Duster Art Project

On Tuesday my daughter and I went along to our local library to take part in a fantastic art project using domestic dusters as canvases to express women’s feelings about cleaning, housework and their engagement with domesticity. The project has been developed by Vanessa Marr who is both a gifted artist and a lecturer at the University of Sussex. She blogs about the project here; you can see some amazing examples of the 100+ dusters that have now been created for the project as well as a picture of my daughter with the duster she made this week!


As Vanessa explained, the idea is to take an example of a mundane, everyday piece of cleaning equipment and subvert it by using it as a canvas for self-expression. Some women really enjoy housework and gain a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from it while others hate and resent it; still others feel ambivalent about it. One duster displays a gaming console controller entitled ‘Call of Duty’ while another confides that when its creator is feeling domestic, she puts on her pinny! Some of the dusters are really beautifully embroidered but the point of the project is that it is for all women and not all of these are skilled in handicrafts. One women stuck her comment on her duster with wool and glue!

Vanessa supplies the dusters, a needle and red embroidery thread to get you started. She also has a trove of copies of advertisements from 1950s women’s magazines to inspire you or for you to incorporate into your art. My daughter was inspired by the catalogues of household gadgets and tools and created a catalogue entry for ‘The Domestic Woman’ who ‘never tires’. My own duster says that I would rather be reading than cleaning and reflects on how I hadn’t expected my life to be so embedded in domesticity.


We really enjoyed our sewing session and chatting to Vanessa about her work. Vanessa will be running further sessions and providing the materials at Sutton Central Library in the weeks to come (details can be found on her blog) but there are other ways to get involved including sending for a pack and returning your finished master(or mistress!)piece to her. There are also further displays of the full collection planned for this summer.

Thank you, Vanessa, for sharing your project with us!


Hatfield House: First Home of Elizabeth I

It is almost the end of the Easter holidays here and, after just two days of sunshine last week, we have been waiting in vain for the sun to come out. Apparently it is going to be hot and sunny by the middle of next week, by which time children will be back at school. On Wednesday it was chilly and bleak but it wasn’t actually raining, which was close to a win as far as the weather is concerned at the moment so we travelled around London to Hatfield House, a Jacobean mansion built next to the Old Palace which was once home to Mary I, Elizabeth I and Edward VI. Completed in 1611, it was built by the King’s adviser, Robert Cecil (pronounced Sisil), 1st Earl of Salisbury who died before he could actually live there and it is still home to the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury and their family. At Easter they open the doors for the Spring and Summer season and, as it’s somewhere my elder daughter has wanted to go for a long time, we decided to visit. My daughter decided to visit in Tudor costume, complete with French hood, which wasn’t as embarrassing as I had feared!

Hatfield is a large estate and these days has a lot to offer visitors. The price-tag is fairly hefty but it is a pay-once-return-all-year ticket which would be excellent if you lived semi-locally. There is a lot of park land, formal gardens, a farm with miniature train, an adventure playground and tennis courts (the original was played upon by Henry VIII!) as well as a restaurant and independent shops. The shops and restaurant are free to access and the farm and adventure playground can be visited at a much lower cost.


The House itself is impressive and very attractive. Originally approached by a long drive, it now has a huge water sculpture in front of it entitled ‘Renaissance.’ Created by Angela Conner it was commissioned by The Marquess and frames the entrance of the House. There is a lovely photograph of it on the House’s website but on the day we visited the gold ball visible in that image was missing and no sunshine bounced off its curves or sparkled in the water and I felt it seemed to obstruct rather than enhance the view of the House.


Once inside the entrance hall we purchased a copy of the guidebook at a very dear £8. If we are visiting somewhere that particularly interests us I usually invest in the guidebook because it often offers extra information and background context not displayed in the rooms; my daughter enjoys reading it properly later. This book, however, was rather a disappointment because, aside for a little bit of condensed history at the beginning, it really gives the same details provided on the room boards. We also bought a Horrible Histories: Hatfield House book for my younger daughter for £4 which, again, was rather steep for a 24 page booklet.

IMAG2864While we were sorting all this out we could glimpse the Marble Hall and a sight of the famous Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I which was the thing my daughter was desperate to see. As we looked around the magnificent room she ‘left it til last’ because she was ‘saving it’! There was a lot else to admire in the the meantime: the chequered black and white marble floor, the elaborate classically-themed ceilings, portraits of the Cecils and Royalty and two village scenes by Hoefnagel. The Rainbow portrait is fabulous; dubbed with the motto ‘Non sine sole iris’ (no rainbow without the sun) it presents Elizabeth as a sort of Sun Queen ahead of Louis XIV, bringing (and controlling, holding) the rainbow after troubled times and, her robe detailed with tiny eyes and ears, acting as the all-seeing, all-hearing sovereign. Astonishingly, Elizabeth I was 67 when this portrait was painted so we couldn’t help but think maybe it was ‘touched up’ a little! Hatfield also has another portrait of the Virgin Queen: the Ermine portrait, depicting Her Majesty with a small, white ermine, a symbol of chastity, purity and knowledge. She is wearing a great deal of gold jewellery and embellishment on her dress which is thought to be partly because the painting is likely to be by Nicholas Hilliard who was a goldsmith as well as the court artist. Of course, the gold also emphasises the Queen’s royal status and actual wealth.


