Category Archives: Country diary

Countryside goings on….

ALL HALLOWS EVE

 

‘Then cometh November when the days be very short and the sun giveth but little heat, and the trees lose their leaves, the fields that were green look hoary and grey. Then all manner of herbs are hid in the ground, and there appeareth no flower, and winter is come, and man hath understanding of age and hath lost his kindly heat and strength.’

Hallowe’en and a ghost walks with me as she always did when I went outside, I can see her in my mind’s eye, leaving her mousing and, tail held high, coming to join me. A Cutty Wren with eyes dark as ripe blackberry pips watches me and the ghost who walks with me, she sees more than most, wren knows who comes and who goes. She sings, practising her Boxing Day song and I sing with her,

‘Love, joy and peace to all in this house.’

Then, secret as a thought and nimble as nine pence she retreats deep into a tangle of rambling rose and hop vines to join a bright brotherhood of small birds, I cannot see them but I hear them and their quiet gossiping makes it sound as if it is the tangle of roses and hops that are singing. The Cutty Wren is the bird of the Virgin Mary and tradition says this little bird nested in the manger with the Child.

Then said the wren

I am called the hen

Of Our Lady most comely

Then of her Son

My notes shall run

For love of that Lady.

With a loud buzzing, a cheerful resistance to the shortening days, bombus flys very close by, off to the last party of the year held where the ivy is in flower. While leaves of ash, field maple and hawthorn now burn with a cold fire the oak trees determinedly keep their green foliage. The poplars at the far end of the meadow have lost most of their leaves and look like skeletons of fish. The remaining leaves on the bird cherries hang by limp necks and they too will soon be gone and the trees will be as bare as picked bones. The leaves on the trees that have red cherries turn yellow and then fall to butter the ground. They stay quite flat until age creases and crimps them. One tree only has black cherries. The leaves on this tree do not turn yellow, first they blush and then fall to turn a deep reddy orange and almost at once each edge starts to roll inwards to show beer brown backs and they come to resemble fat cigars.

This is the time of the year when plants withdraw life but life for some life now begins underground. Fungi emerge, some with moon white heads, hairless and eyeless. There are several colonies of different fungi on the meadow, some already mouse nibbled and crow pecked. One lonely one took my eye and it was so beautiful I knelt to look closely. The stem was about a couple of inches in height and spindly. The domed cap has turned itself inside out, it was translucent, delicate, more like thumbed glass and the rim was frosted. It was just like a wineglass but a wineglass for a doll. R. S. Thomas, that stern Anglican priest, wrote that the aim of life is to be ready to receive ephemeral moments like this.

Back home we go and I open the door and wait for the ghost who has walked with me to go through first.

Pat Mlejnecky

Smartphone photos

It seems that recently our mobile phones have become as good at taking photos as making phone calls.

In fact some might say that they are more adept at the photos than the phone calls; and I’d count myself in that number.

The photos below were taken by old second hand phones in bergh apton in the last few weeks.

grass snake
Snake in the grass

 

 

dead dragon fly
Nature – red in tooth and claw

If you have taken a picture of wildlife in the area – please feel free to share it here.

 

A Marbled Orb Weaver Spider
A Marbled Orb Weaver Spider

THE HAWTHORN TREE

 

‘Spring goeth all in white,

Crowned with milk-white may;’

Robert Bridges

Almost over night it seemed Spring had spelled the hawthorn tree in the hedge and great clouds of white blossom ruffed its branches. The notched leaves witched to a bright leathery green. The anthers are red, like the head of a match, so each flower resembles a speckled bird’s egg. Now, in mid-summer, clutches of small green berries hang on tightly and, as summer ages will, like traffic lights, turn to amber and then red. This is not the enamelled red of rowan berries or the polished sheen of rose hips but a modest, sombre red. Old ballads and legends tell that the hawthorn is a tree of mystery and enchantment, a faerie tree. It is said the crown of thorns with which Christ was mockingly crowned was made from hawthorn. In the Lady Chapel at Ely there is a carving showing Mary with her Child set against a background of hawthorn leaves. Mary holds one haw, a sign of what is to come for the Child. At some Palaeolithic cave dwellers burial sites, the bodies have been found wearing similar crowns of hawthorn.

