Walks coming up this Weekend!

ROMAN LONDON – A LITERARY & ARCHAEOLOGICAL WALK

Reconstruction View of Roman Riverside Wall being built
Reconstruction View of Roman Riverside Wall being built

Saturday 30 October 20/22 11.30 am Monument Underground Station

This is a walking tour features the amazing archaeological discoveries of Roman London, and looks at life in the provincial Roman capital of Londinium.

To book

Myths, Legends & Halloween Walk

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

Sunday 30th October 2022 2.30pm Tower Hill Tube

The walk tells the story of London’s myths and legends and the celtic origins of Halloween

To book

Myths, Legends & Halloween Virtual Tour

MONDAY 31st October 2022 7.30pm

The tour tells the story of London’s myths and legends and the celtic origins of Halloween

To book

15th July Forecasting the Harvest & the Downfall of the Mayor of Casterbridge

Photo by David Becker on Unsplash

Its not just important for the farmer but, even more, for the corn factor, to get the weather right for harvest. If it rains of St Swithins Day it betokens rain for 40 days from 15th July. But beyond that speculating on the price of corn was very dependent upon the weather. Michael Henchard in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ has formed a terrible rivalry with his erstwhile friend Donald Fafrae and is determined to outdo him in the Casterbridge Cornmarket. He has a hunch about the weather but needs reassurances so despite his doubts he goes to a lonely hand built cottage to see ‘a man of curious repute as a forecaster or weather-prophet.’ Henchard is shrouded possibly to protect his identify and he will not stay to take hospitality from the prophet, not cross the threshold, and masks his face with a handkerchief as if suffering from a toothache.

The prophet knows this strange man is the former Mayor of Casterbridge, much to Henchard’s surprise. Henchard quizzes him. ‘can ye charm away warts?’ ‘cure the evil?’ ‘forecast the weather?’ Replying in the affirmative he takes Henchard’s crownpiece and forecasts:

“By the sun, moon, and stars, by the clouds, the winds, the trees, and grass, the candle-flame and swallows, the smell of the herbs; likewise by the cats eyes, the ravens, the leeches, the spiders, and the dungmixen, the last fortnight in August will be – rain and tempest.’ ‘Twill be more like living in Revelations this autumn that in England.’

Henchard buys up grain at the current high price, and is ruined by the fine weather that sets in for a fine harvest with corn prices tumbling.

Local folklore was at the heart of many of Hardy’s stories. Perhaps the most dramatic is the ‘Withered Arm’. Gertrude has a withered arm wished upon her by the former lover of her husband, mother of his illegitimate boy.. Determined to cure it she visits a Casterbridge Cunning Man. He tells her the only cure is to touch the neck of recently hanged man. So she goes to Casterbridge on a Hanging Day, makes the arrangements with the hangman; touches the neck; is cured immediately only to find the young man is the son of her husband.

I first read these stories one after another at a time I was going through a painful split up. I remember throwing the ‘Withered Arm’ at the wall shouting ‘Oh Thomas Hardy’ you miserable man.’ It took me twenty years to come back to him, to appreciate his amazing descriptions of life in rural Wessex, with a cast of characters struggling to make a place for themselves in a world that was changing beyond all recognition.

The Skimmity Ride

Skimmity Ride. Montecute House . Early 17th Century Plaster decoration

Yesterday, I wrote about the custom of Wife-Selling which appears as the main plot driver in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 masterpiece ‘the Mayor of Casterbridge’. Later in the book another folk custom brings the erstwhile Mayor to the brink of suicide. This was the Skimmity Ride, or Skimmington Ride.

The ride, which has deep roots in history, was designed to humiliate a member of the community and it consisted of a procession through the streets of the community with music or at least percussion instruments. Those being mocked, or an effigy of them or a local dressed up to look like them rode a horse or donkey or sat on a pole.

The illustration above is from the early 17th Century. It is in Montecute House, in Somerset above one end of the Great Hall of Sir Edward Phelips, who rose to the top of the legal profession becoming Master of the Rolls. And yet he choose to have a representation of popular justice in this prestigious part of his house. ( more information here)

The ‘offence’ is seen on the left – a neighbour sees the wife hit her husband over his head with a clog while he is trying to get a drink of beer at the same time as holding the swaddled baby. They live in a simple thatched cottage.

