Saturday, 29 March 2008

Sin-Eaters and funerals . . .

This dramatic scene was looking towards the Presceli mountains from the top of Llanllwni mynydd. We had hailstones a few minutes later. (Click to enlarge photo).

My middle daughter and I spent the day at the National Library of Wales yesterday. She needed to do research for essays for Uni, and I wanted to work on my book. It took a bit of organizing once we got there as my library ticket had expired and I had to form-fill and have my photo taken, but now I have another 5 years' worth of card and I think we'll probably go again next week. Mind you, I deserve a medal for endurance, as it's an hour and a half's drive each way and G wanted Radio 1 on throughout . . .

Anyway, I have started reading Mary Webb's 'Precious Bane' recently. In the story, the heroine, Prue, writes of her father's funeral: How the bells were ringing the corpse "home"; how the mourners all have a piece of Rosemary which they then throw into grave as the coffin is lowered in, and how Prue's brother Gideon volunteered to be the Sin Eater as none had been found. I thought that all this was poetic licence - until I was in the Library yesterday. I had time to kill, having finished note-taking from the books I had ordered. The only books available along the side of the North Library were in Welsh or about the history and antiquities of Wales. I took one at random, and found the author had taken a tour of Wales, and I jotted down what he had written about the area near our house. Then as I wandered along, my eye fell on a series of beautifully bound books: "Bye-Gones" was the title on the spine. My hand dowsed, and I picked a volume up and began to browse it. Under folklore, was Rosemary for Funerals. Amazed, I took it back to my seat and took notes. It gave a reference to an earlier compilation and I returned for that. Imagine my amazement when I saw several entries for Sin Eaters! So she hadn't been making it up! In fact, comparing my notes with her words, I think she must have been very familiar with "Bye-Gones". . .

To satisfy your curiosity . . .

A query from 1874:

"A friend of mine recently attended a funeral in the neighbourhood of Fenn's Bank, and noticed that on each piece of cake that was handed to the friends who attended this funeral was a small sprig of rosemary which was placed in the button-hole of the coat, and after the burial service was read, the friends all filed past the grave looking at the coffin and each threw in the sprig of Rosemary." (Rosemary is for Remembrance).

Note from Editor. . . Apparently a common custom in Wales too: "in ancient times . . . to carry a sprig of rosemary in his hand and throw it into the grave as the minister was reading the last words of the funeral service."

November 24 1875:


A custom still surviving in North and South Wales. "A hireling, who lives by such services, has handed over to him a loaf of bread, a maple bowl full of heer or milk and a 6d in consideration that he takes upon him all the sins of the defunct and frees him or her from walking after death."

From "Tours in Wales 1804 - 1813" by Richard Fenton:


At the Parish church of the mansion of Abermarlais . . . "At the Vicar's I saw a most beautiful little Bangu Bell, ornamented with curious raised work, a handle of the same metal and round it in Dutch - *Lof: Got boven al."

* In modern spelling: "Loof God boven al", e.g. "Praise God above all." It was a lich- or corpse-bell, a hand-bell rung before a funeral procession . . .

Friday, 28 March 2008

Show and Tell Friday over at Kelli's

Show and Tell

(Click on photos to enlarge)

We bought this painted slate engraving on holiday one summer, down in Tintagel. It evokes the memory of an unexpected overnight stay there (we had been heading slowly homewords from elsewhere in Cornwall). It was so lovely there, and the weather was beautiful, and so we stopped, and explored the castle on its headland, commanding the sea, with its legends of Arthur and Merlin. The Celtic design is based on interlaced carpet pages from the Book of Kells, which I saw when I was on an Archaeology Field Trip in Ireland. It is displayed in all its amazing glory inTrinity College, Dublin. Link:
It truly is the most incredible piece of Insular art and links us back 1200 years or more and has links with St Columba - some scholars even submit it may have been Columba himself who crafted it.

These two needlework pictures came from a stall in Carmarthen Market. Some of you may recognize this as Thomas Hardy's cottage, so as you may imagine, this has special meaning for me and I am very fond of it.

