Rose Aylmer, pineapples and peacocks

Peacock tail

I posted a picture recently of a peacock on a roof, seen on a walk. This week I caught him with his tail extended. Must have been pleased to see us

Some more scenes from rural rambles this week, but first a note I spotted in an old notebook of mine, about Rose Aylmer. It was a post from 2016 by Karen Stapley, curator of India Office Records, on the brilliant British Library blog Untold Lives – in which fascinating stories about largely forgotten people are retrieved from the BL archives (link HERE).

Rose was the only daughter of Sir Henry Aylmer, 4th Lord Aylmer, and Catherine Whitworth. Catherine remarried on the death of her husband and moved to Wales. There the teenager Rose met the aspiring poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864 – quite an innings for a Victorian).

The two young people apparently loved to roam the local hills together, but in 1798, at the age of 18, Rose was dispatched to join her aunt in Kolkota (known then as Calcutta), possibly to take her away from what was considered an unsuitable match. Two years later she died of cholera.

Ms Stapley posts a picture of Rose’s (rather hideous) memorial in a Kolkata cemetery, which is adorned with some lines of verse ascribed in the post to Landor. These lines sounded a bit lumberingly Augustan to me; a quick Google search came up with the actual poet: Edward Young (c.1683-1765), one of the less cheerful 18C poets. They’re from perhaps his best-known poem, known as Night-Thoughts (published in nine parts, 1742-45). It’s a long, lugubrious blank-verse lament for dead people he’d known, including his wife. It’s also known for the fine illustrations by Blake in an edition of 1797.

Landor did indeed write a short poem on Rose’s death (quoted in full in the blog post); it’s not his finest work – but then he’s not the best of Victorian poets. The first two lines should suffice to demonstrate this:

Ah what avails the sceptred race, 

Ah what the form divine! 

One of the least appropriate uses of an exclamation mark that I’ve seen. Mercifully, there are only six more lines of this. But he was obviously heartbroken, so it’s churlish of me to sneer at his elegy.

The cause of Rose’s death was locally ascribed to her eating too many pineapples. The blog post tells us that it was commonly believed in the Indian community at the time that excessive consumption of juicy fruits (watermelons were another suspicious one) was a cause of cholera. How could anyone eat more than one pineapple at a sitting? Or was this over time?

People then were just so credulous about causes and cures for infection; luckily our world’s leaders today are more enlightened – especially when it comes to possible treatments. Like bleach, or light. Now a couple more pictures of recent walks:

Daisy verge

These daisies (I think they’re ox-eyes) are springing up on a roadside verge just a few yards from my house.

 

Branch dog

I thought this dead branch on an oak tree looked like a grim lean dog’s head, or maybe the prow of a Viking boat

Kindness in war and peace

Last Friday was VE (Victory in Europe, WWII) day. Britain’s tabloid newspapers and some other media outlets delighted in escaping from the viral gloom of recent months to show images and disseminate stories of revellers in 1945 and today. It’s something to be celebrated – the end of terrible hostilities with a fascist axis (although the war in the Pacific continued for some months more). But I found something distasteful in the jingoistic and triumphalist tone of some reports: victory over Europe seemed to be the subtext. Plucky little Britain gives a V-sign to foreigners and shows we can go it alone.

It was a relief therefore to read a moving post at Bobby Seal’s Psychogeographic Review blog. He told the story of his father’s experiences of cruelty and suffering as a prisoner of war (POW) during the war, but more importantly of the kindness he was shown by a young Polish woman. There’s a link HERE

My dad was also a POW. He was serving as a sergeant in the artillery in the N. African desert when he was taken prisoner by the Germans. His unit had been surrounded by Rommel’s forces. His CO had told him the night before capture that the officers were all retreating to safety, but that he – my dad – as the senior non-commissioned soldier, was to hold his ground as the Germans advanced, to give his officers maximum time to make their escape. What a message to give the troops: you’re expendable, we’re invaluable.

In the morning he was thus left in command of this small unit of artillerymen. They fought as long as they could. My dad saw some terrible things as they were pounded by German tanks and artillery. Finally they destroyed their own guns as surrender became inevitable. The worst thing a gunner can do, dad told me: spike his own guns.

The survivors were marched for days across the scorching desert with little water or food. Many died on the way to the POW camp.