Mary’s uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, was a merchant trading in tin and, so the stories go, he came to our ancient kingdom, to the West Country to do business with the tin miners. On one occasion, at least, he brought his great nephew, the Boy Jesus with him and this story was known to William Blake, hence the opening words in ‘Jerusalem’,

‘And did those feet, in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the Holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

Glastonbury is an ancient town in Somerset and another legend is that Joseph of Arimathea came here after the Crucifixion of Christ and brought the Cup used at the Last Supper, the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend, with him. He was tired and distressed after his long journey to reach this land. He paused to sleep and thrust his staff into the ground beside him, the hand that held it had smoothed precious oils into the body of Christ when it was taken from the Cross. It took root and every year at Christmas it burst into leaf and flowers. It is the humble hawthorn, quickthorn or whitethorn which, in bleak winter, flowers to greet the coming of the Light not the exotic rose or lily. A sprig from the Holy Thorn is sent to the Queen every year so she has it on her table at

The hawthorn tree is believed to be a dwelling place for faeries and an entrance to their country. An ancient ballad from the Borders tells how Thomas the Rhymer or, True Thomas as he is known, sat under a hawthorn , known as the Eildon Tree and the Queen of Faeries rode by in a dress of ‘grass-green silk’ and on her steed’s mane ‘hung fifty silver bells and nine’. She dares him to kiss her lips and, of course, he does.

She carries him off as he must now serve her. In Elfland she offers him food which he eats and, as we all know, one must never, never, never, eat food offered by the Little People. When he returns he thinks he has only been away for a day instead of seven long years. It is believed he lives on in the hollow Eildon hills. So do not sit under a hawthorn tree unless you have the protection of a twig each of oak, ash and hawthorn bound together by a red ribbon, as one never knows who might come

Westminster Abbey is built on what was known as Thorney Island in the River Tyburn and named after a sacred stand of hawthorn trees. Edward the Confessor built a church here and the present building altered and added to by other monarchs was built originally by Henry 111 in 1245.

The Hawthorn is also known as May as this is when it flowers. There is the nursery rhyme, ‘Here we come gathering nuts in May’. This should read as ‘knots’ not ‘nuts’. Sprigs and bunches of hawthorn were gathered in days gone by and even in some places nowadays to celebrate the Merry Month of May.’

Henry vii chose the hawthorn as his emblem after the Battle of Bosworth as the crown worn by Richard iii as he rode to battle was found in a hawthorn after Richard was killed. Henry, the first of the Tudor dynasty, received this crown on what is known as Crown Hill.

A small tree, a hedge tree, gnarled, twisted and thorny, crabbed. It bends and knots, spiky bones knitted together against wind and weather.

Mediaeval Graffiti in Churches

The OUD’s definition of ‘graffiti’ is ‘a piece of writing or drawing scribbled, scratched or sprayed on a surface’. The symbols, writing and sketches scratched onto church walls some five to seven hundred years ago are a different kettle of fish and, because nowadays we tut-tut at graffiti, thus it seems a different word really needs to be used. Some of the images are intricate and would have taken some time to scratch into the stone and were done in the body of the church for all to see so they were viewed in a quite different way, acceptable, respected and allowed by the Church.

 

Norfolk and Suffolk have about 1 100 mediaeval churches and in 2010 a survey of the graffiti in these started in Norfolk, it was the first county to do this. A similar survey was started in Suffolk a few years later and has spread to several other counties.

Stained glass windows, brasses, ornate tombs, monuments in churches speak of the lord and lady, the well-to-do, those of influence and power in a parish but where are memorials to the common man? Where is the tinker, the tailor, the poor man, the thief? In mediaeval times, roughly from the end of the Roman Empire to the Reformation of Henry viii, everyone had a very well defined place in society, from king to knave everyone knew their place. This is demonstrated in the ‘Boke of Seynt Albans’ written in the 1400’s, hawking was very popular but, depending on one’s position in society one could only own and fly a particular breed of hawk. Only a king could fly a ‘gerfalcon’, ‘there is a spare (sparrow) hawke and he is a hawke for a prest’ and ‘there is a goshawke and that hawke is for the yeman(farmer)’and that well known one used as a title for a book and then a film, a kestrel for a knave. The graffiti which in some churches cover, wall and pillar, arch and sill could have been done by poacher, ploughman or shepherd, are these graffiti the memorials to the ordinary villager?

Interiors of churches of hundreds of years ago were brightly painted with pictures of saints painted directly on to the walls. The graffiti were done with care and intent, what was their original purpose, were they prayers, charms, protection? The Church taught that at death the soul went first to Purgatory to pay for sins committed while on earth before entering heaven so perhaps some graffiti were to a saint to intercede for their soul and the more time and devotion given to carving a symbol the greater effect it would have. ‘Fire and fleet and candle lighte / And Christe receive thy soule’. Why were ships cut into the stone in inland parishes, was this to wish that it would give safe passage for a soul on its last journey? Latin prayers, names, geometrical circles and patterns, crosses, heraldic inscriptions and even architectural plans can be found. It was believed that devils lurked round every corner to tempt the human soul so were some of the graffiti for protection? Names too were cut into the stone, ‘John Lydgate made this on the day of St. Simon and St. Jude’ (28 October), this is thought to date from the late 1300’s to early 1400’s.