This is Shakespeare's birthplace, and again beautifully embroidered. There is a third embroidery which I have in a drawer somewhere, and which needs to be framed. It's so long since I've seen it I can't remember the picture, so I had better go look!

I treasure anything which has been hand-embroidered or hand-made. Hours and hours of work went into creating these beautiful pictures.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Birds . . . and a Wren's Nest

Click on the photo to enlarge it and you will see a darling Wren's nest. They quite often nest in our stables, but this one has taken advantage of a number of spare haynets hanging from a hook in the barn - a fairly cat-proof spot too. The base of the nest appears to be strands of hay, then wonderfully embellished with moss. Just think how soft and warm that will be for the Wren babies. I shall try and keep you posted as to how many, in due course.

We have lots of birdlife here. Above the window in this room, Bluetits are nesting. They have wriggled in between the window frame and the stone wall and have it cosy there. Higher up, beneath the eaves, we have House Sparrows, who congregate in little brown-and-grey gangs in the arches of the rambling rose, Paul's Himalayan Musk, and cheep annoyingly all day long. At the back of the rose arbour we did have a Blackbird's nest, but part of the trellis has come down so they may have to look for another nest-site this year. One year we had Redstarts (such beautiful birds) nesting in bushes along by the stream, but they were young birds, and foolish, and had their nest too low and one of our cats took a young fledgling. We often have Swallows nesting in the Cart Shed, swooping in and out of the doorway or the little window at the top. I think it may well have been the original 18th C bakery for our house, as there is another small window at the back, and these would not have been necessary just for a cart shed. In the summer, we often see a Spotted Flycatcher come and perch on the branch of a dead tree over the stables. I can watch him (or her) as I am washing up. Blue Tits also nest in a hole in the cart shed wall, where the mortar has fallen out. Safe as houses in there.


We did have Rooks setting up home at the top of the Elm trees along the border of our land in the Yard, but Next Door said they were his trees and allowed the guys who run the Shoot to shoot the bottoms out of the nests, so the Rooks went elsewhere. They insisted that the Rooks would take the young pheasant poults, but according to my bird books, Rooks don't do that - unlike other members of the Crow family, which have nasty habits. Magpies are particularly nasty, taking fledglings when they can, and we have a number of those who nest locally and regularly check out what's on offer in our garden.

Visiting our nut nets in the winter we have Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Nuthatches, Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, Sparrows, and no end of little Chaffinches picking up the bits beneath. We have more Jackdaws than we could shake a stick at - the wretches swoop down and frighten Amber (the outside stray cat) away from her food, and then they eat it instead. They are very aware of what goes on here and perch on the power cables, calling up their friends the moment anything edible appears. They nest in the farm buildings opposite. They have a hierarchy - the oldest greyest Granny Jackdaw is the boss, and is very canny. At the first sight of anyone with a gun, she and her troop have skedaddled! They also deliberately punish any young bird who has overstepped the mark. I don't know how a youngster infringes these Jackdaw Rules & Regs, but boy, does he know when he has. I have seen them many a time chasing and harrying a bird through the ash trees beyond the yard, setting up a tremendous scolding as they chase him from branch to branch, pecking him when they can get close enough. This happened right outside my front door recently, with a bird being pinned down and viciously attacked, and SUCH a clamour they were making. I had to go out and break it up, but they carried on with the hue and cry in the farmyard. My mum, growing up, had a pet Jackdaw which her father had found injured. They had an aviary in the yard, and popped "Jackie" in it, and he became very tame. They eventually taught him to talk, or at least, say his name.

We have our Robins of course - there is one who will come and perch on the kitchen window ledge when he is hungry and give me a hard-done-by look so I put out some crumbs for him. He is quite often in the stable, picking up any crumbs which are spilt from feed bowls. He will help me garden too, and pass comment on my digging techniques!

