Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Pilgrim's Staff of Faith

One of the essential pieces of kit for the medieval pilgrim was a staff to walk with.  Here's us in the quire of Chester Cathedral, formerly the Abbey of St Werburgh with our oaken friend the Chester Pilgrim between us, a 14th century bench end carving.  I'm holding one of my pilgrim staffs, with a cheeky little medieval chap as the finial at the top. 
The Chester Pilgrim carving itself has a hole cut through his fist to hold a staff, but the staff isn't there most days, sometimes a modern replacement is put there.
A staff proved very useful to a pilgrim, to help them climb hills, or ford streams and rivers in an age when bridges were rare.  They might also be used to fend off wild dogs.  Hieronymus Bosch depicted a wayfarer using his staff for just this purpose on the closed panels of his Haywain Triptych.  There are other hazards to the pilgrim in the picture; In the background, robbers attack another traveller whilst a bagpiper encourages another to a lusty dance with a woman.
Although the staff might scare off wild animals, it was little or no use against brigands, a perpetual problem for pilgrims.
 Before a pilgrim set off on their journey, a priest would bless their staff.  The Sarum Missal has the words of an appropriate prayer;
"Take this staff as a support during your journey and the toils of your pilgrimage, that you may be victorious against the bands of the enemy and safely arrive at the shrine of the saints to which you wish to go and, your journey being accomplished, may return to us in good health."
Along with his scrip bag, the staff was one of the ways by which a pilgrim might be recognised.  It was also so important to some pilgrims that they would keep it all their life.  The famous Worcester Pilgrim was buried with his staff.  In 1986, archaeologists undertaking work in the Cathedral discovered the body of a 15th century pilgrim, believed to be Robert Sutton, a wealthy dye merchant of that city who had been to Compostela on pilgrimage.  This was such a significant event in his life that he was buried with his long pilgrim boots, a cockleshell in lieu of the scallop shell of St James and his staff complete with double pronged spike and ferrule.  I always think it is a shame that these items were separated from him for scholars and tourists of today to see, after he had been so determined that he should be buried with them.

It's a few years since we saw these items on display in the crypt of the cathedral, as in the photograph above, but they've been conserved since and were back in a new display earlier this year.  Maybe it's time we set off on a new pilgrimage to see them...


Ghost Stories

As the nights grow longer, it feels the perfect time to share creepy tales.  It's an odd thing that we find being unsettled so comforting.  But perhaps it's our ancient way of dealing with those troubling fears, whilst we're in company and then within a story which ends and we're safe.
Tom telling creepy tales from the past at the Water Tower, Chester
Through our historical work, spanning the ages from medieval to Victorian, we've come across many different approaches to the ghost story.  In medieval times they are often a vision of souls trapped in purgatory, urging their loved ones to make amends for some small demeanour they committed in life.  The spirits in these instances are not terrifying, but sad reminders of what people felt could happen if sins were not atoned for.  A moving tale from Hulme, near Haydock in south Lancashire, from 1373 tells how a man met a beautiful red-haired woman, fell in love with her and they lived together out of wedlock.  Some years later the woman died and was buried.  The man then saw her ghost, appearing exactly as in life, except with black hair.  She told her lover she was suffering in purgatory and that he should pluck hairs from her head and arrange a mass to be said for each hair he held.  The man took the hair and fixed them with a pin to his door frame.  He paid priests to say masses for her soul, and as they completed each mass he witnessed each hair turn back to the original red.  When they were all red, he knew his lover was in heaven.
After the Reformation these ideas of purgatory changed and with the religious tensions that continued right through the later 16th and into the 17th century, the ghost and spirits seem to become malevolent, bringers of ill-will, perhaps connected to witches.  In dealing with these threats, people used all sorts of apotropaia, protective devices such as "witch bottles", markings on doorways, holly bushes in hedgerows, and so on.  I'll write up some thoughts of these apotropaic objects in Cheshire at some point, there are many!  One of the more curious ghostly tales from our area involves a ghostly duck (!) which is trapped in a bottle by a priest, then walled up, all of which might have been inspired by the discovery of one of these witch bottles.
From those times and on into the 18th century we get the ghost stories we're more familiar with in folk tales.  In my native Cheshire ghosts were called boggarts, and for someone to be frightened we might have said they "took boggart", rather as we might say a horse was spooked today.  Some of my favourite stories from this time try to explain how such things are made, what they do and how they might be dealt with.
Tom emerging as a ghostly tale teller just before three sell-out performances at Port Sunlight on Halloween night.
Moving into the 19th century everything gets a bit more gothic and leave you thinking after the tale is done.  When most people think of ghost stories today, they tend to think of this era, and when I'm telling creepy tales I do find it makes things a lot easier to do it in Victorian gear.  These ghost stories are particularly well suited to Christmas and the depths of winter, so I'll be out telling tales in various historic buildings around that time, do come along if you like goosebumps and spinetingles.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

