The stuff of legend

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Today was a Bank Holiday in England and once the torrential rain stopped at lunchtime Sigoth and I ventured out into the spring sunshine, swathed against the elements and blinking in the light like newly hatched chicks. Of course, the obvious destination in these circumstances was some ruined buildings, so we headed for Kirkham Priory.

Scrambling about medieval piles of masonry is a bit of a treat for us. We like the peacefulness of the site, the texture of the stone, the play of shapes and light, the stories in the guide books, the humorous gargoyles and the fresh air. The average ancient monument has a tendency to be in rather decent countryside and the abbeys and priories of Yorkshire, of which there are many, are often in absolutely stunning locations.

Kirkham Priory is next to the railway line so I have a fondness for it based on the fact that whenever I see it on the train heading east I know I am nearly home. Between the railway and the masonry is the River Derwent, the famously perverse waterway that enjoys notoriety for its meandering path away from the sea; it rises in the North Yorkshire Moors, heads towards the coast then swerves away at the last moment before heading inland until it is seduced into the Ouse, swept to the Humber and finally meets its oceanic destiny near Hull. And serve it right too, the cheeky scamp.

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At Kirkham there is a pretty bridge and an old level crossing from the days when there was a station, pre-Beeching. Now it’s just an English Heritage ticket office and plenty of buoyant moss underfoot as you clamber up and down the site. The buildings are split level due to the slope of the ground, with the cloister starting at ground level at one end and finishing on the first floor at the other.

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The church is sadly diminished but once had a gorgeous Rose Window, which you have to try to imagine as you gaze at the stub of stone that remains.

Once we had finished wandering around we called back in at the ticket office which also operates a small shop, and bought a guide to Wharram Percy. This is a deserted medieval village not too far from Kirkham, and free to enter so long as you don’t mind squelching down a muddy slope about a quarter of a mile, with a number of kissing gates and a field of cows and calves to negotiate before you find yourself on a windy hillside looking at a roofless 18th century church, a mill pond and some lines in the ground representing medieval longhouses. I don’t mind at all, as you might guess.

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I know the site fairly well, but it’s always good to visit. Last time I went it was covered in snow; today there were new shoots on the hawthorn all the way down the path. I like a bit of hawthorn. In the pagan tree calendar the rune “Huath” represents May and the hawthorn, which in turn can be interpreted as the symbol of the triple goddess – maiden, mother and crone. At this time of year she gets her Maiden face on, with white blossom and green shoots. The path to the village runs between lines of hawthorn for most of its length, and in the sunshine you walk through a tunnel of green and white, surrounded by birdsong, sheltered from the wind and nurtured by romantic thoughts of Spring, the cycle of life and new beginnings, while wondering if this is what it felt like to return to the village along ancient trackways a thousand years ago. At least you do if you are EBL. You don’t worry about whether the path is the same in fact; it makes sense in a story about life in the Yorkshire Wolds throughout the millennia.

Increasingly fanciful, I wondered if we might appear as ghosts to the people of the past as we flitted between the rooms of their buildings, dressed strangely and clutching demonic devices. Were we the fairy folk of legends, or the devils that haunted good Christians in those days, just as some people claim to see ghosts of Roman soldiers wading along Hadrian’s Wall? Might the glimpses of people from the past in fact be the reflections of their glimpses of us, which they interpreted as things that go bump in the night? Are we in fact the stuff of legend?

I think the sunshine was making me giddy. I’m not used to it at this time of year and the winter has been so very dull.

I hope you are having sunshine and widly romantic daydreams, or at least a good ghost story.

Namaste.

 

 

 

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Dreams

 

Sit back. My dears, EBL is going to get all reminiscent.

Once upon a time, when the world was young, finding out information was difficult. There was no Google, if toy can believe such a thing and no Ask Jeeves, nor Lycos, nor even Excite. Not so much as a pixel of search engine goodness at the fingertips of even the most advanced computer scientist.

In those days EBL was a keen young thing at school and one day she had a lesson in English where the supply teacher was interesting. This in itself was shocking, with all due respect to Mrs P who was the usual teacher. Mrs P did her best but she was worn down by years of service to the cause of drumming Dickens and Hardy and Shakespeare into adolescent heads more interested in pop music and fashion and dancing. No one could sustain interest in the face of such barbarity.

