Saturday, 20 January 2018

Self-sufficiency then and now… by Carolyn Hughes

have been musing recently on how, for the past, say, nine centuries or so, until perhaps the early or even middle of the 20th century, the communities in the Meon Valley were mostly self-sufficient, one way or another.

Map of the Meon Valley William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1645
In earlier centuries, people rarely left their village, for almost everything they needed was there, produced by themselves, or local farmers or tradespeople. People’s “needs” of course were, necessarily and aspirationally, much more limited than ours, and, apart from “Shanks’s pony”, most people didn’t have the means to travel far.
There might be a market of some kind in the village, where folk would buy and sell their produce, and itinerant pedlars might bring “extras” that couldn’t be made in the village. In the days when a lot of villagers worked the land in one way or another, they took their grain to the mill to be ground into flour and either made their own bread or bought it from a baker.
Many grew their own vegetables and perhaps some fruit. If they were wealthy enough, they might have a cow and be able to make cheese. More likely, they might have a pig and produce their own bacon, and even more commonly, have a few hens to produce eggs and eventually a stringy carcass for the pot. If they didn’t, or couldn’t, have their own livestock, others could provide it for a price. People made their own ale or bought it from the village ale-wives. For tasks they couldn’t do themselves, there would be tradespeople who could – smiths, farriers, wheelwrights, carpenters, builders, thatchers and so on.