The house is full of other treasures to admire and objects of interest including an IMAG2866ingenious mosaic portrait in of Robert Cecil in the Library (the room which acted as the 19th century equivalent of 10 Downing Street during the Prime Minister-ship of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury who, incidentally, apparently was the last Prime Minister of Britain to have a beard), gloves said to belong to Elizabeth I, a scroll showing Elizabeth I’s pedigree descending from the biblical Adam (by amazing coincidence it turns out she was descended from many great historical figures including Romulus and Remus, King Arthur, Julius Caesar and Noah…!) and some slightly stalker-ish relics of the Duke of Wellington, including a candle and a quill once used by him and collected by Mary, Marchioness of Salisbury who was a big fan of the big man.

The kitchens and chapel are also open to visitors. The kitchens are one of the few rooms which offer any sort of interactive experience which are now so commonplace in many such houses. Two screens allow visitors to learn more about the nineteenth century staff who lived and worked there and an old-fashioned telephone can be dialled to listen to recordings of memories of a lady who served as a maid in the 1920s. The chapel is beautiful and still holds services. The stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Old Testament and giving a correlating verse from the New Testament underneath are well worth seeing. Amazingly, the chapel narrowly escaped being destroyed by fire in  1835 when the heat from the fire melted leaden water tanks in the attic, sending a deluge of water pouring onto the flames at the same times as the wind changed direction and a heavy rain show commenced, extinguishing the fire. The west wing of the House was otherwise destroyed and, more sadly, Emily Cecil, 1st Marchioness of Salisbury, then eighty-five years old, died in the fire. It is believed the fire started when feathers in her hat caught light as she wrote letters at her desk.

We spent around an hour and a half in the house and then headed out for lunch. We didn’t try the restaurant, having brought our own lunch and, the weather being very chilly indeed, we ate this in the car before popping into the gift shop. During our later tour of the Old Palace the very knowledgeable guide told us that the word ‘tawdry’ is thought to come from a corruption of St. Audrey (the church next to the house being dedicated to St. Etheldreda, also known as Audrey), either because of the cheap and ‘tacky’ articles for sale at the fairs traditionally held on her Saint Day or because of the coarse, low quality scarf with which she humbly replaced her fine jewels. I have to say that ‘tawdry’ describes most of the items in the gift shop. I have rarely been into a gift shop that sold such an array of completely useless and undesirable items. If you actually gave me a free voucher to spend there I would have had trouble choosing. The selection of books was particularly disappointing; when one thinks of the vast quantities of excellent books published about the Tudor and Jacobean monarchs and era and about members of the Cecil family it is a great shame to find a couple of gift books and nothing of substance. Other businesses rent shop spaces in the courtyard and, while we didn’t visit any of them, the dog groomers and pottery painting seemed particularly popular.

For an extra £3 (children are free) one can have a guided tour of what remains of the Old Palace, the house in which the Tudor Prince and Princesses would actually have lived. Henry VIII used the palace as the home for his surviving children; here they were highly educated and were taught their Royal duties although, in turn, Mary and then Elizabeth fell from their father’s favour along with their unfortunate mothers and were almost entirely ignored by him. Robert Cecil pulled down three sides of the original, rather aged, house when he built the new mansion but the Great Hall remains. This is where Elizabeth I first addressed her advisors upon learning she had inherited the throne and where she made William Cecil her Secretary of State. The grounds also have an oak tree heralded by a memorial plaque as the the site where Elizabeth was reading her Bible when she was told that her sister, Mary I, was dead and that she was now Queen. The tree is rather paltry in size and stature for one that is meant to be well over 400 years old and, having seen it on television and in photographs, we didn’t make extra time to walk down the drive to find it, suspecting that the site itself is largely apocryphal (although we hope the story is true).

There is so much to see in the gardens and parkland that we just didn’t have time for. If it had been a lovely warm, sunny day we might have been tempted to throw traffic jam caution to the wind and stay later so we could enjoy it. But, even once my daughter had changed out of her flimsy Tudor costume, we were cold! We did make time to visit ‘Bloody Hollow’, the adventure playground, however, which was well worth enduring a few goosebumps for. (I don’t know why it’s called Bloody Hollow unless it is part of the rather annoying modern assumption that things, and especially history, is only interesting to children if it is somehow gory, gruesome or scary.) The playground has a huge model of Hatfield House for children to play in, rope bridges, a zip wire, other climbing frames and swings and a little wooden train to sit on. My children had a brilliant half an hour or so before we had to drive home.


It was a long journey home but we had a fantastic day out and, if we happen to be passing nearby in the coming year we will definitely be tempted to pop in and see the gardens, farm and park and perhaps revisit the Rainbow portrait!



Celebrating Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

IMAG2830Last week my elder daughter and I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington to see the Winnie-the-Pooh: exploring a classic celebration of the Bear of Little Brain, his creators and his friends. Children under 12 go free when accompanied by a ticket holder and children aged 12-17 pay a reduced rate so we only needed to buy an £8 ticket for me.

The exhibition operates at two levels: many original E. H. Shepherd illustrations of Winnie, Piglet, Rabbit, Tigger, Christopher Robin and so on are displayed, along with A. A. Milne’s manuscripts and letters, first editions and other copies of the books but as these are of limited interest to young children the fun and eccentricities of the books are explored through interactive displays. It means that adults can enjoy the nostalgia, the art and the biographical background to the texts while children are entertained and kept occupied by the slide, the little door that leads out to the wooden log under the sign of Sanders, the Pooh sticks bridge, the drawing table, Pooh’s bumpety staircase and the puzzles.