The normal interpretation is that she is ruling the roost and taking over the man’s role. It is he who is being punished for losing control to his wife and he is seen ‘riding the stang’, or pole either in person, or in effigy, or played by a stand-in. It would be nicer to think he is being punished for being drunk in charge of a child. The Skimmity Ride is heading from the couple’s home to the Church, and thus shown as involving the entire community.

Detail of the Skimmity Ride

In the fictional ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ skimmity ride effigies of the ex-Mayor and his lover, Lucetta Le Sueur, are tied back to back on a donkey and paraded through Casterbridge. She has just married the Mayor’s rival and on seeing the skimmity ride has a seizure which kills her. Henchard, full of remorse, decides to kill himself in the local river, but as he looks down into Ten Hatches Hole he sees an image of himself which stops him jumping in. It turns out to be his Skimmity effigy but he, none-the-less, sees it as divine intervention.

William Hogarth also portrays a Skimmington Ride in his illustration for Samuel Butler’s ‘Hudibras’. It illustrates the cacophonous nature of the Skimmington with horns and percussion the main forms of ‘music’.

William Hogarth. ‘Hudibras_Encounters the Skimmington’

Tomorrow, Cunning Men in Thomas Hardy’s fiction.

Wife-Selling & the bonds of Marriage

October 1837, Wolverhampton Chronicle.

A strange and unwonted exhibition took place in Walsall market on Tuesday last,” the Wolverhampton Chronicle said.

“A man named George Hitchinson brought his wife, Elizabeth Hitchinson, from Burntwood, for sale, a distance of eight or nine miles. They came into the market between ten and eleven o’clock in the morning, the woman being led by a halter, which was fastened round her neck and the middle of her body. “

“In a few minutes after their arrival she was sold to a man of the name of Thomas Snape, a nailer, also from Burntwood. There were not many people in the market at the time. “

“The purchase money was 2s 6d [about 13p today] and all the parties seemed satisfied with the bargain. “The husband was glad to get rid of his frail rib, who, it seems, had been living with Snape three years, at any price, erroneously imagining that because he had brought her through a turnpike gate in a halter, and had publicly sold her in the market before witnesses, that he is thereby freed from all responsibility and liability with regard to her future maintenance and support.”

Readers will note the similarity of this to the plot of the Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, published in 1886. Michael Henchard, gets drunk on spiked Fumity – a mixture of Corn, milk, raisins and currents to which the Furmity Woman at Weydon-Priors Fair adds Rum. Henchard in a drunken rage offers his wife for safe, and she is purchased by Richard Newson, a sailor who has a successful relationship with Henchard’s wife until the sailor is drowned.

While not exactly legal, records show that wife-selling at markets happened occasionally from the 17th Century onwards. As in the case at Walsall Market it seems to have been a recognised mechanism to end an unsuccessful marriage. In both factual and fictional cases the wife accepts the sale to rid herself of a difficult husband. The husband is relieved of his life long duty to be financially responsible for his wife, and, for a fee, he passes that duty on to the seller.

The sale seems to a modern onlooker to be a humiliation while in fact the public nature of it might be rather a public acknowledgement that the marriage has irrevocably broken down, and that another union has superseded the failed marriage. In the Walsall case the new husband has in fact been living with the wife for some years.

At this time there was no legal way to divorce except by the means of an expensive private act of Parliament far beyond the reach of any but the richest. Marriage itself was also a looser institution than we think. Hand-fasting and common-law marriages were very common in pre-Victorian times.

Tomorrow we are going on a skimmity ride.

Summer Solstice

Hark! hark! The lark at heaven’s gate sings, And Phoebus ‘gins arise, His steeds to water at those springs On chalic’d flowers that lies; And winking Mary-buds begin To ope their golden eyes; With everything that pretty is, My lady sweet, arise: Arise, arise. Cloten Scene III Cymberline

Arise, O Sun!
Let the Darkness of Night
Fade before the beams of your glorious Radiance

Midsummer, astronomically is here, and summer has started. Meteorologically speaking it has been here since the beginning of June. In Christian London celebrations were at their height on the Church’s Midsummer’s Day, 24th June, on the Vigil and Day of St John the Baptist (23rd, 24th June). Stow points the way:

‘every mans doore being shadowed with greene Birch, long Fennel, Saint John wort, Orpin, white Lillies, and such like, garnished upon with Garlands of beautiful flowers, had also Lampes of glasse, with oyle burning in them all the night, some hung out braunches of yron curiously wrought, contayning hundreds of Lampes, light at once, which made a goodly shew, namely in new Fishstreet, Thames Streets, &c’