That said, I am not clear about the nature of the “market” in rural communities. I have always imagined that villagers would have sold their surplus to their neighbours in some sort of “farmers’ market”: more affluent housewives who produced a lot of cheese, for example, or ran a large number of hens and had eggs to spare, or had a large holding and grew more vegetables than the family could eat.
So when a community was “granted” a weekly market by the lord, perhaps this was a different sort of event, when merchants (to use the term loosely) might also come from outside to sell their goods? Maybe this was where villagers would purchase a new cooking pot, for example, or tools of various kinds?
Titchfield already had such a market in the 11th century, for the Domesday Book says its “market and toll (are worth) 40 shillings”. Titchfield’s was one of the first markets in Hampshire and, in the 12th century, it was the only place in the Meon Valley to have one. It wasn’t until 1231 that Meonstoke was granted a weekly Monday market, and in 1269 that Wickham was granted a charter to hold one every Thursday.
Titchfield Market Hall, built in 1620s, now at the Weald & Downland Open Air
Museum, West Sussex. (MilborneOne at the English language Wikipedia
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (,
via Wikimedia Commons)]
To buy something more exotic, folk might make the effort to travel a few miles to the nearest annual fair. Fairs were more than just over-sized markets. They were, as Ian Mortimer says, “the great gatherings of mediaeval England.” They were usually three-day events, held in honour of a specific saint, on the saint’s day and the day before and after it. Merchants would come from further afield with more exotic goods, spices perhaps, fine quality cloth, more sophisticated household and personal items than could be had in the markets. They were also places of entertainment as well as shopping.
In the Meon Valley, there were several fairs, though only one or two would be within walking distance of a particular village. At the sea end of the valley, in the 13th century, Titchfield was granted permission by King Edward I to hold an annual five-day fair, which was of enormous economic significance, and perhaps reflected the importance of the town after the establishment of its Premonstratensian abbey, which was almost certainly visited often by officials and even royalty. Further upstream, Wickham, at the same time as being granted its market, also received permission for an annual three-day fair on the anniversary of the Translation Of St. Nicholas (in May). The Wickham Fair attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area, dealing in goods of all kinds. The fair has continued more or less without a break, and is still held every 20th May, now more of an entertainment than a grand shopping experience. In the upper reaches of the valley, Meonstoke was also granted an annual three-day fair, in 1231, to be held on the “vigil, feast, and morrow” of St. Margaret. East Meon, too, held an annual fair on Lady Day (March), which continued until the 19th century, but has recently been revived as a May Country Fair.
Knowing how very rural and tranquil the communities of the Meon Valley are now, it is interesting to picture them hundreds of years ago as – once a year at least – the busy, bustling centres of trade they once were.
Interesting too, to note how relatively large some of these, now quite little, villages once were. The Domesday Book of 1086 has the details... East Meon for example was very large in relation to the norms of the day, with 138 households (perhaps 700 people), although the area covered was probably more than just the existing village. Only a short distance away was West Meon, also quite large, with 50 households (250 individuals). A few miles further to the south is Exton, still quite big at 46 households, as was Soberton with 35. By contrast, and rather intriguingly, three of the communities that were granted annual fairs – which one interprets as an indication of their power or importance – were not among the largest: Titchfield had only 33 households, Wickham had 26 and Meonstoke had 28. How curious! Mind you, the fairs and markets were granted to these places nearly two hundred years later than Domesday, so perhaps they had by then become more important places.
Obviously, the size of all communities has gone up and down over the ensuing centuries, but it’s quite interesting to see how the relative balance has changed since Domesday. In the most recent census (2011), East Meon and West Meon now have about 2000 individuals between them; Exton and Meonstoke, together with Corhampton (three villages that sit very close together) have 1600, with Corhampton now the largest of the three (having had only 60 or so individuals in 1086) and Exton the smallest. Soberton, too, has 1600. Wickham and Titchfield, however, have grown really quite large, at 4300 and 7200 respectively. As I have shown in a previous History Girls post, Wickham has been a thriving “townlet” for several centuries, and perhaps its location on a main route from the south coast at Portsmouth is a reason. In Titchfield’s case (see this History Girls post), it, too, was an important town for centuries, but eventually lost its status partly as the surrounding conurbation of Southampton/Fareham/Portsmouth grew and overwhelmed it.
Returning to the matter of the communities’ relative self-sufficiency, that way of life must have continued, more or less unchanged, for centuries, certainly into the 19th and in some places into the 20th. I am not clear to what extent the markets or the fairs continued, but change of a sort did take place during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when shops came to the villages. In the Meon Valley, two communities, East Meon and Soberton, offer good, if different, pictures of just how self-contained a village could still be, even up to a time that is well within living memory.
East Meon © Author
For example, East Meon was still virtually self-sustaining in the early 20th century, for then it had over 20 shops and tradesmen’s workshops. The East Meon History group ( has a wonderful website with all sorts of fascinating information about the village’s history. The website includes a map, drawn from memory by a resident, which shows all the stores and workshops serving the village in the 1920s, and where they were located (all now, of course, private and highly desirable homes). Inter alia, there were four bakers, a dairy, three grocers, three butchers, two mills, a saddler and cobbler, a wheelwright, farriers, a post office, a herbalist, and a wide range of craftsmen and building trades. One of the grocers, alongside food, also offered haberdashery as well as household goods, fabrics, boots and shoes, and apparently all the grocers sold paraffin, vital for cottagers without electricity. 
In Soberton, in the 1830s, it is thought that there was just a single shop in the High Street, a grocery, but, before long, more shops appeared: a butcher, a bakery, which was apparently also later the post office and sold beer and insurance too, and also a bicycle shop, a boot repairer, a blacksmith, and building craftsmen (carpenters, joiners, masons etc). In Soberton Heath, in the middle of the parish, there were a couple of grocery shops, and, in Newtown, at the southern end of the parish, a shop was opened in the 19th century, which, in the end, was the only shop in the parish and didn’t close until the 2000s. As late as, perhaps, the early 1980s most things could be bought in the village.
Wickham's market square © Author
Wickham and Titchfield, now with very much larger populations than any of the Meon Valley villages, are unsurprisingly rather better served in terms of shops and businesses. In 1939, Titchfield had about 40 shops and workshops, and Wickham’s great square was lined on every side with businesses of different kinds. Now, each little town has a small chain supermarket and a second “open-all-hours” store, as well as a butcher, a post office, a chemist, hairdressers, several pubs, restaurants and tea/coffee houses. Wickham also has two hardware stores, several antiques centres and gift shops, and a chocolate shop…
Titchfield, South Street, looking towards the square. Public domain.
However, there is no shop now in Soberton, and once bustling East Meon has just one shop, which is a general store and part-time post office. But there are also village shops in each of West Meon (which also has a butchers’ shop), Meonstoke and Droxford, all of which offer at least part-time post office services, and are village hubs, offering access to all sorts of local services and tradesmen as well as selling food and household goods.
In truth, it is perfectly possible to live quite well in either Wickham or Titchfield without having to travel further afield too often, provided one is prepared to accept a relatively modest lifestyle in the context of 21st century consumerism.
Yet, some of those village shops are also really striving to recover at least a degree of self-sustainment for the communities they serve. The post office and village store in Meonstoke (which also serves Exton and Corhampton) is a good example. It offers nearly everything you could need for day-to-day living: bread, meat, vegetables and fruit; ale and wine; logs and coal; as well as culinary treats, and access to many trades and services. Moreover, a good deal of what the shop provides is locally produced, much as it was in the Middle Ages. Its website ( sums up its credo: “Local produce, for us, is key for many reasons – to make sure you receive them when they are most fresh, to support local businesses and to promote a reduced carbon footprint.”.
There seems to be a growing desire (in truth, a need) for “local produce”, for reducing “food miles”, for greater “sustainment”. And some small communities are clearly beginning to return to at least a modicum of the self-sufficiency they had for so many centuries. What is happening here in the Meon Valley is undoubtedly happening in rural communities throughout the country. One wonders if the tide is beginning to turn.