I often hear the woodpeckers drumming in early spring, in the hollow trees down the hill. We only rarely see a Green Woodpecker, but regularly see the Spotted ones about the place.


We have Buzzards a-plenty, soaring high above the house, or perched on nearby trees. They nest in the woodland on the almost verticle hillside below us, and swoop low across the road as you ride past. I like to see them in the early morning light, hunting for worms as the sun warms the slope of the little field on the hillside. It is hard to imagine such a regal bird "worming" but when I drive down to Whitemill, there is a field there with Rich Pickings, and I once counted over 2 dozen Buzzards, well spread out, hunting for worms, and keeping company with the Herons, whose Heronry is in the dense oak woodland on Merlin's Hill. On frosty mornings they are perched along the hedgerow, waiting for the ground to thaw sufficiently. One winter morning this year, I even saw a Little Egret by the side of the River Towy. I was driving, unfortunately, so couldn't look too long and hard, but there was no mistaking it.

It is the Red Kites I love best, with their forked tails and rufous rump, and their splendid wings which arch and flare, unlike the little short stubby Buzzard wings. I could watch them for hours as they glide on the thermals. We see them regularly - they nest further up the valley. They were almost extinct once, killed by over-zealous Gamekeepers, but have now been reintroduced into England too, and are thriving. I always get a thrill when I see one and can understand why Sea Eagles were buried with the dead at Isbister, the 'Tomb of the Eagles' up in Orkney. They must have been the 'totem' bird of that Neolithic clan.

We have our share of the Wagtails too - "Polly Dishwashers" as my mum used to call them - I don't think it's purely a Hampshire name for them though, as it's used in the West Country as well. We have the little black and white Pied Wagtails, often seen along the top of the farmyard walls, looking for insects, or on the ridges of the barns opposite, keeping company with the beautiful Water Wagtails (Grey Wagtails) which have sulphur yellow rumps. When I was little, I used to look at the illustrations in my little Observer's Book of Birds, and think they had got the captions wrong, as the Grey Wagtail had lots of yellow and the Yellow Wagtail had lots of grey! Sometimes when I am working in my sewing room in the attic, I open the Velux window in the roof and, standing on a chair, look out at the countryside, and watch the Water Wagtails stuttering along the roof tiles. They are so elegant.

Sometimes I see chains of Long-Tailed Tits in our hedgerows, and once there was a nest of theirs in a dense part of the hedge by the stream. They are such pretty little birds. So are the Goldfinches, which come and feed on the Teasels by the paddock each autumn and must nest somewhere locally too.

Down by the river we see Herons daily, unless the river is in spate, and often see the whirring flight of the little Dipper as he flees downstream. They nest under the bridge, and I love to stand on the bridge and watch them bobbing up and down on a rock mid-stream. They remind me of Dartmoor, and the fast-flowing streams and rivers there, and are still magical to me, who grew up amongst the chalk streams and rivers of the Itchen and Test. Once in a blue moon, we see the Kingfisher - a flash of turquoise and he is gone. I've only seen 4 or 5 in my entire life.

Meanwhile, I bird-spot when I can. No great rarities (apart from the Egret) but much pleasure all the same.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

A meme via Rowan

This is a little yard and building off the main street in Llandeilo. Intrigues me.

I love things like this. On Rowan's blog, she has been tagged for a meme, and as this one is a bookish meme, I thought I would join in.

The rules for this meme are:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

'She looked so strange, standing there in the fold, with her long staff and red cross-over shawl, with her mouth a-tremble and her eyes shining like a prophet's, and the great lean pigs gruntling and snouting around her, and Sarn Mere standing up beyond her like the blue grass round a figure in a church window. I wondered if ever they put pigs in church windows, in pictures of the Prodigal Son, and I couldna help but laugh a bit in a kind of pitiful way, thinking that this here was the prodigal mother, and how glad we'd be if Gideon was a big prodigal too. "What ails you, laughing?" she says.'

This is from "Precious Bane" by Mary Webb. I have cheated a tiny bit and started with the 5th line, as it makes a lot more sense that way, and is a beautiful piece of prose.