The exhibition begins with an array of toys, clothing, games and other ephemera associated with the cult of Pooh including a tea-set presented to Queen Elizabeth II when she was a little girl. Drawings are scattered throughout the whole exhibition, interspersed with other items like the reproduction Winnie, Piglet and friends used in the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin. It is disappointing not to be able to see the ‘original Pooh’ who now lives at the New York Public Library with Piglet, Kanga, Eeyore and Tigger but the spirit of Pooh is very much in evidence. Moreover, E.H. Shepherd actually took his own son Graham’s bear Growler as the model for his drawings of Winnie the Pooh and the V&A exhibition does have examples of the same type of bear as both Growler and Christopher Milne’s own bear, with Growler much more reminiscent of the illustrated Pooh. There is also a fascinating photograph of Milne’s son literally alongside Winnie the London Zoo bear who was one of the inspirations for the bear in the books.


Adults then turn a corner into the next part of the exhibition but children can take a shortcut through a little door and find themselves outside Pooh’s house in the Hundred Acre Wood. Here we have the ‘North Pole’, the Pooh-sticks bridge that you can really cross or – as many toddlers were doing during our visit – you can lie in the ‘water’ flowing beneath it and let the water and words wash over you.


Children can climb the stairs and slip down the slide before drawing at the little table, listen to an audio recording at the base of a ‘tree’, squeeze into the hole in Rabbit’s house and be pulled out by as many friends and relations as you can muster, just like Pooh. Adults can take a quick look around to see if anyone is watching and do all these things, too, or they can look at the continuing sketches, drawings, manuscripts, books and so on. To be honest, I would have found the exhibition rather dry without the additional whimsy all around us.


At the end of the exhibition you have to exit through the inevitable gift shop. As you might expect, most of the souvenirs for sale are on the pricey side with the larger, ‘nicer’ cuddly Pooh Bear £25. There is a nice semi-affordable alternative, however, at £13 along with a choice of Pooh’s friends. There are lots of books including the official exhibition book which is over twenty pounds and the Latin Winnie ille Pooh which we have already at home. For smaller (and yet still fairly significant sums) one can purchase magnets, notebooks, bee key-rings, cards and so on.


We probably spent around an hour viewing the exhibition but the great things about the V&A is that there is just so much to see and, apart from the pre-bookable exhibitions, it is free although they do request a £5 donation. Either side of Winnie the P. we revisited the fashion collection, the miniatures and snuff boxes and had our first proper look at the simply fabulous jewellery collection. The cafe was rammed even on a Thursday in March but we had a quick look in and there was a wide variety of cakes, sandwiches, hot lunches and drinks available.

The Winnie the Pooh exhibition runs until 8th April 2018 so there is still time to go. It’s advisable to book tickets within a 15 minute time slot. And, if you can’t get there, why not re-visit A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepherd’s classic books instead?


St Patrick’s Cross and Carlings

The year is rushing by with alarming speed (although the weather here is going backwards and after a couple of days of lovely ‘cardigan weather’ last week we were back to snow and ice again this weekend) and we have celebrated Mothering Sunday, which is what we had in the UK before Mother’s Day but was basically dying out until it was revived by being mingled in with the latter. At our church we have bunches of daffodils for all the ladies in our congregation and we give cards and small gifts in our family. The girls had made some of the cards themselves which is fun for them and extra-special for the recipients (we include grandmothers and great-grandmothers in our celebrations).

Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day. We aren’t Irish (although I do have some Irish/Scottish/Welsh blood according to my recent DNA test!) but our church is St. Patrick’s so we turned to Steve Roud’s The English Year to see how St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in England.

Roud pours cold Guinness on the notion that St. Patrick was solely responsible for converting the wild folk of Ireland to Christianity or that he expelled all the snakes from the Emerald Isle or used the Irish shamrock to explain the Trinity – these ‘are much later accretions to his legend’, according to Roud. Apparently, Irish people living in England traditionally wore either a shamrock or a  St. Patrick’s cross on 17th March and, in fact, ‘The sight of Irish children wearing crosses made of coloured paper or card decorated with silks or ribbons, on this day was a regular occurrence until the early twentieth century. However, shamrocks and harps eventually took over.’ My daughter had a go at making a St. Patrick’s cross from thin green card and some bits of ribbony stuff. We have hung it on the twigs where we have been making and displaying small items as memories of all our Traditional English Celebrations this year.


The fifth Sunday in Lent, which this year fell on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, is traditionally Care or Carling Sunday, or Passion Sunday. Steve Roud describes how, in the Northern parts of England and the lowlands of Scotland, people would enjoy ‘Carlings’ which were ‘usually grey peas steeped overnight in water, then fried in butter the next day and seasoned with pepper, although at least one account describes them as being served with sugar and rum, a more interesting variation.’ Grey peas were probably marrow fat peas: peas which had been allowed to dry out rather than being picked and eaten fresh. They are the same sort of peas which are used to make that better-known Northern delicacy: mushy peas.

