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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St. Agnes’ Eve and the Morning After

I think that people in the ‘olden days’ must have felt as flat after the Christmas festivities as we do now because they seem to have filled January with a whole load of things to distract them from the miserable cold weather and dearth of amusement.

St. Agnes

20th January is St. Agnes’ Eve with, of course, St. Agnes’ Day following on the 21st January. The very short life and prolonged death of the real St. Agnes is, whichever account you read, unremittingly grim so I will rely on Helena Swan’s slightly euphemistic 1900 account from her fascinating Girls’ Christian Names: Their History, Meaning and Association to give us the basics:

[…] the name is most likely derived from agnus, the Latin for lamb. The Greek adjective […] meaning sacred or pure, was the origin of the Latin word, and the lamb stands allegorically for the triumph of innocence. The first St. Agnes, to whose memory Constantine the Great built a church only a few years after her death (she is said to have cured Constantine’s daughter of a serious illness), is always represented in sacred art with a lamb by her side, emblematic of her purity. Constantine built his church over the spot where the Saint suffered martyrdom, and another church, dedicated to her, was built by Pope Innocent X, over the place of her burial. Her name became popular throughout Christendom wherever the history of her sufferings was known, and one legend after another was added to lend pathos to the story.

[…] She was the daughter of noble and wealthy Romans, and suffered martyrdom not long after the beginning of the persecutions under Diocletian: that Emperor’s cruel edicts were issued in A.D. 303. Agnes was only thirteen years old when she met her death. Extremely beautiful and very rich, her hand was sought in marriage by many of the young nobles of Rome, and especially by the son of Sempronius the Roman Governor; but Agnes had the same answer for all her suitors. She was wedded, she said, to Christ, and should never take an earthly spouse.

She was denounced as a Christian and reported. The Judge tried to persuade her to change her mind and eventually resorted to threatening her with all sorts of dire torture but Agnes was resolute and ‘without a visible tremor’. She refused to offer incense to Roman gods, making instead the sign of the cross. Swan continues that

at last one young profligate, Procopius, the son of a Roman Prefect, attempted to insult her, whereupon he was struck blind by a sudden flash of lightening, and fell to the ground; but St. Agnes, who was at the time singing hymns, prayed that his sight would be restored to him, and her prayer was heard, and Procopius returned to his own home a chastened and better man.

Unfortunately, this was not enough to save Agnes who was summarily executed, having heard her sentence ‘with transports of joy.’

She is said to have appeared to her mother eight days after death, surrounded by a band of angelic virgins, and clothes in a robe of golden cloth studded with precious stones, a garland of pearls and diamonds, and in her arms a snow-white lamb, and to have said, ‘Weep not for me, dear mother, as for the dead; but rather rejoice with exceeding joy that I reign with Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Most versions of this story are much more unpleasant and so it is astonishing that the English people of yesteryear managed to make St. Agnes’ Eve into, not only an occasion for a bit of fun but also, with stunning irony, into a celebration of future love and marriage. As Steve Roud (The English Year) points out, ‘we may think it would be more effective to appeal to someone who had shown some success in this area by having numerous husbands, but superstition doesn’t follow such logical patterns.’ Frankly, I think it’s fairly insulting to the memory of poor St. Agnes but many were convinced that she was more than happy to help women learn the identity of their future husband so long as they carried out the correct spells.

There are many different divinations one could carry out to reveal this secret, some of which Roud notes could just as correctly be performed at other significant times of the year such as Hallowe’en or Christmas Eve, including throwing hemp seed over your shoulder and making ‘Dumb Cakes’ to entice the wraith of your future betrothed to appear. ‘Dumb Cakes’ take their name from the necessary silence in which they must be prepared, although they are made in a group of several women and include, along with a 50:50 mixture of flour and salt, their urine.  These would be marked to tell whose was whose and set to bake in front of the fire, then sprinkled with salt and cut by the wraith of the future lover. They were then eaten, meaning that most were very, very small cakes. The particular divination for St. Agnes apparently required the woman to fast from midnight on that day until midnight on the 21st January, St. Agnes’ Day, and ensuring she did not reveal her intention to anyone. Then, at midnight on 21st, she would go to bed, lie on left side and repeat three times: ‘Saint Agnes is a friend to me/ In the gift I ask of thee/ Let me this night my husband see.’ Roud notes that, ‘Her dreams ought to about her future husband. If she should dream of more than one man, she would marry an indefinite number of times; if she does not dream of a man, she will never marry. The divination was very popular.’