I will tag five people, but there is no absolute obligation to join in - only if you feel like it:

1. Nancy
2. Leanne
3. Yarrow
4. Pixiedust
5. Kelli

A Walk around Dinefwr Castle

(Click on photos to enlarge).

Newton House, Dinefwr Park:

Yesterday my eldest daughter had a yen to go "Castling", which isn't too difficult to do in our neck of the woods, as there are plenty of them. We drove up the Towy Valley to Dinefwr Castle. It is the most beautiful parkland to walk across, and this time we chose to park near Newton House and approach the castle that way, past the deer park. Of course, I had my camera with me and took about 40 photos.

This part of Wales was the Kingdom of Deheubarth in Medieval times and the position of Dinefwr, on its rocky promontary high above the watery wastes of the Towy Valley, was a stronghold for the Princes of Deheubarth. The castle, in its earliest form, is first mentioned around the 12th century. It is linked with the Lord Rhys - Rhys ap Gruffydd
who was one of the greatest Welsh leaders of the period.

I love these old estate houses at the back of the Big House.

The lane going down past the deer park towards one of the estate houses.

The first view of the castle through the trees.

This summerhouse was built on top of the main keep in the late 17th century and this and the southern turret were roofed and had tiled floors, and used for entertaining guests visiting Newton House, across the park. Following a fire, when the roofs were destroyed, the castle fell into disuse.

A view across the Towy Valley, with the loops and oxbows of the river.

I overcame my vertigo to climb up each tower and take photos. This is looking across the front of the northern chamber block up down the Towy Valley towards Carmarthen.

There was a small doorway in the wall, with a sign on it that looked like a man with a headache - it transpired it meant there were holes in the wall to look through! Looking left, we could see a window in one of the remaining towers, and there is a locked door leading to this room from a stairway. Spooky.

My daughter larking about!

Yours truly - a rare photo as I'm usually behind the camera!

If you wish to explore many more Welsh castles, then this is the site for you:

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Crochet - another attempt! - and baking (always successful!)

Well, this is my first attempt at a granny square - it was the only one that I could understand the directions for! It's a Rose Square, and didn't go too badly (though it was meant to have 8 petals, not 6) until I got to the outer bit and then I lost the plot completely, but it was a learning experience, and hopefully I will be able to improve from here!

Here is Humphrey, from Lluest, have a snuggle down in the straw yesterday, when being stroked and fed Polo mints all got Too Much for him!

Here is Pryderi, who used to be bolshy and difficult, showing that now he has done the Monty Roberts Join-up, he is now enjoying Follow Up - note he is not being held and is following of his own free will. Another pony with a future now.

There was more baking done when I returned home with two Crunchie Bars. Chocolate Honeycomb Muffins - yummy!


2 cups (300g) S-R flour
1/4 cup (55g) caster sugar
1 cup (190g) White Bits (or a bar of chocolate, chopped up into bits)
100g chocolate-coated honeycomb, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
60g butter, melted
1 cup (250ml) buttermilk (if you don't have any - use semi-skimmed milk and a tablespoon of cream)
1/4 cup (60ml) honey
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Grease 12 whole muffin pan (or line with cases). Sift flour and sugar into large bowl, stir in White Bits and honeycomb, then remaining ingredients. Spoon mixture into prepared pan and bake in moderately hot oven about 20 mins. (My oven is on 180 deg.) Add a large spoonful of Nutella to mixture for real decadence!

Monday, 24 March 2008

Lluest Horse & Pony Trust Open Day

(Click on photos to enlarge).

This is a local charity which I support, and do some of the advertising for. I will be helping out at their Open Day today, camera in hand, and I'll be baking a batch of Blackberry and Apple Muffins shortly to take along. The little chap above is Zorro, who was found abandoned and it transpired that he had been born with a condition where his "wedding tackle" was inside rather than outside and this required a very costly operation to correct. He was also gelded at the same time. He is quite a character, as you can see from that cheeky face.

