Monday, 7 November 2011

A Grisly Tale about Tyburn Tree

Illustration, from about 1680, showing the gallows at Tyburn. Prisoners travelled
the three-mile journey from Newgate prison in an open cart, followed by crowds of people who watched the hanging.
Today I have a grisly tale to tell, for on November 7 , 1783, John Austin was the last person to be hanged at the infamous ‘Tyburn Tree’, the gallows which once stood at the junction of Edgware Road and Bayswater Road, near Marble Arch, in the heart of London.

Actually, before I continue I should admit to having some reservations about the date of this event – some sources list it as taking place on November 7, while others claim it happened on November 3. Anyway, the month is correct, even if the day is wrong, and he definitely appeared in court on October 29, 1793 – you can read the transcript of the trial at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey web-site

According to this, John Austin was indicted for ‘feloniously assaulting’ John Spicer , in a ‘certain field and open place, near the King's highway, on the October 23,  putting  him in ‘fear and danger of his life’, and ‘feloniously taking from his person and against his will’ one silver watch, value 30 s. a steel chain, value 1 s. a steel key, value 2 d. two silk handkerchiefs, value 4 s. two pair of worsted stockings, value 4 s. one linen shirt, value 12 d. one man's hat, value 12 d, which were all the property of  the said John Spicer.

The victim told the court he came to town from Essex, and two men that he did not know offered to show him a good lodging, but instead took him to some fields. “One of them took me to a ditch, he said, we cannot well get over here, then he took me to the corner; the other, which is the prisoner, had stopped to do his occasions,” said Mr Spicer. “The other man drew a cutlass, from under his smock frock, and he said, if I did not give him what I had, he would cut me down, I got hold of him, and made a good deal of resistance, he chopped at me several times, and cut away as hard as he could,” he added.

A map of Tyburn gallows from John Rocque's 1746 map of London, Westminster and Southwark.
Austin grabbed Spicer’s neckerchief and his leg, then threw him down on the ground, where he lay on his back while the assailants tied his hand together with a cord and took his possessions. “A person came up or else I think they would have killed me,” Mr Spicer said. His rescuer, a gentleman’s gentleman, described how  he John Spicer with ‘both his hands tied together all over blood almost’, and added that he was taken to the infirmary where ‘we expected he would have died’.

Stolen property was found on  property was found on Austin when he was captured, but in court he maintained his innocence, claiming he was ‘easing’ himself when the attack occurred, and did not know the other man. “When I went up to him, he said, damn you, if you will not assist me, I will blow your brains out,” Austin claimed. “I have no witnesses, I have never a friend in the world, I am far from friends.”

He was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the gallows he reportedly said: “Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul. Let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed. Keep good company, and mind the word of God. Lord have mercy on me. Jesus look down with pity on me. Christ have mercy on my poor soul." As the cart on which he stood was driven away from the gallows, the noose around his neck slipped, and he choked to death rather than having his neck snapped.

After Austin’s execution hangings were carried out at Newgate Prison, but it was almost 100 years before legislation was introduced to ensure they were conducted in private, and it took another 100 for capital punishment to be abolished. Today a circular plaque on a traffic island at Marble Arch commemorates the Tyburn Tree.

Incidentally, the phrase 'money for old rope' came into being because after executions, hangmen used to cut the noose up and sell it. And, according to legend, the term 'on the wagon' also has a connection with the last journey of condemned prisoners, for they were allowed a final drink on the way to Tyburn, before going back on the wagon to their grim destination
Image of the stone commemorating the Tyburn site on the traffic island at the junction of Edgware Road and Marble Arch.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Tell Someone You Love Them

The Hallowe’en season continues with All Souls’ Day which, unlike All Saints’ Day, is a chance for church congregations to remember all those who have died – not just the saints and martyrs, but the souls of those in Purgatory who must atone for their sins before being admitted to Heaven.

The day has been part of Christian tradition since 998 when Abbot Odilo, from Cluny, in France, held a local feast in his monasteries. Over the next few years it became more and more popular, and spread throughout the Catholic world.

Today many churches still hold special services and, as with All Saints’ Day, people light candles and lay flowers on the graves of their loved ones, but the festival is no longer as strong as it once was. Before the reformation poor Christians offered up prayers for dead in return for money or soul cakes, which were a type of round spicy bun.