When Italy opted out of the war and their POW camp was about to be deserted by their Italian captors, the British officer responsible for discipline among the prisoners called the prisoners together. His orders were that they were to stay put in the camp until the Germans arrived to take over control of the camp. It later emerged that this was a direct order from Montgomery, commanding the invading Allied troops in Italy. He apparently didn’t want the roads and other lines of communication ‘clogged up’ with escaping British prisoners.

My dad walked out and made for the Apenines. For some months he was sheltered and fed by a variety of mountain farmers and their families. Finally one of them turned him in – but he never forgot the kindness most Italians showed him. (Eric Newby has a fascinating account of his own similar experiences there in Love and War in the Apennines.)

He was sent on to another camp in Italy. He escaped twice. On the second occasion he’d made it almost to the Allied lines; they were just across a river. As he entered the water to swim across he was spotted by a German patrol. They opened fire, and he was forced to surrender – just metres from freedom.

A young German soldier was assigned to take him back to a camp in the sidecar of his motorbike. After some hours of driving, the motorcyclist parked up to enter an inn for food and drink. He shut my dad into an unlocked outhouse, and gave him to understand with facial expressions and gestures that he was trusting him not to try to escape, while he fetched food and drink for them both. This he did. My dad was starving and thirsty: he opted to accept the soldier’s kindness.

He spent something like four years in prison camps, first in Italy, later in Germany. I remember as a child leafing through a book he’d brought home after the war. It contained articles, drawings and cartoons made by the prisoners for their camp’s “newspaper”. I didn’t understand as a child the significance of these pieces. There was little evidence of the horrors they were experiencing.

My dad rarely spoke of these years. It was only when I was in my late teens that he told me these stories. He was clearly scarred psychologically by what he’d gone through. He never found it easy to show affection to us kids. He was often distant, distracted.

I spoke to my sister about all this at the weekend, and asked her if she had anything else I could add here. She reminded me that our dad arrived back in England soon after VE day and was stationed in a sort of rehab camp in Sussex, on the south coast. My mother was living in Hastings – in that county – at that time. She met my dad at a dance in her town that the men were allowed to attend.

It was the classical whirlwind romance. They married a few months later. My brother was born in June 1946, six months later. It took him years to do the maths and realise he was conceived before our parents were married!

He remained in the military until I was six years old. The family followed him around the world to camps where he was stationed – I was born in Germany, lived in Egypt and Cyprus (where I attended my first school), then back to Germany, with brief returns to Britain in between.

My siblings and I attended dozens of different schools between us in our childhood – all very unsettling. Even when he left the army, dad tended to be restless, and we moved house many more times, often for no apparent reason, resulting in more changes of schools for us children.

I’d like to say that he was magnanimous in his later life about his former enemies. He didn’t hate them, but was always one of those who vaunted his own country and berated foreigners in general. I guess it was my teenage rebellion against this little-Englander attitude that made me the Europhile I now am. It took me a long time to understand why he was so xenophobic.

But it’s also why I can’t stand flag-waving ultra-nationalism. It’s what’s led to the catastrophe of Brexit. Probably explains why the UK has made such a mess of responding to the pandemic: we’re so great we don’t need to learn from anyone else, our leaders seem to believe.

I started this post with reference to a psychogeographical blog; I became interested in psychogeography when I taught a unit called Sense of Place in an English degree course. I’ve posted several pieces over the years about this, from DH Lawrence in Cornwall and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to a virtual dérive (link HERE).

On Iain Sinclair, the born-again flâneur, HERE

Foxglove and lion

I’m halfway through The Echoing Grove, so a post will be coming soon. Meanwhile, more lockdown chronicles.

Oak treeMy first picture is from yesterday’s walk, when the sun finally came out after a day’s monsoon conditions. The bottom of this valley, to the right of the handsome oak, was once the habitat of an enormous pig. She used to love to wallow in the muddy swamp. She’s long gone, but Mrs TD and I always refer to the lane beside this field as the Pig Lane, and the walk is the Pig Walk.

Lion gate postToday I walked alone down a lane I hadn’t previously tried (Mrs TD was doing her Zoom fitness class). Outside a large house was a pair of stately gateposts (I do like a good stone post), with an unimpressively diminutive lion on the top of each one. No wonder his expression is so morose.