The Trust do wonderful work, taking in elderly and unsound horses and ponies to give them a home for the rest of their days, as well as taking in traumatised horses and ponies and in many cases, rehabilitating and rehoming them. Young ponies are also given a future and transformed from the wormy, pot-bellied unhandled creatures that arrive, to well-rounded, well-balanced individuals who go on to be a child's best friend.

Their website is:

and I hope that you will check this out and if you could give a donation, it would be going to a really good cause.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Moletraps and mustard pots . . .

Those of you who visit here regularly, will know that I have a passion for auctions and car boot sales. Most Sundays we visit our local car boot sale, and whilst I have been to better, it satisfies my love of a bargain. We usually get free range eggs from one of two stalls down there; we also buy excellent organic meat from one of two farm shops which also regularly have stalls there. I trust their produce, especially the local farm shop which we have visited, and seen their livestock and poultry living in excellent conditions, and with excellent stock husbandry. I would far rather the farm had my money than the local supermarket and I would far rather eat meat that I knew had lived a good life and died a good death.

It's usually books I am looking for, but though I cast my cosmic wishes on the wind this morning, there was little to interest me. Having given away a copy of Mary Webb's Precious Bane recently (I had it for 20 years and never read it), forum friends were discussing it and one of them, Leanne, has kindly sent me a spare copy (stamps are in the post Leanne!). Now I am looking for more of Mary Webb's books. I also look out for costume jewellery for our eldest daughter, who collects it and wears it with great style.

The weather was absolutely foul, but there were a few hardy souls who had arrived late and had to set their stalls up outside the big shed where most stallholders had set up this morning. It depresses me to look at some stalls - especially the "Manly" ones where someone is getting rid of the contents of their old barn and all that is on offer is a selection of rusty chains, rusty garden tools, chipped earthenware bottles and - this morning - mole traps, rusty of course! On another stall I was quite taken with some pretty patterned china salt and mustard pots, in Imari colours, but the lids were nickle plated and spoilt beyond saving. I bought peanuts for the birds - they still need feeding with this dreadful return to winter weather - hailstone showers every hour or so - two craft magazines and a cookery book for one of my girls. My husband got some classic brass handles for one of his restoration projects, upholstery pins for one of mine, and a little brass reproduction kettle crane which I've polished up and will be fitted to the solid oak upright of the oldest doorframe in the house (off the kitchen and dated to about 1700) to hang my aprons on. All money spent to support a local and not a global economy, buying things which are largely 2nd hand and giving them further useage - not chucked out for landfill. Even broken furniture is sometimes of use to us, because my husband restores furniture for our use, and sometimes needs barley twist legs, or a piece of old oak or a back splat from a chair. We have no time for this throw-away society we live in.

Here's my next upholstery project!

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Stormy Night


The treacle-black shadows are streaked with silver,

As the moon peers from behind clouds

Shredded and ribboned by the gale

Tearing through branches, nipping at rooftops,

Bullying plastic, bowling with flowerpots, sighing in corners.

Between gusts, a cow bellows for her calf,

The dog runs rabbits in her sleep,

A cat, fat as butter, licks dainty moonlight paws.

The bats scratch their toes on the plaster as they hang

Liked smoked herrings, in the wall above the window.

The stream hurls itself in solitary confinement,

Straining for release from its banks.

The North wind plays the sash window,

Squeaking it like chalk on blackboard.

Fusilades of hailstones rattle against glass like musketfire,

And the giant fir trees on the hillside bend pliant fingers

In obeyance to the storm.

Ivy leaves stutter against bark

And owlish eyes peep from gloomy fissures

As mice creep in the prancing bramble brakes.

Domesticated witterings again

Lemon Meringue Pie. I haven't made one of these for many a long year. My mum used to make them, but always cooked them too quick so the meringue was very soggy. This cooked for an hour and the meringue was just right. So was the lemony-ness. I shall have to do a lot of walking to walk off the calories from my several pieces of this!