Survey of London, John Stow

Bonfires from the night before were smouldering, where the ‘wealthier sort’ set out tables, furnished with ‘sweete beade and drinks plentifully’ where ordinary people could rub shoulders with the rich and ‘be merrie with them in great familiaritie’. There were large processions of ‘Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, Corporals, &c Wilfers, Drummers, and Fifes, ….Ensign bearers, Sword Players, Trumpeters on horseback, … Gunners, …. Archers, …Pike Men, ….Pageants, and, poor people in straw hats holding cresset lamps to make a show in exchange for a wage. All accompanying the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs each with their own Giants, Henchmen and Pageants from the Little Conduit in Cheape to Aldgate, and back via Fenchurch Street.

Midsummer was a mix of May Day, Halloween and a street festival with ‘Robin Hood games’, bale fires, the ‘summer pole’ dancing, merriment and pervading sense of he uncanny.

Distilled Wild Strawberries – a sovereign remedy against palpitations of the heart

Photo by Sergiu Nista on Unsplash.jpg

The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightly reminds us that

‘The water of these strawberries distilled is a sovereign remedy and cordial in the palpitations of the heart, that is the panting and beating thereof’

William Coles Adam in Eden 1657

Mrs Grieve tells that it is good against feverish conditions, for the stone, gout and dysentery. The fresh fruit removes discolouration of the teeth if the juice is allowed to remain on the teeth for 5 minutes (then clean the teeth with warm water and bicarbonate of soda).

Wiping the face with a cut strawberry will whiten the skin and remove slight sunburn. Tougher sunburn rub the fruit well into the skin, leaving it on for 30 minutes, wash off with warm water with a few drops of tincture of benzoin (a balsamic resin.

Warning, the remedies are ancient and I have no idea how effective they are!

The London Equinox and Solstice Walk

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows by the Tower


Tuesday June 21st 2022 7.30 pm Tower Hill Underground Station
(meet by the Tower Hill Tram coffee stand) |


We explore London’s History through its celebrations, festivals, calendars, almanacs and its myths and legends.


As the Sun and Moon move around our skies we look at how Londoners organised and celebrated their year throughout history.

The tour is led by Kevin Flude, a former archaeologist at the Museum of London, Curator and Lecturer

One of the most popular forms of publication in London was the Almanac. It was full of seasonal advice, of prophecy, traditional wisdom, and important events past and future. Different cultures, religions and institutions had their own methods of organisation and celebrations. We explore the varied calendars that ruled people’s lives from the prehistoric period to the present.

On the way we look at customs, and folklore of the Celts, Romans, Saxons, and into the Medieval and Modern period. We look at different calendars such as the Pagan year, the Egyptian year, the Roman, Christian, Jewish, Church and Financial years. On the route we discover the people who lived in London and walk through fascinating areas with their deep histories.

This is a London Walks Guided Walk. Look at their web site for a list of other of their amazing walks

To Book: click here

BECKET PAGEANT FOR LONDON

Brangwen A City Pageant .jpg
A City Pageant in Olden Times’, Frank Brangwen, Skinners’ Hal

17-18 June 2022: Guildhall Yard, London

This looks like it might be fun! I was hoping it would be the full recreation of the Becket Pageant in in 1519 but it a day of ‘performances inspired by the 1519 Midsummer pageant, and accompanied by a Livery Crafts Fair organised by the Skinners Company.’

Further Details are here:

TODAY SPRING SPRUNG

HAGGERSTON. LONDON

The first sunny day of the year inviting enough to eat in the garden, partly because is is north facing, and its only now getting a decent time in the sun; and partly because it was a stonking warm sun. The Haggerston Rivera in the background is full of people deciding that this is the day to get it all out out in the sun. But also there is still a small proportion of people dressed ready just in case a chill north wind arrives unexpectedly.

Its also the death of the daffodils day – at least in my garden. Still a few tulips and even one or two yet to bloom. But the star of my garden at the moment is Honesty, which you can see to the left of the table (an old door repurposed). I first grew it on the balcony and it has now spread down and appeared in three places, and is rather lovely.

Its latin name is Lunaria annua because the silver seed pods look like a full moon, but they also look like silver coins. Therefore it symbolises wealth. It’s name Honesty is said to come from the translucent pod revealing the seeds beneath, honestly.

The book you see on the table s written by a friend from my Museum of London days who has recently published a book on Shakespeare’s time living in the Parish of St Helen’s near Bishopsgate.

Photos taken by the author last night.