More spring plants are bursting into flower and filling out the hedgerows. The cow parsley is shooting up fast. Robert MacFarlane in a recent tweet suggested that one of its alternative country names, mother-die, was to warn off children from picking it in case they mistook this harmless plant for the similar-looking and Lane with cowparsleypoisonous hemlock.

Foxgloves are springing up fast, and many are just beginning to flower.

The etymology of this attractive plant is unknown, but there have been many suggestions about the origins of the name. I’d recommend an article from the OUP blog by Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), who sifts through the various (unfounded) theories, and concludes that there is no definitive explanation.

It’s well known that the drug digitalis, used for treating heart conditions, comes from foxgloves. FoxgloveThis might explain why Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66), the German scholar and botanist, gave it the Latin name digitalis (meaning finger), as its bell-like flowers would fit neatly over a human digit. In German, according to one etymologist, it’s ‘fingerhut’, meaning ‘thimble’.

The OED’s earliest citation is from c. 1000: foxes clofe, so we can’t identify Fuchs as the source of the English name.

I still favour the folk etymology, which holds that foxes would wear the flowers as gloves over their paws to deaden the sound of their walking as they went out hunting.

Field with buttercupsA mile further on is another lane with this sloping field beside it. Buttercups are still abundant in the meadows, and bluebells, dampened by an early morning shower, are at their peak in the hedgerows and woods.

I’ve still not heard a cuckoo.

 

 

 

Buttercups, jackdaws and Zoom

I’ve had some positive reactions to these recent posts on my lockdown rambles and experiences, so will keep them coming. As Jacqui said in a comment on the previous post, nature is a balm to the soul at the best of times – even more so now.

I get a huge amount of pleasure when out on my daily walks with Mrs TD in the countryside near our house to hear the birdsong, which echoes in the valleys and under the canopy of the trees as if we were in an avian cathedral. Today, after spring showers, the path through the trees was redolent of damp earth and young leaves. Cow parsley has started to flower, and copses have a low mist of bluebells.

ButtercupsOn both sides of the path – which is the route of an old mineral railway or tram route to the old docks on the river by the city centre, now long gone – the meadows were vivid green with grass, and shot through with golden yellow – a host of buttercups. My picture can’t do more than hint at the colour. Last time we walked this path, a buzzard stood sentry on a post in this field.

Last night we had the first in what will be a regular Saturday-night family quiz on Zoom. Our daughter was question-master, resplendent in a pink boa and paper bow tie made by her daughter. She looked like Judge Rinder channelling Ru Paul.

Her questions were stretching. Who knew that vanilla came from orchid seedpods? I didn’t.

I found some old seed packets (herbs and salad leaves) in the cellar (sell-by date 2011) and sowed them in a trough. After a week I’d given up on them, but after the recent rain they’ve started sprouting. I’m thrilled. The ones in pots by the kitchen window are still refusing to budge, though – but they were seeds from dried chillis from a local Cornish chilli farm, so I suppose it was a long shot.

I had my weekly Zoom exercise personal training session yesterday in the dining room, with the door open for coolness. A raucous horde of jackdaws gathered on my neighbour’s roof to watch and cackle derisively at my efforts. Mockingbirds. Surely not a sin to kill them.

I regularly stop in our local convenience store for a paper, eggs, or today, beer. The young woman serving there told me that the old man she often talks to outside is a daily visitor. He’s afraid to go inside, fearing infection (odd that he stands so close to her and other people outside), so she brings him out what he needs and chats. He’s obviously lonely; this is his only daily contact with living people.

Some days ago she told me he came inside for once and said he’d got some photos to show her: himself as a young man, in blue suede shoes. “I’m sorry,” she told him, “it’s busy at the moment. Pop outside and I’ll come and look at them when these customers have gone.”

She continued serving – and forgot about him for an hour. “I felt awful,” she told me. “A customer came in and told me there was an old chap outside who looked a bit lost. I went out to him and told him I was so sorry to have kept him waiting. He said not to worry, and showed me his pictures. He was lovely.”

Some people are being selfish and callous during this lockdown, but most, I like to think, are like this kind young woman, taking time out from her busy job to make a lonely old man’s day.