Records in stone of all our human frailities, love, hope, death and fear, the daily perils of an ordinary life. Many of these graffiti are time worn and it needs a very sharp eye to see them. Just think, to be able to stand where someone else stood five, six, seven hundred years ago and touch the symbol he carved is to be hand in hand with him.

Pat Mlejnecky

Mass Dials

Stand facing the south porch of Bergh Apton church and then turn and take three or four giant strides to your right and you will reach the north wall of the transept. The wall is made of flint and the quoins of limestone. A wall built of flint and rubble would have an uneven edge at the corner and wet and frosty weather would soon erode so quoins, which are cut blocks of stone, were used to give stability and protect. Today quoins are largely merely decorative. About four or five feet up on one of these quoins are groves, a few inches in length and radiating from a central point where the gnomon used to be, this would probably have been a nail and is long gone. The right hand side of the quoin was broken at some point so the lines on that side have nearly disappeared. I used to think this was what is sometimes known as a scratch dial, a simple sun dial. I am reading ‘Medieval Graffiti’ by Matthew Champion and I now know these are correctly called Mass Dials. The early ones were generally just straight lines but later ones included numerals and quite complex decoration. There are several thousand of them to be found in churches all over England. One theory is that they were used to show the approximate time of church services. In Mediaeval times life was planned between the rising and the setting of the sun and dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. Prayers were said through the day beginning at Matins which was before dawn and then Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers which was at sunset and Nocturnes after sunset. As in our day church services were announced by the tolling of a bell so there was no need to put aside whatever task was in hand and hurry to the dial to see if it was time for a service. Some of these dials are found on the north wall of a church so of little use there. Dials were usually scratched near the porch of a church but some are found inside which would indicate the porch was a later addition. In some cases there are several of these dials scratched into the stonework and close together, why would several be needed? There is no real answer as to what these dials were really used for.

As far as I know no other examples of graffiti from six or seven   hundreds of years ago can be found in Bergh Apton Church. So, in other ancient churches who scarred the walls? Was it perhaps the ploughman who scratched a fire breathing dragon on the wall in the nave? Did bored choir boys scratch demons and devils in the chancel? Perhaps the Lord of the Manor used his knife to write a love charm just inside the north door? Heraldic shields, knights, birds, fish, music, architectural plans all can be found. With the passing of time these graffiti now are worn  but in Mediaeval times churches were brightly painted and must have been a joy to eye and mind and imagination and any angels and coats of arms and knights in armour and plants scratched through the paint to show the stone beneath would have been clearly visible and appear to have been respected and in some cases added to. Modern grafitti is generally a kicking of the voiceless against what is seen as an uncaring society, it is seen as undesirable but the graffiti of hundreds of years ago were perhaps a devotion, drawn and scratched by a people far more at home in their churches than many of our generation.

 

Pat Mlejnecky

 

All Hallows Day

Sunday 31 October, All-Hallows Day, the eve of All Saints Day. It will be, as always, the small pleasures that weave brightness into a day. This day dawned into a mist that blots and blurs outlines, blunts sound and smudges the sun to the dull gleam of a well worn sixpence. The last leaves on the bird cherry trees hang limp necked and then, in a stir of air, fall like a shoal of little yellow fish and land as quiet and soft as a hare’s breath. A first flock of fieldfares, the Norse tribes have arrived. In the afternoon, when the sun burned through, my shadow companion’s long legs scissor the path. A charm of King Harrys gather on the feeder. A quiet day cures an overdose of life.

In late afternoon as daylight fades, mist blooms again and melancholy and an unquiet quiet seeps among the shadows, it is Hallowe’en., the time when we pray for deliverance from ghosties, ghoulies and long legged beasties, it is Fright Night! For Celts, it was Samhain, summer’s end, one of their ‘thin’ times, when the veils between the worlds thinned. At dusk, as a half consumed moon rises, the countryside becomes a place of myth and mystery, lanes and lakes, meadow and marsh and unleafed and birdless trees hold an uneasy power and from these are born the songs and stories, rituals and rhymes for the ending of a year. No dreadful American import of Trick or Treat have a place here.