The young supply teacher was fresh meat though and still had the dewy optimism of the newly qualified, all ready to change the world. So she talked to us about Old English poetry. I suspect my classmates do not recall this at all, but it struck a chord with EBL.  The chord was, however somewhat limited.

I remembered a fragment of verse because it sounded cool. I liked languages, even then, and it sounded interesting – English but not English. I knew it involved a battle. Well of course it did – it was Anglo Saxon poetry after all.

While I was nosing around my local library one day (those were places you could go to find books and borrow them, another feature of life now much reduced) I decided to see if I could find it again. There were no books on Anglo Saxon poetry in our little local library so I moved on and found one on Schiller which was pretty good, along with a copy of Candide by Voltaire. Ah, A-Levels.

So I left it alone.

When I got to university I asked friends who were studying English if they knew what it was. They blinked at me and muttered about The Faerie Queen and drank a few more pints.

So I left it alone.

One day while the Offspringses were older and studying and the Internet had been invented I searched on-line. But there was little to see and most of it was on UseNet which was a wild place not suited to discussing Anglo Saxon poetry.

So I left it alone.

When I was older I spent some time in another library, in a bigger town, while the Offspringses were in the children’s section, looking for Anglo Saxon poetry. But there wasn’t any still.

So I left it alone.

One day a friend mentioned the same poem and asked if I knew what it was, and I had to say I knew of it but not its name or date or even really its subject – beyond a battle, which wasn’t much help.

So I left it alone.

One day much later, when it was a new millennium and I was a little bored and Google had been invented I thought I would try again. The incredible thing is that even after all the years (probably around 35 years had passed by now) I still remembered the phrases and almost the spelling. And the other incredible thing is Google.

Google worked out I meant “hige sceal the heardre, heorte the cenre” when I typed in “hige sceal heorte” – that is one fine algorithm.

Google found the poem.

So I didn’t leave it alone.

I was able to read about it and to read the text in modern and Old English. I fell in love.

I found a study group of like-minded souls and have discovered more about this period of history and had incredible joy from sharing it and learning more about both the history and the language, the culture and the literature. I have met lovely people and been to brilliant events and read amazing books.

Yesterday I went to a course at the University of York on Icelandic and Norse sagas, which inter-relate to the Anglo Saxon period very tightly (Vikings, duh!), and learned how Skaldic Poetry is composed and fell in love again.

This little shoot of happiness has been growing and growing after long years fallow.

Sometimes we have to wait until the time is right.

Never forget your dreams. May the time be right for yours soon.

Namaste.

 

 

That moment when…

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I did try, I really did. When I was a teenager. It just didn’t work out.

James Fenimore Cooper’s masterpiece, “The Last of the Mohicans”, failed to thrill my soul. It was dense, old-fashioned language, made all the harder by not being dense, old-fashioned British English. As a witty individual once said of the UK and the US, we are two nations divided by a common language.

As a teenager I tried to read a few classic American novels. “To kill a mockingbird” was the best of them. I understood class and race in my British way, and racism is pretty much racism whatever the language.  I simply did not understand “Catcher in the Rye” as I knew nothing about American colleges or culture. We were not so very Americanised in the 1970s, and teenagers still talked about takeaways, films and wardrobes (with or without magical lands), rather than take-outs, movies and closets. Also we drank tea much more seriously than coffee.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have it in for America. It’s just different. I believe Americans are as bemused by our quaint customs as we are by their tendency to eat with their fingers. To be fair to them, most primates do that. Meanwhile, over this side of the alleged Pond, we not only eschew digitally aided digestion, but have enhanced the gustatory gadgets to such an extent that you can end up with more knives and forks per place setting than there are place settings at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. And apparently using them correctly matters. Well, it may do to some people, but I’m a slob and as long as I start from the outside and work inwards, and can tell a fish knife from a butter knife, I feel I have done my duty to the God-given right and established order.

So there I was, in blissful ignorance of Mohicans, first, last or otherwise. At least, beyond the eponymous punk hairstyle that is, which looked amazing, but my hair would never have allowed it, being all floppy and suchlike. It won’t hold a perm, let alone behave for mere styling gel. It’s a problem alright. Oh the trauma!

Then they invented Daniel Day Lewis and I was made aware of certain key plot elements. One was that he looked awfully pretty running in slow motion. Oh yes. Although I’m not sure if that was in the book.