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John Keats

Other versions of the spell seem to involve the woman lying down naked on her bed with her arms under her pillow and resisting all temptation to look behind her. The wraith of her future lover should then appear or she should dream about him and would share a feats and her should declare his love for her. It is this version that takes place at the crux of John Keats’ poem ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ which tells of two lovers who cannot be together because Madeline’s family hate that of Porphyro and wish him dead. On the Eve of St. Agnes Porphyro risks death to creep into the family palace and, with the help of the aged crone Angela, seeks out Madeline and finds her in time to watch unobserved as she undresses and lies down to dream of her future lover. Our hero whisks out some tasty treats from a handy cupboard and gently wakes Madeline who is at first stunned by the unfavourable comparison between the rather dashing Porphyro of her dreams and this ‘pallid, chill, and drear!’ actual man. Porphyro assures Madeline he is here to sweep her away to a safe home with him and ‘they glide, like phantoms’ from the palace and away to their happy ever after.

When it came to celebrating this traditional Saint’s Day at home as part of our English Traditions Challenge we had a few immediate problems. Firstly, as Christians, we don’t want to meddle with magic and spells, even for fun. This seems to be something that Christians have previously managed to reconcile with their faith (except when it might be withcraft!) but we aren’t prepared to. Moreover, I am married and a ten- and an eight-year-old don’t need to concern themselves with finding a husband just yet. Feasts and Festivals blog has a very exotic-looking recipe for Frangipan Tart with Crystallised Fruit and Apricots in celebration of the delicious feast prepared by Porphyro in Keats’ poem which, annoyingly, the couple neither seem to tuck into nor take with them for the road. However, my fussy children wouldn’t thank me for such a dainty dish, liking neither apricots nor crystallised fruit.

I was intrigued to discover that the English department at Northwestern University in the US have been holding an annual St. Agnes’ Eve Party for over forty years now. A party held for someone’s birthday happened to fall upon St. Agnes’ Eve and the hostess included a ‘dramatic reading’ of the poem as party of the celebrations. The following year some of the initial party-goers felt like throwing a party and, needing an excuse, decided ‘that St. Agnes’ Eve party last year had been great – why not continue the tradition?’ Rather than reading the poem again they invited guests to draw scenes from the poem and ‘that’s how it all started!’ Each year the party is held but the detail is kept a secret until the night itself. Over the years they have celebrated the poem in all sorts of creative ways from play-doh to designing a website, writing a limerick or haiku based on the poem to charades, a crossword puzzle to writing a children’s book. That sounded like something we could do, although not strictly a reprise of English tradition.

Here we came up against our third problem. My younger daughter is currently laid low with the flu. She is sneezing, her eyes are streaming, her head aches and she is off her food. She is very definitely not in a party mood. In the end my elder daughter and I read the poem together and decided to have a low-key ‘party’ with Italian food (a rather facetious salute to St. Agnes’ Roman origins) and lamb-themed cakes and biscuits.

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Mozzarella, asparagus and banana pizza: the Best Pizza in the World

I made some ordinary fairy cakes using Delia Smith’s All-in-One Sponge Cake recipe but substituting the the vanilla extract for a tablespoon of cocoa powder and replacing the caster sugar with soft dark brown sugar for a richer flavour. I topped them with basic icing sugar and water icing and then stuck on mini marshmallows for the wool and used pre-coloured icing (left over from a multi-pack we bought for the Twelfth Night Cake) for the lamb’s face.

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My daughter is not a fan of cake so she bought some rich tea biscuits and used them as a base for her marshmallow lambs. They are quite silly but much preferable to Dumb Cake!