On The Edge

Just a short post this one as I've written about this place several times in the past but wanted to share a few new pictures...
I hadn't been up to The Edge at Alderley for a couple of months so was happy to find an occasion to wander the woods there the other day.  I can't think of another place which has so many legends and stories associated with such a small area.  The setting has been the stimulus for tales since people started shaping the landscape there, way back in the Early Bronze Age.  You can't wander a few paces without stumbling across something to inspire a new tale, and I've a few more ideas myself now.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Writer and his World

Over the past year I have been getting very close to the works of Robert Westall, one of the 20th century's most important writers for children and young adults.  He's a writer I first encountered as a 12-year-old, picking a book in the school library, when I discovered The Wind Eye.  The opening pages of that particular book stayed with me from that day on; Westall is definitely an author who makes an impact with his openings. 
Back in 2007 I was working on an exhibition exploring Cheshire Writers who reflected the landscape of the county from the 14th century to the present day and this gave me occasion to revisit many of the works of Robert Westall.  Though he was born in North Shields on Tyneside and many of his works are set in that area, most notably The Machine Gunners, it was in Northwich, Cheshire, where his writing career began and lots of his novels and short stories are set in the Cheshire region.  But Westall was only one of many authors featured in that exhibition with limited space available and I felt that there was much more to be told.
Then a couple of years ago I came across a Westall novel which I'd never heard about before, Falling Into Glory, it contained the most convincing, and heartbreaking, depiction of a relationship I've ever read.  I couldn't believe it wasn't better known.  Westall was a high profile author in his day, and had twice won the Carnegie Medal, but this particular book was published a month or so after his death in 1993 and publishers seemingly found this tale of a teacher-student affair troublesome to promote, and less inclined to do so without the author himself to advertise it.  A small tragedy of timing, but a greater loss to the literary world.  Michael Morpurgo wrote "Westall was a writer of rare talent.  We shall miss him but he has left us such a wonderful legacy."
I discovered and read the other lesser known Westall novels, not quite realising the scale of the task at first.  He wrote 48 books in total and, unusually for such a prolific author, they are of a consistently high standard and span a wide range of genres from wartime adventures and bleak science fiction to unsettling ghost stories and tales of the struggles of young love. 
One of his greatest books is The Promise - a tale of honouring a vow even beyond death.  The opening chapter is a miniature masterpiece in itself, exploring our varied attitudes to death and the impact of stories on a young mind.  Within this is one of the most striking pieces of writing I've encountered in children's fiction;
"I only ever saw two dead creatures.  On a day out to a lighthouse up the Northumbrian coast, I saw a dead seagull; a pretty little thing, a kittiwake I think.  Somebody had made a nest for it, from seaweed on a ledge in the cliff.  Its eyes were shut, but every soft feather was in place.  I stroked them.
'It just looks asleep,' said my mother.
'It'll get a good rest now,' said my Dad.
The whole place seemed filled with love.
The other dead thing was the ginger cat in Billing's Mill.  Billing's Mill dominated our skyline, up on its hill.  All its sails gone, a squat empty milk-bottle of blackened stone.  A sort of castle keep, in which the tom-cat's body lay, a thing of terror and challenge to every boy in the district.  You went alone to see it .  You approached it, the flies rose in swarms.  You looked into the black fathomless sockets where the eyes had been, and then you walked quickly and stiff-backed to the gaping doorway and off out to pleasanter things, hugging inside yourself the bitter black wild magic of it, and the warm proof of your own courage.  Alive, that cat had been nothing; dead, it was a living god of power, our strongest thing.  Every time you saw the shape of the mill on the skyline, you went under the power of the cat."
As I started to find out more about Robert Westall, I realised just how talented a man he was outside his writing.  A skilled artist, he became Head of Art at Sir John Deane's Grammar School in Northwich in 1960, later also becoming Head of Careers there.  He always saw the best in his pupils, even those which fellow teachers had given up on, a colleague said of this, "All of Bob's geese are swans", a comment which he felt he'd like as his epitaph, which, paraphrased, it is.  He wrote to connect with his son, and his first novel, The Machine Gunners, which explored the sort of adventures he'd had in his own wartime childhood was published in 1975 winning the Carnegie Medal.  As well as fitting in writing his novels in the school holidays, Westall also wrote for the local press and regional magazines and founded the local branch of The Samaritans.  After retiring from teaching in 1985 he opened an antiques shop, which in itself proved an inspiration for several books and gave more time to writing and encouraging students.  Bob Westall died in 1993 aged 63.
I felt that his work deserved greater recognition and seeing so many links to the Northwich area, suggested that an exhibition be staged at Weaver Hall Museum in the town.  It was only in the preparation of that exhibition that I discovered Robert Westall was the person who saved the museum building, the old Northwich Union Workhouse, from demolition in 1969 in that iconoclastic era which sought to do away with anything of a previous age.  It was the perfect place to celebrate the achievements of such an important figure.  The exhibition has been on a good while now, and only has a couple of weeks left, ending on 14th September 2014.  Thereafter much of the archive material and original manuscripts will return to their home at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books.  It's in Newcastle, just five miles from Westall's birthplace, where there is a Robert Westall gallery, and a project which was kickstarted with the donation of the funds of his estate.  It's a wonderful place, who do excellent work in developing literacy, inspiring creativity, and something with which Bob Westall would no doubt have been delighted to be associated.
The exhibition gave me opportunity to get to know the places of Westall's books, from childhood haunts of Tynemouth so vividly portrayed in his books to revisiting the Cheshire locations and folklore.  And I've picked up a few good stories to share too.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Green Grow the Rushes,O!