The other was that I shared a moment of heartbreak with Hawkeye.

If you are unaware of that twist, dear reader, then look away now. It’s the bit at the end, where Chingachgook, the Mohican Chief, mourns the loss of his biological son, and declares that he is now the last of the Mohicans. At which point his adopted son, Hawkeye, breaks his heart; because this is proof that he was never quite a true Mohican even to Chingachgook, no matter how hard he tried. He was alien, outcast, Other.

At least that is my understanding of the story. It may not be true, but bear with me, because this is what I identify with, having had a similar moment in my early childhood.

Let me take you back to the 1960s and the suburbs west of London.

My grandmother was a central figure in my early years. She died when I was 10 but until then she had lived with us and effectively been a mother figure (my own mother being rather ambiguous about motherhood, to put it kindly).  I adored her. I was her special baby. Sometimes she got confused and thought I actually was her little girl, my auntie Win, who had died when she was 7.

Sometimes, if I woke her up during her afternoon nap by breathing too loudly or dropping a teddy, she would stare at me in a confused way.

“Win!” she would say, a little bemused. “Winnie, is that you?”

“No, Grandma,” my heartless little self replied. “I’m EBL. Winnie died.”

“Oh yes,” she would say, and go rather quiet.

“You’ve got me, Grandma,” I would add.

“Oh yes,” she would say again, and give me a hug so I couldn’t see her cry. But I did.

Grandma knew all sorts of things, like how many beans make five and what happened to Don’t Care. She also knew lots of good songs to sing. She had grown up in Holloway, North London, and had a cheery London accent. At Christmas she got tiddly on advocaat, and had to be taken up to bed, singing happily. She taught me all sorts of old songs, probably sung in Music Halls and certainly down the pub if someone would play the tune on the piano, many of them dating back to the 1914-18 war: Little Brown Jug, It’s a long way to Tipperary, Pack up your troubles, the Hokey Cokey, My Old Man, Cockles and Mussels, When father papered the parlour….

She also sang “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” and I sang along, because it has a nice tune.

“Oh no, poppet,” she said. “You can’t sing that.”

“Why not?” I squeaked, bottom lip starting to jut out.

“Because you aren’t a Londoner,” she said patiently. “You weren’t born in London.”

Well, she had it right. I was born Elsewhere, literally beyond the pale of our great metropolis.

“But I’ve been to London, Grandma.”

She wasn’t swayed. I was not a Londoner, and that was that.

She did still love me, but we were not the same. There was a barrier made of time and place and history.

Seeing that moment in the film (or “movie”, if you will), I felt it again, and was overcome that a writer who lived 250 years ago in a foreign land could describe my heartbreak. We shared a common humanity. I learned we are all the same in other ways, even those of us not born in London.

Have you had that kind of moment, in a story, that made it more real than real life?

To all of you, wherever you were born, we may still share our broken hearts.

Namaste.

Vikings

As I told you last time (pay attention there!), Sigoth and I went to York last weekend for the annual Viking Festival. There were Vikings Galore! We had a fabulous time. I would recommend it to anyone at a loose end in February half term.

One of the reasons for the trip was that I wanted to buy a dress. This was because, my dears, the invasion of Vikings included a generous array of traders in goods and materials vital to the business of re-enactors. I was amazed to discover that many of the stall-holders were themselves of the Scandinavian persuasion and had made the trip to York for the purposes of trade and profit.

Don’t think I can’t see you rolling your eyes. Yes, you. You know who I mean. Stop it at once. Regular readers will be aware that EBL has more than a passing interest in the history and culture of the early medieval period of English history, also known as the Dark Ages or Anglo-Saxon period.  Every now and then I bore you with some Old English texts, or harangue the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September.

I belong to a society which studies the period and we have a stall. We attend the Stamford Bridge event, which is rather strangely organised by the local Viking re-enactment group. I say “strangely” because of course the Vikings lost that battle horribly. Harold Godwineson, aka King Harold II, the one with the arrow in the eye (if you can believe those who embroider history), chased them off in September 1066 before dashing south to confront William of Normandy.  The Vikings were more than decimated, needing only about 24 ships to take home the survivors who had arrived in an army carried by around 300 ships.

