Saturday 31 October 2009

The Hairy Hands

Halloween deserves a spooky story, and the spookiest I know is this one, of the Hairy Hands, which manifested themselves along a stretch of the Postbridge road on Dartmoor, near the Powder Mills. Before our children came along, my husband and I used to camp on the moor near Postbridge, up along the West Dart. It was a lovely spot to camp, not quite so much fun getting back to it across the moor after our evening meal and a few beers at the pub, as you could scarcely see where to put your feet, even with a torch.

Anyway, I always used to frighten myself silly that if I got up to answer a call of nature in the small hours, I might meet up with the Hairy Hands. I developed a long-distance bladder because my fear usually kept me in my sleeping bag!

The stretch of the B3212 where the Hairy Hands were "seen" is between Postbridge and Two Bridges. In the dreaming golden years before the start of World War I, a number of very strange incidents occured along this stretch of the road, mostly near to a farm known as Archerton. People on bicycles reported having the handlebars wrenched from their grip so they ended up in a heap in a ditch, and driven ponies went out of control with similar results. Worse still, a local man, Dr Helby from Princetown, was taking his two children for a ride in the sidecar of his motorbike and sidecar, and it veered out of control, killing the Dr but fortunately his children survived. Not long after, a similar accident happened when an Army officer was riding his motorbike along this same stretch of road. He was badly injured but lived to tell the tale - and what a tale he told - a pair of "large, muscular hairy hands closed over his own and forced him off the road."

This made front page news and soon the Daily Mail had reporters investigating the story, although a subsequent enquiry decided that the road had an adverse camber and so road repairs were carried out to remedy this.

The story had died down by the mid-1920s, when a lady who was parked at the side of this stretch of road in her caravan, saw a huge hairy hand crawling up the outside of her caravan window. Terrified, she made the sign of the cross and the hand disappeared . . .

The photograph at the top shows the first bit of intake land we would walk along to get to our campsite, which was beyond the furthest trees.

Friday 30 October 2009

The Witching Hour

This "face" is above the porchway of a church near Brecon. I think it's a bit "belt-and-braces" and paying lip-service to the pagan past.

As Halloween draws near, and children get excited and dress up in Halloween costumes, we think that all these Halloween shenannigans have come over from America with the Trick or Treat practices which fortunately we don't suffer here, as we are out in the sticks. However, to people in our not too distant past, witches and ghosties were very real belief.

The date of 31st October was when the festival of Samhain was celebrated in pre-Christian times. Samhain is derived from Old Irish and roughly translates as "summer's end". Our Celtic ancestors believed that on this night, the veil between this world and the next was very thin, and both good and bad spirits could pass through to their world. Harmful spirits were warned off by the wearing of costumes and masks which would confuse them into believing they had met one of their own kind and thus do no harm. Fire was a very potent part of the celebration, as indeed it was at Beltane (May Day) when cattle would be driven between twin bonfires to cleanse them and protect against evil spirits. This sometimes happened at Samhain too. However, the bonfire was more important as house fires would be doused and then relit using wood from the bonfire This was also a traditional time to reduce the livestock, which took much feeding over the winter months.

In our part of Wales, I think that people were rather more scared of people that were perceived to be witches, or to have the power to harm them or their livestock by curse or spell. Whilst carrying out renovation work on this old farmhouse (it is first mentioned in records of around 1485), we have found several devices against witches. All were over doorways.

In this photograph you can see the cat skull, the old child's tackety boot, and the mummified rat. All were tucked into walls and all above doorways (the cat a few feet above the doorway).

Several of our beams have odd marks on them. Some are almost definitely to match them in the building of the "extension", and the one below is obviously the re-roofing date for our attic, but others - well, I'll let you decide.

Not sure about this one . . .

This is one I am REALLY not sure about . . .

Below - instructions I think.