Friday, 19 January 2018

So you want to be a Roman Emperor?

As this is my first post as a History Girl (and yes I shall be having a badge made with that title, which I shall wear at all times) I thought I’d introduce myself before launching into the subject of my post.

My name is LJ Trafford and I am obsessed with ancient Roman History.
This fixation kicked in whilst studying Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for my English Literature A Level. Discovering that the arch villain in that play, Octavius Caesar, later became good emperor Augustus I was intrigued. Reading far and beyond my set texts I soon possessed the ability to draw a family tree from memory of the notoriously complicated and inter-marrying Julio Claudian dynasty.
It became clear that the best course for me was to spend three whole years fan-girling over Augustus with the similarly minded. Somehow, despite possessing absolutely no history qualifications, I managed to talk my way onto an Ancient History degree course.

I now write historical fiction and have just finished writing a four book series on the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, 69AD. I also have a day job as a Database Analyst.
I thought it might be fun for my first post to combine these two roles and crunch some stats on Roman Emperors .

*Disclaimer*  My Data set runs from Augustus who became Rome's first emperor in 27 BC to Romulus Augustulus the last Western Roman Emperor who was deposed in 476 AD.
There are some gaps in the knowledge of some of the short lived emperors and also some conflicting evidence. My figures are based on what data we do have and my own hunches on conflicting accounts.
*Second Disclaimer*  It's just for fun.

So you want to be a Roman Emperor?

First things first. Being a Roman emperor is extremely dangerous.

Yes, you have a whopping 63.95% chance of having an unnatural death.
This might rather put you off aiming for the purple. But never fear! I have some top tips that will help aid your likelihood of surviving a tumultuous life at the top.

1) Choose the time of your accession carefully.

As you can see from the above chart, you have a better chance of a natural death if you start your reign in the 2nd Century AD.
This is the era of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, three of Edward Gibbon's 5 Good Emperors.
You will certainly want to avoid the 3rd Century for your Emperorship. This was a period known as the Crisis with a sudden, violent and rapid changeover of emperor. There were 28 emperors in 100 years, meaning an average length of reign of 3.6 years. The 2nd Century by comparison has an average reign of 11 years. Which is ample to make a name for yourself.

2) Are you ready to be emperor?

Though youthful exuberance and ambition has its place, it has no place in being a Roman emperor.
Of those who became emperor aged 30 or under a humongous 80% of them met an unnatural death.
Included in this total is Nero who became emperor thanks to his mother's machinations at 17 years old.
Geta, emperor at 20. Stabbed to death in his mother's arms at 22.
And Gordian III who ascended the purple at only 13 and was killed in battle, or assassinated by troops (neither of which is very nice).

Reassuringly, for those of us of a certain age, your chances of an awful death decline sharply once you pass 31. Indeed the best age to ascend to the throne and enjoy a long reign and peaceful death is between 40 and 45.

3) What to look out for.
 We've established that you want to begin your reign in the 2nd Century in comfortable middle age but what do you need to look out for to avoid that unnatural death?
Surprisingly, given the expansionist nature of Rome, those emperors killed in battles were for the most part in civil wars against fellow Romans.
Notable exceptions include Valens who was killed fighting the Goths, Valerian the only Roman emperor to be captured in battle and Julian, who like Valerian, was fighting the Persians.

By far the greatest risk factor is assassination.
A whopping 24 emperors were assassinated, giving you a 1 in 4 chance of ending your reign that way. Even extremely competent emperors such as Aurelian (who regained large tracts of territory during the Crisis era and was named 'Restorer of the World') fell to the assassin's dagger.

So who do you need to be aware of? Who are you most likely to be assassinated by?

4) The dagger wielders.
Though an army is a necessity for an emperor you might want to keep them and your own personal bodyguards, the Praetorians, in your favour. Preferably by using coinage. Emperor Galba was deposed and decapitated in the Forum after refusing to pay a bonus to the troops.
Pertinax was ousted because he only paid his Praetorian Guard half of what they were owed.