My eldest daughter is a good cook and enjoys baking. This is her Lemon Drizzle Cake, baked when a friend was coming round. It is also Rather Good - and bad for waistlines!

This is the Manderin Orange Trifle I made in honour of my daughters coming home for Easter. I always vowed I hated custard and didn't like trifle because of that, and then I tasted some again in the last year or so, and found that I was mistaken - I DO like custard, and I LOVE trifle!

My first efforts at crochet. As you can see, the earliest (smallest) pieces were fairly pathetic and I found it difficult to keep to the same number of stitches that I began with, hence the bell shapes! Then it began to fall into place. I learned my doubles, half trebles and trebles and I am HOOKED! I found out a couple of things I was doing wrong, and held the thread in a better way too. I am now trying out my first granny square, having perfected making the little circle to start and am now on petals, and have mastered those - though I have 5 instead of 8 (ah well!) It is a very compelling craft and I find it hard to put down. It really is a craft you learn through your mistakes.

Friday, 21 March 2008

8 facts about me you probably didn't know

Nancy over at has tagged me to join in a bit of fun: 8 facts about me you (probably) didn't know. So here goes:

1. I hate milk (tolerate it in tea) and so I eat my breakfast cereal dry or with a yoghurt.

2. I'm afraid of heights. I never used to be. This is genetic and I blame my mother. Even looking up at tall buildings gives me the heeby-jeebies these days.

3. All my life I have professed to hate custard and never ate trifle. Now I find I was mistaken.

4. I used to work with horses. It wasn't like work at all as I loved the job so much.

5. I have a certain amount of psychic ability.

6. I represented my school at High Jump.

7. My undergraduate dissertation jointly won the Royal Archaeological Institute Dissertation prize for 1999/2000 (it's judged on the best dissertations for a 2 year period). I am still inordinately proud of that.

8. Swimming is not my strong point.

Dowsing, and St Dogmaels

Several years ago now, I belonged to our local Dowsing Society, which was one well-known and supported from quite far afield. Sadly, the society subsequently went pear-shaped. Anyway, my eldest daughter and I went along to a few meetings, and learned a little about dowsing.

Anyone can dowse. Strictly speaking, you don't even need the L-shaped brass rods that everyone uses, once you are sufficiently in tune with your body, you can just use your hands. The brass apparently allows you to more easily pick up on the magnetic fields which emanate from what you seek. This occasionally works for me with books - choosing the right one for a project . . . my hand is "led". It is a means of finding something - water is the medium most commonly searched for - and it used to be a forked hazel twig which was used to find it. There is a man in our area, who drives a large and expensive 4x4, and who tells farmers where to dig boreholes for water. He is always right, but I think his skill lies as much as reading the landscape as in dowsing, and has obviously built up a good business on the strength of it. You can use a crystal as a pendulum to search for lost rings or things, or even tell which sex a baby will be by using a gold wedding ring on a piece of string. You first have to establish which movement of the pendulum in a certain direction is "yes" and which "no". This movement of the pendulum is caused by it picking up minute and unconcsious movements of the body.

To my mind this has nothing to do with anything remotely paranormal - it is from an internal sensitivity, which responds to a given question. I think of it as "tuning in", pretty much the same as when one picks up on atmospheres - as when you can always tell when there has been an argument just before you walk into a room, it is "in the air" almost. Tests in Munich proved that only 6 of 43 dowsers who showed some aptitude in screening tests went on to display great skill, but this proved that "in particular tasks, (they) showed an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely if at all be explained as due to chance ... a real core of dowser-phenomena can be regarded as empirically proven" (Wikipedia entry). However, a later test (also in Germany) proved that dowsing was no better than chance. I will leave it to you to decide.

