Ancient feasts and festivals still living on

It’s amazing how many remnants of ancient festivals and feasts still remain as part of the UK’s cultural life and mores – somewhat altered over the years perhaps, sometimes almost unrecognisably so, but there nonetheless.

 

As many of these events, particularly those of an agricultural bent, have their origins in the cycles of nature though, I guess it’s not entirely surprising that they’ve clung on, often by their fingertips. While most of us, sadly, have lost touch with the land, we’re hopefully not too far removed from her just yet to recognise her ancient ways and understand their significance, albeit superficially.

 

And as if to prove the point, the church at Thaxted, a picturesque little town not far from my home base of Saffron Walden in north Essex, held a traditional service dating back to medieval times a couple of Sundays ago to celebrate the start of the agricultural year. Called ‘Plough Sunday’, it’s always held on the Sunday after the Epiphany, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on 6 January.

 

Plough Sunday
Plough Sunday

In medieval times, the festivities consisted of the whole village bringing its sole ploughshare into church for a clerical blessing. But by Victorian times, when the tradition was revived, many farmers owned their own ploughs and so a representative one was chosen to stand in for the rest. Modern day tractors, meanwhile, are generally seen to outside – for obvious reasons.

 

But although the implements may have changed, the ceremony itself is still about praying for a good growing season and successful harvest, and is often accompanied by other rural customs such as Morris dancing. After the blessing, the plough was traditionally hauled through the village by a procession of people led by a Fool and a ‘Betsy’ – a young boy dressed up as a woman – who collected money from anyone they met and stopped at as many pubs as possible along the route in order to commandeer a drink.

 

And ‘Betsy’, it seems, is linked to a cross-dressing tradition relating to Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night marked the end of a medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and finished at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Anyway, the following day was Plough Monday, the first day back at work for farming folk after the Christmas break. But Plough Sunday wasn’t the only agricultural church feast on the annual celebratory calendar.

 

Rogation days

 

Next on the list were Rogation days – the major one being held on 25 April and the minor ones on the Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday. Rogation apparently comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare’, which means to ask – in this case farmers asking God to protect their crops.

 

Interestingly though, it is thought that the origins of the major rogation day go back as far as Roman times. It was then that the feast of Robigalia was held and a dog sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, a god whose job it was to protect the corn from nasty diseases.

 

The minor days, on the other hand, were introduced in AD 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in south-eastern France, before being officially adopted by the Catholic Church. First arriving on British shores in the 12th or 13th century, they were originally supposed to be days of quiet fasting and abstinence to prepare for the Ascension – although they later appeared to descend into raucous days of drunken revelry, much to the Church’s displeasure.

 

Mamertus
Mamertus

Farmers also took the opportunity to have their crops blessed once again, while another popular ceremony involved “beating the bounds”. Here parishioners indulged themselves in yet another procession, but this time around the boundaries of the parish.

 

Led by the priest, his church warden and the choirboys, they prayed for the parish to be protected over the coming year – a habit derived from the Roman festival apparently, which saw revellers walking to an out-of-town grove of trees to perform sacred rites.

 

Anyway, the next big feast of the agricultural church year is Lammas, the first traditional harvest festival of the year. Although of equally pagan bent, Lammas has much more of a Celtic flavour and took place on 1 August.

 

The word ‘Lammas’ itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘half-mas’ or ‘loaf-mass’ to represent the loaf of bread made from the new crop of wheat, which began to be harvested at that time. But the festival was originally known as Lughnasadh in Ireland at least after Lugh, the Sun King and god of Light. In England, he was also known as John Barleycorn, the harvest god and living spirit of the grain.

 

The idea was that as the corn was cut down, so was John Barleycorn. By sacrificing himself, the community would devour him in the form of bread and live on. But because his essence was in the seeds, he was reborn the following year as a new crop, the first and last sheaf of which were considered vital.

 

Harvest festivals

 

As a result, the first sheaf was always ceremonially cut at dawn and baked into the Harvest Bread, which was shared by the community in thanks. The last sheaf, which was treated with equal respect, was made into corn dollies and carried to the village.

 

Here they were given ribbons and clothes and transformed into corn maidens following a good harvest or old crones after a bad one. They would be kept above the hearth in people’s home to ensure a good crop the next year, when they were ploughed into the first furrow of the new spring season.