Roud reminds us that beans and peas would have been an important source of food during Lent when eating meat was not allowed and so a Lenten treat involving pulses was quite natural. He also suggests that ‘Care’ and ‘Carling’ come from the older use of the word ‘care’ meaning ‘sorrow, trouble, and grief’ rather than to be particularly attentive or to look after something. It probably derives from a Germanic root ‘kar’, meaning mourning, which would have been associated with the approach of Easter and the Church’s memorial of the Crucifixion.

I hadn’t planned properly for Carling Sunday; it rather crept up on me as Easter is fairly early this year and so reading The English Year in a chronological order has meant I keep almost missing things or finding traditions out of the order they fall in 2018. Accordingly, I had failed to procure some of these grey peas and we had to make do with frying some petit pois in butter… Not the same thing at all! I do fancy the idea of the mushy peas with sugar and rum!

Kensington Palace

What with the half-term holiday and then getting back into the swing of the term I have got rather behind again with the blog and our Home School English Traditions Challenge. Never fear, however, in a packed week’s break we managed to fit in making St. Valentine’s Day cards and enjoying our Shrove Tuesday pancakes as well as making a long-planned trip to Kensington Palace. My daughter has been keen to go ever since she read Lucy Worlsey’s fascinating book Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court which is an insight into life at the Palace in the reign of George II and his Queen Caroline. She wanted to visit as a birthday treat last summer but the tourist season combined with the then-new exhibition of several dresses owned by Diana, Princess of Wales mean that tickets were sold out for months ahead and we had to postpone. A chilly February Wednesday was a different story and we found ourselves rushing through Kensington Gardens towards the Palace and, we hoped, some warmth!


Situated in the Gardens themselves, Kensington Palace also has its own gardens and in front of sits an suitable regal statue of Queen Victoria made by one of her own five daughters, Princess Louise, a talented sculptor and artist who defied contemporary expectations of both princesses and women by pursuing artistic training. As we approached from Kensington High Street, however, we came face to face with William III (1650-1702) who, with his co-monarch Queen Mary II, came to live at Kensington Palace  in 1689 for the cleaner air which was less of a strain on his asthmatic lungs. Over the years the Stuart and Georgian rulers transformed the unassuming manor house into a dramatic palace where Queen Victoria grew up before moving to Buckingham Palace when she took the throne. The Palace remained home to other members of the royal family over the years including Princess Louise and, more recently, Princess Margaret, Diana, Princess of Wales, the Cambridges and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

The Palace has several ‘tours’ or exhibitions. It’s possible to purchase a full guidebook, which annoyingly read in the counter-direction to the way we were directed around the rooms, and one written especially for children and there is also a Children’s ‘Missions app’ one can download for the Royal Palaces but we found this rather confusing and in the end decided that we’d get more out of our visit if we concentrated on looking around us rather than at a screen! Some jolly costumed staff members were handing out children’s trail leaflets, cardboard crowns and make-you-own masque kits.

Walking around the Palace we were able to visit the King’s State Apartments, the Queen’s State Apartments, an exhibition entitled ‘Victoria Revealed’ and (in place of the usual ‘Modern Royals’ exhibition) ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’.


My daughter was most excited to see the King’s Staircase, having read all about it in Courtiers; she knew all the characters in the paintings that adorn the walls including the fashionable milliner Mrs Tempest and the court curiosity Peter the Wild Boy who had been discovered by George I and his company of hunters living feral in Germany and had been brought to England by Caroline, then Princess of Wales. The paintings, completed in 1724, include servants and other members of the court giving a lively reflection and record of life at the Palace.



The other ‘best bit’ of the visit was seeing Queen Victoria’s wedding dress and her childhood Dutch dolls and dolls’ house along with some other toys owned by her and her numerous children. There are also some wooden reproduction dolls and trains for children to play with in. Queen Victoria’s bedroom, not usually open, hosted a Georgian dressing-up session where adults and children alike could try on beautiful dresses, wigs and hats which my daughters absolutely loved!


Diana: Her Fashion Story was very crowded and quite a brief exhibition. It had around fifteen of Diana’s dresses including some very iconic and memorable outfits but my daughters, born well after Diana’s sad death, were not as excited as they might have been. We felt rather in the way and squeezed out after a few minutes.

There is nowhere inside the Palace for visitors to eat their own lunches and snacks although they are welcome to do so in the gardens. A very kind guide showed us to the Sunken Garden where there were many benches overlooking what is, in the Spring and Summer, no doubt a beautiful area but which is decidedly icy and grey-looking in February. The cafe is rather small considering the size of the Palace and the number of visitors it attracts and the tables are very close together meaning that to get through one must squeeze past customers attempting to enjoy their sandwiches, cakes and coffee and, if you are one of those customers, other people’s backsides repeatedly pass one’s face. There is a more formal restaurant but that is closed for the foreseeable future. Having scarfed down a snack outside we decided to postpone lunch until after our visit.


The gift shop is another disappointment. Clearly aimed at tourists from oversees the prices were fairly eye-watering and there was little to tempt us anyway (we had all the relevant books!) except a souvenir china thimble for my daughter’s collection but at £5.99 she decided to save her money.

We really enjoyed our visit to the Palace; some of the paintings, clothes, jewellery and objects from the real lives of royals in the hundreds of years gone by were unmissable. The Palace was not as user-friendly as we had hoped but we were delighted to have the privilege of seeing inside it. The visit only took a morning but in better, warmer weather we would have stayed longer to enjoy the grounds and the wider Kensington Gardens. Moreover, as children’s tickets are free it was a very good value outing and, as going was one of my daughter’s greatest wishes, for her it was a dream come true.