And keep looking over your shoulder at that 'friend' or relative of yours, they might just be hankering after your throne.

Other notable assassinations include Caligula whose death was organised by a Guard whose high pitched voice he'd made fun of. Caracalla who was stabbed by one of his troops whilst going to the toilet. And Commodus who was strangled in his bath by a wrestler named Narcissus after vomiting up the poison his mistress had given him.

In conclusion having faced up to what is an awfully dangerous job, it is worth remembering that there are some benefits to being a Roman Emperor.
Such as:

  • Wealth beyond your wildest imaginings. A recent report put Augustus second in a list of the richest men of all time, estimating his worth to be around $4.6 trillion in today's money.
  • Palaces! Who doesn't like a palace? Nobody. And certainly not Nero who used the excuse of the great fire of Rome to build his legendary Golden House. The Imperial Palace was later extended and improved upon considerably by Domitian and Septimius Severus to take up most of the Palatine Hill. So plenty of room for your ornaments and soft toy collection.
  • Fame. Or infamy, Or if you're lucky a month named after you. July and August are named after Julius Caesar and Augustus. But they were not alone in having a month named after them. Nero named April after himself. Domitian went one better by calling two months Germanicus and Domitianus after himself. And apparently Commodus was set on naming all twelve months. Though obviously none of these stuck. Trafforduary anyone?

Data set compiled courtesy of Timothy Vermeiren.

LJ Trafford. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Literary Pilgrimages - Celia Rees

I'm sure we have all been on at least one Literary Pilgrimage.  Writers are fascinated by the lives of other writers, where they lived, where they wrote, the things they used and owned. The same fascination grips readers. Famous writers' homes have become places of pilgrimage. We feel compelled to visit, whether it is Monk's House in Rodmell, Dylan Thomas' Boat House, the Wordsworth home at Dove Cottage, C.S. Lewis' The Kilns or Kipling's Bateman's.

 Most particularly, we want to see where the write plied his or her craft. 

Virginia Woolf's Writing Room, Monk's House, Rodmell

Dylan Thomas' Shed

C.S. Lewis' Desk
We shuffle round and past, gazing through glass or from behind a rope, much as a pilgrim might when visiting a holy site. We are often enjoined not to take photographs (but we do anyway) and definitely not to touch anything (if we are allowed to get that close) even though that is exactly what we want to do. The writer's possessions, particularly those associated with the act of writing: pens, desks, letters and manuscripts have become objects of veneration, taking on the religious aura of holy relic. Just as the face of a saint is worn away by countless fingers and lips, we feel the need to touch, as if  holding Virginia Woolf's pen or operating the keys of C.S. Lewis' typewriter, will bring us closer to the hand that created the work we so admire and by some kind of sympathetic magic, bestow on us some of their power. 
C.S. Lewis' Typewriter

It is not just the instruments they used that command this fascination. The first time I saw actual written scripts in the British Library I felt a childlike awe. This was the actual writing of the actual person, the way they had written it, with blots, doodles, crossings out. I'm still fascinated by notebooks and manuscripts, especially the scorings out and changes that show the writer's mind at work. And I feel a kinship - even writers of genius collected ideas, jotted them down on whatever came to hand, had to search for words and didn't get it right first time.  

Dylan Thomas: list of words 

The things that a writer owned can, through time, as his or her fame grows, take on the aura of relic, just as the writer becomes mythic, iconic, but those very possessions, those very objects, can also help to restore the writer's humanity. Few writers are as iconic as the Brontës. Even people who have never read any of their books know their myth. Their story is a marketer's gift and so it has proved. Unfortunately, each turn of the myth making mill takes the reader further from the writer and even further from their books. An unusual biography of the Brontës, Deborah Lutz' The Brontë Cabinet, Three Lives in Nine Objects seeks to reverse this process.

No writers have been more mythologised than the Brontës. From their sudden appearance on the literary scene as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, stories have swirled about them. Their use of male pseudonyms began the mystery; their achievement, their singular, unique voices, so unlike anything before them, added to it. The early deaths of Emily and Anne so soon after their success; their brother Branwell's wreck of a life, made their story as poignant and tragic as any work of fiction. Charlotte's death following, so early in her marriage and in her pregnancy, seemed to add a further cruel coda. All of them survived by their father, Patrick. Their home, Howarth Parsonage, soon became a place of pilgrimage, as it is to this day. Among the visitors, those who would themselves become iconic. Sylvia Plath, nose pressed to the glass in the Parsonage Museum, hiking up to Top Withens with Ted Hughes. Their possessions were eagerly collected from the beginning, Patrick cutting up Charlotte's letters for fans pleading for examples of her handwriting. Now, their original manuscripts, letters and possessions are in museums and are considered priceless - relics, indeed.  In her book, Deborah Lutz seeks to return the objects to their original use and place in the lives of their owners and through that to re- discover the Brontës' humanity and put us in fresh touch with them as people.