 

Apparently started by the Anglo-Saxons, the custom was based on the belief that the last sheaf held the spirit of the corn. So it was sacrificed, along with a hare (considered a creature of Eostre, the goddess of Spring and rebirth after whom Easter is named. Her symbol was a hare and she apparently turned into one at each full moon) that had been hiding in the crop somewhere. As time went on, the sacrificing stopped though and little hares were made out of straw instead, before morphing over time into the aforementioned corn dollies.

 

Eostre's hare
Eostre’s hare

Anyway, last but not least is the second Harvest festival of the year (the third being Samhain on 31 October), which is held on the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon – the full one that occurs around the time of the autumn equinox on 22 or 23 September. Also known as Michaelmas due to the cult of St Michael the Archangel (the one who fought against Lucifer and his evil band of angels), which took hold during the 5th century, it is associated with the start of autumn.

 

But because Michaelmas is the time that darker nights and cold days begin, its celebration was about invoking the Archangel’s protection over the months to come, darkness being associated with the growing strength of negative forces.

 

Sometimes also called “Goose Day”, it was traditional to eat a well-fattened bird fed on the stubble from the newly-harvested fields in order to protect against penury over the year ahead. Goose fairs were common too and, in fact, Nottingham still holds one each year in early October.

 

But in Protestant households at least, the custom of Michaelmas mostly came to an end when King Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church, and the feast duly morphed into Harvest Festival. Here people went to church to sing hymns and give thanks, taking baskets of fruit and veg from their farms and gardens, which were then given to the poor.

 

And so, as truly amazing as it may seem, many of these ancient customs have remained with us throughout the centuries, somewhat altered over the years maybe, but carried with us nonetheless.

 

 

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Poppies: Lest we forget

It’s amazing just how much symbolism can be attached to plants without most us even being particularly aware of it.

 

Take the poppy, for instance. The first thing that springs to mind for many of us, particularly around Remembrance Day on 11 November, is the little paper flower sold by The Royal British Legion on street corners. The charity’s aim in selling it is to raise money to look after serving and ex-servicemen and women plus dependents in need of financial and other support – an activity that it’s been involved in since 1921.

 

But while the poppy may be a motif that we all know, it wasn’t actually the UK that first appropriated it as an emblem of remembrance/the fallen, hope/rebirth, war/death (delete as applicable). It was in fact one Moina Michael, a US-based professor at the University of Georgia who began making and selling a silk version of the flowers after war had ended in 1918 to raise money for wounded armed forces’ veterans.

 

She had read and been moved by the now famous First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written by Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, after it was printed anonymously in the UK’s Punch magazine and reprinted around the world. Although up for debate, it is most commonly held that McCrae wrote the work on losing a friend in Ypres in Belgium while tending to the sick, after seeing a carpet of beautiful corn poppies growing in the churned mud of combat-scarred fields.

Poppy field
Poppy field

As apt coincidence would have it, blood red poppies were one of the few plants resilient enough to grow in the otherwise barren battlefields, representing in the process nature’s endless cycle of birth, life, death and renewal. And so these simple but poignant flowers came to represent the ultimate sacrifice made by those who perished in what US President Woodrow Wilson had idealistically named the “war to end all wars” – as well as the seemingly endless conflicts that have, unfortunately, followed since.

 

Funnily enough though, despite being such a poignant emblem for many Brits, the now iconic red poppy that was assigned its meaning by a Canadian and marketed by an American, was actually first brought to our shores via a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. She had worked with Moina Michael in the US and persuaded Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and president of the British Legion, to adopt the flower as the organisation’s symbol – which on recognising its fundraising potential, he duly did.

 

But that is not to say the poppy hasn’t been without its critics. While for some the flower is all about family memories and the sacrifice of venerated ancestors, for others it is a symbol of death and support for war, of British nationalism, of oppression, abuse and atonement still to be made.

 

So it isn’t to everyone’s taste – despite the pressure to conform and wear one, particularly among those in the public eye. This scenario has led to widespread claims of “poppy fascism”, something you’d have thought was the last thing our late warriors would have wanted.

 

Political symbol?

 

So given the mixed feelings about the emblem, which like everything else these days seems to split the country, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the poppy, which has been classed as a political symbol by international football association FIFA, has been banned for use on the pitch.

 

The matter so incensed the English and Scottish football associations though that they chose to defy the ruling. Sending their teams out wearing black armbands embellished with the forbidden image on Armistice (Remembrance or Poppy) Day anyway, they vowed to contest the likely fine.

 

But it’s a testament to just how important these everyday symbols unconsciously are to all of us that, even in today’s prosaic age, wearing an apparently harmless flower can still cause so much angst. Interestingly though, the symbolic meaning of poppies has changed little throughout the ages. Often associated with ephemeral pleasures, sleep and oblivion, they have also been emblematic of new life and bloodshed since Ancient Egypt.