We haven't found any witch bottles, but they were often buried under hearths or just outside of the house to protect it. There is a link HERE to an interesting example recently unearthed. These have been found to contain urine (human or animal), nail clippings, human hair, bent pins, pieces of wire, bent iron nails, and sometimes a felt or cloth heart pierced with pins. One example contained 9 bent brass pins, but I don't know if the number has to be specific. Many of these heavy ceramic bellarmine witch-bottles (a name given to a specific style of German-made bottles with an old man's "greybeard" face on.) These are particularly abundant in East Anglia/Suffolk. The pierced cloth heart would be a malevolent sort of magic one assumes.

The urine was the most important ingredient, as this account of "counter-witchcraft described by Joseph Blagrave of Reading, in his Astrological Practice of Physick, published in 1671, as one of a number of 'experimental Rules, whereby to afflict the Witch,causing the evil to return back upon them'. His recipe is as follows:

Another way is to stop the urine of the Patient, close up in a bottle, and put into it three nails, pins or needles, with a little white salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain long in the bottle, it will endanger the witche's life: for I have found by experience that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if any at all, and the more if the Moon be in Scorpio in Square or Opposition to his Signifiator, when its done."

Of course, we are not the least bit suspicious these days. We never throw spilt salt over our left shoulder, try not to cross knives, hang horse-shoes up for good luck, touch wood and whistle, cross our fingers, touch our collar if we see a magpie, even tread on the cracks in the paving stones . . . and those lucky stones with holes through them that we bring back from the beach . . .

Thursday 29 October 2009

Family History

In recent weeks I have hit the Family History trail again, this time following up my dad's mum's line in the South Hams in Devon. Via Genes Reunited, I was delighted to discover a new 2nd cousin (our g. grandfathers were brothers). She has just sent me a lovely parcel of family photos and certificates, including my g. grandfather's death certificate. That has given us both quite a shock, as we discovered that he had committed suicide, by drowning.

I was gardening yesterday afternoon, and as I weeded the very overgrown bed I was able to give this much thought, and came in and wrote this poem to his memory. He had been widowed in 1904, when his wife died aged only 37 (and quite probably of the bowel cancer which claimed her daughter, my gran, at the age of 41) and was left with two little girls to bring up alone. He became a publican for several years, but this obviously all came to an end during the First World War and on his death certificate his occupation was "sawyer, Journeyman", which I believe means he was paid by the day, however skilled he was (he had originally been a Journeyman Baker).


The tide sucks at the river, making boats lurch and sway,
Eddying round the ladder clamped to the stone wall,
Reflecting the moon like Van Gogh's' Starry Night,
Ripping the stars to shreds in the current
As it argues its way down the leat,
Spreading like a silent scream of watery echoes,
Edging busily up the brickwork, lifting the tangles
Of seaweed like a mermaid's tresses.
Combing them with salty fingers and leaving them to float.
It beckons to the silhouette on the footpath,
Writing his name in immortality, promising
A future where there can be none. Weak flatterings and
Blandishments it makes to him, cajoling, enticing,
Coaxing movement from that lonely figure,
Offering one last embrace, no questions asked.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Mother Eve's Pudding

Hmmm - I caused confusion yesterday with the "two pennyworth of eggs when they're 2d a quart", so here's a slightly different version of the same puddign from yesterday's post, and also from the same book:


If you'd have a good pudding, observe what you are taught,
Take two pennyworth of eggs when twelve for the groat (4d) (e.g. 6 eggs!)
And of the same fruit that Eve had once chosen
Well pared and well chopped at least half a dozen.
Six ounces of bread (let your man eat the crust),
The crumbs must be grated as fine as the dust.
Six ounces of raisins from the stones you must sort
Lest they break all your teeth and spoil all your sport
Five ounces of sugar won't make it too sweet,
Some salt and some nutmeg will make it complete
Three hours let it boil without hurry or flutter,
And then serve it up without sugar or butter.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Paradise Pudding

I just happened to wander into Oxfam when I was in town yesterday, which was naughty of me, as I have been trying to wean myself off this particular addiction since prices have gone considerably up in the past year. Anyway, I was just convincing myself that there was nothing worth buying anyway when my eye just happened to fall on a spiral bound book. I hesitated, drew it out, and saw the words "Devon W.I. Cookery Book" on the cover. Well, I was bounden to buy it of course, and it was only 99p, so . . . It has an interesting selection of recipes - some I recognize already from my Farmhouse Fare and other similar old books - but others completely new to me, like this one for Paradise Pudding. I don't know how old it is but I would guess that it could well be around 1850. A quart of eggs contained 20, by the way, but I think this would mean use two eggs and not twenty! :