Tiny Book written by Charlotte 
Through the tiny books they wrote, they come alive as children writing the adventures of Branwell's wooden soldiers on whatever they could find, making books out of wrapping paper, sugar bags - already inventing, making up stories, honing their craft and declaring their ambition to be published writers, even if they had to produce the books themselves.

Emily's Painting Box & Charlotte's Sewing Box

Charlotte's portable desk, Emily's paint box, a sewing box, a stout walking stick, a dog collar, each of the objects describes something of the different Brontë siblings' lives, bringing them back from the realm of myth, making each one real again and human, occupied and pre-occupied by day to day concerns. 

Emily's dog, Keeper's, Collar

Many of the Brontës' belongings are on display at Brontë Parsonage museum . They re-pay more than a casual glance. These ordinary, everyday objects, often worn and well used, help us see the Brontës as real people who not only wrote but sewed and painted, went for walks, made bread and peeled potatoes. The things they used and owned help to place their writing firmly in lived experience and bring their extraordinary achievement into fresh perspective. 

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

ELEANOR MARX by RACHEL HOLMES: Reflections by Penny Dolan

January arrived, bringing time to edge myself back to mid-Victorian London, the time and setting for my long-neglected novel. Looking along the shelves for the right book to nudge my mind along, I spotted one inviting title. The book was ELEANOR MARX, written by RACHEL HOLMES, her biography of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. Another point in its favour was that I had seen YOUNG MARX at THE BRIDGE theatre, and the play set questions murmuring in my head about the man and his family.

The biography certainly covered the time-span of my “work-in-progress”. Eleanor Marx was born in 1855, but earlier in the 19th Century was there on the pages, looking back at the young lives of both her parents. The book seemed a good “starter” to glance though, so I began on the first chapters . . . and then I kept reading, way past the point of any practical research. 

 Eleanor Marx, as revealed by Rachel Holmes, is a wonderfully compelling character and, furthermore, the sweep of her life reads like the plot of a classic novel. 

Eleanor - or Tussy to rhyme with Pussy - was the daughter who took on Marx’s great legacy and who most inherited his cause and philosophy. Her German parents, Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen, had come to London as poor refugees. Marx was in trouble with the authorities in Germany and in France and under suspicion here in England. Times were hard: Marx earned little or nothing from his writing and his family relied on subs from friends, loans from distant relatives and the local pawn-broker to survive life in the London slums. Penniless and hungry, the family flitted between rented rooms, always accompanied by Helen Demuth, their live-in maid-servant. Illness was always a worry and only three of Jenny’s babies survived to full adulthood.

One constant in the household was Marx’s closest friend, Friedrich Engels, the son of an industrialist, whose money kept the small family afloat. Closer than many brothers, these two men - Marx and Engels – debated and created the whole anti-capitalist philosophy and movement. The girl Eleanor must have been there by the fireside, listening and witnessing many of these discussions, having her life shaped by their words.

Eleanor never went to school - unlike her two older sisters who benefited from a burst of prosperity- but she was too curious about everything to stay uneducated. She learned to read and write early, and was an eager student of subjects she valued, taught by various friends and by her father. Surrounded by books, if not much else, Eleanor loved reading Grimm’s folk tales and reciting Shakespeare’s plays and was a keen little letter-writer herself. She grew up speaking German, French and English and, as an adult enjoyed learning languages. As Eleanor moved into her teens, she began helping her adored father with his work, notes, translations and correspondence. By the time she was sixteen, her own life was becoming absorbed in social struggle, and in the dilemma of balance relationships between man and woman equally.  
Yet this is only the start of Holmes sweeping biography. Through the pages, we see Eleanor living so closely with all the social struggles of the nineteenth century that she almost seemed a kind of Mother Courage to me. What was particularly valuable about this biography is the very width of its context. 

Eleanor was involved with so many of the significant events and movements of the age: the Paris Commune of 1984; the rise of Irish Home Rule & the Fenians; protests and demonstrations against industrialisation, suffrage, the fight for an eight hour day and equal wages, child labour, and education for all.ot limited by "Victorian England": as a refugee and an immigrant, with sisters and relatives living across Europe, she never loses an international perspective, and nor does this book.