 

One of the most popular garden plants of the time along with cornflowers and mandrakes, in a culture that held to the Hermetic tenet “As above, so below” (because everything is interconnected, what you do as an individual will affect the heavenly spheres too and vice versa), they were also used in funereal tributes to the dead who, after a suitable rest, would be resurrected in the next life.

Demeter
Demeter

But the poppy was no less symbolic in Ancient Greece. At that time, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest, had her beautiful daughter Persephone stolen by Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, while out gathering flowers. Demeter, who was grief-stricken, searched for her daughter in vain, but as her unhappiness mounted, the crops began to suffer.

 

So to ease her pain and help lull her to sleep, poppies started growing at her feet. In fact, the Greek name for the flower to this day is still ‘nepenthes’, which means ‘potent destroyer of grief’.

 

While Demeter slept, Zeus, god of the sky and king of the gods living on Mount Olympus, visited Hades and persuaded him to allow Persephone to return to earth from the underworld for two thirds of the year. During that time, she would live with her mother, who would make the fields fertile again. But on going back to the underworld at the end of summer, the earth would grow cold and barren again reflecting Demeter’s winter grief.

 

So in this way, poppies came to be associated with regeneration, activity after sleep and the renewal of life, while their abundant seed heads represented fertility and the gift of life. Which is all very apt really – whether you celebrate Poppy Day or not.

 

 

Halloween trick-or-treating: Who’s fault is it anyway?

It’s always struck me as a pretty shrewd move on the part of Nature to try and compensate for bringing an end to bright, summer warmth and inflicting chilly autumn darkness on us all by putting on an amazing display of colour.

 

It’s certainly one way to limit the moaning from people such as myself anyway as we brace ourselves for the latest round of hibernal horrors. But after a particularly warm September and October, the trees have been late to turn this year, although some pretty yellows and the odd splash of red are finally starting to make their presence felt.

 

Autumn trees
Autumn trees

So a blog carried in the latest newsletter from the Woodland Trust, a conservation charity of which I’m a member, explaining not only why the leaves of deciduous trees change colour, but also why some autumns provide better spectacles than others, struck me as rather timely.

 

In a nutshell, leaves have three pigments consisting of chlorophyll, which is green; carotenes, which are yellow and orange, and anthocyanins, which are red, pink and purple. As the days become shorter, chlorophyll production slows down and eventually stops, which allows the yellows and oranges to become visible for the first time.

 

A layer of corky cells then form across the base of the leaf stalk in preparation for shedding, which restricts the movement of sugars back to the main part of the tree. After becoming concentrated in the leaf, these sugars eventually convert into anthocyanins, giving it a more red-y hue.

 

As to what influences the variety and intensity of these autumn colours, on the other hand, that’s apparently determined by the weather conditions. Cloudy and rainy autumn days tend to lead to a more muted palette. But a combination of sunny days, cold, rather than freezing, nights, and dry weather, especially if we’ve been lucky enough to have a dry summer too, are the secret to a breath-taking show.

 

As a final, little aside though, the reason that trees shed their leaves anyway is to enable them to preserve moisture in their trunk and branches, which stops them from drying out and dying. Being without leaves also moves them into a state of dormancy, which means they need less energy to remain alive during the cold and dark winter months – a state of being that I can completely relate to as it’s not hugely different from my own during the dread winter season.

 

Anyway, at least we’ve got spooky spiders, gurning, glowing Jack O’Lanterns and sticky, frosted spider webs everywhere to cheer us up in anticipation of Halloween at the end of October. I can’t ever remember people making a particularly big deal of it when we were kids though – Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night always seemed to take precedence really with its firework displays and “penny-for-the-guy” money-making schemes.

 

But lately, possibly due to the ongoing influence of US culture on all of our lives, you can’t seem to budge nowadays for small ghouls and vampires trick or treating on your doorstep. As to why they do it, it’s actually quite interesting, being derived from a much older tradition than you might think.

 

Trick-or-treating

 

The habit appears to have started with the Celts and their communal celebration of the Feast of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’ as in cow) on 1 November, which was also the first day of their New Year. The word ‘Samhain’ itself is derived from the Gaelic word ‘Samhraidhreadh’, which means ‘summer’s end’. But it was also the name of the Celtic god of the dead who, on his feast day, would call together all the souls of the wicked that had died during the year.