"If you'd have a good pudding pray mind what you're taught
Take two pennyworth eggs when they're 2d a quart,
Take of the same fruit which Eve once did cozen,
Well pared and well grated at least half a dozen.
Six ounces of bread, let the maid eat the crust,
The crumbs must be grated as small as fine dust.
Six ounces of currants and pray pick them clean,
Lest they grate in your teeth, you know what I mean.
Six ounces of sugar won't make it too sweet,
Some salt and some nutmeg to make it complete.
To this you can add, if you're willing and handy,
Some good lemon peel and a glass of good brandy.
Three hours let it boil without hurry or flutter,
And then erve it up with some good melted butter.
Adam tasted the pudding, 'twas wonderfully nice,
So Eve cut her husband another good slice."

A Hawthorn Berry by Mary Webb

I have taken a leaf from my dear friend across at Where Beechmast Falls, who posted beautiful Mary Webb poem yesterday. For some reason, Blogger is not flagging her blog up when she makes a fresh post, so please visit daily as regular postings will be missed otherwise - and that would be such a shame, as Dartford Warbler posts such interesting things and lovely photos.


How sweet a thought,
How strange a deed,
To house such glory in a seed -
A berry, shining rufously,
Like scarlet coral in the sea!
A berry, rounder than ring,
So round, it harbours everything;
So red, that all the blood of men
Could never paint it so again.
And, as I hold it in my hand,
A fragrance steals across the land:
Rich, on the wintry heaven, I see
A white, immortal hawthorn-tree.

Mary Webb

Monday 26 October 2009

2011 census

Just seen that "invasion of privacy" - by the Government - has hit new heights with the questions they intend to ask in the 2011 census. Now, I'm sure in 200 years' time someone still working on the Bolt family tree may be fascinated to find out how many bedrooms I had in my house, but personally, I do not think that it is a useful tool for the current Government, except as something else to tax us on and probably check against Council Tax documents. I am glad we are allowed to call ourselves English again (as indeed I did last time anyway), but I should imagine that the dynamics of propinquity in a multi-let building is going a bit far.

What really made me roll on the floor laughing was the question about command of the English language. For those filling out the census there is a choice of "very well, well, not well or not at all". Hmmm - is it only me that thinks that the "not at all" - indeed the entire census form! - would be a tad lost on those in that particular household if it applied to all?

I dare say there will be some lies being put down, even some damned lies - but will they just be statistics?

Up the valley

Yesterday we decided to drive up the valley and see what "they" were doing to widen the road where the bank was threatening to subside ever sine we've been here. Over the past couple of weeks along our narrow single-track-with-passing-places lanes we have been passing (with difficulty!) lorry after huge lorry loaded with soil and shale from the hillside they have been digging away. Rather than use it, on top of strategically-placed cages of boulders to shore up the weak side of the road, they have been taking it miles and miles away - presumably as landfill . . . but there, Councils always know what they are doing, don't they?

The swell of Dan-y-Banc against the autumn clouds . . .

We parked a few hundred yards short of where the road was completely cut off to traffic - the gigantic digger parked the width of the road gave us a slight hint!

We finally worked out that the new road level would be along by those tree stumps . . . Hope they widen it a bit, or it will be a very interesting drive on a dark night . . . especially if you meet someone coming the other way!

They will have to put in the final piece of trackway up to the gate too, so the local farmer can bring his cattle back and forth from the hill grazing, and as it is also a trackway to the very top of the hill, so walkers can use it again too. I have only walked DOWN from the top of the hill - it is one heck of a climb UP it!

They will apparently be here for about another 14 weeks yet . . . according to a noticed pinned at the roadside.

The steepness of the wooded valley a couple of hundred yards before the photo of the digger shows you that they had their work cut out with the excavations.