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St. Wulfstan’s Day


As part of our Home School English Traditions Challenge we have reached the somewhat stumping St. Wulfstan’s Day, 19th January. St. Wulfstan is an example of a saint who was big in his day but who has rather fallen out of the limelight in recent centuries!

The Diocese of Shrewsbury website tells us that Wulfstan was born in around 1009 in Long Itchington, Warwickshire, and later became a Benedictine monk, having been educated by the Benedictines at Evesham. Wulfstan sought out the spiritual leadership of the Bishop of Worcester, Brihteah, who ordained him and directed him into the role of teaching children until he became prior and then Bishop of Worcester in his turn in 1062 although he was reluctant to take up these roles. Wulfstan actually held his position through the Norman Conquest, probably because he was one of the first of the Anglo-Saxon bishops to recognise William I as King, although the Diocese of Shrewsbury recounts a more exciting version of the story:

‘St Wulfstan was one of the few Saxons to retain his see after the Conquest. Some writers, such as Bowden, have attributed this to a miracle said to have occurred at a Westminster synod where he was ordered to surrender his crosier and ring.

The saint protested that he had received his office from St Edward by the authority of the Holy See and to him alone would resign it. He then placed his crosier on the king’s tomb, saying: “Take this, my master, and deliver it to whom you will.”

No-one was able to dislodge the crosier from the tomb, however, and St Wulstan was able to retrieve it with his episcopal authority.

Afterwards the Conqueror recognised St Wulfstan’s worth and treated him with respect and trust, with the reforming Archbishop Lanfranc commissioning him to make a visitation of the Diocese of Chester as his deputy.’

Wulfstan was renowned for his purity which led him to keep vigils all night in the Cathedral and to chastise himself spiritually when he felt that he had failed to meet his own high standards. The Diocese of Shrewsbury relates that he was crushed to have put himself into the path of temptation by watching a dancing woman and how he became a vegetarian after the smell of a roast dinner distracted him at Mass. He had a reputation as a healer and so powerful was his preaching that it ‘was said to have often moved people to tears’ while his concern and care for the poor led to him establishing a topsy-turvy dining tradition whereby the rich priory school pupils would wait upon their social inferiors. This determination to make some attempt to begin to redress social injustice was surely behind his reported crusade against the slave trade that had been rife in Bristol where young men were often abducted and sold into slavery in Ireland.  He also took an active role in the defense of Worcester Castle during an uprising of Barons against William I in 1074 and a Welsh attack under William II.

Wulfstan seems to have been a fascinating combination of fiery social activist and exemplary, humble purity so it is little surprise that he remained ‘a very popular saint in the Middle Ages’, as Steve Roud records, noting that ‘King John thought enough of him to request to be buried between his and St. Oswald’s tomb, at Worcester’. Wulfstan had been very involved in replacing the old Anglo-Saxon Cathedral at Worcester with a new building, most of which has now itself been rebuilt, and had been buried there after his death in 1095. The miraculous healing of pilgrims to his tomb resulted in his canonisation in 1203 and ‘pilgrimages in his name persisted at least until the turn of the eighteenth century’, according to Roud. Since then, however, he has fallen almost entirely into oblivion although Worcester Cathedral still remembers him at memorial services every few years and they chose 2008 in which to celebrate his 1000th Anniversary, which makes 2018 his 1010th Anniversary!

How to commemorate this special occasion? We can say the Collect for his Saint Day:

Lord God,
who raised up Wulfstan to be a bishop among your people
and a leader of your Church:
help us, after his example,
to live simply,
to work diligently,
and to make your kingdom known;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We also thought that we would remember his spirit of self-denial by doing some vegetarian cookery. My elder daughter has done a bit of cooking as part of her home education today and, while its not a not very Anglo-Saxon recipe, she has prepared rice and lentil burgers with cajun potato wedges! Happy 1010th birthday, Wulfstan!