Bridget, Badgers and Blaise

Things have been very hectic in my house for the last week or so as we have had (very efficient) workmen in to fix our shower and give us a lovely new-look bathroom so I have got a bit behind with updating our English Traditions Home School Challenge.

1st February was St. Bridget or St. Bride’s Day. Steve Roud, of The English Year fame, tells us that ‘In Ireland, Brighid, who died around the year 525, is second only in popularity to St. Patrick’ and ‘was baptised by St. Patrick himself.’ Wikipedia makes the connection betwen her Saint Day and the pagan start of spring festival, Imbolc, both of which fall on 1st February leading some scholars to think that the Celtic goddess who shares her names was somehow imposed upon the figure of the Saint and so the goddess’ attributes became associated with St. Bridget. Whether or not this is the case a whole host of myths have been spun and miracles attributed to her over the centuries.

Helena Swan’s Girls Christian Names: Their History, Meaning and Association writes that Brigid was the daughter of a converted druid, Dubhshach, and was a pious child who ‘received the religious veil in her youth, at the hands of St. Niel, the nephew of St. Patrick’ and went on to build ‘herself a cell under a large oak tree, which came to be known as Kill-dara, signifying cell of the oak’. This was the very first step in the foundation of her Abbey at Kildare.’ Wikipedia relates several stories in which she generously gave away to the poor butter and possessions belonging to her parents which was fine in the case of the butter which was replenished through Brigid’s prayers but not so acceptable to her father  whose belongings she had been doling out upon request. Her father decided to recoup his loss by selling his daughter but on the way they bumped into the King of Leinster and while he and Brigid’s dad were chatting Brigid took advantage of the pit-stop to perform another act of charity-by-proxy, giving away Dubhshach’s jewelled sword to a beggar. Presumably while Dubhshach was still gaping at the cheek of the girl the King began to praise her generosity and ‘persuaded’ her father to free her.

Steve Roud writes that ‘little’ fact is actually known about Brigid but the ‘numerous legends’ made her famous throughout Ireland and Europe. As a result:

On her day, children in Ireland would go from house to house and display an effigy or doll that represented the saint. Brighid’s Crosses, made from straw, would also be hung up to protect the house from evil in the coming year.

In England, however, celebration of Brigid seems to have been focused mostly upon dedicating churches and wells to her. Helena Swan suggests that ‘the best known of these is St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street’ and Roud tells us that the most famous of the Bridewells led to the naming of ‘a palace built between Fleet Street and the River Thames for Henry VIII (r. 1509-47), which eventually became a house of correction; the word “Bridewell” later became a generic term for a prison.’


To mark St. Brigid’s Day my daughter decided to make a peg doll like those paraded from house to house in Ireland in the Middle Ages. At the moment she is quite into making simple peg doll characters with blank craft pegs, scraps of tissue paper, fabric, ribbon and so on. Lately she has made an ice skater, a fairy princess, a bride and a medieval lady so St. Brigid has fallen happily in with them. Peg dolls are an inexpensive and absorbing activity for winter days and they can be made for almost any theme or topic from book characters, to fairies to members of your own family.


2nd of February was Candlemas, officially the commemoration of the Purificatio of the Virgin Mary after Christ’s birth and of the presentation of the Christ child at the temple at Bethlehem where he was prophesied over by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-29). Originally known as the Feast of St Mary the term ‘Candlemas’ crept in from around 1014. Roud records that:

The key element, which gives the day its popular name in English, was the preponderance of candles. These were blessed in the church and were carried in procession around the parish; they could also be seen blazing all around the building itself. This custom is based quite simply upon the idea of Christ lighting the way, shedding light on our darkness, and it is linked in particular to the words of Simeon, who held the baby Jesus and called him ‘A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of they people Israel’ (Luke 2:32).

The blessed candles were then considered to be especially lucky or magical with protective powers which persisted despite the Reformation. Other celebrations of the day  back in the Middle Ages might have included tableaux of the Biblical story of the Holy Family’s visit to the temple and Roud has recorded one contemporary relic of that custom at Blidworth in Nottighamshire where the parish church, St. Mary of the Purification, holds a ‘cradle rocking’ service with a symbolic laying in a cradle of a baby boy ‘born as near as possible to the previous Christmas Day’ who is then ‘rocked by the vicar while the thanksgiving is said’. Charmingly, ‘a plaque in the church records the names of all the babies who have been so honoured since the custom was inaugurated in 1922. Many authorities state that this is a revival of an ancient practice but they offer not evidence to support the claim.’

Roud also notes that Candlemas marked the day from which candles were no longer considered necessary during the working day and was the final end of Christmas. Like so mnay other English occasions, Candlemas weather was also eagerly noted for its prefiguring of future forecasts with differing opinions as to what it might mean although ‘the most common view was that the prevailing weather of the day predicted the opposite to come.’ Roud quotes a Devonshire rhyme from as late as 1900: ‘If Candlemas day be dry and fair/ The half of the winter is to come and mair/ If Candlemas day be wet and foul/ The half of the winter is gone at yule.’