Even in the 19th century ‘souling’ seems to have been one of those traditional seasonal customs, like mumming at Christmas and pace egging at Easter, and it seems to have had elements in common with these other activities. The format varied from place to place, but generally children would knock on doors (sometimes accompanied by a hobby horse), singing a song while begging for pennies and cakes – an early form of trick or treating perhaps. Here is an example of a souling song:

 “A soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please, good missus, a soul cake 
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry 
Any good thing to make us all merry 
One for Peter, two for Paul 
Three for Him who made us all”

Originally it seems that poor folk eating a cake took on the sins of the dead, releasing a soul from Purgatory, which is an odd concept for the modern mind to grasp. It sounds almost cannibalistic – and I wonder what happened to all those impoverished people weighed down with the misdeeds of others. At any rate, by the 19th century the custom seems to have become more symbolic, with a soul released for each cake eaten, just as mince pies consumed over the Christmas period are said to bring good luck in the months ahead.

Since today is about honouring those who have died, perhaps today would be a good time to do some family research... or sort through your old family photographs... or just tell someone you love them.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

All Saints Day

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra Angelico can ben seen in the National Gallery

It always seems to take a few days to get back into routine after a break, so I thought I'd post a short piece to mark All Saints' Day, and then, later in the week, I'll write about my holiday in the Isle of Man.  Today is All Saints' Day, which is also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas. It is a feast day in the Anglican and Catholic Churches when believers remember all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown.

It’s a tradition which dates back to the 4th century AD, but it was in 609 AD that Pope Boniface IV established a special day (originally May 13) to honour Christian, and more than 200 years later, in 837, Pope Gregory IV broadened the festival, renamed it as the Feast of All Saints, and moved it to November 1.

In the Catholic Church the festival is known as the Solemnity of All Saints, which I think sound s very dignified, and it is a Day of Obligation when the faithful should attend mass and, according to Canon Law, refrain from ‘those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body’.

In many European countries people lay flowers on the graves of their loved ones, and light candles in their memory, and once upon a time an overnight vigil (on the eve of All Hallows) was part of the ritual – but today the Hallowe’en customs seem to have taken over, and few people remember that All Saints Day is one of the great church festivals.

However, November 1 also marks the Celtic festival of Samhain, the end of summer when animals were killed ready for winter food, or ‘cleansed’ in fires, and when people looked to the past and future and considered ageing and death. It was believed that at Samhain ancestors returned, and that fairies and spirits were abroad in the world, released from normal restraints while the Goddess left the world for three days.

You could celebrate by cooking a favourite dish... or give flowers to someone you love... or simply light a candle...

Friday, 21 October 2011

A glass of grog for Nelson

Nelson's Common and Trafalgar Square, by Ozeye
on Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1805 the Battle of Trafalgar was fought, when the British navy beat the combined forces of the French and Spanish, but Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson already regarded as a hero by the English, was shot dead.  His body was, apparently, preserved in a cask of brandy, camphor and myrrh until it could be returned to England and a state funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in January.

Portait of Nelson when he was
Rear-Admiral, painted in oils by
Lemuel Francis Abbott
It was another 25 years before a great London square was named in his honour, and more than a decade after that a pillar bearing his statue was erected in the centre.  For hundreds of years much of the land now covered by Trafalgar Square was the courtyard of the mews stables for Whitehall Palace. The area was cleared in the 18th century and in 1812 the architect John Nash created an open space on the site when he built a new road from Charing Cross to Portland Place, but it wasn’t until 1830 that the site was given its official name – Trafalgar Square.

Nelson’s Column, designed by William Railton, was erected in 1843; the square’s famous fountains were installed two years later, and Landseer’s bronze lions were installed at the base of the column in 1867.  

Three of the plinths at the corners of the square hold statues, but the fourth was left empty and is now used as a platform for specially commissioned artworks. The latest exhibit is a model of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, sealed in a toughened acrylic bottle, created by artist Yinka Shonibare. His ship is more than 11 feet long and over 7 feet high, and has sails made from brightly patterned batik material. Shonibare has gone on record as saying that this work is a celebration of Britain’s multicultural society which he believes is due in part to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar – this ensured British supremacy at sea, which played a part in establishing the empire.

You could celebrate Nelson’s victory at Waterloo by being creative and stitching a naval-style pennant or some bunting...  or enjoy a glass of grog, which seems to have been a mixture of rum, water and lemon... you could also recite Spike Milligan’s rhyme, ‘Tis due to pigeons that alight on Neslon’s hat that makes it white...’

By the way, should anyone wonder, the battle was fought off Cape Trafalgar, which is on the south west coast of Spain, south of Cadiz. While writing this I realised I had no idea whatsoever where it is, so I looked it up!
Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, by Yinka Sonibare, MBE
photo by Quentin UK at Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

How to See Your Truelove!

Just a short post today, to mark the Feast of St Luke when, according to tradition, a maiden wishing to catch a glimpse of her true love used to mix up honey, vinegar and spices, smear it on her face, retire to bed and recite the following rhyme:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me,
In dreams let me my true love see.”