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Lentil and Rice Burgers (serves 4)

1/2 cup dried lentils; 1/2 cup brown rice, 1 small onion, finely chopped; 1 clove garlic, crushed, several sprigs fresh coriander, finely chopped; 1/2 tbsp soy sauce; 1/4 tsp yeast extract; 30g semolina; flour and oil for frying.

Cook the lentils and rice according to packet instructions/how you usually do it. Gently fry the onion and garlic in a little oil until soft and then mix it with the coriander in a small bowl. Add the cooked rice and lentils, the soy sauce, yeast extract and semolina. Mix well and leave to cool. Then shape the mixture into burgers and coat lightly in flour. Shallow fry them on both sides until browned. Serve in your choice of bun. I like a brioche bun but my daughters are fans of ciabatta rolls.

(Adapted from a recipe by Abbie Crathern published in Snappy Veggie Cooking with The Mollster by Viva!, 2005.)

Cajan Potato Wedges (serves 3 or 4)

4 medium to large potatoes; 1 tbs oil; 2 tbs brown breadcrumbs; 1 clove garlic, crushed; 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper; 1/2 tsp cumin; 1/2 tsp paprika; 1 heaped tsp freshly-ground black pepper; 1 heaped tsp fresh thyme leaves; sea salt to taste.

Pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7/425F.

Cut the potatoes into 6-8 pieces lengthwise. Dry them and place in a large boil, add the oil and toss well. Mix the other ingredients in a small bowl then add to the potatoes and coat well. Play in a baking dish or similar container in a single layer. Bake for about 25-35 minutes until crisp and cooked through. Serve with the burgers above and a salad or some cooked vegetables.

(Recipe by Anna Bradley published in Snappy Veggie Cooking with The Mollster by Viva!, 2005.)

The Tooth Fairy

On Sunday my younger daughter lost a tooth. It wasn’t her first by any means but there is always excitement and the anticipation of a visit from the Tooth Fairy. Coincidentally I had just read a brief account of the history of the Tooth Fairy in the British Isles in Steve Roud’s Monday’s Child is Fair of Face: And Other Traditional Beliefs About Babies and Motherhood, a brief but interesting exploration of superstitions surrounding the whole baby ‘process’ from conception to what is now known as ‘early years’. As my daughter put her tooth in a little box and left it on the windowsill for the convenience of the busy Tooth Fairy I thought I would find out a bit more about that hardworking sprite.

Steve Roud dates the Tooth Fairy’s arrival in the UK to sometime in the 1920s when ‘some people began to say that the fairies took away any lost teeth (leaving a coin in lieu), and this explanation gradually gained ground […] until the rapid spread of the now ubiquitous Tooth Fairy’ but argues that the Tooth Fairy as a single and distinct entity was only ‘imported to Britain in the 1960s, probably from America’. Wikipedia’s entry for the Tooth Fairy notes that in the US a mention of the Tooth Fairy can be found as early as 1908 when one of the Chicago Tribune’s ‘Household Hints’ suggested that:

Many a refractory child will allow a loose tooth to be removed if he knows about the tooth fairy. If he takes his little tooth and puts it under the pillow when he goes to bed the tooth fairy will come in the night and take it away, and in its place will leave some little gift. It is a nice plan for mothers to visit the 5 cent counter and lay in a supply of articles to be used on such occasions. Lillian Brown.

One can imagine the mothers of Chicago reacting to the Tooth Fairy in much the same way as modern parents to the Elf on the Shelf or Christmas Eve Boxes: either enthusiastic planning or an exhausted sigh at the thought of yet more work and financial outlay!

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Unlike Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny, other benign and generous characters said to visit multitudes of children to leave a special gift pertaining to a particular event, the Tooth Fairy has remained a shadowy figure as Michael Hingston points out in his Salon article ‘Don’t tell the kids: The real history of the tooth fairy’ (9th Februray 2014), probably because there is no religious tradition attached to her (or him!) and because she has not been developed and settled by a major advertising campaign.