My favourite Candlemas tradition, however, is passed on by Roud from a Huntingdonshire historian C. F. Tebbut who records a local belief that on ‘Badgers’ Day’ (aka Candlemas) hibernating badgers would peep out of their setts to take a look at, of focurse, the weather. If it was sunny and the shadow of their tales were visible the badger would go back inside, presumably also believing that the weather to come would be the opposite of the Candlemas weather being enjoyed that day.  Tebbut writes that, ‘There used to be a stuffed badger at the Chequers public house at Glatton,  specially set up because Badgers’ Day was also the landlord’s birthday.’

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On 3rd February we learned about St. Blaise’s Day. Roud tells us that Blaire ‘was believed to have been Bishop 0f Sebaste in fourth-century Armenia […] but stories of his martrydom and miracles are later inventions’ which is quite a relief because story has it that he was ‘tortured by being torn with iron combs’ and in a twist of adding-insult-to-injury-irony rather like that of the virginal St. Agnes’ association with predicting your future lover, he ‘was adopted as the patron saint of wool-combers’. Apparently woolcombers used to hold elaborate large-scale processions which Roud argues ‘presented a curious pastiche of a romanticised Bishop Blaize and characters drawn from the Greek story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, combined with local pride and national patriotism.’ The industrialistion of the woolcombing trade evebtually led to and end of the processions but some Catholic churches still remember Blaise on 3rd February, focusing on a more cheering event in his supposed hagiography: saving a boy who had a fishbone lodged in his throat. According to Roud and other sources those who suffer from throat complaints can receive a blessing from the priest who ‘holds two lighted candles, tied with a ribbon to form a cross, to the throat of the sufferer, and says a blessing along the lines of “May the Lord deliver you from the evil of the throat, and from every other harm.”‘ Roud and online sources also claim that St. Ethelreda’s Church in Holborn, still offer this blessing on 3rd February, Roud noting that this custom has lasted from 1876, but I could not find anything about it on St. Ethrelreda’s website although this isn’t surprising as the ‘News’ page hadn’t been updated since 2012! I was nearby on 3rd February visiting the Museum of London so if I had been feeling froggy I could have popped in on the off-chance, perhaps.

I feel a little bad that we haven’t managed to actually do very much to mark these later days but have really only learned a bit about them. I will try to pull my socks up! We are, however, making an English Year Calendar Tree to commemorate our year-long challenge and I will share that with you soon.


Voting for Women at the Museum of London

This weekend the Museum of London is hosting a fantastic weekend of celebration and workshops on the theme of Suffragettes and Women’s Rights. Starting today, the weekend will continue until 4pm tomorrow afternoon and offers – for free! – a vast range of different experiences and opportunities.

The Museum has a special exhibition showing a film about the Suffragettes featuring the reflections of many contemporary figures who stand today for women’s rights and human rights generally. They also have a number of artefacts on display including Emmeline Pankhurst’s Hunger Strike medal and Suffragette badges, jewellery and clothing. Visitors can find out the history of the movement and how the Vote for Women was slowly and painfully won.

All over the Museum were different activities going on throughout the day. We headed first to the Make More Noise Workshop, hosted by Nosy Crow publishers and writer Katherine Woodfine, where children could make Suffragette badges, use objects and photographs to inspire some creative writing of their own and have an Edwardian-style sepia photograph taken of them sporting their badges. The workshop was advertising a new anthology of stories about Suffragettes written for young women, Make More Noise, including the work of writers such as Woodfine, Jeanne Willis, Emma Carroll and many more. My daughter has been lying on the sofa reading it since we got home. The link is to Amazon but it’s better to go along to the Museum and buy your copy there; you might even be able to get it signed!

Then we went next door to the Banner-thon, part of the 100 Banners project: ‘To mark the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, the 100 Banners will be part of the national commemorations and be processed at the March4Women on March 4th from Parliament to Trafalgar Square, led by Helen Pankhurst, will feature at the Royal Albert Hall on International Women’s Day on March 8th, and at the WOW Festival at the Southbank on the 10th and 11th of March 2018.’

We were able to use different fabrics to create pennants while younger Suffragettes used very effective paint printing techniques and coloured pens to make their own banners. ‘Mrs Pankhurst’ and some of her sisters-in-arms gave a rousing speech and we all carried our banners on a Rally, singing Suffragette anthems, cheered by other museum visitors as we went. At the end of the March we heard speeches for and against the Votes for Women movement, accompanied by much cheering or booing and heckling as appropriate, as well as a brief history of how women’s rights have progressed since 1918 and what still remains to be won today. It was an exciting experience to be part of the March and Rally, even though they were mostly a reconstruction of similar rallies of the early 1900s; one can imagine how much more rousing and thrilling it must have been to be marching back then alongside other women all fighting for the same cause. My elder daughter absolutely loved it; she was cheering and waving her banner without shyness or self-consciousness. Dressed in purple, white and green she already looked the part!

We went to a storytelling session where we had the story of Sophia ‘The Suffragette Princess’ performed for us in the Pleasure Gardens Exhibit. My daughter wrote a Suffragette poem at the poetry workshop stand and played an amazing 3D version of ‘Pank-a-Squith’, originally a flat-board game sold in aid of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and poking fun at Mrs Pankhurst and the WSPU’s (Women’s Social and Political Union) continued skirmishes with the Prime Minister Lord Asquith. It was also hoped that the game would bring discussion of the ‘women question’ into people’s homes and families, igniting debate and support. The lady running the games sessions had turned the board game into a revolving tower structure while players spiraled up to reach a huge Houses of Parliament at the zenith dealing with imprisonment, politicians and other hazards as they marched on.