I have no idea how successful this method of foretelling the future would have been (it sounds more like a cookery recipe – for a salad dressing perhaps,  or a marinade – than an aid to divination) but it must have made a terrible mess of the bed linen.

Additionally, it was customary for people to kill pigs on this day and to bung up barrels – presumably as part of the preparations for the approaching winter.

Anyway, St Luke the Evangelist, the author of one of the four Gospels, was a physician who lived in Antioch in the first century, and accompanied St Paul on his final journeys. He is the patron saint of doctors, artists, lacemakers and bulls.

Perhaps we could celebrate by eating honey rather than applying it to the face... honey cakes, or a drink sweetened with honey...  or, talking of drink, what about mead...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Orange Sunday

 Time for tea! I finished a tea cosy for my little teapot that sits on top of a cup - and made a flower to on the top.
Don't hang about! I spotted this hanging basket hanging from an arch in the Buttermarket, beneath the Town Hall.
Getting stuck in to needlework.... Miniature pincushions in autumnal colours.
Sine a light! These Hallowe'en candles look like tiny Jack o' lanterns.
It's knot difficult... An autumn tree, embroidered with French knots and seed beads.
Petal power! Bizzy Lizzies in the Castle Grounds.
All buttoned up! A card stitched from scraps.
A pretty flower in one of the tubs by the entrance to the Castle Grounds. It looks pinker in the photograph than it did in reality and I have no idea what it is!
Bags of money.... Crochet bags to hold cash or treats!
  I can't eat chocolate, but I couldn't resist these. Aren't they cute?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Line of Time at the 'Centre' of the World

Shepherd Gate Clock, 
Royal Obsevatory by 
Alvesgaspar Wikipedia 

October sees the end of British Summer Time, when the clocks go back, but it also marks the 127th anniversary of the introduction of Greenwich Mean Time by countries around the globe, which may not sound very exciting but is the reason time is calculated from the same base, no matter where in the world you are.

And that base is the Greenwich Meridian, zero degrees longitude, where East meets West at the centre of time throughout the world.  Its use as a universal marker for time was approved at an international conference held in 1884 ‘for the purpose of fixing a prime meridian and a universal day’.

Britain had unofficially standardised time in the 1840s when ‘railway time’ was introduced by train companies to ensure timetables were more accurate – prior to that time varied from town to town, which must have been confusing, especially where transport was concerned, but GMT was not legally adopted until 1880. However, for many years clocks in public places had two faces, or even two minute hands, to show local time and GMT.

 The Greenwich Meridian itself is an imaginary line (not a lion as I used to think in my schooldays) running from the North Pole through England, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana and Antarctica to the South Pole. Known as early as 1738, its route is now indicated at night by a laser beam pointing north from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and was originally determined by the Airy Transit Circle, which sounds like some kind of magical atmospheric phenomenon but is actually a historic telescope.

If you are feeling energetic you can follow the line of the meridian from the point it reaches England at Sand le Mere, near Withernsea, in East Yorkshire, to its exit at Peacehaven, in Sussex - a trail using public footpaths has been established by The Long Distance Walkers’ Association.

Prime Meridian, Greenwich
by ChrisO Wikipedia Commons
These days Universal Time is atomic pieces, but is essentially the same as GMT, and the old terminology continues to be used by most people in Britain, including the BBC which still broadcasts hourly ‘pips’ for listeners.

Currently, of course, we are GMT plus one, since we are still in British Summer Time (set up in 1916 to provide an extra hour of daylight) but all that changes at 1am on Sunday, October 30, when the clocks go back and we revert to real time again.

If, like me, you can never remember what happens when, I find the following saying is helpful, even though it sounds American: Spring Forward, Fall Back.

By the way, most of the ‘information’ about the Greenwich Meridian in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is, apparently total rubbish, but there are masses of good websites – I found was helpful, even if I couldn’t understand all the detail.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Leopards, Lilies and Knights Templar

Hereford's famous Mappa Mundi can be seen at the centre
of this painted scene on  the front apex of the canopy  created for
what remains of the shrine of St Thomas.
’Tis the Feast of Thomas Cantilupe, otherwise known as St Thomas of Hereford,  whose shrine was one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in England during the Middle Ages,  with over 400 miracles recorded: only St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury had more. It is claimed that he healed lepers, made the blind see, the dumb speak – and even restored the dead to life, including a Welsh rebel who was hanged eight years after the saint’s death

Like his more famous namesake, this Thomas was also Chancellor of England for a time, and was forced to live abroad when he fell out with the king, but later he returned and become Bishop of Hereford. According to the cathedral’s website Thomas Cantilupe had red hair, was very feisty, and was well known for his holy life and devotion to his diocese. He may also (though the cathedral website does not mention this) have links with the mysterious Knights Templars.