I have always loved this hill as its bracken slopes remind me of Dartmoor, and I used to get very "homesick" whenever I drove past it in our first years here.

The sun was sinking in the sky, and gave a wonderful diffused light to the hillside.

An old abandoned barn, its back finally broken by years of weathering, sinking to its knees at the edge of the woodland.

I walked out onto what used to be the "hanging bridge" but is now like a cage across the river. I looked up and downstream, hoping against hope (I had been quiet) that I might see an otter, as they have been seen here, but the river was quiet - not even a Dipper to be seen.

Fungi of a Latin name adorning a rotten log.

Finally, two photos of our Inglenook and Hergom stove, to satisfy MM's curiosity to what the Hergom might look like! All sorts of doo-dahs hung up there - a pair of hames, old wooden spoons, several old horse bits, an old crane from a fireplace like this, and just above it (far right) a little "griddle" which came from an old Essex estuary sailing barge and which was put over the top of the stove for the kettle to sit in. Of course, at one side, my big old cauldron. You always thought I was a witch didn't you?!!!


Didn't that turn out well? Says she modestly!! I just caught sight of the rising sun this morning and ran outside with my camera. I think the black tracery of branches looks magical . . .

Sunday 25 October 2009

Today's car booty

Despite both of us sleeping badly last night, DH and I went off to the car boot sale this morning and got a few bargains. Perhaps if we had followed the daylight and got down there an hour earlier we'd have had more, but hey-ho and all that . . .

Of course, more books found their way into our possession. These three books cost me a total of £1.20. The Frank Muir is a curious coincidence, as one of the answers in yesterday's Telegraph general knowledge crossword was Muir (as in Frank - Q: "Who wrote the What-a-Mess books?") We still have What-a-Mess The Good which was one of the children's favourite (and of their mother!) : )

This book: "Surviving the Iron Age" is based on the Iron Age living experiment at Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire a few years ago. Several of the participants, it appears, are offspring of the original Iron Age living experiment at Butser Hill in Hampshire, which was filmed back in the 1970s.

No guesses as to which of us bought THIS book, but although it was a little more than we usually pay, it was still good value at £3. We certainly would have had to pay £6 or more from a second hand book shop.

Do you remember that huge glazed crock that we bought back in September at Builth Wells Antiques Fair? Well, DH found - again at car boot sale - 2 old round breadboards for 50p each, and having measured everything up, he screwed them together and I now have a perfectly fitting lid for my flour crock.

Friday 23 October 2009

Gavin Maxwell

I listen to Radio 4 regularly, especially when I am doing the ironing, which I was this morning. In fact, I prolonged the ironing and even tackled the king size bedding, in order to listen to the 2nd of two programmes about the author Gavin Maxwell, famous for Ring of Bright Water and his love of otters. He sounds to have been a very complex character, someone you rather trod on eggshells around, whose sexuality and personality had been affected by an illness whilst he was at boarding school, and someone who didn't gell well with reality.

This is a beautiful poem written by Katherine Raine, who loved Maxwell, but whose affections were rebuffed. It sounds very much to me like she could see the landscape around Camusfearna (Sandaig House) whilst she wrote it. I have linked to the website I found it on, and apologies if they subsequently discover her works are subject to copyright, as they know not.

THE WILDERNESS by Kathleen Raine

I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare
Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten,

The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,

And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.
A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor

Crying out after those great presences who were not there,

Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell!

In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air,

Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,

Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,

Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

HERE is a link to a beautiful website about Maxwell, his life, his Scotland, and his final home on Eilean Ban. Whoever had the bright idea to build a gigantic causeway of a bridge right across the island had no soul whatsoever . . .

More of Kathleen Raine's poetry can be read HERE.

Many thanks to Shandchem on Creative Commons Search for the photograph of Tongue Bay, Sutherland.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Walk in Dinefwr Castle Woods

We had to drive to Llandeilo today as our son had to call at his old school, so we decided we would have a stroll through Dinefwr Castle Woods whilst we were waiting for him. The sun had come out and although rain-clouds were threatening in the distance they were far enough away not to worry us.