Today we went along to St Stephen's Church in Wildboarclough in Macclesfield Forest for the annual rushbearing ceremony.  St Stephen's is usually known as the Forest Chapel, and is pretty high up and remote, being 1282 feet above sea level.  Macclesfield Forest isn't a wooded space, rather a mix of moorland, peaks and valleys.  It's windswept, sparsely populated and you can easily see how ancient ceremonies survive.  The atmosphere of this landscape is masterly conjured in Alan Garner's powerful work Thursbitch. 
Arriving in driving rain, along twisting, climbing paths, you could be fooled into thinking few people would be there.  But the chapel was packed inside with many people gathering outside.
The ceremony of rushbearing goes back to medieval times when churches had beaten earth floors and would be strewn with freshly gathered rushes each August creating a lush and fragrant green carpet.
Rushbearing also still takes place in Cheshire at Tilston and is perhaps a little more common in Lancashire and Cumbria.  But the ceremony at the Forest Chapel is believed to be the oldest unbroken tradition, as distinct from a revival, stretching back to the 18th century in this location.
The church door is decorated with bunches of green rushes, freshly gathered from the surrounding valleys.
The altar and pulpit are also hung with garlands of rushes and flowers.
After a ceremony of hymns and readings the congregation made their way outside for a concluding sermon given this time by the Archdeacon of Macclesfield, standing on top of a table tomb.  At this point the winds grew stronger and rain lashed down, though the Archdeacon neatly dovetailed this into his words and it was all taken in good humour.
Then it was done.  Speaking with the Vicar afterwards it seems that the future for this tradition is safe for now, not so much as part of the church calendar, but instead in terms of the way it brings people together with a determination to keep an ancient gathering happening.

Medieval Merriment with the Minstrels

This post is rather belated, though I have shared these pictures elsewhere.  Anyway, this year's Minstrels' Court was another enormous success.  Sue and I (Pilgrims and Posies) organise it in conjunction with the local museum and St John's Church, but it only works due to the wonderful support of the very talented musicians who came from across the UK to help this very special event and enjoy a day of music together.  It is Britain's biggest gathering of medieval musicians and great fun for minstrels and visitors alike.
An informal session in the church porch as the day begins.
Tom telling the Musicians of Bremen story.
Visitors trying out some medieval board games.
Minstrels share news of their new instruments.
Tom Goodale tells a tale from King Arthur's Court
Demonstrating braiding.
A knight is armed.
The scribe is at work recording the events of the day.
Braiding and gossiping.
Minstrels processing up Bridge Street.
Minstrels playing at the Cross in the heart of Chester.
Minstrels at the East Gate of the city.
Heading back to the church.
A guard waits for the returning minstrels.
The gathered minstrels kneel in deference at the altar.
Rev David Chesters issues the licences to minstrels.
A troublesome musitioner is placed in the stocks.
The Time Bandits perform a mini-concert as the medieval musicians take a rest after processing.