 

What we talk about when we talk about walking

Most of my recent posts have been about non-literary topics. I’ve been chronicling our rural walks during the UK lockdown, which has restricted our movement and curtailed travel – we’ve now missed two scheduled trips to Spain, and may not make it to my brother’s wedding in Cyprus in June. We hold socially distanced clandestine meetings with Mrs TD’s sister and her husband in the underground carpark of our local Marks and Spencer store.

Woodland pathHere’s the view of the start of the path through the woods near the end of our road. The whitebells at the top of the path are superseded lower down by bluebells. The leaves, which a week or so back were just green buds, have now burst into delicate shades of green, soft to the touch as a baby’s skin.

Kenwyn 40 stepsThe blue sky and sunshine just glimpsed through the canopy was replaced on this walk a couple of days ago by spring showers half an hour later.

Many of our walks take us past Kenwyn church, about which I’ve written several times lately. This next picture is the view from the edge of the churchyard down what’s known locally as The Forty Steps. Shame it wasn’t thirty-nine, so it could have had a literary connection.

PeacockFrom the bottom of the steps we walk towards the hamlet of Idless. There’s an excellent farm shop outlet there that has been a lifesaver lately: they deliver fresh local produce to our door. We’ve often heard the screams of peacocks on this lane. A couple of days ago I saw one of the culprits for the first time. He was perched on an outhouse roof. My picture is a bit blurred as I had to zoom in on him from 40 metres away. How can such a handsome creature emit such a raucous, ugly sound?!

Today’s walk took us towards the city Chestnut flowerhospital, past the golf course – still being kept immaculately mown, even though no-one is allowed to play any more. Overlooking the main road is a magnificent horse chestnut, which has just burst into flower. I’ve never noticed before just how beautiful these multiple blooms are. These are among the first trees to come into leaf and flower. Meanwhile the central reservation on this busy dual carriageway is beginning to turn multicoloured: golden poppies and marigolds are flowering, sown a couple of years ago as part of the Wild Truro initiative. It makes a bleak commuter rat-run into a natural haven. Soon the red poppies will be out.

As we walk, Mrs TD and I have discovered our topics of conversation have fallen into a pattern. For the first half hour or so we talk about the current crisis: the inept posturing and bluster of our politicians; the shortages of key equipment by the underpaid workers at what our rhetoric-loving leaders love to call ‘the front line’. By turning the virus into a hostile ‘enemy’ (or even ‘an invisible mugger’, of all things) they can portray themselves as heroic defenders of their people. Gunslingers in pinstripes.

FordThen we spend a half hour discussing what to have for lunch and/or dinner. This is a hot topic since we try not to go near supermarkets at present; even with social distancing measures in place, many people seem to ignore them. Our food stocks are therefore a little depleted, and we have to show some culinary ingenuity.

During and after these two topics we intertwine comments on the scenery we’re walking past. On today’s walk, for example, down a lane we’ve not explored before, we took a short detour to look at this pretty ford. An exotic, oriental-looking rhododendron was in glorious bloom just beyond – just glimpsed in my picture. The little bridge looks like the ones on Dartmoor. It must be very old.

In a previous post I mentioned seeing house martins for the first time this spring. Still no swallows. And I’ve still not heard a spring cuckoo for maybe a decade. This is the month to hear them.

Caroline at her blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat is embarking on ‘Post a Day in May’; I doubt I’ll manage a daily post, but I’ll try to keep these lockdown chronicles going. There should be a book post soon: I’m just finishing Edith Wharton’s The Reef.

 

Crawdads, house martins and a Bentley

Another book recommendation from Mrs TD was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (Corsair paperback, 2019; first published in the US in 2018). I was sceptical when I started reading, thinking it was turning into a fictional misery-memoir/romantic murder mystery (not a particularly digestible mixture). Mrs TD said to persevere.

I did, and found myself enjoying it. The murder mystery is quite tightly plotted, and there’s a colourful depiction of Kya, the young protagonist whose abusive father drives all her siblings and even her loving mother away from their squalid shack in the middle of a North Carolina coastal swamp. When the father abandons her too, when she’s only about ten years old, she learns to fend for herself and develops a fierce independence, tempered by a fear of being taken in by the authorities. Their success in getting her briefly into a school teaches her only that she was right to be wary of ‘civilisation’.