It was a full, exciting and inspiring day. We were so glad we went; if you have a chance go tomorrow and have a go yourselves!

Other books to read to learn more about the Suffragettes:

  • Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nichols. A fairly new book for older readers which tells of Evelyn’s immersion into the world of the suffragettes and their fight for freedom and of her own exploration of her sexuality.
  • Opal Plumstead by Jacqueline Wilson. As much a book about WWI as the Suffrage movement this is a sad story about how one girl is affected by the calatclysmic changes going on in England in the 1910s and how she faces them, stepping out of her father’s shadow and into a new life of thinking and working for herself.
  • The Suffragettes. A petite and inexpensive volume which brings together writings by and abut Suffragettes to provide a ‘potted history’.
  • My Story: Suffragette by Carol Drinkwater. A new centenary edition of Carol Drinkwater’s excellent book in the My Story series.
  • A Question of Courage by Marjorie Darke. This was on the English syllabus when I was at secondary school but appears to be out of print now. It tells the story of Emily who moves from Birmingham to London and becomes caught up in the Suffragette movement.
  • The Princess and the Suffragette by Holly Webb. This book is both a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and a story about Votes for Women. It follows Lottie, a pupil at Miss Minchin’s Academy where Sara Crewe’s story was set and her experiences in the world of fighting for suffrage.
  • My Best Friend the Suffragette by Sally Morgan. Published on 1st March this is a story for younger readers about Christine and Mary, two friends from families with differing views on the Woman Question.

Saint Charles the Martyr


30th January is the anniversary of the execution of the English King Charles I in 1649 following his defeat in the Civil War. Although the monarchy was restored in 1660 the removal and execution of a crowned King of England was an event that sent shock waves across Europe and down through the centuries that followed it. As Steve Roud writes in The English Year, ‘Almost immediately after his death he was portrayed as a martyr, and the day of his execution was included in the calendar of saints’ days in the Anglican Prayer Book from 1662.’ He was the last saint canonised by the Church of England leading to several churches being dedicated to him. Roud notes that ‘it was the custom in many places to commemorate his martyrdom with a muffled peal of bells.’


The eventual removal in 1859 from the Prayer Book of the prayers to be said to mark the anniversary of his death was abhorred by some who kept his memory sacred and in response the still-active Society of King Charles the Martyr was established in 1894. Its website declares:

He is honoured as a martyr because he died for the Church. He was offered his life if he would abandon episcopacy but he refused, for this would have taken the Church of England away from being part
of ‘the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ and change Her into a sect.

So we venerate him for his sacrifice and see in it inspiration for us today. S. Charles is a martyr for the doctrine of episcopacy and the apostolic succession.

The Society holds three commemorative events each year: the anniversary of Charles I’s birth, that of the Restoration of the Monarchy and, considered most important, 30th January. A service is held annually at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, London, on the site of the execution with a special Mass and the accompaniment of the choir of King’s College, London. The Society’s relics of the King are revered and placed on the altar as part f the service, a commemorative sermon is preached and special prayers are said. The Society believes it is essential that, hundreds of years later, we ‘REMEMBER’.

It would have been very interesting to take part in this service; I had no idea that it took place until Steve Roud told me about it! However, we had other commitments yesterday. My daughter has learned about Charles I and the events surrounding his execution but finds them, understandably, rather gloomy. Instead of reading more about him she decided to find out more about his daughter, Henrietta, sister of Charles II. We have just finished reading aloud Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, one of her favourites but a new experience for her sister. In Ballet Shoes, the eldest sister, Pauline, gets her big break playing the small role of Henrietta in a film and in preparing for the role is determined to find out all she can about the Princess. Even a quick read of Wikipedia’s entry for Henrietta reveals a complicated and sorrowful life marred by the execution of her father, her sister’s death from smallpox. three stillborn children, miscarriages and the death of her infant son but enlivened by a passion for art and literature, epistolary relationships with some of the most astounding writers and thinkers of the time and a love of gardening and horticulture. After all this, she was only 26 when she died, officially from some sort of gastroenteritis but possibly having been poisoned.

I’ll leave you with a rather disturbing hymn song sung by the Society and written by the Founder of the Society herself, The Honourable, Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent:

 “O Holy King, Whose Severed Head”
by The Honourable Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent,
Foundress of The Society of King Charles the Martyr;
Tune: St. Stephen (English Hymnal 337)

O holy King, whose severed head
The Martyr’s Crown doth ray
With gems for every blood-drop shed,
Saint Charles for England pray!

For England’s Church, for England’s realm
(Once thine in earthly sway),
Lest storms our Ark should overwhelm,
Saint Charles of England, pray!

Thou for thy murderers didst plead
That January day;
O still, in this our hour of need,
Saint Charles for England pray!

Let us with him whose crown is won,
Meet adoration pay
To God the Father, God the Son,
And Paraclete alway.

This is reproduced with thanks from the Society’s website.


Paul Pitcher Day and Watching the Weather: The Conversion of St. Paul

The 25th January is, of course, Burns’ Night and, Google reminded us today, Virginia Woolf’s birthday. It is also historically the day when the Church remembered the Conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus when he heard Christ’s voice and became a Christian.