 

The Feast itself, meanwhile, was a harvest festival to mark the gathering in of the summer crops, but also symbolised the start of winter and the season of coldness, darkness and death. The Celts always celebrated their events the evening before, which meant that 31 October was the big night – and a time when the veil between the world of the living and the supernatural Otherworld was believed to be thin.

Trick or treating
Trick or treating

As a result, malevolent spirits and the dead were able to roam the earth, where they took pleasure in playing tricks on people. So in order to protect themselves, the Celts lit massive bonfires of sacred oak branches (oak being the sacred tree of their priestly class, the Druids) on hilltops in order to frighten the spirits away.

 

As an act of appeasement, the Druids also left them good things to eat, but disguised themselves as spirits at the same time so that the real ones would mistake them for being their own kind. Hence the tradition of dressing up as scary creatures and going around asking for sweet treats – a custom that morphed in the Middle Ages into children, and sometimes poor adults, dressing up in costume and going from door-to-door at Hallowmas, as it was known then, begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers.

 

This activity, known as “souling”, was often rewarded with a Soul Cake. A small, round, sweet confection flavoured with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and raisins and often with a cross marked out on top, it represented a soul being freed from Purgatory after the cake was eaten.

 

By the late 18th and early 19th century, souling had again transformed itself into ‘guising‘. Again children dressed up and begged for things like cakes, apples or money, but rather than offer prayers in return, they would tell jokes, sing songs, play an instrument or recite a poem.

 

And it was this practice that is believed to have been brought to the US by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, before changing its shape again during the 1920s and 1930s to become the “trick-or-treating” phenomenon we all know so well today. I can’t say that I’d particularly noticed that the custom had wended its way back home again until at least the 1990s or so, but it certainly seems to have taken root now.

 

So next time you feel inclined to have a whinge about American cultural imperialism or turn your lights off and refuse to answer the door to yet more “bloody kids”, just remember that we don’t have a leg to stand on really as it’s all our fault anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holidays in Arizona: Living the American cliche

Arizona is one place that I always really fancied going to. But for one reason and another, I’d never actually made it, even when living in California at the turn of the Millennium.

But seeing as it was my 50th birthday this year, it fell to me to choose our holiday destination and so I wanted to go somewhere that felt at least vaguely meaningful. After tossing up and rejecting places like Sri Lanka, which I’d love to go to but have no emotional connection with, inspiration hit. Arizona with its red cliffs and mesas rising out of the desert floor was the only place that would do.

As I’d not returned to the US since leaving there 16 years ago, however, I didn’t want just any old vacation. It was the full American cliché or nothing: a road trip in an RV (recreational vehicle) a la Jack Kerouac – or not quite, but you know what I mean. A burst of hedonism in Vegas, Nevada, where my Beloved and I got engaged. A dash of kitsch in the stunning New Age mecca of Sedona, renowned for its energy vortexes and UFO tours. All topped off with stacks of natural wonderment at the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the scene of so many old cowboy movies in the north of the Navajo Nation reservation.

Sedona
Sedona

And what do you know – the US was just as I remembered it. Big and brash and beautiful – subtlety isn’t generally the word that springs to mind for this fascinating country.

But sadly, one thing that had changed was simply the cost of the place – in fact, it was eye-wateringly expensive. In my day, eating out and going out and clothing yourself in fine raiment was a relatively cheap activity, especially when compared to the UK.

But no more. The whole sterling-crashing-through-the-floor thing since the Brexit referendum decision undoubtedly hasn’t helped, but the US is bloody pricey for a Brit these days. The country’s average median wage of $55,775 (£45,336) has shot ahead of the UK’s £27,600 and it’s reflected in the everyday cost of living.

Even in Vegas, which we initially flew into and where at one time food and drink was as cheap as chips in order to keep everyone in the casinos and in or around the gaming tables, prices were exorbitant. The most cost-effective meal we could find, for example, was an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Wicked Spoon restaurant in the Cosmopolitan casino and hotel, where we were staying, for $27 (£22) per head.

Which incidentally served truly excellent fare and meant that we didn’t have to eat again that day – just waddle back to the astounding so-called “wrap-around suite” with bedroom, living room, kitchen, two huge bathrooms and an immense balcony surrounding it (hence wrap-around, I guess) that my Beloved had cleverly managed to blag with tales of our Vegas engagement and the fact it was my 50th.

Anyway, the reason for the hike in Sin City’s food bills is, it seems, linked to hotel occupancy rates. Oversupply and dwindling demand means that they’re now hovering at around 50% so it’s all about making up the shortfall elsewhere – and that’s despite the fact that the average punter budgets to spend a huge $530 (£433) on gambling during their stay – according to the local freebie guidebook, ‘Vegas2Go’ that is anyway.

Another world

For our obligatory night of hedonism though, we decided to abandon the Strip altogether, which is uptown, and follow our taxi-driver-from-the-airport’s advice to go downtown – to Fremont Street, which is in fact the original Vegas and where it all started in the first place. And what a great decision it was.

Despite having visited for years, it was our first time there. And it was fab – just like the Vegas of old. Tacky and glitzy and over-the-top – and a fraction of the price of the now largely sanitised Strip.

The Strip, Las Vegas
The Strip, Las Vegas

One old cliché that I was pleased to see hadn’t gone bye-the-bye though was the vast quantity of food still dished up in restaurants and diners. So huge are the meals, in fact, that the only ones we didn’t share were the entrée-sized starters, and we didn’t eat many of them really – we were in an motorhome remember, which meant barbecuing most nights in one of the excellent fire pits provided in RV parks dotted around Arizona.

Incidentally so common is the whole RV experience in the state that even regular parking lots have huge spaces marked out to cater for them, which given their massive bulk is a real godsend.

And that leads me on to the life of the RVer, which it must be said is another world. A lifestyle pursued by many so-called snowbirds or retirees who sell their worldly goods to buy motorhomes and move south to warmer climes for the winter, it has a language all its own.

There are “full hook-ups”, which mean you can connect to the RV site’s water and electricity supply rather than use your own. There are dumps, which as you might suspect are special holes in the ground in which to pump your “black” (toilet residue) and “grey (washing up and shower water) waste” into the cesspit lurking beneath.

And then there are “pull-throughs”, which is shorthand for saying that on leaving, you can drive your vehicle straight through your assigned plot on the RV park rather than have to manoeuvre the damn thing to get out. Which is no mean feat.

At only 22 feet, our motorhome was just a baby known as a “Minnie Winnie” (Winnebago). I never actually quite got up the courage to drive her though, being somewhat put off by the fact that, even though my Beloved is a very experienced motorist, he spent the first couple of days racked in terror trying to handle her huge dimensions.

In fact, every time we took off across one of the vast, open plains that seemed to link many of our destinations, his arms were nearly ripped out of their sockets trying to keep her in a straight line as her massive surface area led to us being buffeted about by the wind. By the end of our trip though, it should be noted that my Beloved had developed serious RV-envy and was unable to let even one of the immense bus-size creations lumber by without obsessive online searching so he could sigh over their vital statistics.

Other great clichés

Another great cliché lived and experienced, meanwhile was getting to travel on Route 66. In fact, this most famous of US roads also known as the “Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road” kept popping up all over the place, and not necessarily where you’d expect either.

One of the country’s first highways connecting Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica in California and romanticised in song, we first picked it up on our initial stopover after Vegas in a non-descript town called Kingman – which nonetheless makes the most of its meagre assets by pushing itself as “The Heart of Historic Route 66”, complete with nostalgia-inspired motels and diners for tourists.

We then ran into it again passing through a similar town called Seligman. And somewhat surprisingly once again going up to the Painted Desert in the north of the Petrified Forest National Park, with its ancient trees that have turned to multi-coloured stone and crystal as a result of water containing minerals seeping through the mud, sand and volcanic ash in which they were buried and filling up the decaying wood.

But that’s Arizona for you – just full of amazing natural beauty. In fact, much as I love California, which is definitely more diverse, I would have to say that Arizona has the edge in terms of sheer, unadulterated drama – not least because it’s amazing mesas and buttes are, in the main, a breathtaking red.

And despite being a shameless tourist trap, the reddest piece de resistance of all is, of course, Monument Valley  (which is actually on the border with the state of Utah) in the 16 million acre Navajo Nation, by far the largest native American reservation in the US. Full of astounding sandstone shapes towering out of the ochre desert floor, you might well have seen it in one of director John Ford’s old cowboy movies with John Wayne as the main man.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

As to how Monument Valley came to have this starring role though, that was thanks to a white couple, Harry Goulding and the wife he nicknamed “Mike”. They had come to the area in the 1920s and established a trading post there for the Navajo tribe to exchange their livestock and handmade goods for foodstuffs and manufactured goods.

By the 1930s, however, the Great Depression had hit and people on the reservation began to starve. But Goulding had heard that a movie production company was scouting for film locations in the area and so set out with Mike for Hollywood with their last $60 in their pockets to round up interest.

A combination of luck and perseverance led to them meeting Ford, who on seeing photos of Monument Valley was sold. And the rest is history, as they say – although the plight of many native Americans in their own country is, sadly, still marred by the same poverty that afflicted them in the 1930s and the same racism that weaves through the very fabric of those old-fashioned westerns.

Nonetheless, I can honestly say that, with only one or two exceptions, the Americans we met of all colours and creeds were as friendly and as positive and as welcoming as I remembered them. And I really can’t think of a better cliché to live up to than that.

Essex mysteries: The secret Battle of Assandun

Who would have thought that one of the major turning points in English history – albeit one that no one knows much about – allegedly took place just up the road from where I live in Essex?

 

So just what is this momentous event, I hear you cry? Well, it turns out to be a lost, and almost forgotten, fight apparently almost on a par with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in terms of significance. But this one’s known as the Battle of Assandun and took place almost 50 years earlier to the day in October 1016 – a vast 1,000 years ago.

 

As to why it’s so important, it just happens to have been the last in a series of battles between Edmund Ironside, King of England and son of AEthelred the Unready, and Canute, King of Denmark and of holding-back-the-waves fame, which resulted in the little-talked-about Danish conquest of England.

 

In reality though, the conquest had seemingly been going on for a number of years. While Canute’s dad Svein first invaded England in 1013 and took over great chunks of the place, Viking raids had been going on for 20 years or so before that, and the Danes had been raiding and settling for a good two centuries previously.

 

But ‘A Clerk of Oxford’ explains in his/her blog just why losing the Battle of Assandun mattered quite so much: “This invasion changed the history of England. If Svein [King Canute or Cnut’s father] and Cnut hadn’t wreaked such chaos in AEthelred’s family early in the eleventh century, the kingdom would not have been up for grabs in 1066, when William of Normandy decided to put his oar in – and no Norman conquest means an entirely different England.”

 

On winning the Battle of Assandun, Canute signed a peace treaty with Edmund, which resulted in him becoming King of all England, apart from Wessex (Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset) that is. Wessex remained Edmund’s – until he died only six weeks later, possibly of his wounds, although foul play was suspected, obviously.

 

But the Clerk also offers some interesting reasons as to why the Battle has slipped our collective mind so completely. Firstly, although the Danes told stories about their conquest, unlike the Normans, they generally told them to each other in the comfort of their own long houses rather than write them down for posterity. There’s also no Danish equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is possibly the most iconic work of medieval art and was “almost solely responsible for popularising the most famous ‘fact’ about the Norman conquest, that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye”.

 

Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry

What The Clerk believes to be the most important point of all, however, is that “the Danes were a different kind of conquerors [to the Normans] – and arguably better. The conquest itself was violent (on both sides) but after a few years of bloodshed, Cnut became a king both English and Danes could accept.”

 

1000th anniversary

 

In fact, The Clerk continues: “There’s no evidence of English rebellion against the Danish conquerors, nor much sign of ethnic tension of the kind we associate with the aftermath of the Norman conquest….the real achievement of Cnut’s conquest was to make the aftermath of conquest seem fairly painless – and thus less memorable. As a result of these factors (and others), the Danish conquest has never attracted as much scholarly or popular interest as the Norman conquest. Its effects seem less traumatic, less long-lasting, and less well-recorded.”

 

But it probably also didn’t help much that no one’s entirely sure just where the real-life Battle of Assandun actually took place. My favourite contender though has to be the village of Ashdon in North West Essex, about four miles from my current abode of Saffron Walden. But there’s also another, generally more popular, candidate in the shape of Ashingdon near Chelmsford in the south east reaches of the county (boo).

 

Apparently historians have argued inconclusively over the pros and cons of each site for years, but the case for Ashingdon is as follows: After Edmund’s death, Canute apparently built a church to commemorate all of the soldiers who died in battle. This is believed to be Ashingdon Minster, which still stands to this day.

 

There are documents to show that Canute attended the Minster’s dedication with his bishops, and also that he appointed his personal priest Stigand to work there. Although the church is now dedicated to St Andrew (the Apostle), it was believed to formerly be dedicated to St Michael, an archangel who is associated with the military as he is said to have led the fight against Satan and is known as the defender of Heaven.

 

As for Ashdon, a couple of Anglo-Saxon wills clearly show that it was the original site of the Battle, and the church that was rebuilt in stone there in the early 11th century to replace an earlier wooden structure would fit perfectly with the time of Canute’s conquest. So who knows.

 

Ashdon church
Ashdon church

Just how I came to find this little lot out, meanwhile, is due to a series of events that have been widely advertised locally throughout the spring and summer to celebrate the Battle’s 1000th anniversary. We’ve had lectures, a couple of re-enactments and even a village picnic and hog roast in the village of Hadstock, which has nothing whatsoever to do with any of it as far as I’m aware, but obviously just wanted to join in the fun.

 

But it all comes to a close on 16 October, the day of the Battle itself, with a commemorative service held by former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams at the church in good, old Hadstock again. And then that’ll be it for another 1,000 or so years, I guess.

Newmarket: The home of English horse racing

There’s nothing quite like a day at the races – particularly if you happen to go to Newmarket, otherwise known as the home of English horse racing and birthplace of the ‘Sport of Kings’.

 

So to continue the ‘great British tradition’ theme that seems to have permeated my 50th birthday celebrations so far  (although that will change somewhat when we go off on our road trip to the American Southwest and the stunning state of Arizona), my Beloved and I took ourselves off by train to the pleasant rural county of Suffolk.

 

Once at Newmarket itself, we recklessly upgraded the free tickets he’d managed to blag and sashayed elegantly from the Grandstand and Paddock to the Premier Enclosure  – with more than a pang of regret on my part for failing to dress up a bit more, it must be said.

 

Drinks at the Premier Enclosure
Drinks at the Premier Enclosure

But as the action started and our luck kicked in, the smart-casual state of my attire was the last thing on my mind. Three straight wins off the bat, followed by second or third placements in the final four races – and most of them outsiders. Incredible. Certainly a good bit of birthday fortune there. Literally.

 

In fact, we made a tidy £70 profit for our trouble – not bad for a minimum bet each way of £2, which I’d misunderstood in the first place anyway, thinking it would cost me £2 rather than the £4 it actually did. Duh.

 

And the secret to our success? Instinct – or certainly more luck than judgement anyway. So unlike many of the serious race-goers there, it was all about going for the names we liked, or at least had some connection with. None of this studying-the-form-and-being-guided-by-the-odds nonsense. But it obviously worked, which is quite something if you’re as rubbish at racing as we are.

 

Before one of races, for example, after exclaiming about the greyness of the horses and how pretty they were, we found it was actually the ‘Pantile Stud Grey Horse Handicap’. At another, we were so busy looking for my Beloved’s horse which we felt had to be at the back of the pack that we completely missed the fact it had won – until it was announced, that is, and we nearly collapsed.

 

First horse racing meetings

 

We didn’t even choose our bookie based on the odds, but more on the fact she was a woman – a relatively rare entity in such a male-dominated world even today – whose queue looked smaller than the others but who seemed nice. So we thought we’d give her a go – and again it paid off. Despite having to fork out each time we returned, she was gracious in defeat, limiting herself to a wry smile and an “Oh, it’s you two again, is it?” through gritted teeth.

 

As for Newmarket racecourse itself, it was much more expansive than we’d expected, with not just one but two racetracks: the Adnams July course that we were at, and the Rowley Mile. But the importance of the sport to the town shouldn’t be too surprising perhaps as it turns out to be the place where the UK’s first horse racing meetings ever were held – as we’d know them today anyway.

 

Newmarket's July race course
Newmarket’s July race course

While it was the Romans who first brought the idea of horse racing to our hallowed shores, for hundreds of years it was a mainly informal pursuit that tended to occur on public holidays at big, local fairs and festivals.

 

The first recorded race gatherings didn’t actually take place until the reign of King Henry II when in the latter half of the 1100s, knights, earls, barons and other assorted nobility would apparently gather at Smithfield in London for a bit of bartering at the annual St Bartholomew’s horse fair to the sound of young men galloping around the open spaces of the square and park.

 

Although racing remained a favourite royal sport for another 400 years or so, it was James I who really started it on the path to what it is today, after interest had waned during the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I. In 1605, he happened to be out hawking when he came across the then small village of Newmarket and decided it was the perfect spot for a bit of racing fun.

 

In fact, James spent so much time at his new amusement that Parliament petitioned him on more than one occasion to get himself back down to London to do a bit of ruling rather than playing about with his horses  – the reason perhaps that the town is still known as the sport’s true home. In fact, the Rowley Mile, which as previously mentioned is one of its racecourses, still bears his name to this day. James was, it seems, given the nickname ‘Old Rowley” after his favourite nag.