Prior to the Tooth Fairy’s twentieth century popularity there were many other customs and superstitions surrounding the loss of baby teeth. Wikipedia claims that the Vikings paid children for their teeth, for instance, while Steve Roud notes that even well into the 1950s British children were encouraged to burn their teeth. Originally this was a protection against witchcraft, partly because if a witch got hold of a person’s tooth, nails, hair or other detached body part, they could use it in spells to do that person harm or gain control over them. Sprinkling the tooth with salt and then throwing it into the fire was considered a doubly effective security against witchy hazards. Into the 1950s teeth were still being burned as it was apparently preferable to risking bad luck from losing the relic.

Roud also notes that the folklorist Edward Lovett was aware of a varying the custom, that of hanging baby teeth around the neck of teething infants as some kind of sympathetic magic, the idea being that it would ease the pain of cutting teeth. Well into the twentieth century girls might save their own teeth for future grizzly babies they might produce. In other cultures wearing teeth was thought to bring luck or physical or magical protection.

All over the world there have been many other different customs and superstitions ranging from throwing the tooth (sometimes either up or down, depending on whether it was an upper or lower tooth, and sometimes throwing it to the sun or a specific deity), swallowing it or burying it. Most of these are to do with ensuring that the new adult teeth grow in strong and straight or to ensure good luck or blessings. A repeated theme across the globe, however, is that of leaving the tooth for a mouse or a rat. In Spain and Hispanic cultures the mouse is a character called Ratoncito Perez or, sometimes El Raton de los Dientes, who collects teeth from the under the pillow and leaves a small present as a reward. In some cultures the tooth is left by a mouse hole instead. Wikipedia notes that in Italy the mouse is known as ‘Topolino’ and in France and parts of Belgium as ‘La Petite Souris’ and that he is known even closer to home in the Scottish Lowlands as a fairy rat who takes teeth and leaves coins. Wikipedia also suggests that the mouse or rat has become associated with this role because, not only does it have strong teeth, but that its teeth continue to grow throughout its life and so it is hoped that sympathetic magic will endow the child’s new tooth with the same strength and longevity. Hingston’s Salon article points out that other strong-teethed animals are sometimes substituted, such a beavers or dogs.

Somewhere along the line, however, in the USA and, later in the UK, the mouse fairy morphed into a fairy with human likeness and wings. Hingston credits Esther Watkins Arnold for the first reference in print in the form of The Tooth Fairy: Three-act playlet for children; as we have seen, other mentions of her in print and, undoubtedly in oral media, existed prior to that but this can be seen as another example of how the Tooth Fairy was being shaped very gradually into a recognised character. Nonetheless, as I mentioned above, the Tooth Fairy remained rather liminal and protean for many years. Eventually, in the 1980s Rosemary Wells conducted an exhaustive study of the background and current cultural forms of the Tooth Fairy which became so extensive and engaging that she finally established a museum devoted to the dental diva herself. Wikipedia summarises Wells work thus:

A 1984 study conducted by Rosemary Wells revealed that most, 74 percent of those surveyed, believed the tooth fairy to be female, while 12 percent believed the tooth fairy to be neither male nor female and 8 percent believed the tooth fairy could be either male or female. When asked about her findings regarding the tooth fairy’s appearance, Wells explained – ‘You’ve got your basic Tinkerbell-type tooth fairy with the wings, wand, a little older and whatnot. Then you have some people who think of the tooth fairy as a man, or a bunny rabbit or a mouse.’ One review of published children’s books and popular artwork found the tooth fairy to also be depicted as a child with wings, a pixie, a dragon, a blue mother-figure, a flying ballerina, two little old men, a dental hygienist, a potbellied flying man smoking a cigar, a bat, a bear and others. Unlike the well-established imagining of Santa Claus, differences in renderings of the tooth fairy are not as upsetting to children.

I found Playmobil’s version of the Tooth Fairy very reminiscent of Disney’s Tinkerbelle but there are not very many Tooth fairy dolls available and those that are tend to be produced by slightly smaller, less well-known brands rather than the biggest household name toy manufacturers.