The shrine with its new gilded
 Born in 1218, he studied in Oxford and Paris, was Chancellor at Oxford University, was then appointed Chancellor to Henry III in 1265, but lost his position when Simon de Montfort was killed  because, apparently, he supported the Earl’s rebellion against the king.

Thomas travelled abroad for a while, but on his return once again took up the post of Chancellor at Oxford University, before being enthroned as Bishop of Hereford in 1275. He became known for his care of the poor, and was an advisor to Edward I.  He  wasn’t afraid to stand up for the rights of the church, or the people, and in 1290 this led to his ‘great conflict’ with Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Gloucester and 6th Earl of Hertford over hunting rights in Malvern, where Gilbert dug a ditch to prevent access. In addition he is said to have forced Lord Clifford to walk barefoot through the cathedral, and then beat him, in penance for assaulting tenants and raiding cattle.

Far more serious was Thomas Cantilupe’s quarrel with John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to his excommunication. The Hereford Cathedral website says the argument was over land rights in the diocese, but it is difficult to understand how that could have escalated to the stage where such an extreme step was taken, especially as there seems to be no accusation of heresy or wrong-doing on Thomas’s part. Perhaps it was a personality clash which got out of hand – or perhaps, as some websites claim, there was a connection with the Knights Templar.

It has been suggested that Thomas was a Grand Provincial Master of the Order, and that the sculpted knights around the stone base of his shrine are Templars. Conspiracy theories about the Templars crop up all over the place, but personally I think one 13th century knight looks much like any other, especially when their faces and shield designs have been erased, presumably during the Reformation, and there seems to be no evidence to prove the identity of these figures.
This applique and embroidered panel shows Thomas' journey to Italy,
his illness, death, and the creation of his shrine at Hereford.
I had the camera on the wrong setting, so the picture is blurred.
Whatever the truth, Thomas was determined to gain absolution and clear his name, so in 1282 he met Pope Martin IV in Italy, where he fell ill and died. His bones were taken back to Hereford, and tales quickly spread of miracles occurring at his tomb. However, the road to sainthood was not easy: in addition to the usual processes a  Papal inquiry was convened in London 1307 to ascertain whether Thomas had received the absolution he sought – if he had not, he could not be canonised. It took the commissioners 13 years to find in his favour, and Pope John XXII finally declared him a saint in 1320.

Is this a Templar? A  knights
on the side of Thomas' tomb.
During the Reformation his shrine was destroyed and the relics dispersed, but the stone base was left and recently craftsmen have produced a beautiful gilded canopy to cover it, and there are candles for modern pilgrims to light, and space for them to sit in quiet reflection.

In addition the story of Thomas is portrayed in two embroidered  fabric panels which hang by the restored shrine, and he left a lasting memorial because his family’s coat of arms – three upside-down leopard heads with heraldic lilies in their mouths – was adopted by the Bishops of Hereford and is still in use today.

You could celebrate by treating yourself to a bunch of lilies... or plant lily bulbs ready for next year... or create your own story in fabric and thread... and, of course, you could sample festive fare with a medieval flavor – gingerbread and wine perhaps?

You’ll find the Hereford Cathedral website at, and there are some details about Thomas Cantilupe’s alleged Templar connections at .
Leopards and lilies... Thomas Cantilupe's
family coat-of-arms is now an emblem for the
Bishops of Hereford.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

On the Buses!

1:8 scale model of STL-type double deck motor bus No 500, registration AYV680. Finished in London Transport colours. Courtesy of the Collection of London Transport Museum.
Today marks the introduction of the first London bus with an enclosed upper deck in 1925 – an anniversary carefully selected for your delectation and delight as a mark of respect to my grandfather, who was an electrician on the buses.

Born in 1903, Grandpa must have been a very modern young man when he was apprenticed, because the London General Omnibus Company didn’t install electric lighting on its vehicles until 1913, with headlights being fitted the year after that, so it must still have been quite innovative, and I can imagine his father, who was a tailor, moaning about young people with new-fangled ideas, and saying he would be better off with a more traditional job.

When my mother was very small, around 1929 or 1930 I think, Grandpa moved his family out of London to Egham, in Surrey, and cycled backwards and forwards to ‘the works’ at Chiswick – a round trip of about 30 miles a day. As an employee he could have got free travel aboard a bus but, as I’ve said in a previous post, he liked to do things the hard way (

Eventually, after the Second World War, he moved to County Donegal, taking his bicycle with him. There he found a similar job with what is now the Loch Swilly Bus Company, and continued to cycle to work every day along a slightly shorter but much hillier route, negotiating Irish wind and rain, steep slopes, rough tracks and twice-daily encounters with customs officers with his usual irrepressible bravado.