Although Eleanor trained as an actor, she had little success but nevertheless those same skills, and the warmth of her personality, made her into a great public communicator. She travelled constantly as a speaker, even to America to speak to the worker’s unions, and was acknowledged almost everywhere for her knowledge and understanding of her father’s arguments, beliefs and philosophy.
Holmes looks into this revolutionary age, revealing some uncomfortable truths such as the lack of empathy between “society suffragettes” and working-class women; the active animosity between the various anarchist and parliamentarian Socialist parties; the English workers general rejection of European Socialist perspective and solidarity, the rise of antisemitism and more. Despite some progress, this was not a trouble-free time, nor was her own personal life free of conflict and deep tragedy.

However, as I read about the different issues she faced, it was impossible not to feel that Eleanor Marx’s life echoed then with many questions and problems that exist - maybe in growing intensity - in our 21st century society, which adds a darker note the journey.

Yet, reading this biography, there is no doubt that Eleanor Marx was remarkable. Through Rachel Holmes enthusiastic writing, she is shown as a truly impressive woman in her own right. And on she goes, through these great flowing pages of history, constantly organising, writing; campaigning; addressing conferences and rallies; travelling and serving her father’s cause, as she tries to face the hidden costs in her own life. One can only admire her generous heart and her bold hope for the future. A remarkable book too - and the end of her story had me in tears.

Penny Dolan

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A do-it-yourself wassailing kit - by Sue Purkiss

It's that time of year again, and people are wassailing right, left and centre down here in the west country. So if you want a reminder of how to do it, here's my post from last year. Never mind the wind and the rain - you owe it to your apple trees!

I wasn't particularly aware of the ancient custom of wassailing until recently. Okay, about this time of year you tend to see pictures in the local paper of people with green faces cavorting among apple trees - but hey, I live a mere stone's throw from Glastonbury, where the streets are paved with crystals and littered with spell books, and where every year they have a Goddess Conference at which the place is FILLED with people with green faces - not to mention magical wells, a conflux of ley lines and a 2000 year-old thorn tree. (Well, that was actually vandalised a few years ago, but I hear there are a few cuttings in the care of the fairy kingdom under Wearyall Hill - or possibly at Worthy Farm under the care of Michael Eavis.) So green faces don't raise an eyebrow in these parts.

Goddesses at Chalice Well in Glastonbury.

But, as I've mentioned before in this place, I fairly recently joined a choir. We sing a lot of folk songs, and at this time of year, when Christmas has come and gone, we sing a Wassail Song. I don't know the words off by heart - our leader, Issy, sings it first and we follow her - but they are very similar to these, which I found on the web.

'Old apple tree, we wassail thee and hope that thou shalt bear,
For the Lord doth know where we shall be come apples another year.
For to bloom well and to bear well, so merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat and shout out to the old apple tree.
   Three cheers for the apple tree: hip hip...'

Well, it's a very jolly tune and we like singing it, so we make quite a racket, and I only hope it's loud enough for the apple trees of Cheddar to hear and be enthused. Because the purpose of wassailing is to encourage them, as the song says, 'to bloom well and to bear well'. It's entirely logical. I often talk to plants. I had quite a chat with a Christmas rose the other day, congratulating it on flowering so beautifully when all its predecessors have singularly failed to thrive; and I always apologise to shrubs before I give them a severe pruning, and explain to them that it's for their own good. I find these little courtesies make all the difference, and I'm sure they do to the apple trees as well.

There used to be lots of apple orchards in Cheddar when we first moved here thirty or so years ago. But over the years, most of them have been grubbed up in favour of more houses, and in Somerset generally, the orchards for many years seemed to be dwindling. But since the growth in popularity of cider over the last few years (Thatchers is just down the road), orchards are back in favour, and so is wassailing.

So I thought I'd look into the history of it.

Wassailing in the olden days.

Apparently 'wassail' comes from 'Waes hael!', the Anglo-Saxon greeting and toast which means 'Good Health!' Its purpose is to wake the trees up and scare away any evil spirits, thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit in the autumn. This happens on Twelfth Night - but usually, it being such an old and historical custom, it takes place not on the 6th January, but on the 17th, because this would have been Twelfth Night (or Old Twelvey, as we country folk apparently call it) before the introduction of the new-fangled and totally unnecessary Gregorian calendar in 1582.