Hingston argues:

The tooth fairy, then, is thought to be a uniquely American cross-pollination of two preexisting figures: the mouse that sneaks into a child’s bedroom and performs the cash-for-teeth swap, and the general “good fairy,” a traditionally European figure that slowly made its way over the Atlantic. It’s no coincidence that at the same time the tooth fairy was starting to gain traction in the United States, Disney was also releasing animated films like “Pinocchio” and “Cinderella” — each of which features a benevolent, maternal fairy with the power to make wishes come true. Pop culture helped solidify the tooth fairy in the mainstream, and she’s been a fixture there ever since: in dozens of children’s books, in specialized pillows (complete with tooth-holding pocket)…

Product DetailsA quick search for books related to ‘the tooth fairy’ on Amazon brings up a respectable list of options; there is even a book which combines the Tooth Fairy myth with her older and wiser Hispanic colleague, The Tooth Fairy Meets El Raton Perez by Rene Colato Lainez and, of course, there is a Rainbow Magic Fairies story, Tamara the Tooth Fairy. Even so, in our household we have not actually read very many Tooth Fairy books and the Tooth Fairy has remained someone who exists less as an external and pre-defined figure and more as my children have imagined her, guided in some ways, probably, by the notes that the Tooth Fairy has left for them in response to their own letters and drawings. I remember being very excited when, as a six-year-old my tooth fell out while I was on our family summer holiday in Wales. The Tooth Fairy left me a little note written in jagged writing, like the edges of new teeth, and hid twenty pence for me in the plastic box that held a porcelain thimble souvenir I had bought that week. I also remember the Tooth fairy forgetting to come. My elder daughter dropped her first ever lost tooth; it rolled away somewhere in the dining room and despite a good two hours of hunting it was never found. The Tooth Fairy left a charming note assuring her that she had found it after all. My younger daughter once swallowed her tooth while eating a chocolate digestive biscuit; the Tooth Fairy never recovered that one… And, yes, once the Tooth Fairy forgot to visit here, too.

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I think that the fact that Tooth Fairy is, for many children, a character they have individualised is a good thing; it feeds the imagination and allows them to create their own strand of the myth in their own family. Nonetheless, I am surprised that she has been less frequently engaged by brands for their advertising purposes. Raconito Perez has been adopted by a toothpaste manufacturer in the past but our own Tooth Fairy hasn’t sold out.

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A swapping, swapping mallard!


Oxford University is known for its archaisms and and eclectic humour but few of its traditions are so odd as that of Hunting the Mallard, a sort of caucus race of a hunt around the prestigious All Souls’ College led by an elected Lord Mallard.  This rather mystifying event used to take place annually on 14th January but is now only held every century. The last Hunt took place in 2001 so there is quite a wait until the next one.


Steve Roud in his The English Year describes the Lord Mallard and six other elected officials leading the hunt carrying torches and ‘white staves and wear special medals on which the bird is depicted’. Apparently, the Lord Mallard carried a wooden pole with a wooden mallard attached to the end which was originally a stuffed bird. There is no real mallard to be found but the procession of Fellows dutifully hunt him all over the College for several hours whilst singing the Mallard Song, a song which is also carolled at the College’s Gaudy and Busar’s Dinner. Wikipedia records the Mallard Song as follows:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon
Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on
And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,
But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.
Hough the bloud of King Edward,
By ye bloud of King Edward,
It was a swapping, swapping mallard!
Some storys strange are told I trow
By Baker, Holinshead & Stow
Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things
That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.
The Romans once admir’d a gander
More than they did theire best Commander,
Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,
The place named from ye Scull of Tolus.
The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,
But lett them prove it if they can.
To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:
Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.
Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;
His swapping tool of generation
Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.
Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard
in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,
And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,
Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.


‘Swapping’ here means something like the modern slang ‘whopping’, suggesting the noted Mallard is an impressive duck!