Anyway, I digress, as I meant to say that we had a lovely day out with the Dowsers to St Dogmael's Abbey in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire). From the Dowsing point of view it was a waste of time, totally, but the Abbey ruins were very interesting, as were the Early Christian Monuments within the church (one of the Dowsers maintained he could pick up something sinister from one of the ECMs - hmmmm). There was also an excellent Water Mill which had been there from ancient times. I love Mills, and I love stoneground flour for breadmaking. They deserve a seperate post. On this occasion, there was nowhere selling food, if I remember rightly, so the only grub to be had were some baked goods from the Mill and of course, I bought some flour for bread-making when we got home.

As for the dowsing - well, never in a million years would I be able to find "a bubble of energy" on a blade of grass and when not one of the Dowsers, including the teachers, could find their own name written on scraps of paper face down amid the ruins, I began to have doubts about their abilities . . .

But if you ever happen to find yourself anywhere near the Rollright Stones, in Oxfordshire, pay them a visit. You will be handed dowsing rods on your arrival, they have little collars around the parts you hold and as you walk amongst the stones, the dowsing rods hurl themselves in circles. Explain that one . . .

Thursday, 20 March 2008

A Robert Frost poem

With both my beautiful daughters home from Uni, I have had a busy day. No time to compose a special entry, so instead I will share some more poetry with you.

I make no apology for returning to the Dymock Poets. This is an evocative poem by Robert Frost:

The Thatch

Out alone in the winter rain,
Intent on giving and taking pain.
But never was I far out of sight
Of a certain upper-window light.
The light was what it was all about:
I would not go in till the light went out;
It would not go out till I came in.
Well, we should wee which one would win,
We should see which one would be first to yield.
The world was black invisible field.
The rain by rights was snow for cold.
The wind was another layer of mold.
But the strangest thing: in the thick old thatch,
Where summer birds had been given hatch,
had fed in chorus, and lived to fledge,
Some still were living in hermitage.
And as I passed along the eaves,
So low I brushed the straw with my sleeves,
I flushed birds out of hole after hole,
Into the darkness. It grieved my soul,
It started a grief within a grief,
To think their case was beyond relief--
They could not go flying about in search
Of their nest again, nor find a perch.
They must brood where they fell in mulch and mire,
Trusting feathers and inward fire
Till daylight made it safe for a flyer.
My greater grief was by so much reduced
As I though of them without nest or roost.
That was how that grief started to melt.
They tell me the cottage where we dwelt,
Its wind-torn thatch goes now unmended;
Its life of hundred of years has ended
By letting the rain I knew outdoors
In on to the upper chamber floors.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The past is a foreign country

(Click on photo to enlarge).

Writing about these - mostly- infant deaths has been on my mind all day. Those I wrote about belonged to Sheffield, but countless others like them are part of the history of all of us. In my family, one of my g. grandmothers had three children under 5. Within the space of a week they died - two on the same day. I should imagine it was Scarlet Fever or Diptheria - I have never had the heart to send for the death certificates. That would bring reality too close. How did she cope? It was 8 years before she had another child, my g. grandfather. She had another two children, one of whom died, or was killed, in his early 20s. Someone on a family history forum had actually seen the gravestone recording these childhood deaths (the family must have saved for years to afford it), and they said it was the saddest thing they had ever seen. She asked to be buried with her children, and was.

Then I think back to my late mother-in-law, whose father had died on the Somme in WWI, and her mother was left to bring up 4 children under 6, and work full time in a laundry till 10 o'clock at night, leaving the youngest children with an elderly lady to look after them. This elderly lady was so poor that when the few hens she kept in her back yard started laying eggs without shells - either because they were so old or lacked grit - she could not afford to replace them - or buy eggs. This same lady, when her varicose veins burst, couldn't afford to call in the Dr. I think of my mother-in-law telling me they had bread and margerine for dinner and "Pan 'aggy" for tea - potatoes fried in bacon fat, and when the end of the week came round, sometimes it just had to be "kettle broth" - which was a little bread, with salt and pepper and steeped in boiling water from the kettle. That is not a great step from those Sheffield families.

