Living in the past – old buildings as homes and stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail of diary entry for Thursday 30 Paril 1950

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

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

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

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

Extract from diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front of diary - 'Letts Desk Diary 1950'

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

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

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

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

Mono photograph of a St Bridget's Cross.

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

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

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

Photo of hand cupping a snowdrop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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

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

Map of Hambledon Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samhain in Glastonbury – Halloween in a pandemic year

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

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

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

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

These characters live on the window sill in my study

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

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

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

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Here comes the dark – the end of British Summer Time

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

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

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

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

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

Image of a sundial at Ely Cathedral

Sundial, Ely Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

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

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

Black and white image of a Singer sewing machine

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

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.

Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

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