But back to the buses... it seems they came a long way in a short time, for the first one to be operated by a petrol engine was  introduced as an experiment in 1899, with permanent services set up five years later, when Grandpa was just a year old. I like to think of him, first as a toddler, then as a small boy, fascinated by the rapid changes in this new form of transport, watching the buses as they drove past.

Replica London General Omnibus Company
1920 design open top double decker bus
at The North of England Open Air Museum,Beamish.
Initially they looked little different to the old horse-drawn vehicles, (the last of the LGOC’s horse-drawn buses was taken off the road in 1911) and many of the changes which took place over the early years had to be improved the Metropolitan Police. At first drivers sat in the open air, behind their engines, then they were given a seat beside the engine and finally, in 1930, were provided with safer, enclosed cab areas.

Passengers on the open-topped upper deck were provided with wet-weather canvas covers, and other early improvements to services included night buses, set up in 1913 for postal employees and shift workers.  During the First World War almost a third of London’s buses were requisitioned by the War Office, and were used to move troops and equipment, to hold anti-aircraft guns – and to house the pigeons which provided communications along the front.
This double-decker became the standard London Transport bus of the 1930s.
After the war buses became even more popular, and stops were introduced: there were 59 in London in 1919, compared to some 17,000 today. Buses became bigger, faster and more reliable, and the network of routes grew larger and larger. In 1921 the LGOC centralised all maintenance at the new Chiswick Overhaul Works (where, I assume, my grandfather worked), trimming the time taken to overhaul a bus from 16 days to four – a saving of 12 days.  

New vehicles were designed and built by the Associated Equipment Company at Southall, which opened in 1927, and hard on the heels of covered buses came other improvements, like pneumatic tyres and upholstered seats, as well as the Greenline service which took people to more rural areas outside the city (including Egham).

The iconic red colour of London’s buses was established by LGOC (before that there were different colours for different routes). The company, formed in 1859, quickly became the largest bus operator in the capital, but in 1933 it joined with other transport firms (both privately owned and run by local authorities) to form London Transport, which then became responsible for buses, trolley buses, trams and Tube trains.
It’s worth remembering that during the 1920s and 30s London’s buses were the envy of the world, and that hidden behind the drivers and conductors who dealt with the public was a huge workforce of people like my grandfather, who ensured the vehicles stayed in tip-top condition.

If you want to know more about the history of London’s buses, then take a look at the London Transport Museum website at which is packed with information and images, and provides a fascinating trawl through 100 years or more of transport history.

And, of course, there’s only one-way to mark the anniversary – take a trip on the top deck of a bus... or, should this prove difficult, why not sit back enjoy A Transport of Delight with Flanders and Swann, the late, great comedy duo, who are every bit as funny now as they were when this was released way back in 1957... Just click on the link and see what you think...

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Celebrate a Peaceable King with a Bath Bun

Edgar,portrayed in a stained glass window
at All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. 
Today is the First of October, and I was going to take a look at the month ahead, but it is also the anniversary of the day in 959 when Edgar the Peaceable became King of All England, and his title sounds such an unlikely attribution for a king that I thought I would find out more. Besides, he was crowned at Bath (although not until much later in his reign) so we could honour his memory by eating Bath buns or, if you are worried about your weight, you can have a Bath Oliver biscuit instead - and, of course, you musn't quarrel with anyone or cause a disturbance!

Edgar seems to have been forgotten; his achievements overshadowed by the exploits of other Anglo Saxon Kings, including his youngest son Ethelred the Unready (his eldest son went down in history as St Edward the Martyr after being murdered just three years into his reign). Anyway, Edgar deserves to be better known, for he was the first king of England to establish a single form administration throughout the regions, he established a uniform system of coinage, reformed the church, overhauled the legal system and built up the navy.

He also gave Danes in the kingdom of York (which was then part of Northumbria) legal protection to follow ‘such good laws as they best decide on’, a concession made in gratitude for the loyalty they had shown him.  

Coins from Edgar's reign.
Born in 943, Edgar was the younger son of Edmund I. Some early records refer to him as King of Mercia, while his elder brother Eadwig is named as King of the English. It is unclear whether he seized power or succeeded when the brother died, but by 959 he was established as ruler of the whole of England, although he was not consecrated until 973, in a ceremony which took place at Bath and is mentioned in several annals in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

Following this event, all the lesser kings pledged their allegiance at Chester promising fealty ‘on sea and land’. The earliest chroniclers record six kings, but later writers list eight crowned heads, who rowed Edgar up the River Dee in his royal barge.