In one of the papers, writers told of their own Fright Night. M.R. James’ stories of a haunted and malevolent countryside, a painting by Ken Currie, films, uncanny clowns with their whitened faces and a piano concerto by Mozart. One writer chose Walter de la Mare’s poem, ‘The Listeners’, she said no matter how many times she read it gooseflesh rose on her arms. Beautifully written and uneasy but far more goosefleshy is the ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge, this is ancient and would probably have been sung by a woman over a dead or dying soul. It is in Yorkshire dialect:

 

This ae night, this ae night

Every night and all

Fire an’ fleet an’ candleleet

And Christ receive thy soul.’

 

Listen to the whole song sung on You Tube by ‘Pentangle’. The words are raw-boned, bleak, uncompromising and speak of a harsh and moral law by which to live. The last line becomes a prayer for the dead or dying soul.

Across the North Yorkshire Moors is the Lyke-Wake Walk,a trail of forty miles.

 

Pat Mlejnecky

p.s.

Norfolk birds

The Midnight Folk

The First Player:

In the lean hours Fox trots among the untamed trees. He follows a path which sneaks through the wood, a narrow path made by hoof, paw and claw. Time is his own, he comes and goes unbidden. Thorn tipped claws and polished ears that take soundings, eyes full of moonlight so they shine silver. Tree shadows net him and he becomes a creature of leaves and light. Then he is gone in a shiver of air, a trick from Night’s sleeve.

The Second Player:

Scissored from darkness, the bat banks and glides, flickering to and fro. He knows the songs of sight in the night. He stole the night from the birds and learned its secrets, its mysteries. For a moment he is fixed in the moonlight and then flings back into the dark.

The Third Player:

What does the owl see as he stares from his perch searching the shadows? What will the darkness reveal? What does he hear? A wood mouse’s footfall, a scurrying shrew? What does he sense? A vole rustling in a tent of grass? His silent wingbeat has its own music, his husky hoot questions the darkness and rattles the bones and quickens the heartbeat of the soon-to-be-dead. With solemn deliberation he swoops up and away, a haunting presence.

The Fourth Player:

The fire filled stars look down on Brock, the bear of the woods, of ancient lineage, masked, a dusky lord. On a bank among a straggle of ferns, woodsage and foxglove all bound about with honeysuckle and a bony trellis of ivy he has mined shafts with his scimitar claws. Shafts which lead to halls, galleries and chambers, he has raised ramparts and dug ditches. He stands and considers, his is an old magic. For a whispered spell, a ceremonial summoning, he may pause in the dappled light, turn and honour you, in slow ritual with a look from his moon filled

The Fifth Players:

Enter Night’s Cinderellas, the Forester, the Old Lady, the Footman, the Emperor, the Tiger and the Elephant, moths as silent as shadows, settling as dust on late blooming honeysuckle, last bells of foxgloves and purple cockades of thistle. With wings closed and coloured like worthy fustian, sober tweed and stippled, striated, ringed and veined in pearl, umber, soot, clay and frost, forming constellations which flash secret messages. They open like a patterned fan to show underskirts of seaweed green, berry bright red, saffron yellow and mauve as pigeon’s neck feathers.

Pat Mlejnecky

the hours of the day

COUNTRY DIARY

The quiet hours which, when counted on Time’s abacus add to weeks, months, years and the circling seasons. It is easy to miss magic moments in the business of life.

THE HOURS OF THE DAY

Vigil and Lauds

0300

Daylight is beginning and the waning moon, that thief of the sun’s light, is dimming and looks like well thumbed glass. The Moon Spinners are busy, they are sea spirits who walk the shores of the earth. They each have a spindle and onto these they spin the milk white moonlight. Their task is to see the world has its hours of darkness so they spin the moon out of the sky like white wool. As night follows night the moon’s light wanes and at last its light is gone, the world has darkness and rest and creatures are safe from the hunter. On the darkest night the sea spirits take their spindles to where the sea lips the land to wash their wool. As it slips from the spindle it unravels in long ripples of light and see, there is the moon, at first just a thin thread of light. When all the wool is washed and is a white ball in the sky then, once more, the Moon Spinners start to wind its light onto their spindles until the night becomes safe once more for all hunted creatures.

Prime

0600

The dog roses are in flower, Keats’ sweet ‘eglantine’ in his ‘Ode to the Nightingale’. This ancient riddle is about the dog rose, can you guess why?

We are five brothers at the same time born

Two of us have beards, by two no beards are worn

While one, lest he should give his brothers pain

Hath one side bearded and the other plain.