The romantic part of the novel is a bit contrived, I thought. Kya is a sort of Little Mermaid figure, out of her element in the world of ordinary people, as they are in her world. They call her disparagingly ‘The Marsh Girl’, and spread rumours that she’s feral and dirty.

But she still falls in love with one of the young men from the nearby town, and he with her. As with the mermaid, their story is fraught with danger and difficulties. The complication involves another relationship that veers badly out of control for her.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the vivid realisation of the natural world Kya is so at ease in. Owens has previously published non-fiction in her role as a wildlife scientist in Africa – this is her first novel. Her naturalist’s expertise is well deployed without becoming too intrusive. She’s able to make the reader see and hear the birds, insects and other animal and vegetable life in the teeming, lush swamp.

Kya also reminds me of Mowgli, more at home among the wildlife than with humans. The gulls are her closest friends. The herons watch her with curiosity and fearlessness. The swamp creatures copulate with and eat each other with heedless abandon. Some of this (a little crudely) points up what’s going on in the human story.

I suppose it was an ideal escapist read for these trying times. I’m still struggling to engage with more demanding reading; this novel provided an insight into a completely different and unknown world.

The language often had me turning to Google: local terms like ‘hush puppies’ (not the uncool shoes), ‘po’boys’ and ‘crawdads’. These are crayfish, and the expression in the title about where they sing is a local saying for something like ‘over the rainbow’ or ‘back of beyond’, because of course crayfish don’t sing. I don’t think they do.

View from the country towards the cityJust to finish here’s a picture from my walk early this morning. The recent sunny weather has been replaced by grey and cloudy skies mostly for several days here in Cornwall. This is the view towards the city from a field a half mile or so from my house. You might just be able to see through the haze the spire of the cathedral, piercing the horizon in the middle of the picture. The Carvedras viaduct that I wrote about here recently is also just about visible towards the right.

Yesterday we made a rare trip to the supermarket to buy provisions for ourselves and an isolated neighbour. Only one person per household allowed in at a time, so I prowled the carpark while Mrs TD did the food shopping (we take it in turns). The timing was good: I saw the first house martins of the spring, two of them slicing the sky over the rooftops in scimitar swoops.

Also spotted in the carpark: a middle-aged man in rock-star shades parked an enormous blue Bentley. A few minutes later the young security guard who’d been supervising the socially-distanced queue walked up to the car, opened its doors with the keyfob remote, and started taking pictures with his phone camera. He told me he’d praised the car to the owner as he entered the store, and the guy handed over the keys and told him to go take a closer look. “Really?” the young man asked. “Sure,” said the man. “It’s only a car.”

This young man was so excited he FaceTimed a friend and filmed himself in front of the car, and sitting in its opulent leather seats. “It’s like driving your lounge,” he beamed at me. He couldn’t believe the owner could be so offhand about handing him the keys to this expensive car the size of a battleship. It made his day – and (with the house martins even more so) mine.

More ramblings, a viaduct and holy well

During our recent walks Mrs TD and I have commented on the birdsong, which seems louder than we’ve ever heard it. Maybe it’s our imagination, or else it’s because there’s so little interference from other sounds like road traffic and aircraft. We’d been disappointed not to see more wildlife in our rural ramblings, until the other day. As we walked down a country lane, a deer leapt from the wooded hill beside it, dashed across the road right in front of us, and into the field on the other side. Seconds later another followed, its hoofs clattering on the tarmac.

This horse's two friends were camera shy

This horse’s two friends were camera shy

They looked like adult female red deer: no antlers, but quite large. They darted away so quickly I didn’t have time to take out my phone to take a picture. But what a delightful sight.

The horses in a field were less remarkable, but just as handsome.

Nearer to home is this viaduct. It Carvedras viaductcarries the railway lines across the valley just outside Truro station. It’s called Carvedras viaduct, after the old name for this part of the city, where once there was a Dominican friary (more on this in a minute).

The original viaduct before 1902. By Unknown author – A postcard in the Geof Sheppard Collection, Public Domain

The Plymouth-Truro line was opened in 1859 as a single broad-gauge track (2.14m) for goods vehicles. The 70-mile route traversed numerous deep valleys which required the construction of 42 viaducts. The engineer Brunel recommended the use of wooden fan supports braced on masonry piers to keep costs down. Replacement of these with all-masonry piers began in the 1870s, as it became apparent that this had been a false economy: the annual maintenance of the timber structures was very expensive.