Roud dates the Hunt to at least 1623 when Archbishop Abbott, the contemporary Archbishop of Canterbury, complained in a letter that the Fellows were making fools of themselves as well as causing mindless damage to the College itself in the ‘pretence of a foolish mallard’. Roud goes on to explain:

The connection between the bird and the college is explained by the legend that a mallard of great size was discovered when the foundations were laid in 1437, but it seems more likely that the custom stemmed from what originally has been a students’ joke.

I was up at Oxford in 2001 but sadly no one thought to invite me to the momentous event!

How to commemorate Hunting the Mallard seventeen years late and in a house in suburban South London, though…? As a two-year-old my younger daughter had a bit of a fondness for ducks herself so we happened to have a furry mallard upstairs in a cupboard and in fact I had to do a little gentle hunting in order to locate him. When pressed on the chest region he quacks obligingly. We sellotaped him to to a garden cane and my daughter took the role of Lord Mallard in an abbreviated procession around the house singing the chorus of the Mallard Song. Okay, incredibly silly but no one can argue that the original event is anything other than ridiculous!

As a more sensible celebration of the tradition we decided to make our own clay ducks. We topped up our supply of Das Air-Drying Clay and got to work, leaving the ducks to dry overnight so that they were ready for painting with acrylic paints on Sunday afternoon.


We also made them a rather low-effort habitat on a tray with some card and stones. A perfect activity for a dark, chilly evening.


St Hilary’s Day: children’s winter reading

The 13th January is St Hilary’s Day and is traditionally the coldest day of the year in England. Most people probably know very little about St Hilary who, having converted to Christianity, was Bishop of Poitiers in France and lived some time around c.310-c.367. Theological dispute seems to have led to his being exiled for almost four years but he remained a vigorous Christian and theological writer during this time before returning to Poitiers and resuming leadership. As Steve Roud points out in The English Year ‘he would hardly be remembered in England if not for the accident that his feat day occurred around the beginning of one of the four terms of the Law Courts and some older universities’. And, indeed, having been at University for ‘Hilary Term’ for three years I never gave a thought to whom Hilary might have been. (Actually, the name always reminds me of ‘celery’, even though it actually comes from the Latin word for cheerful or happy which is rather lovely.)

Alli Esiri writes in her collection A Poem for Every Day of the Year that the reputation of St Hilary’s Day as the coldest day of the year dates back to ‘a great frost of 1086, but it is the big freeze of 1205 that cemented the day’s reputation. The weather was so icy that people held frost fairs, and even the River Thames froze over’.

So, on 13th January we have a combination of extreme cold and a prolific writer which means that the perfect way to mark the day is snuggle down with a book or three. If you don’t fancy having a bash at some of St Hilary’s oeuvre then here are some other suggestions just right for a chilly winter’s night:

  • Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome. We have just finished reading this one aloud having worked our way through the first three books in the series. It is full of snow, frozen lakes, sledges, skates, ‘igloos’ and holing up in an ice bound ship to plan an expedition to the ‘North Pole’. As an educational extra my daughter enjoyed learning more about Nansen and his ship, the Fram, and the attempt to reach the North Pole.
  • Then explore the Antarctic with Shackleton in Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill, an elaborate and detailed illustrated book.
  • Winter Magic by Abi Elphinstone. A collection of wintery stories by popular contemporary children’s writers; something for everyone!
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford. A frosty mystery story to enthrall and entertain on a dark night.
  • What is better on a winter’s night than a fairy tale? Another Hilary, Hilary McKay recently published a spell-binding collection of retellings of popular Fairy Tales. They are imaginative, clever, written in sparkling language with humour and sensitivity. The Cinderella is our favourite version of all time! The chapters are also available a individual e-books.
  • A Year Full of Stories: 52 Folk Tales and Legends from Around the World by Angela McAllister has a ‘wintertime’ story for January, a retelling of the German story The Magic Porridge Pot, one I remember well as a child thanks to a Ladybird edition of the story.
  • On 13th January I am going to reread Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this time choosing Simon Armitage’s translation of the Middle English text, written to be read aloud. The ancient story is set at winter time and combines Arthurian legend, English landscape, a challenge and a joke.

Keep warm and keep a few books handy! Hot chocolate works well, too…