We parked beside the River Towy and walked up the leaf-strewn trackway at the edge of Dinefwr Castle Woods. There were sheep on the water meadows and two dogs looked out of the window of a recently-renovated old bungalow: what a lovely view it enjoyed across the river and fields.

Dynefwr Castle is hidden behind the trees on the top of this precipitous hill.

We breasted the slight incline and stood looking down on the mossy roof of Llandyfeisant church, which sits in a little hollow which we feel was once a special place in pagan times too, surrounded by a young yew tree and 4 fully grown, one of them very ancient, and with a spring on one side of it. A sacred grove indeed.

Below, the view from the back of the church looking across fields and the wooded hill where Dinefwr Castle is shrouded by the trees (out of sight on the left).

The church is now being left to nature . . .

In 1875, a coin was found beneath the porch and originally wrongly-identified as Roman, but it was subsequently correctly identified as a silver penny introduced by Edward I in 1279 and likely spanning a period from that date to 1327, when Edward II died, which suggests rebuilding work was carried out in that period.

The church is dedicated to Tyfei, nephew of St Teilo (to whom the main church of Llandeilo and many others in this area is dedicated) and is first mentioned in records in 1291 as 'Landevaysen' as part of the Deanery of Ystrad Twyi and by 1324 had been given to Talley Abbey by Rhys, grandson of Rhys the Great. It once served a medieval village in the grounds of what is now Newton House (there have been recent excavations and my daughter and I are mentioned in despatches - we were over by the Heronry!) but this village was already ruinous when noted at the Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

It ended serving the Rice family at Newton House, but is now sadly locked to protect it from damage. The trees have been cut back now, but when my daughters were younger, they found it had quite a scary atmosphere as it was gloomy under the trees.

It has been recorded that digging in the churchyard in the 19th century revealed the stone footings of an earlier building and locals say that a Roman mosaic floor was uncovered when a grave was being dug in the past and indeed, also in the 19th C, an urn full of Roman coins was found 300 yards west of the church.

Below: my husband on the trackway back.

View of Llandeilo from across the water meadows. There was a storm brewing (we have just had the thunderstorm it heralded, 2 hours later.)

The beautiful stream beside my son's school, just inside the boundaries of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Family history woes

Can you hear my screams of despair? If you are a family historian, a word of caution. DO NOT attempt to build your on-line family tree when you have only had abut 3 1/2 hours' sleep, and then brief periods of dozing many hours later. There is nothing worse than staring into the darkness of your bedroom, clock-watching and wishing away the night-time hours. I had also eaten a bad combination of food and still have a sore stomach, nearly 12 hours later. Rashly, I thought I would make the time productive by filling in my family tree. Wrong move, being compounded now when I have just discovered I have the biggest family put in THREE TIMES, and I can't seem to remove them either. I will have to get back to it later when my brain is less frazzled.

Of course, as I am currently in family history mode (something which normally happens about this time of year), I was very tempted by the selection of Family History magazines in town yesterday, but I resisted them all. I even ignored the lure of the Family History mag with the free CD which announced you could "Find out How Your Ag. Lab. ancestors lived". (At £4.99 to purchase it, the temptation was soon well under control!) When I gave it some consideration, however, I concluded that it wouldn't really TELL me anything - just give links to various websites which I could probably find myself anyway, or I could read relevant chapters in my books on Victorian rural social history.

There would be nothing which could tell me if my 3 x g. grandfather suffered from "the rheumatics" as so many Ag. Labs. did from working outside in all weathers with just an old sack across their shoulders. Nothing to link me to the documents which would give the details of his life when he applied to "go on the parish" because he could no longer work on the farm - well into his 70s. I have to go to Exeter to find those - or pay someone to do the look-ups for me. There would be nothing to say that the little holloway, a short cut between one road and the next, which we passed last time we were in Hennock, was one he was wont to take. The things I really want to know include more about his life as a sailor (when apparently he spent his pay on buying tobacco, dead mens' clothes and paying extra for a bunk instead of a hammock) and the excitement of being at Trafalgar aboard HMS Belleraphon (another ancestor was aboard HMS Victory). Was he on Belleraphon when she took Napoleon to Elba? I hope he was a better sailor than my father, who got seasick the moment his uncle's fishing boat got beyond the harbour wall.