In most cases the new piers were built alongside the old ones. As you can see in my pictures, the original Brunel stumps of piers are clearly visible beside the newer, late-Victorian ones that carry the lines today. The old single-track line began to be replaced from the late 1880s with two standard-gauge lines (for most of the route, but not all). These renovations and replacements weren’t completed for decades.

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opened in 1902, the replacement Carvedras viaduct is 26m high, 295m long, and has 15 piers. Truro is a city established at the confluence of three rivers and valleys (which is perhaps where its original name in Cornish comes from), and the first viaduct the railway crosses as it approaches the city is even more spectacular, the longest of all 42.

These viaducts are impressive feats of engineering, and have a cathedral-like grace and beauty. Jackdaws and seagulls are very fond of them as places to congregate, perch and watch the world go by.

We can see Carvedras from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

We can see Carvedras viaduct from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Dominic's Well Carvedras houseSt Dominic’s Holy Well is cited in a number of sources, online and in print, as located in the front garden of Carvedras House, beneath the viaduct of the same name. I was able to get this (not very clear) picture by leaning over the front wall. According to Wikipedia it was built in the 17C, but was presumably restored from a much earlier site that had been located in the grounds of St Dominic’s Friary, said to have stood in the grounds of Carvedras Manor. The friary was established in the 13C:

It was an important missionary centre with a church and chapter house. It is known that at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 the Friary had a Prior and ten friars.

One of the annoying consequences of the current situation is that the local library is closed, and I’ve been unable to research this topic beyond the limited resources available online. Maybe once this crisis is over I’ll return to this subject and add some detail. For example, I don’t know what Carvedras signifies in Cornish; ‘car’ is fort, but I have no idea what ‘vedras’ means.

Mrs TD's sourdough loavesHere to finish today’s CV19 update is a gratuitous picture of some delicious sourdough bread Mrs TD baked. It should cost a fortune to buy at the baker’s: it took her a week just to produce the starter culture (if that’s what it’s called).

Other good things are coming out of this sad time. On my morning walk the other day I passed a house with a tray of lovely fresh cauliflowers outside, and a sign saying: Please take one – free. And a hand-drawn picture of a rainbow, with the people in Britain are displaying as a symbol of hope and solidarity.

And here’s a glorious tree in blossom that we passed on this morning’s walk.

Tree in blossom

Whitebells, St Keyne, the NHS, and a woodpecker

The last couple of days’ walks have furnished material for the last few posts here. I still seem to find it hard to settle down to any serious reading.

The last couple of posts have mentioned St Keyne’s church. I took this picture the other day of a well just by the main entrance porch to the church. It’s covered over with a grill, but through this it’s possible to see a set of stone steps leading down into the dank darkness below. I don’t know if there’s any water there.

This is not the same as St Keyne’s holy well in the countryside near Liskeard. There’s some information about it at this site, which quotes its legend from Richard Carew, antiquarian and High Sheriff of Cornwall, presumably from his Survey of Cornwall published in 1602:

‘The quality that man or wife whom chance or choice attains first of this sacred spring to drink thereby the mastery gains.’

I haven’t visited it myself. I do own a book given me as a wedding present the day Mrs TD and I got married, 25 years ago this summer: Secret Shrines: In search of the Old Holy Wells of Cornwall, by Paul Broadhurst. According to his account of this well, St Keyne lived towards the end of the fifth century, so about a century before St Augustine is said to have brought Christianity to England.

She was one of ‘the fifteen sainted children of the illustrious King of the Brecon Beacons’, and blessed with ‘bewitching loveliness’. Nevertheless she wandered about Wales and then Cornwall, ‘safe from insult or wrong-doing’ by ‘the strength of her purity’, performing thaumaturgical marvels wherever she went.

One such miracle was performed in Somerset, commemorated in the place-name of Keynsham (near Bath). There she turned all the serpents that were infesting the place into stone. A footnote suggests this could be an allegory of the erection of monoliths or crosses to neutralise ‘unbalanced energies’. We could do with some of that power during the current crisis.