The correct procedure is to choose a Wassail King and Queen, who lead a procession of interested parties round the local orchards. At each one, the Queen is lifted up into one of the trees, and she presents it with a piece of toast soaked in the wassail drink, which seems to be a kind of cider punch. This is a gift to the tree spirits. (Here's a recipe - I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it sounds rather nice.)

Then everybody sings the song, after which they shout and bang pots and pans and drums and generally make as much noise as they can to drive the evil spirits out. (Presumably the good spirits put their hands over their ears after eating up their toast.) Then I think they probably finish off the cider punch, and dance round the fire a bit.

Below is a video from YouTube of a wassail in Gloucestershire. I'd personally like to see a bit more attention to wearing appropriate clothing (see picture above, of a wassail at Brent Knoll, just down the A38 from here) and I'm really not happy about the plastic bags, but it's a good and lusty rendition of the song.

So there you are. I've given you a day's notice, and with a bit of practice you'll soon master the song - so if you have apple trees, prepare to wassail them. Unfortunately, they really don't grow well in our garden...

Monday, 15 January 2018


by Marie-Louise Jensen

One of the things that always struck me as especially unfamiliar in historical fiction, that is to say Georgian and Regency historical fiction, was reading of a gentleman's 'freshly ironed shoelaces'. It also struck me as rather odd. In modern days, I've never seen a shoelace that would benefit from ironing.
I've always assumed that the laces must have been wider than now, and must therefore have become creased. I still haven't found a definitive answer to this and have no mental image. But the topic occurred me again when I was watching episode two of The Crown a couple of days ago. (Yes, I realise that I am late to this - no doubt all you history buffs saw it ages ago!)  There is a scene where the young, newly-bereaved Queen Elizabeth is dressed in mourning on the plane and just for a moment, the camera pans down to her shoes, which are laced with black ribbons.

Well, ribbons make sense. They would probably need ironing to stay looking nice. And in fact, a quick google shows that ribbons are still occasionally used for lacing shoes today. Something I (as someone entirely lacking in fashion sense) had no idea of.

However the shoelaces were made, it would have been the valet's job, poor soul, to iron them, along with his master's neckcloths and shirts. I seem to remember it was the dandies who required their shoelaces to be ironed in Georgian times, but I may be wrong.

Another fascinating fact that came up when I started to search ironing shoelaces on the internet is that apparently Prince Charles still requires his shoelaces to be ironed every time he has worn them. Very strange indeed, as I doubt he wears ribbon-laces. As he is probably one of the last men in England to have a valet (he has three) he can still demand such customs are observed. For those of us who have to do our own laundry and ironing, this is probably not something anyone today choses to spend their own time on. Hands up, anyone?

One final fun fact on the topic of ironing shoelaces - apparently in the 1920s, it was a euphemism for going to the bathroom in American English. A bit like going to see a man about a dog in the UK.

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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Not the End of the World - by Lesley Downer

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings …’

In 1931 a young American botanist called Cyrus Longworth Lundell was trekking through the Mexican jungle in search of chicle gum for the Wrigley chewing gum company. He travelled sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, depending on the denseness of the trees, led by local guides and followed by a long procession of bearers carrying his luggage and equipment.
Calakmul: 'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair!'

Deep in the jungle he arrived at his destination, a site which he had seen first from the air - monumental edifices of stone as high as and steeper than the pyramids of Giza, with stelae placed in front and high up on the walls covered in intricately carved images and symbols. He named it Calakmul which, according to Lundell, means ‘two adjacent mounds’ in the Mayan language..

He reported on it to the archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institute who set to work clearing and excavating. But from 1938, for unknown reasons, the site was abandoned. 

Stela at Calakmuk
The stelae that had been cleared of jungle were left exposed to the elements. Robbers scaled the crumbling monuments and sliced off whole carved facades, sometimes cutting them into pieces, and somehow manhandled the enormously heavy rocks down the precipitous steps to be sold. Other stelae that had been in excellent condition, protected by their covering of foliage, became weathered and worn down, the original sharp images virtually indecipherable. It was only in 1982 that preservation and restoration began again.

The monuments are a good hour and a half’s drive through dense jungle, followed by fifteen minutes’ walk through the trees. It must have taken days to get here in the 1930s.

Calakmul was one of the largest and most powerful of all the Mayan city states and there are almost 7000 ancient structures. There’s a grand central plaza around which successive rulers built these pyramid-like monuments, ever taller and taller, building around or on top of their predecessors’ monuments, taking them as a foundation. Unlike our castles, these are unfortified. The Mayan rulers built their monuments not to protect themselves but to display their power and splendour.