It is the minutiae of family history which fascinates, those intimate details which tell you more about the person so they're not just a name and a date on a family tree. The ancestor with the sweet tooth, the musical one, the little girl who got sent down to the pub for a jug of gin every night (my husband's side, not mine!) I know so very little about them beyond the fact that many of my menfolk worked on the land, quite a few others were good with horses - carters, grooms, ostlers, saddlers, a coachman - no wonder I have a deep love of horses. The women were skilled with a needle and were dressmakers. On my mum's side, I come from generations of lace-makers. One of my grandfather's sisters was a servant for the Carus-Wilson family in London. They were strongly connected with the church and religion, and when I was reading a book about Charlotte Bronte's husband, Arthur Nicholls, it transpires that it was one of the Carus-Wilsons who was involved with the Clergy Daughters' boarding school at Cowan Bridge that figured so largely in Charlotte Bronte's early education, and which she wrote about so vividly in her novel Jane Eyre. Her two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth contracted TB there and died in 1825. One name - and suddenly family history starts to come alive.

The photo at the top was taken about 1920, and shows my dad, Eric Bolt (aged around 4), and his parents central. My gran's sister and her husband on opposite corners and the two opposite corners taken by the Bow parents.

Monday 19 October 2009


Many years ago - probably 14 or so - a neighbour I didn't particularly care for read my Tarot cards. I can remember a surreal feeling as I distanced myself from her, almost in a different time or place as with total accuracy (it transpired), card after card spelt out "Change." And so it came to pass - within weeks I suddenly found myself on an ACCESS course for higher education and within the year, taking a BA in Archaeology. All because I had opened the local "free mag" at the page which held an advert for the University of Wales, Lampeter and the words 'Stones, Bones and Bog-Bodies' leapt off the page at me. To understand the significance of that a look back over my shoulder is necessary, to the three years I spent living in Wiltshire, working with horses, and at some point reading P V Glob's 'The Bog People', which fascinated me and fuelled my burgeoning interest in archaeology. In a way, it prepared me for my future.

I feel in a similar state now. Not quite in the here and now, but as if I am on the top of a hill, looking at myself in a little boat taken randomly by the waves, one moment in a lagoon, and the next whisked around a headland and being dragged out to sea, not knowing quite where I will end up and feeling rather lost.

Things are changing. People I know. People I thought I knew. People who I thought were important in my life quietly moving into the shadows, and others taking their place. I don't know what is going to happen next. I know what I would LIKE to happen, but I cannot be certain of anything. There is no longer a predictable future with my children's school lives. They are making their own way in the world now. We plan to move, to downsize, but the where and the when of that are open-ended. My heart strings are pulled ever more strongly by the West Country, Devon to be precise. I would up-sticks and be off there tomorrow. My husband 'doesn't mind' the West Country, but he wants me to consider Yorkshire, or Northumberland, or - teasingly - Berwick-upon-Tweed!

So, as we gradually prepare for our future, in a new place, a different house, we are having to live each day as it comes, coping with the decisions of what furniture stays, what is sold, what books we can bear to part with, what bits and pieces go in the charity shop box, and doing whatever re-decorating is necessary. The house won't go on the market until spring - and may not sell easily as not everyone is looking for somewhere quite this big - but we still have to do some research on the best area for us, checking out house-prices as some towns are much more desirable than others and thus more expensive or properties are soon snapped up. Our priorities for house-hunting this time are so different to the ones which brought us here, when we wanted a smallholding, somewhere big enough to house both our mothers should they wish to join us (in the event, my husband's mum chose not to), to be near a reasonable school, to be rural but not in the back of beyond.

So, we float rather like lost souls in this liminal time between what was and what will be and think of a future which has blurred edges rather than a sharp focus. Once we know WHERE we are going and WHEN, my excitement will know no bounds. Meanwhile, it is nearly time to think of preparing our evening meal, but perhaps first, just one more tiptoe over the estate agents' thresholds . . .