These state occasions are thought to have been organised by St Dunstan (before he was a saint, of course), who was recalled from exile to become Edgar’s chief advisor and was eventually made Archbishop of Canterbury. Together the two men restored Benedictine rule to English monasteries and set up new bishoprics.

Edgar was married twice. His first wife was Aethelfaed Eneda (not to be confused with Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians), who was the mother of St Edward the Martyr. His second wife was Aelfryth, with whom he had Edmund, who died young, and Ethelred. He is also reputed to be the father of St Edith of Wilton, through some kind of liaison with Wulfthryth, a nun who was later appointed abbess at Wilton.

Edgar seems to have been a capable and efficient king but when he died at Winchester in 975 he was only 32, and had failed to clarify the succession, so there was turmoil as two rival factions each claimed the crown for one of his two young sons. He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey.

 By the way, much of the information in this post came from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which can be accessed online in the comfort of your own home if your local library subscribes: all you have to do is to key in your library membership number. It’s a fantastic resource, and another good reason why libraries should be kept open.
Enjoy a lovely, sugary Bath bun in
honour of King Edgar the Peaceable
who was crowned at Bath.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Mop Fairs and Mock Goose

Jacob Epstein's sculpture of the
Archangel Michael at
Coventry Cathedral

Today is Michaelmas, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, so please make sure you have picked all your blackberries! According to legend, the Devil landed in a blackberry bush when St Michael threw him out of Paradise, and was so badly scratched he spat on the plant, making the fruit inedible - so you cannot eat them after September 29!

When  I was a child we had a blackberry bush in the garden, and an apple tree, and we used to gather blackberries from fields and hedgerows, and my mother used to bake the most wonderful blackberry and apple pies, but we never worried about old stories like this, and nor did anyone else. As long as the fruit was ripe it got eaten, no matter what the date was.

There are all kinds of rhymes and proverbs connected to Michaelmas, and many of them are concerned with the weather. Sunshine on St Michael’s Day indicates a fine winter, while light winds mean there will be no snow at Christmas: but be warned, yet another old tradition maintains that if St Michael brings lots of acorns it will snow for the festive season – and so don’t ask what happens if there are light winds, sun and lots of acorns!

St Michael the Archangel was the captain of the Host of Heaven, who defeated Satan and the fallen angels, and is therefore the patron of knights and warriors, as well as the sick, mariners and grocers (is that why the Marks and Spencer label is St Michael I wonder?). He is usually shown with a sword, battling with Satan or a dragon – like Jacob Epstein’s fantastic sculpture mounted on the outside wall of Coventry Cathedral, which is the most amazing building and well worth a visit.

Michaelmas is one of the four ‘quarter days’ of the year, when tenants paid their quarterly rent and servants were hired at ‘Mop Fairs’ when they donned their best clothes and carried tools associated with their trade. In some areas the festivities were held at the end of September, but in others people continued to hold the event in October, on the date of ‘old’ feast day before the calendar was changed.
Blackberries - cook them with apples
and bake a delicious pie.

It was thought lucky to eat a goose, fattened on stubble left in the fields after harvest, so traditional goose fairs also occur on both dates, marking the start of autumn and the approach of winter. Apparently, in times gone by people believed ‘Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year’, which seems to discriminate against vegetarians like me, but may account for the fact that I never have any money!

During the Second World War geese (which were popular at Christmas as well as Michaelmas) must have been in short supply, like many other foods, because old recipe books feature mock goose , along with mock cream, mock apricots (carrots and flavouring), mock bananas and other similar delicacies. Anyway, mock goose usually seems to have been a kind of cheese and potato pie, involving potatoes, cheese, apples and sage. However, in his TV programme Ration Book Cooking Valentine Warner used red lentils and breadcrumbs, with onion and sage, which is quite pleasant, but much better with the addition of grated cheese. Neither recipe, it should be emphasized, resembles goose in any way, shape or form.

So there is plenty of choice to mark the feast day. Cook a goose, or blackberries, or the wartime veggie version... with a glass of wine... and you could dip into Milton’s Paradise Lost (the easiest place to find Michael the Archangel is where he offers advice on life, the universe and everything  to  Adam and Eve)... or you could start reading Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials,  which was inspired by Milton ‘s epic poem. 
If you want to roast a goose check out this Delia Smith recipe

Friday, 16 September 2011

Saintly Miracles, Royalty - and Leeks!