Here is our stall from a couple of years ago

Here is our stall from a couple of years ago

Anyway, we have a stall at the event and last year we all agreed it would be worth getting some costumes too, as it seems to draw in the punters. We have a couple of men’s outfits but no women’s so I agreed, along with another woman, to get some gender-appropriate gear. To do this, we needed to find suppliers, and who better than the traders at the Viking Festival?

Thus it was arranged. A group of us met at the Minster, ogled the stained glass on display in the Orb (again, if you can – go see this!), then repaired to a nearby pub for a lengthy lunch. We needed the lunch because we were planning activities for another event we shall be attending in May, when we shall demonstrate a number of Anglo-Saxon crafts and generally attempt to brainwash the public into understanding that the period was one of significant interest and importance. We are not overly optimistic; the Vikings seem to generate better PR.

AS DressIn short – here is the outfit. Sigoth has woven me a belt to go with it. It’s a late period costume; earlier dresses would have been in the style known as “tube-dress”, basically a tube of material held up by shoulder straps pinned in place. They were not especially stylish or flattering. As my friend said, everyone looked like a potato back then.

Of course, Sigoth and I also spent time at some of the special events over the weekend.

First up was the Beowulf by Candlelight in St Helen’s Church. Peter Carrington-Porter performed, without the aid of a safety net, a translated version of the poem. He recited for about 1 ½ hours the tale of Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf’s death.  Epic tales, epic times!

The next morning, before meeting the group for lunch, we attended the Strongest Viking Competition. Much hilarity ensued although the lads worked pretty hard. There were six events: log carrying; shield wrestling; Dane Axe holding; sword fighting; tug of war; and boasting. The logs were large and heavy. The wrestling was fast and furious (it basically entailed standing on a “shield” or plastic mat, and shoving each other hard with open palms). The axes held had to be extended with the arms at 90 degrees to the body, for as long as possible (the winner was in the region of 120 seconds) and I can tell you the upper body strength required for that was pretty impressive. Sword fighting and tug of war need little introduction. The boasting contest was scored by audience volume. As the boasts for more extreme the cheers got louder. The winner amazed us all by reciting some poetry! The gods love a man who can fight, who is string and who can recite it seems. During the intervals Thor and Loki performed a double act to keep the crowd happy. We were honoured by the presence of the gods among us.

To prove it here are some blurry pictures.

Viking log carrying

Speedy Viking with heavy tree

Viking shield wrestling

That last push saw our man fall off his plastic-mat-shield

Viking Axe holding

This was really hard!

Loki teaches sword fighting

The gods walked among us and taught young people how to disembowel

In the evening we attended the Grand Finale: the creation of the earth and then an attack by the Vanir on Asgard. There were lots of people dressed up in costumes running about in a field pretending to kill one another. Given that it was a February evening in Yorkshire it was freezing and my feet and hands were numb, but it was worth it for the fireworks from Clifford’s Tower at the end.

We missed lots of other events of course: the best beard contest (with categories for men, women and children), Dragon Boats, Viking Bake-Off and the march through town. Maybe next year.

It’s interesting how the Vikings these days are viewed so sympathetically. Of course, England has had its Viking king – Cnut. Just the one though. Perhaps if Harold Godwineson had lost at Stamford Bridge, Harald Hardrada, his opponent, would have seen off the pesky Normans and who knows where we would be now (well, it would be Greater Norway obviously). Or, if Harald had not invaded, HG would not have been so weakened in Hastings.

History turns on a pin and the gods laugh.

Namaste.

The end of days

Well, perhaps I overstate it when I say “end of days.” However, it is certainly the end of the financial year and our Highways Authority is spending up like tarmac was going out of fashion. The main trunk road to the coast is closed off and traffic being diverted via the road at the end of our village lane. This very same road, now carrying more traffic than anyone would have believed possible, is only semi-open because of roadworks which have closed off one carriageway, and using a traffic light system to control flow. I say “flow” but I mean “stagnant pauses of sufficient duration to calculate pi to a new digit.”

Naturally when Sigoth and I decided to go into town this morning to look for essential items – such as circular knitting needles and pastries and coffee – we went the back way, through some other villages to avoid the snafu that is the usual route. We had forgotten in our haste and cleverness that the road through the next village was also closed while work is being carried out there.

We took the scenic route. It was several miles out of the way, but it beat going back home and then queuing in traffic.