I think of my g.g. grandfather and his brothers who had to carry on working as agricultural labourers until they were so infirm they could no longer do so, and then the Workhouse stared them in the face. Then there were their children, who were sent out to work in service or living in on a farm, so they had better nourishment and there were less mouths to feed at home. Is it any wonder so many families emigrated when they had the chance?

I was brought up in an age where make-do-and-mend was essential. There was no "keeping up with the Jones" because the Jones had no more than you! We used leftovers, never threw any food away, I was used to hand-me-downs, and we shopped for clothes at Jumble Sales as often as not, or there was always the "Club Book". We went blackberrying, used all the fruit which grew in our garden - not as some people I know, can't be bothered to pick it and let it rot on the ground and buy apples from Tesco. It was the norm for people to have a few chickens in the back garden, and to grow their own vegetables. Mum went shopping with a string bag, had a copper and not a washing machine, and leftover meat was kept in a meatsafe in the larder. Sometimes I feel quite old . . .

In these days of conspicuous consumption, when footballers buy a perfectly decent house and tear it down to build something they deem grand enough for them; when one man who was mentioned in the newspapers only ever wears brand new straight-from-the-packet underpants and them throws them away after one wearing; when people get into debt to live lifestyles like the celebrities they read about in the papers; when women spend more on makeup in a day than my dad earned in a fortnight back in the 70s, I wonder about this flaw in mankind: this desire to outdo; this repetition of Potlatch ceremonies once carried out by Native American Indians when they burned blankets and traded belongings to show that they were so wealthy and important they just didn't need them. They do say, there's nowt as queer as folk . . .

Pity the little children . . .

I blame my daughter - the eldest one that is. She has been doing graveyard research in one of her Uni courses and led me to a fascinating website set up with information about burials in the Sheffield General Cemetary. Link: The period I was looking at - 1836 onwards - made grim reading. Infant mortality was very high and about 80% of the burials were children, often small babies.

The causes of death included (W)Hooping cough, Croup, Convulsions, Measles, Scarlet Fever and inflammation of the brain or lungs. A one month old baby died of St Anthony's Fire - Erysipelas. I have had some experience of this - in my horse - it is a Streptococcal infection which needs to be swiftly treated. Neglected and death can occur from septic shock or even necrolizing fasciitis - the flesh-eating disease which has been in the news recently. Poor little mite. Many children died of water on the brain, which can be a side-effect of meningitis or of a general infection. Many children were said to have died from "teething." A 3 month old baby died from Cutaneous disease - a bacterial infection? A child of 4 died of Dropsy. A 2 year old died from a neck tumour. English Cholera was not unknown and was the term given to various diarrhoeal diseases. Interestingly, diagnosis was more precise if you came from a well-heeled family, who could afford a decent Doctor and diagnosis - not that he was any more capable of saving the life. Spare a thought for those in the workhouse - where the choice of fatal infection was much broader. There you could die of Scarlet Fever, Smallpox, (both at the same time in one case), Consumption, and even Typhus (which was typically spread by body lice). One year old twins Grace and Prudence Boyland died on the same day in the Workhouse of Scarlet Fever . . . With the mothers often sickly and malnourished, it was no wonder that the death toll was so high.

Amongst adults Consumption was a common cause of death, as was natural decay and apoplexy amongst older people. A Solicitor died of Typhus, someone else apparently died of Consumption after an ulcerated leg. A Merchant had putrid fever, another worker died of Locked Jaw (Tetanus). Stomach Cramp, Bladder inflammation, Windpipe Inflammation, Decline from a wound in the foot,Lung inflammation and childbirth all took their victims. Two, an 11 week old infant and Mary Hunter, aged 66, defied diagnosis and "Sudden Visitation of God" was put down as their cause of death . . .

No-one was exempt - the dead and the parents of the dead were hosiers, soldiers, brewers, brass casters, table knife hafters, file smiths, solicitors, butchers, frame smiths, stove grate fitters, gardeners, farmers, shoemakers, spring knife grinders, pawnbrokers, whitesmiths, excise officers, razor smiths, joiner's tool manufacturers and merchants.

This link makes interesting reading: