Archive | November, 2012

Walk on the dark side

27 Nov

As we walked slowly through the church yard of the church of St. Mary’s, adjacent to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, I came to a realization.  This is the creepiest damn church in England.  In the world in my head, I am 100% certain the M R James story “An Episode of Cathedral History” takes place RIGHT HERE.

Now: I like churchyards.  I enjoy cemeteries. I tend to find them peaceful, and full of thought-provoking history.  This one was different.  This one, I thought to myself, would make a great setting for a vampire movie.

Because the vampires are here, and they have already broken out of their tombs.

You know, not for real or anything.


Although it was a beautiful sunny day, I was pleased to go inside the church, away from the gravestones.  Until I noticed the face to the right of the doorway, at chin height.


Enter through the ancient, heavy door, and my eyes flew straightaway to the two bodies sitting on their eternal posteriors:

Oh, hell.  The vampires are in the church.

I want you to believe me when I say this was the spookiest church I’ve ever escaped visited.  And I’ve visited the ancient Norman church of Elkstone — with no electricity — in the dark and alone.

Because I watch movies and know how these things work, I immediately looked up.  What is going on up there?

I mean, be real.  Who could use those stairs aside from flying vampires?

They came to a bloody end, after a bloody beginning and bloody middle.  (This knight is Thomas III, 8th Earl of Berkeley and in charge when Edward II was imprisoned — and killed — at Berkeley Castle next door.)  Is the lion couchant a companion, or guard, or jailer?

To the side of the altar, a glassed in room full of marble bodies.

Why?  Why are these bodies in a room surrounded by glass?  There is no entry to this room, it is walled off completely.  They’ve got a perfectly good explanation, but … You know what I am thinking.

It’s a head of stone, which has been muffled with a cloth of stone.  Why would you need to keep a stone head from speaking?  I’m just asking the question, I’m not suggesting anything …

The exterior door is not just closed and locked, it is closed, and locked, and covered with a gate.  Just in case.

Around the corner, a lovely short door with decorative design.

It’s also blocked, this time from the inside.  To keep things in, or out?

And finally another, hidden door, along the back.  This door leads to that blocked-in glassed room with the tombs.  A-HA!

Exterior access only.  I guess it’s like having a sublet in your church.  For vampires.

View of that room from an exterior window of the church.  Yes, I did have to crawl and climb my way along part of the wall to hold my camera up to the window for this shot of a private tomb.  That’s a normal thing to do, right?

A lot of personality in this graveyard.

Also a bit of famous history — the grave of Dickie Pearce, jester to the Earl of Suffolk and the ‘last royal jester’ (maybe).  Apparently killed by one of the Berkeley family when his master was a guest in the hall, his tomb was erected out of guilt.  Or so goes the story.  Do you think it’s enough to keep the jester from haunting the family?  Because to tell the truth, a poltergeist jester sounds way worse than any vampire.



Did you go and read that M R James story I mentioned before?  You didn’t, did you.  If you have a few minutes, check it out:  An Episode of Cathedral History.

(PS – I’m being slightly more than usually silly today, so don’t let that put you off visiting this beautiful church if you are anywhere nearby.  You will almost completely undoubtedly not see any vampires whatsoever.)


Black Friday

23 Nov

I know it is practically the law that all American bloggers write a Thanksgiving Day-related post.  I wish I had something fabulous to say about Thanksgiving in England, but it all feels a bit strange.  How do you explain to your neighbors that you’re celebrating a holiday that is all about escaping them, to be honest, or at least one’s semi-mythical national ancestors escaping their semi-mythical national ancestors.  “Yeah, we cook beautiful turkeys, eat ’till we fall asleep, go shopping, watch football, and thank our personal deities that we escaped England and survived to live elsewhere.  And there’s some complicated history about the people who were there already, and actually it was Lincoln who established the tradition as we know it to help with post-Civil-War healing.  So — Cheers!”

It doesn’t sound any better when you say it out loud.

I don’t even have any special family recipes to share with you.  Apparently through some kind of time warp Jamie Oliver and my mother both learned how to cook turkeys the same way, and passed this information on to me years ago.  (Never will I brine a bird.  I don’t get to go soak in the warm salty ocean at Thanksgiving, neither does my turkey.)  The New York Times makes a perfectly lovely cornbread muffin.  Martha Stewart for the cranberry sauce (I add ginger and cinnamon), and one of the stuffings. (Stove Top for the other — am I right America?)  Every year I come up with another slightly random unique version of a green bean casserole.  Simple salad, to please to kids.  French bread. Macaroni and cheese.  Mashed potatoes.  Chocolate pie  (I won’t lie to you: Jello Pudding), pumpkin pie, apple pie (store-bought crust mix outside, Joy of Cooking goodness on the inside).  And after the last baste of the roasted bird, open the champagne for the chef.  I think I could make Thanksgiving dinner in my sleep.

A bit surreal to do all that for a quick dinner on a school night, and then to send everyone off to school the next morning.

At least we are not newly in our house and surrounded by yet-to-be-unpacked boxes, this year.  And finding a turkey was easy — if expensive — at our new Whole Foods.

That’s it!  Happy Thanksgiving holiday!  Now, did someone mention online shopping … ?

And wuv …. truuuuuuuuuuuuuue wuv, will fowow wu …..

21 Nov

It was very much like a dream within a dream.  One perfectly normal Tuesday evening, I went out to sort through my rubbishy recycling bins.  Somedays, I do indeed feel like the Queen of Slime, Filth, and Putrescence.   Sigh.  It can’t be Highwaymen and Swan Knights every day.  

But … But … what was this?  What glorious shinning object reflected my wondering face back at me? It was even better than the very best MLT!

I ran inside to tell my husband he had finally done something right.  “As you wish,” was all he had to say.

The Highwayman

19 Nov

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a bit of a thing about highwaymen.  I’m not an apologist for criminal behavior, and I don’t imagine the traditional highwayman really was like Captain Jack Sparrow, only on a horse, riding wildly through the moonlit moors, free and dangerous … something like this dude … ahem, let me get a drink of water for a minute.  Yes, I mean, NO, I don’t think that glamorous notion of the highwayman as a conscientious anti-authoritarian figure worthy of romantic speculation is at all real.

But reality doesn’t have much to do with it, does it?  So:  I have a bit of a thing about highwaymen.  I blame Alfred Noyes, and the old 12-inch record I had (yes I AM THAT OLD) with a collection of spooky-slash-atmospheric poems destined to keep my eight year old self and any sleepover companions awake for hours and hours.  (Also on the record?  Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.  It’s amazing I can sleep at all.)  Is it any wonder I have a not-so-secret longing to take my family to the Highwayman’s Supper at Warwick Castle?

Stand and … le sigh … deliver.

On second thought, maybe I’ll leave my family at home and go on my own, in suitable garb.  In that spirit, here is the whole dang poem.  Get a hold of your heaving … hankies … and snuggle in:

The Highwayman
By Alfred Noyes
(Source: The Poetry Foundation)


The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.


He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;
And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.
But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.
They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast!
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding—
The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shouting a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

.       .       .

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Le Chevalier au Cygne

16 Nov

There isn’t really a Swan Knight in today’s post, but I was reminded of medieval chansons de geste when we walked down to the Severn River as it runs towards Worcester Cathedral, and saw:

Just a few romantic swans in this direction, gently emerging from the dreamy mist enveloping the Worcester Bridge.

From the other direction, a full-frontal swan assault team.

My children are very familiar with the story of Oriant, Beatrice, the evil Matabrune, and Helias, who becomes the Swan Knight in one version of the story. (I don’t know if this link works, but an audio of the story is free on iTunes from Barefoot Books: — scroll down to #16, Knight of the Swan)

There was something mesmerizing about the shockingly white feathers against the dark river water.  These are mute swans (note the orange bills), and they made a soft sort of chirping bark sound and wagged their tail feathers as they careened back and forth.  (Really.)

A beautiful swan statue, a gift from the German city of Kleve, overlooks both the riverside walk and the swans themselves.  In the right background, you can see the Cathedral Tower.

Why the swan?  We asked the guide inside the Cathedral — where we found heraldic and symbolic swans in various places — and the presence of swans in Worcester seemed to be a mystery to the guide as well.  A Beauchamp lord — the family claimed kinship to the swan knight, somewhere in time’s mists — and his lady are buried, here, her head resting on a large black swan.

“So, as they stray’d, a swan they saw
Sail stately up and strong,
And by a silver chain she drew
A little boat along,
Whose streamer to the gentle breeze,
Long floating, flutter’d light,
Beneath whose crimson canopy
There lay reclined a knight.

“With arching crest and swelling breast
On sail’d the stately swan,
And lightly up the parting tide
The little boat came on.
And onward to the shore they drew,
And leapt to land the knight,
And down the stream the little boat
Fell soon beyond the sight.”

Day out: Raglan Castle

14 Nov

This is the castle we ‘swung by’ on the way home from our visit to the National Roman Legion Museum.  Unless you have a special connection to this spot or are a massive Merlin fan (or Time Bandits,  or — unreliable sources tell me — Skyrim — or Dr. Who fans who can travel back in time), this spot is probably not a day out all on its own — but it is a great book-end for a day on the Welsh border.

Raglan Castle is a Cadw site — so bring along your English Heritage passes and get in for half price (or free, depending on how long you’ve been a member).  The Castle was built late, and benefitted from the political wheeling and dealing of the typically ambitious border family who lived here.  Here’s some background.  We have a Norman invader whose descendants supported the English against the Welsh (and fought with Henry V at Agincourt, huzzah) and then a later family who supported the Yorkists (insert obligatory fist shake at sky) and then fought Cromwell and then gave up and left the place in ruins.  I think that sums it up.

Except for the incredible romance and drama of the castle ruins.  Holy Meatballs!  It’s amazing!

Picture me going into a fantasy world coma.  Picture the kids running and splashing in the puddles.

You can get a sense of the wealth of this family and the luxuriousness of the castle — just count the storeys — and the number of fireplaces!

The octagonal shape of the towers are said to mimic the more ancient Caernarfon in north west Wales.

I have the overwhelming urge to cross-stitch this image with “Home Sweet Home” across the top.

One view of the Great Tower, the castle-within-a-castle I mentioned in an earlier post.

A more dramatic view, from the other side.  Easy to see why Raglan would be used as a film location — walk three paces in any direction, and you seem to be in a totally different environment.  The ruins glow and gleam, there are reaching shadows, twisting stairs, wide grassy courts, grand stairs, and windows and views for miles.

And toilets.  Never forget the toilets.  We crossed the drawbridge to the Grand Tower, and while I swooned over the watery stairs to the moat, what did my children find and exclaim over, immediately, loudly, and repeated?  The toilet.

We did manage to climb the stairs and admire the view.

See, on top of that other tower, over on the right?  Do you see the people climbing over and around the walls and rocks over there?  They are insane.

We arrived at Raglan about an hour and a half before it closed, and didn’t feel rushed in our walkabout.  If your interest is pricked by these quick shots of our day out, check this out for a far more detailed tour and history.

Guy Fawkes. Again.

12 Nov

Bonfire Night.  I wrote about it last year.  This year our school’s celebration was delayed by a week, putting us slightly off-sequence from the rest of the country.  But on a clear and chilly night, we finally had our fill of giant bonfires and rockets.

And super creepy magicians.  Okay, I apologize to what appears to be a dear sweet man who undoubtedly has a lovely family and probably rescues cats and orphans as a side hobby, but OMG he looked almost as scary as the poltergeist clown which I am still sure lives under my bed.

Let’s get that bonfire started!

Look at the size of it.  Toasty.

Love a good bonfire, even as it’s burning low.

A bit of the carnival scene while we waited for the fireworks.

And then – KaPOW.


I’m daring to try something new with my camera.  These shots were all taken on the manual setting.  Mixed results.  KaBOOM.

The big finale.

I didn’t have quite as much spirit this year as last.  It was pleasant to feel comfortable in the crowd — a bit familiar.  I did sing the Star Spangled Banner to myself  (OH SAY!).  Just a little.  We tried the rides, ate candy floss, waved crazy light sticks, Oo-ed and Aa-ed at the lights.  But my heart wasn’t in it.  Maybe last year I was overfull with the excitement of moving and discovery, and this year I’m too overwhelmed by the slog through chill and darkness to find that spark inside.  Maybe next year we can just have a cozy bonfire at home with some s’mores and warm cider and one of the bizarre ditties of Guy Fawkes:

So let’s bless the Royal Majesty, and bless the Royal son, sirs,
And may he never get blown up if to the throne he comes, sirs.
And if he does, I’m sure he’ll reign–so prophesize my song, sirs;
But if he don’t, why then he won’t, and so I can’t be wrong, sirs.