According to our guide to The English Year, Steve Roud, the fun often began on 24th January, the ‘Eve of the Conversion of St. Paul’ when a variety of broken crockery-themed customs would be enjoyed, if that’s the right word… In Cornwall there was tradition of throwing stones at a water-pitcher until it lay in pieces, after which a new pitcher is produced from somewhere and carried to ‘a beer-shop to be filled with beer’. 24th January was known there as ‘Paul Pitcher Day.’ In other areas at the same sort of time (mid-to late 1800s) children would throw broken crockery (‘pieces of a “Paul’s Pitcher”‘) at neighbours’ doors and into their hall-ways. As pitchers do not feature in the story of St. Paul’s conversion it is rather a mystery why these customs developed. Roud notes it ‘has no obvious rational explanation, [and] is more commonly recorded as a Shrove Tuesday Custom.’

We were loathe to break perfectly functional pitchers or china or porcelain of any other description. Moreover, it was absolutely tipping down with rain all day which made the thought of messing around outside throwing mugs at doors even less appealing than usual. Instead we smashed a very old mug that had been used for paint water and gathered up all the little pieces of china and pottery we have collected on beaches over the years and made fairy stepping stones rather like these but looking more like these. Instead of concrete or polymer clay we used plaster of Paris, with a plastic lid as a mould.

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The plaster of Paris still in the plastic mould.

While the plaster was wet we pressed fragments of pottery into it and then left it to dry. You can then ease the plaster out of the flexible plastic mould. As the lids are rather large they are rather bigger than stepping stones but we can still incorporate them into a fairy garden in the summer.

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25th January, ‘St. Paul’s Day’ itself, is another that has become associated with weather predictions for the coming year. Good weather today was thought to mean a bountiful harvest would follow although Roud quotes the following from the Cornish Western Antiquary (1884) as an example of how the weather was sometimes thought to have further reaching implications:

If Paul’s Fair be fair and clear,

We shall have a happy year

But if it be both wind and rain

Dear will be all kinds of grain

If the winds do blow aloft

The wars will trouble this realm full oft

If clouds or mist do dark the sky

Great store of birds and beasts shall die.

DSC_0004 (3)So that’s cheering. In fact, here in South London we have had sun, blue sky, rain, clouds and wind so the year to come will no doubt be rather confusing. Having noted the weather we tried this condensation weather experiment from The Met Office in the afternoon. It is supposed to create ‘A Cloud in a Jar’ based on the cooling down of the warm water in the glass by the ice placed in a container above it. It did demonstrate condensation very effectively but we couldn’t get it produce an actual cloud, which was a little disappointing. Still, weather-wise we still have a lot of excitement to look forward to if St. Paul’s Day was any measure!




Sea-glass Sun-catchers for St. Vincent’s Day

It’s a truism that the English love to talk about the weather. We are mildly obsessed with it. We are continually watching it, discussing it and, more often than not, complaining about it. If it’s warm it’s usually too hot and if it’s cool it’s often ‘freezing’. We are always disgruntled by wind, rain, fog, clouds, heatwaves and almost everything else. It was not a surprise when the lady serving me at the supermarket this afternoon mentioned the weather but it made a pleasant change that she was pointing out how nice it was, albeit in relation to the foul weekend wind and rain we’ve just experienced.

It follows, then, that many even vaguely significant dates in the year have become imbued with certain superstitions about the weather. Our first of the year is today, 22nd January: St. Vincent’s Day. Like St. Wulfstan, whose almost defunct day we marked last week, St. Vincent is a previously popular Saint who has slipped down the holy charts and has been largely forgotten. Vincent of Saragossa was martyred in 304 AD but no-one can agree on exactly how he died except that it was (i) slowly and (ii) painfully.

Unfairly, perhaps, for poor Vincent, his Saint Day is now unremarked and, as Steve Roud notes in his round up of the day in The English Year, ‘In English tradition, his day is only remembered in weather predictions, most of which agree that sunshine augurs well for the year.’ Roud quotes a rhyme, hailing from Northumberland and published in 1904 by folklorist Mrs Balfour: ‘Remember on St. Vincent’s Day,/ if the sun his beams display/ Be sure to mark the transient beam,/ which through the casement shed a gleam/ For ’tis a token bright and clear/ of prosperous weather all the year.’

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In South London it has been mostly grey and cloudy today but there was a few minutes of blue sky and something that might be described as sunshine. But how ‘to mark the transient beam’? We decided to make sun-catchers to catch the ‘gleam’ while we can. To make sun-catchers like these all you need is some wire, beads and, if you have any, some pieces of sea-glass. The internet informs me that St. Vincent is the patron saint of vintners and vinegar-makers so it seems fitting to recycle bits of wine bottles (and beer bottles, and milk bottles…) to make these. We are always picking them up on the beach and saving them for some crafty purpose but we never seem to think of anything to do with them and, in fact, many of the pieces seem to have been lost over time, probably in the holiday packing! We used 0.8mm diameter silver plated wire and some beads from Hobbycraft along with our sea-glass. My daughter threaded the bead onto the wire and twisted the wire around the glass and some of the other beads. The top of the wire can then be twisted to attach it to the window or wherever you choose to hang it.

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