The tallest is a skyscraper, 45 metres high. Inside, archaeologists found an ornate frieze and the skeleton of a ruler, wearing a jade mask and jewellery, wrapped in textiles and partly preserved jaguar pelts and surrounded by treasures. In others they found beautifully painted murals depicting scenes of everyday life.
Jade mask found at Calakmul 

In the Mexican heat the jungle grows incredibly fast. In Calakmul it engulfs the ruins. Trees grow out of the stones, roots twine around the rocks and lianas dangle from the branches. Howler monkey crouch overhead, barking ferociously, and sometimes a jaguar emerges from the jungle. It’s all very Ozymandian. ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair.’ 

The Mayan script which covers some of the stelae is made up of ‘glyphs’ - picture writing, more rounded than Egyptian hieroglyphs, almost like little cartoons. Some of the glyphs carry meaning, others sounds, or sometimes both, with one sound represented by different glyphs, a bit like Japanese. It has now nearly all been deciphered and the battles which city states fought with city states and the exploits and histories of the rulers can all be read. 

Mayan script

The magnificent civilisation of the Maya began around 2000 BC and was at its pinnacle between 250 and 900 AD. At the time of the Greeks and Romans and throughout our so-called Dark Ages, the Maya were living in city states, building vast monuments and temples, carving intricate friezes, playing ball games and anointing the earth with their own blood. The rulers embodied the gods. They flattened their heads from birth and wore the plumed feathers of the quetzal bird to represent ears of corn - maize, the all-important crop.

The Maya traded widely across Mexico and Central and South America. Christopher Columbus met Mayan merchants and used their excellent navigational maps. All this grew up without any influence from Europe, the Middle East or Asia until the Spanish arrived in 1492.

At Uxmal, 150 kilometres north of Calakmul and the capital of another city state, the buildings are covered in spectacularly beautiful carvings like geometrical patterns. When you look carefully they shape themselves into stylised eyes, noses and mouths. It’s the face of Chaac, the all-important rain god with his hook-like nose, repeated over and over again.

Face in stones at Uxmal.
The door is a mouth with teeth and two eyes above
At Uxmal the many different building complexes are clear to see. There’s a great pyramid glorifying the ruler with a door leading to an inner chamber. There are also temples and palaces and a vast administrative court walled by four temples covered in lavish decoration.

On a long low building now called the Governor’s Palace there’s a small platform with a stone throne with two jaguar heads which functioned as an astronomical observatory. From another pyramid 5 kilometres away, in precise alignment with it, Mayan astronomers could observe Venus setting over the north side of the Palace once every 8 years. 

Then there’s the ball court, a staple of all these complexes, where players tried to shoot a rubber ball through a hoop high on the wall using only their hip, shoulder or head - hands and feet were not allowed. Depending on the rules of a particular game, the leader of the winning side might have his heart ripped out while the losers became slaves.

These vast stone plazas and edifices were where the rich and powerful lived, played their games and performed their ceremonies. Ordinary folk lived in thatched-roof houses such as one sees all around Mexico to this day, which quickly disappeared.

The apogee was the great monument (‘El Castillo’) at Chichen Itsa. It has exactly 91 steps on each of the four sides, adding up to 364, with the topmost platform making 365. The whole building is one vast stone calendar. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadows form the image of a giant serpent undulating along the side of the north staircase with its head sculpted in stone at the foot.
Chichen Itsa at the equinox. (Image from Wiki Commons)

All these cities and complexes were laid out with mathematical precision, with the buildings aligned such that from certain viewpoints the morning star, for example, could be seen on a certain day of the year. The Maya had three calendars, based on the sun, the moon and the phases of Venus, which intersected like a complex set of cogs at varying intervals, providing very precise information about the movement of the heavens, eclipses, harvests and when to plant. The whole cycle repeated every 5200 years - which is why 2012 was not the end of the world by the Mayan calendar (as was widely touted), but simply the end of a 5200 year cycle and the start of another.

It was also not the end of the world for the Mayas when the Spanish came. Their civilisation had already peaked and faded and they’d already left all their grand monuments. They also didn’t have gold which was the only thing the Spanish were interested in. So they were left in peace for a while though eventually they were enslaved and their entire literature denounced as writings of the devil and - except for three priceless codices - burnt by the Jesuits.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see All photographs apart from Chichen Itsa are by me.