Watercolour copy of a wall painting of St Ninian found in a church
at St Congan, Scotland in 1861. 
Today is the Feast of St Ninian, about whom myths and legends abound, but firm facts are few and far between.  Like many other early saints even his name is in doubt: he is also known as Ringan or Trynnian, and may really be St Finnian of Moville, given the wrong name due to an error on the part of an ancient scribe. Anyway, he has been St Ninian for more than 1,500 years, so as far as I am concerned that’s who he is!

His plant symbol is southernwood, a type of artemesia which is also called lad’s love, and traditionally on this day country lads used to present bunches of southernwood to their sweethearts. In Scotland the leaves were pressed in Bibles to perfume them, and  it’s common name is apple-ringie, which some experts think could mean St Ringan’s (or St Ninian’s) Wood, or even ‘pray to St Ninian’.  An old strewing herb, it has antiseptic properties and keeps insects and moths away. 
Whithorn Priory, Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland 
Wikimedia Commons
St Ninian is said to have brought Christianity to Scotland in the late 4th and early 5th centuries - long before Columba arrived on the scene – and established a church at Whithorn, in Galloway, which became known as the cradle of Scottish Christianity and was a major shrine after his death. Some 300 years later the Venerable Bede briefly mentions Ninian in A History of the English Church and People, describing him as ‘a most reverend and holy man of the British race’  who had been ‘regularly instructed in the mysteries of the Christian faith in Rome’.

Stained glass in 
 the Whithorn Story 
 by Richard LeClerk, 
a copy of a Douglas Strachan 
window in 
Edinburgh Castle.
A 9th century poem, Miracula Nyniae Episcopi , describes some of the miracles attributed  to Ninian, while in the middle of the 12th century Ailred of Rievaulx wrote the Vita Sancti Niniani (A Life of St Ninian), which he claimed was based on earlier records. According to Ailred Ninian was the son of a Christian King, was consecrated a bishop in Rome, then in Tours (on his return to Britain), met St Martin who sent stone masons with him to build a church. Ninian is also said to have used a nearby cave as a retreat, where he could retire from the world when he needed peace for contemplation and prayer.

As for the miracles, he cured a blind king (allegedly) and proved a priest was not responsible for a pregnant girl pregnant by making the unborn baby speak to reveal the true father. He also brought back to life a man who had been gored by a bull, and solved a food shortage by making leeks appear in a garden – apparently, he planted seeds which ripened within hours. And there is a charming story that as the saint walked along reading Psalms God protected him (and the book) from the rain. However, one day he had an ‘unlawful thought’ and the divine protection vanished – but reappeared when he returned to his usual virtuous thoughts! 
Carved oak 14th century figure
 of a bishop found near Whithorn
 and thought to be St Ninian. 
According to Ailred, after Ninian’s death there were miraculous cures at his shrine: lepers were made well, a blind girl regained her sight, and a man found his skin disease disappeared when he prayed there. The shrine was housed in cathedral built on the site of his own church at Whithorn, and became a place of pilgrimage for rich and poor alike. In the 14th  century Robert the Bruce prayed (unsuccessfully) to be cured of leprosy, and in the 16th century Mary Queen of Scots went there, as her father James V did before her, and her grandfather James IV before that.

 The Cathedral is now a ruin but modern pilgrims still make the journey to Whithorn and St Ninian's cave, seeking peace and healing just as folk have done since St Ninian himself first decided to bring the word of God to the pagan Picts in the lawless lands north of Hadrian’s Wall.

I think we should pause for a moment and reflect on the legend of St Ninian (whether that was his true name or not). Then you could mark his day by sending flowers to a loved one, or plant southernwood in the garden, or make leek and potato soup or a leek and potato bake (soften sliced leeks in butter, parboil sliced potatoes, drain, tip into a dish, add home-made cheese sauce, grate cheese over the top, bung it in the oven until it’s golden brown and bubbling)... failing all else, cake and wine will suffice.
St Ninian's Cross

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Nuts, Lace and the True Cross

Let’s all go a-nutting... for today, September 14 is Nutting Day, or the Devil’s Nutting Day, when it was traditional for people to gather nuts from the woods – normally hazelnuts (which are also known as cobnuts or filberts), but I think any other sort of nut could be collected as well.
At any rate, hazelnuts collected today were considered to be magical, and if you found two nuts on one stem it was believed to keep toothache away, as well as safeguarding you from rheumatism and witches’ spells. Indeed, hazel trees have long been associated with wisdom and protection, especially in Celtic lore, and for Mother Julian of Norwich hazelnuts represented God's love for the world (a friend has written about this on her website at Additionally, the nuts and branches have been used for dowsing and divination.