Image from Broadhurst's account of St Keyne's Well

Image from Broadhurst’s account of St Keyne’s Well, about 100 years ago

When she retired to Cornwall she made her home near the well that now bears her name. She planted several different types of tree by it, and endowed its water with ‘peculiar virtue’ by her blessing. Robert Southey has a poem about it (full text HERE), telling the tale of a traveller who’s stopped to take a refreshing drink from it, and is told by a local householder that the saint often drank from and blessed this well, and ‘laid on the water a spell’:

‘If the husband of this gifted well/shall drink before his wife,/A happy man thenceforth is he,/for he shall be master for life.’

But St Keyne’s wish had been for equality for women. The man’s tale therefore continues:

‘But if the wife should drink of it first,/God help the husband then!’

Asked if he was drinking this water before his wife, the traveller says he left her by the church porch as soon as they were wed: ‘but i’faith, she had been wiser than me/for she took a bottle to church.’

Serves him right.

Broadhurst goes on to say that the local custom of drinking this well water for luck persisted into early modern times. The well was then rebuilt in granite, as it had begun to deteriorate.

Gate post

Here’s another picturesque gate post

I’ll end with some more images from the last couple of days’ walks.

Today I saw a great spotted woodpecker, furtively shielding himself behind a tree trunk high up when he saw me. Then a jay, standing by the side of the lane; it took off into the trees at my approach. The same trees where the other day a man told me he was engaged in a stand-off with a squirrel.

White bluebellsThese white bluebells (whitebells?) grow profusely in the wood above our house (soon it will be a violet-blue haze of proper bluebells).

As I went to cross a stile to access a footpath that crosses a field, I noticed this delightful little message. Our health service has been under unprecedented pressure during this virus outbreak, and the people have started posting images of rainbows in their windows, not just to thank NHS workers and other carers and services, but as a message of hope. How nice that someone thought to put this little rainbow on a stone in such a remote (but fairly well-trodden) spot.

 

NHS stile

Here’s a shot of the stile with the painted stone just in front and to the left, on a step

NHS message

Kenwyn Epiphany

I’d recommend you take a look at A Clerk of Oxford blog – it’s always a stimulating read, even if you think you have no interest in its topic: medieval literature and history. Yesterday’s post was mostly about the etymology and significance of the word ‘Lent’. I didn’t know it was used from Anglo-Saxon times to denote not just the pre-Easter fasting period, but also ‘spring’ (at least until 14C).

The lawn below Epiphany House: isn't it peaceful!

The lawn below Epiphany House: isn’t it peaceful!

It probably derives from the same Germanic root that gave us ‘long’ and ‘lengthen’ – for spring (‘lenten’) days begin to grow longer. There’s a lovely line in a 14C springtime poem in this same post that I wanted to share: In sori time my lyf I spend (rendered in modern English as ‘I spend my life unhappily’). Hope it’s not too gloomy for these worrying times. I find its curiously jaunty lilt offsets the melancholy.

The same post has equally interesting exposition of the term ‘quarantine’. Link to the post HERE.

Most of the recent socially distanced walks I’ve taken with Mrs TD around our local rural lanes take us past Kenwyn church (see previous few posts: grave of Joseph Emidy, the ex-slave and musician) and Epiphany House, nearby.

Epiphany House

Epiphany House on a beautiful spring day yesterday

This handsome building is more imposing than graceful, and its architecture is a bit muddled, reflecting the many extensions and renovations that it’s undergone over the years. There’s a bell tower with a graceful sailboat weather vane atop, and some lovely windows.

Its gardens are more impressive; there’s a huge lawn on the sloping hill below the house, skirted by venerable trees, very popular with birds and squirrels. On Tuesday as I passed by on my own (not sure where Mrs TD was) I heard the drumming of a woodpecker.

I was intending writing a longer piece about the history of the house. Unfortunately, as I researched online, I discovered that a friend and former colleague, Dr MT, has published about it. His expertise is daunting, so I’ll limit myself here to a brief summary.

The original (16C?) building served, as far as I can tell, as the vicarage of St Keyne’s church nearby. In 1787 John Wesley stayed there on one of his Cornish preaching tours. In his journal he described staying in ‘a house fit for a gentleman.’