Terce

0900

Wood pigeons have learned how to use my bird feeders and I watch them bumbling about, huffing and puffing. Many people dismiss pigeons out of hand because they are everywhere and some, who know no better, refer to them as ‘flying rats’ but both these creatures thrive because of our dirty, careless ways, they reflect our untidiness, our waste and mess back to us. This country is known as ‘the dirty man of Europe’. Pigeons who ‘served’ with the RAF in wartime were the first recipients of the Dickin Medal, the Victoria Cross for animals. They are considered to be one of the most intelligent birds in the world and are one of only six species with the ability to recognise themselves in a mirror. The passenger pigeon was one of the most numerous birds in the world until we killed every one.

Sext

Noon

Bombus drones round the garden, she takes centre stage on a rose, she is laden with bags of gold. In a painting of Napoleon his red velvet Coronation robes are embroidered with golden bees and so is the carpet he stands on. At the moment of Christ’s birth the story tells the bees deep in their hives hummed the ‘Old Hundreth’. In Somerset there is still someone who makes the straw skeps that bees used to be kept in. She says it is a natural shape which mimic the hollows in trees that bees would naturally use and she thinks the honey has a better flavour, it still retains grains of pollen.

None

1500

He may have been able to juggle the full moon on one finger but I have magic too. I stare up to the sky hoping to see a buzzard and lo and behold, church steeple high, there is one, he glides in slow lazy circles and a second one joins and yet a third, kitelike in the sky, strong magic! Cirrus clouds echo their wing patterns. What does their fierce, meditative gaze see, how do they map the land so far beneath? Like dowsers, do they sense underground rivers, the caves like honeycombs beneath our feet? Slowly, effortlessly they glide away using the power of the wind with hardly a wing beat and I watch their pathway through the sky.

Vespers

1800

The heat of the day is cooling but ringlet butterflies are out and about still dancing their summer rituals over the seeded grasses. Their wings are a browny grey with constellations of rings and dots in yellow and black on the upperside and when in flight these flash mysterious text messages to each other.

Compline

2100

Dusk breathes shadows and darkness to web the trees. A tawny owl’s voice gathers the night, I hear but cannot see him, his feathered cloak makes him invisible. The old Gaelic prayer, ‘God send us all another day.’

Pat Mlejnecky

Full Moon In April

The full moon of April and its light, as always, witches the night.  I remember, on such a night as this, quite some years ago now, another April, when Spring had spelled the plum and cherry trees and each arm of which  was ruffed with white blossom. We stood under these trees and in the soft stir of air it snowed petals. The full moon sailed into sight and he points and, for a long moment, the moon seems balanced on his pointing finger. Masked by shifting shadows and lit by the moon’s quiet light he becomes a magician of the night.

In this country we see the Man in the Moon but in other countries they see, not a man but a hare and here is how this happened.

Prince Siddhartha left his kingdom in the skies and lived on earth and, because of his wisdom, he became called Buddha which means ‘enlightened’. He lived as a hermit and once he met an animal whose kindness was an example to both Gods and Men. The Lord Buddha was sitting in the shade of a banyan tree on the edge of a forest. The sun poured its golden light through the leaves like milk into a cup. He had lit a fire and his pot of water was boiling but, alas, he had nothing to put in it to make a meal. A jay, war painted with blue barred wings, flew by with a spray of little dark cherries, dark as night, in its beak and let them drop into the pot. A monkey swung down and tossed a handful of beans in and a cobra with hooded head brought spices, cumin, coriander and cayenne. A wild dog sneaked near and splashed a stolen egg into the boiling water. Next came a little hare and he spoke to the Buddha,

‘You have the look of a good and gracious man but also that of a hungry one.’

‘That is quite true my long eared friend,’ replied the Buddha, ‘but my friends are helping me.’

‘I have nothing but myself O Lord Buddha. Enjoy your meal.’

With that the little hare leaped into the pot of boiling water. Down he went and the water hissed, steamed and bubbled but to the hare it felt cool like soft refreshing rain. With the speed of a striking hawk the Buddha snatched the hare from the pot.

‘Those who give of themselves little Leaper-in-the-Corn are greatly blessed, it is the greatest gift of all. You will live for ever Little-Racer-Round-the-Field to dance for joy on the moon.’

Then the Buddha hurled the hare up, up and up till he landed on the moon. Now all of us in this world can look up at night and see the Buddha’s friend, the little hare and remember his generosity and nobleness.

 

Here’s hoping that those people who think it legitimate sport to hunt and harry the hare will be equally generous and merciful.
Pat Mlejnecky