saw this place, and Mum and Dad helped fulfil those dreams.  When I walked in I thought ‘OMG it’s huge, how am I ever going to fill it?!’ – now I really need a bigger workshop!”

Photo of four pin boards with fabric samples on the wall of Hannah's workshop

How do people find you?

“I get a lot of work from my Facebook page.  It has got my name out there.  I have had a lot going for me:  I’m young, I’ve not been doing this for 40 years so my prices are appealing, but my work is just as good as anyone else’s.  I used to have days when I panicked because I only had work for the next three weeks.  Now, I’m already booked up until mid-January.

It’s amazing how things have grown over the last three years.  I have excellent relationships with a number of antique dealers (again – word of mouth!) and they are a constant source of work.  I can be cost-effective for them as they often use their signature fabric, and there’s no home visits involved for me.”

Hannah using an industrial sewing machine

So – I’m someone who wants a piece of furniture re-upholstered.  Talk me through the process.

“You ring me up.  I always try to be extra lovely to people when they phone, as it’s often a stressful experience for people who’ve not done this before, and who don’t understand the process.  I ask people to send me photos, so that I can give an initial estimate, and if they are happy with that I will do a home visit and quote.  If it’s, say, an elderly customer who would struggle with emailing me photos, of course I’ll visit and have a look.   I like to keep things quite informal and friendly – I like people to be my friends, not just customers!  Having a piece of furniture re-upholstered is exciting – I want to involve them as much as possible.”

I imagine you meet some interesting people!

“A small number of customers are, shall we say, trying, but you get that in any business.  Most people are great, you get to meet the nicest people, and the houses you get to see are amazing.  The customer base is so varied!  Some, yes, have a lot of money.  Others will contact me, get a quote, and I don’t hear from them for a year.  Then they get in touch, they’ve been saving up, and they want me to re-cover Grandmother’s chair.  They will only ever have that one piece done, but they are so excited and appreciative, those are my favourite jobs.”

Arty black and white shot of Hannah's sewing machine

So, what is the range of services you offer?

“I make bespoke curtains – all hand sewn, they hang better and look better.  I make custom-made pelmets, and Roman blinds (but not roller blinds – they are too expensive to hand-make).  I re-upholster window seats, dining chairs, arm chairs, sofas, wing-back chairs, stools and footstools.  I HATE doing iron-framed tub chairs, but I do them!  My favourite is a wing-back chair.

I don’t do loose covers for sofas – I don’t think they ever look quite right, and however good you are, loose covers are going to move when your customer has kids and dogs!

When I started out, I did both traditional and modern upholstery.  But around here [West Norfolk] there are a lot of amazing traditional upholsterers, and it’s not cost effective for me to compete.  I now say I do ‘mixed’ – springs, tied down, webbing, Cocolok [rubberised coconut fibre] as well as foam.  I don’t supply fabric, it’s not economical, but I advise customers about fabrics and suggest where to buy it.

Don’t be surprised if I’m more expensive than a machine!  But, unlike a lot of retail furniture, what I do will last 20 years.”

A re-upholstered arm chair, covered in blue fabric

And finally – what do you love about your job?

“I love my job, I don’t need to prove to anyone that it’s doing well.  I’m not planning to grow the business.  I love working on my own.  My mum gives me a hand sometimes, and friends pop round for coffee, so I’m not alone, but I will never employ anyone.  I didn’t want to go to college to do fashion to go into the fashion industry – I wanted to be a tradesperson, the person actually making it.  I love it!”

Hannah seated on a re-upholstered settle in her workshop

Contact Hannah on 07557875759 or hannah.sews@outlook.com or follow her on Facebook.com/hannahsews or Instagram @hannahsews

Family life – the swans of Oxburgh Hall

As the summer comes to a close, I’m sharing a family saga that’s been unfolding over the past few months.  I am fortunate to have Oxburgh Hall (National Trust) just down the road, and the fine moat is home to a pair of swans.  Last summer, while swan couples in the surrounding countryside reared their families, there were no little silver puffballs for the Oxburgh swans.

This year, however, they had more luck.  Back in June, they were proudly showing off their single baby.  Small, fluffy and grey, they guarded it fiercely.  Any visitor venturing too near was seen off by a hissing parent.  As an adult swan can easily break your arm if sufficiently cross, visitors wisely left well alone!  We got some nice pictures though.

Cygnets (baby swans) are quite vulnerable.  As well as having the usual youngsters’ talent for getting into life-threatening scrapes, when they are tiny they are also vulnerable to predators such as foxes, herons and raptors.  Prolonged wet periods can cause them to get waterlogged and chilled, and in hot weather they can easily overheat.  They can also be targeted by parasites, which weaken their system.  About a third of hatchlings don’t make it past the first two weeks of life.  They are not fed by their parents, but feed themselves from the start, so they have to learn quickly how to find enough suitable food to fuel their rapid growth.

On my next visit to Oxburgh, in July, I was thrilled to find that the lone cygnet was not only surviving, but thriving!  The parents were a little less protective now that the crucial first couple of weeks were past, and our little cygnet was growing well.

Much less fluffy, s/he (too early to tell if it’s a cob or a pen) is a sturdy little thing, and seems to have mastered the art of hoovering food up out of the moat.  It was actually quite hard to get a photograph, as the cygnet spent most of its time upended, feeding!  I got dozens of pictures of its backside, but not many of its head…

Fast forward to late August, and there was a heart-stopping moment as we couldn’t find the swan family.  We walked all round the moat, searched the fields, but there was no sign of them.   Just as we were about to go and find a member of staff to enquire what had happened to the swans, we spotted them in the river beyond the moat.  The cygnet is now HUGE!  It is rapidly growing to be as big as its mother, and is confidently swimming off by itself.

I stood on the little footbridge to take this photograph, but had to move aside when the flotilla headed my way, with the parents hissing loudly – they wanted to swim under the footbridge, and objected to my presence!  I obediently made way (I don’t argue with swans) and they ducked under the bridge and headed off downstream.

It’s been lovely to follow this youngster’s progress, and it’s great that the pair have finally managed to raise young – even if it is just the one.  Maybe they are an inexperienced pair and they’ll be more successful in future years – it’s a good excuse to keep going back to Oxburgh Hall to find out!