Gate post near Epiphany House

This lovely old gate post caught my eye: it’s in the lane just below Epiphany House, where our walk continued

Soon after Truro diocese was created in 1876 the first bishop took residence. The house’s new name became the Cornish phrase ‘Lis Escop’, signifying its status as his court or palace. Edward White Benson, that first bishop, later became Archbishop of Canterbury. The local primary school is named after him.

During WWI it served as a convalescent home for wounded British officers, and housed Belgian refugees. In WWII Bishop Hunkin, who served in the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) service established its grounds as a fire-watching centre.

The second bishop, George Wilkinson (1883-91), had previously been vicar of fashionable Eaton Square parish in London. There he helped establish a community of devout Christian women, and when he took up residence in Truro invited them to come too. They formed a convent at a grand house near the city centre, now the Alverton hotel (my sister-in-law held her wedding reception there – another lovely location). They were known as the Community of the Epiphany. (I might say more another time about this Anglican order and their time in Truro).

Memorial to Mother Constance

This plaque commemorates Constance, former Mother of the Community of the Epiphany

In the early 1950s the bishop relocated, and from 1953-1982 the house was occupied by Truro Cathedral School. It was renamed Copeland Court, after an alumnus of that name  whose family owned the grand Trelissick estate a few miles away (now a National Trust property, and another favourite haunt of ours, when we’re not in lockdown).

In 1983 the school closed down, and the nuns at Alverton bought it and moved in. It wasn’t renamed after their order as Epiphany House until the Community’s dissolution in 2003, when the charitable trust took over.

The Epiphany Trust continues to uphold the charitable and devout traditions of the sisters. It’s used for accommodating retreats, courses and conferences, but also has meeting rooms for local business and other groups – including coroner’s inquests.

It’s a beatifully tranquil setting, and calms the soul just to walk through its grounds. It seems a long way from the bustle and commerce of the city nearby. I felt this solace even before I learned about the history of the house. You don’t have to be a nun to feel the peaceful spirit of the place.

PS 3 April 2020: I’m indebted to Dr T for providing corrections to some inaccuracies in my first version of this post. I’ve updated it to incorporate them.

5 books and a pencil

Castle hotel train cakeOur oldest grandson’s birthday falls just before Christmas, so Mrs TD and I travelled to Somerset to celebrate with his family. We broke our journey in Taunton and stayed overnight in the atmospheric Castle Hotel, with its cobbled forecourt, crenellations and Norman garden.

The lobby looked very festive, with the centrepiece of this huge gingerbread cake, with a miniature electric train chugging around its circular track. How our grandson would have loved it when he was little, and train mad.

Before sharing a delicious seafood meal with our old friend the regulator, who lives nearby, we trawled the shops (in my case, charity bookshops). I came up with this haul of five titles.

Taunton book haul

Taunton book haul

Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller is the first volume in the trilogy sequel to Virago’s first-ever title in its iconic Modern Classics green-spined series: Frost in May. I have yet to read it, but it’s good to have both volumes to anticipate.

I posted on Stefan Zweig’s poignant novel Beware of Pity last year, and The Post Office Girl was recommended by a Zweig aficionado soon afterwards.

I have a couple of other William Gass titles waiting to be read, and liked the look of this American paperback edition of Cartesian Sonata and other novellas – his fifth work of fiction.

I saw the Werner Herzog film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ a few years after it came out in 1974, so it was good to get hold of the 1908 novel by Jakob Wassermann based on the same strange story, in a handsome PMC edition.

Italo Svevo, the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz, was a friend of James Joyce during his Trieste years. I read The Confessions of Zeno pre-blog, so I was pleased to find another of his novels in the older PMC format.

Kaweco brass pencilBack home in Cornwall for Christmas, and a pleasant family time with the other grandchildren and their parents, over from Catalonia. Among my presents was this handsome brass clutch pencil: SketchUp 5.6. It’s made by the German company Kaweco. It was a thoughtful gift from Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law.

Kaweco pencil and tinIts design I think goes back to the 1930s. It looks very art deco and Weimar. It came in an equally retro tin box. I’ll enjoy using it. Problem is, I now want its companion fountain pen.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, if you celebrated it, and that 2020 is full of good times. I can’t say I look forward with much relish to living in Britain once we’ve left the EU. Let’s hope we can somehow maintain good relations with our friends and neighbours across the Channel – despite turning our backs on them in a fit of ill-tempered petulance.