Anyway, there must have been practical reasons for collecting hazelnuts now. I suppose they were perfectly ripe and in tip-tip condition, ready to be stored for people and animals to eat during the winter, when food was scarce. I’m not sure if there is a connection between nutting and the fact that today is Holy Rood Day, a major Christian festival in Medieval times - somehow nutting sounds much more ancient and pagan.
Rood was the old English for cross or rod, and Holy Rood Day (or Holy Cross Day as it is sometimes known) was supposed to commemorate the discovery of the ‘True Cross of Christ’ by St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine but, as is so often the case with these religious festivals, the facts seem to vary, depending on which church or source you look at. One school of thought insists the church built by Constantine to house the cross his mother found held its first service on September 14; others claim it marks the day when a fragment of the cross was returned after it was plundered from Jerusalem.

There were other legends and customs connected with the day, which held a special significance for bobbin lacemakers, as it meant they could now work by candlelight, a dispensation that lasted right the way through autumn and winter until Shrove Tuesday.

Should you wish to celebrate the occasion you bake a nut roast, or eat chocolate covered nuts... since chocolate gives me migraine I intend to eat some yogurt-coated nuts I have been keeping for a treat. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Wormy Spaghetti with Roald Dahl

Today is Roald Dahl day, celebrating the work of the author who was born on this day in 1916, so I've celebrated with Wormy Spaghetti, of which more later... It is also the 50th anniversary of James and the Giant Peach, one of his best-known children’s stories (and one which is, I think, very weird indeed – if you’re not familiar with it, read it, then tell me what you think). Dahl’s life and writing are well documented, so I’ll just give a brief resume.

He was born in Cardiff to Norwegian parents; his father and a sister died when he was only three, and he was sent to boarding school where, apparently, he was beaten and was very homesick and miserable. During the Second World War he served in the Royal air Force, and later he married actress Patricia Neal with whom he had five children. When she suffered burst cerebral aneurysms  he helped her learn to talk and walk again: but it wasn’t the only tragedy to hit the couple - a son was injured in road accident, aged just four months, and suffered from hydrocephalus for a time, while a daughter died at seven from measles encephalitis. Dahl and Neal were married for 30 years, but he divorced her in 1993 to marry Felicity ‘Liccy’ Crosland.

I am too old to have read Dahl’s books as child – and, to be honest, I am not sure I would have appreciated them. However, I had plenty of opportunity to study them with my daughters, who loved them, especially The BFG, The Witches, Matilda, The Enormous Crocodile,  and The Twits, which is my own personal favourite, though I also love Esio Trot, which is a wonderfully touching love story (most unlike Dahl really). Mention should also be made of Quentin Blake’s quirky illustrations, for it’s hard to imagine the books without the pictures: Dahl and Blake are as perfect a partnership as AA Milne and EH Shepherd or Louis Carroll and John Tenniel.

Some adults may find it hard to understand the appeal, but Dahl could weave a story which captured children’s imagination and held their attention. He understood their fascination with the gruesome and bizarre, as well as their enjoyment of silly jokes and nonsense words and rhymes.  There is no middle ground in his books: good and bad are clearly defined and everything is somehow larger than real life. They make no effort at realism: they are more akin to fairy tales, or Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter stories, or even Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. But they allow children to explore  their emotions, whether it’s anger at the adult world with its senseless rules or laughter at jokes and tricks.

Dahl also wrote short stories for adults, which are too dark or my taste, and was involved in screen writing for a time -he worked on the Bond movie You Only Live Twice and  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where he was responsible for creating the terrifying Child Catcher.

Following his death in 1990 he has become even more popular, and there is now a Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, the village where  he lived for  some 40 years, which celebrates his life and works  to promote literary education, encouraging children to read and write, which has got to be good. There’s also Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.

But there has been criticism today, as his granddaughter, the model and cookery writer Sophie Dahl launched a new appeal for funding to preserve the shed where he wrote. A phased development is planned, which involves moving the inside of the shed, which contains many of Dahl’s possessions, to the museum.  So far £250,000 of the £500,000 needed has been raised, but a further half  a million is required for the second stage, which would see the development of educational resources and interactive displays.

Critics have questioned whether it is right for the public to be asked for contributions to this kind of project at a museum which charges entry fees, especially in the current financial climate.

Anyway, I marked Roald Dahl Day by ignoring such controversy and cooking Wormy Spaghetti from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, which was well-used when The Daughters were small, but has lain on top of the kitchen cupboard for years. In case you’re wondering, the dish is mentioned in the Tweets and is essentially spaghetti with a home-made tomato sauce, and very tasty it is too... I had two helpings!

In fact it was so good that tomorrow I shall make Strawberry Fudge, Krokan Ice Cream and Hot Frogs...