 

But where royalty goes, everyone else inevitably follows and so regular race meetings started taking place up and down the country, and silver bells began to be offered as prizes. The fact that it was de rigueur for nobility and a royal must-do also led to the moniker, the “sport of kings” being adopted, which is still used to this day.

 

A great British tradition

 

The first racing thoroughbreds didn’t appear for another 100 years or so though. Interestingly, they are all descended from three Arabian stallions imported to the UK in the early 1700s called Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and most famous of all Godolphin Barb, which happens to be buried quite close to my home town of Saffron Walden in the tranquil setting of Wandlebury Country Park in Cambridgeshire.

Wandlebury Country Park
Wandlebury Country Park

Anyway, these stallions, which were known for their long necks, large frames and high tails, were mated with British mares to create a perfect combination of speed and endurance, henceforth making them the racing standard all over the world.

 

And by the middle of the 1700s century, horse racing had upped its game to such an extent that it had become a professional sport. Which led to various assorted aristocrats getting together in 1750 in the now-deceased Star & Garter pub on London’s Pall Mall to set up The Jockey Club in order to regulate it.

 

Their meetings moved to Newmarket a couple of years later, however, and it was from there that the Club set and administered the rules of British horse racing until 2006 when its responsibilities were passed on to the British Horseracing Authority. It still owns a good number of iconic British courses to this day though, including Newmarket, Aintree, Epsom and Cheltenham, all of which are important fixtures on the domestic and international sporting calendar.

 

Due to Britain’s former empire, which stretched its tentacles into so many corners of the world, meanwhile, horse racing proliferated around the globe. But while it transmuted into many forms based on different distances and track types, most of the breeds and regulations that control the sport are still based on our originals to this day.

 

And it’s still a hugely popular pastime here too. Worth around £3.4 billion per annum both directly and indirectly to the British economy, it is in fact the country’s second most popular spectator sport after our collective national obsession in the shape of football.

 

In fact, some would even go so far as to say that horse racing is an intrinsic part of our national identity – which truly would make it a great British tradition indeed.

 

 

Essex mysteries: Mazes and labyrinths

A Maze Festival isn’t necessarily something you come across every day. But Saffron Walden, the market town in North Essex where I live, has had three of them so far, the latest one of which took place only last weekend.

 

But there is some foundation for choosing such an apparently obscure theme to titillate tourists and locals alike – Saffron Walden, it seems, is alone in the UK in having two historic mazes within the town’s reaches.

 

The first is a turf labyrinth – even though it’s known locally as “The Maze” – located on the east side of its extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town. Built in 1699, it was apparently based on an even older version formerly sited nearby and, at an impressive 132 feet (40 metres) across, is said to be the largest structure of its kind in England.

 

The path, which is inlaid with bricks, is made up of a huge 17 circuits that visit each of the four small mounds at the labyrinth’s corners before winding itself into a higher central mound that used to be home to an ash tree – or World Tree according to the cosmic world view of the ancient Celts and Vikings.

 

The second maze, meanwhile, is a Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town that was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never actually attached to or designed around a house as is usually the case. So it’s a bit strange really.

Saffron Walden hedge maze
Saffron Walden hedge maze

But Saffron Walden now also boasts a third maze, newly located at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond. Spelling out “Saffron Walden Amazes’ in box hedging, it includes eight finger labyrinths and mazes positioned carefully on plinths. And this new attraction was opened to great fanfare last Saturday by no less an individual than international maze guru, Jeff Saward himself, who designs, builds, researches and writes about labyrinths with his equally expert wife, Kimberley.

 

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed by the Festival’s keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

 

Anyway, to get to the point, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit by the most circuitous of routes, to the heart and then back again.

 

The idea, among other things, is that the twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path. As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

 

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, is in fact currently researching whether labyrinth-walking can help to reduce stress levels among offenders, and whether indoor or outdoor labyrinth-walking actually proves more beneficial.

 

Labyrinth-walking

But I must say that, whatever the truth of it, labyrinth-walking certainly did something for me. I’d never tried it before, but I thought I’d give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

 

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

 

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I’d previously not suspected. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane, with my (rather turbulent) emotions easing as I went. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I’d certainly like to try again.

 

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype or universal mythic character found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. The thing is that they’re symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

 

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France, for pilgrims to wander prayerfully around.

Saffron Walden turf labyrinth
Saffron Walden turf labyrinth

By the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), however, the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they’re increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

 

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk around during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, also became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

 

But for those without access to such facilities and who can’t walk one themselves, there are always finger labyrinths so you can trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

 

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning difficulties, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

 

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture the human spirit, then I don’t really know what is.