Tomorrow we are going to York for the Viking Festival to hear Beowulf and to enjoy traditional Scandinavian activities, such as shopping and drinking coffee. We will take the bus, and leave the stress of finding the way to someone else. We would have gone by train but there are no trains running this week. Being half term the railway line to the coast is shut down while they do some work on the bridge over the Ouse in York and thus amputate the East Coast from mainland England.

It’s half term. It’s damp and grey. The families we saw in town were looking the worse for wear, seeking entertainment at reasonable price in a very small market town where the highlight of the town trail is a couple of small rooms forming a Victorian office allegedly responsible for inspiring Dickens to write about Scrooge. It’s not a barrel of laughs for most under-50s.

On the bright side, Vikings!

I hope you have a wonderful weekend and that the weather, transport system and barbarian hordes in your vicinity are kind to you.

Namaste

WOTW: Bellman

I have suggested the occasional post about a lost word, in the hope of prompting some of you to join in the blogging goodness. Here we go again with another post  in the very occasional series of EBL’s Word of the Week.

It has to be said that the joys of sleep often elude me. I have been sleeping better lately but overall it’s not a pleasing picture, with long hours of gazing at the darkened ceiling. I have been cheered by the return of birdsong recently, emphasising the turning of the Wheel, and glad of some wakeful company while Sigoth slumbers on.

Back in the good old days – those days when the world was a better and kindlier place according to some, although I have my doubts – there was a band of men who wandered the streets at night calling out the hour and letting people know that they were safe. I can never decide whether I would appreciate that comfort, or find myself jolted awake just as I managed to nod off, heart pounding and hand reaching for the nearest defensive object.

These men were sometimes called Night Watchmen, and if like me you adore Terry Pratchett’s Discworld that will have all sorts of resonances with you. Another term for them was Bellmen.

Recently I came across a reference to them in my calendar of Forgotten English. Some of the words are not really forgotten in my opinion, just not commonly used; some probably should be forgotten; while the rest seem to have been overlooked by both Chambers and the Oxford English Dictionaries, so I remain sceptical as to their provenance. However, Bellman falls into the first category, by which I mean I have heard the term before with my very own ears, and apparently so has my computer spell-checker (although in that instance ears are not part of the equation).

What I hadn’t heard before was the rather endearing little poem by Robert Herrick (mid 17th century) which he wrote as a kind of blessing to his friends to keep them safe at night. It’s a bit like the prayer regarding long-leggity beasties I think. Anyway, it’s called “The Bellman”, and here it is.

THE BELLMAN (Robert Herrick)

From noise of scare fires rest ye free,
From murders benedicitie;
From all mischances that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night;
Mercie secure ye all, and keep
The goblin from ye, while ye sleep.
Past one o’clock, and almost two,
My masters all, ‘good day to you.’

Isn’t that sweet?

Tell me what helps you sleep: nightlights, the BBC World Service, hot milk and cinnamon, a teddy bear or hot water bottle, whisky, whatever… post a link to your blog in the comments below, and/or tag with EBLWords.

Sleep well, my dears, and ream of beautiful things.

Namaste.

Yule greetings

My dears, the season of mid-winter is upon us (in the Northern hemisphere at least) and so my heart turns to blessings and for the new year. You may celebrate it on 1st January or on 22 December, whichever you prefer. You can go the full Wicca if you like, and remind me that new year was on 1st November. It takes all sorts, and thank goodness for it.

This year Sigoth and I will be celebrating more pagan roots by burning a traditional yule log at mid-winter before welcoming the Offspringses back for Christmas festivities. We’ll have any celebration going at the dark of the year.

So it’s time for the Wassail Cup, my dears. The traditional Wassail is derived from the Old English phrase “wes hal” meaning “be you hale/well.” It’s like “farewell”; they tended to say it as a goodbye.

With that in mind I wondered if you might care for a little traditional reading, taken from the Anglo-Saxon Bible? It turns out that Luke vs 1-20, the traditional Christmas story, sounds rather lovely in the old tongue, and I discovered I could mangle it onto a recording for sharing with you.

I apologise now to scholars for my terrible pronunciation. Let’s call it dialect, shall we? Yes, let’s.

So now for a little journey back in time to a 10th century church in the English countryside, and a well-known story.

Happy New Year  to you all. Peace on earth and goodwill to all beings.

Namaste