The appeal of the poppy ­– lest we forget…

Like many people, I have been greatly moved by the wonderful display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. By 11 November, 8,000 volunteers will have placed a staggering 888,246 ceramic poppies into the grass – each representing the life of a solider from Britain or the Commonwealth lost in WWI. Inspired by this, I thought I would look into how we came to use this striking flower as a symbol of remembrance… 

The remembrance poppy (Papaver rhoeas) has been used since 1921 to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. Inspired by the WW I poem “In Flanders Fields”, they were first used by the American Legion to commemorate American soldiers who died in that war. They were then adopted by military veterans’ groups in parts of the former British Empire –­ the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The remembrance poppy is especially evident in this country in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday when they are distributed by The Royal British Legion in return for donations to their ‘Poppy Appeal’, which supports all current and former British military personnel.

The opening lines of “In Flanders Fields” refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders. The poem was written by Canadian doctor and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on 3 May 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend, a fellow soldier, the day before.

At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance. At this conference, Frenchwoman Anna Guérin was inspired to introduce the artificial poppies we see today and in 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London, where they were adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion.

Did you know that not all the poppies are the same? In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the poppies have two red petals, a green paper leaf and are mounted on a green plastic stem. In Scotland, the poppies are curled and have four petals with no leaf. The yearly selling of poppies is a major source of income for the RBL in the UK. A team of about 50 people — most of them disabled former British military personnel — work all year round to make millions of poppies at the Poppy Factory in Richmond.

In recent years, I think most of us will have heard the touching stories of the roles that animals played during the war, from the gallant horses to the indispensible carrier pigeons. So it is wonderful that, to commemorate animal victims of war, Animal Aid in Britain has issued a purple poppy, which can be worn alongside the traditional red one, as a reminder that both humans and animals have been – and continue to be – victims of war.

Have you been to the Tower of London to see the poppies? What did you think?

 

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A sign of the times…

If you live in Devon, you can get a bit obsessed with signposts. We still have lots of lovely old-fashioned white fingerposts at junctions in our narrow lanes displaying what we often refer to as ‘the Devon mile’ – a curious ‘elastic’ measurement. Let me explain. You set off following a fingerpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 3¼’ miles and then, after driving a good couple of miles, you’ll find another one that says Stokeinteignhead 2½’ miles. You frown, scratch your head and go on for another two or so until you come to another signpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 2¼’. You will get to your destination on the end, but a Devon mile is a funny thing and usually much longer than you expect…

Traditional direction signs, or ‘fingerposts’, are as English as red post boxes and the old-fashioned red telephone box and very much part of the ‘traditional’ English look’ that so many foreign visitors love to see. These days, many fingerposts are falling into disrepair but, where they do still survive, they come in a wide variety of regional and local designs. Some have finials on the top, others have proper pointing ‘hands’ like white gloves, while others even have lanterns on the top. Amazingly, the oldest fingerpost, in the Cotswolds, dates from 1699!

To try and standardise this mishmash of designs, in the 1920s the Ministry of Transport stated that direction signs should use standard black upper case lettering on a white background and specified that the name of the authority should also appear in the design. While following these guidelines, local authorities still had plenty of leeway over the exact design of posts, arms and finials and this led to a wide variety of local styles.

Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall boasted red posts with white lettering (no one is sure why!) while others had finials in the form of discs, rings, balls and pyramids marked with county names and sometimes even a map grid references. Over the years, further reviews have been carried out to try and standardise the signs, and again, local authorities were encouraged, but not forced, to remove traditional fingerposts. But, as is so often the case in this wonderfully eccentric country of ours, they wanted to maintain their regional identities, so did nothing. And that’s why there are still lots of weirdly designed fingerposts pointing all over the country to this day.

Being an old romantic, I think it will be a sad day when fingerposts eventually disappear and all anyone does is listen to their boring old sat nav bossing them about. In the Westountry we have wonderful, romantic place names – as well as some really funny ones. I still get a thrill when I drive past signs in Cornwall to ‘Demelza’, the name of a village borrowed by Winston Graham for the heroin of his Poldark books – and a steamy TV drama from my teens (Robin Ellis in tight breeches!!)! And on a back road way down in the south of Cornwall, you’ll come across one of my absolute favourite signs pointing to ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the setting for, and name of, the impossibly romantic historical novel by Daphne Du Maurier.

Long may the fingerpost continue to show us the way!

 

 

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The spirit of the harvest…

HTop to bottom: A westcountry ‘neck’ and a Suffolk horseshoe.ere’s a clue: Staffordshire has the knot, Suffolk the horseshoe and Devon has the Topsham cross. Any ideas what I am talking about? Other local names include Maiden Cross, Boat and Turnip while in the westcountry they were often called a Neck. Today, we generally just refer to them as corn dollies.

I’ve always rather liked these intricate and rather beautiful woven shapes and have had various designs hanging on beams and on mantlepieces over the years. In fact, this blog was inspired by me finding the tattered remains of a dolly that had fallen behind an arrangement in the kitchen fireplace – oops, housekeeping fail Joanna!

It is said that the name corn dolly comes from a corruption of ‘corn idol’ and that this straw ‘idol’ was a winter refuge for the ‘Spirit of the Harvest’. Normally the spirit lived in the growing crops but when they were cut it became homeless and so the hollow straw woven corn dolly provided a winter sanctuary.

As with so many old traditions, the concept has its roots in the pagan ‘circle’ – as in everything is born, dies, and is reborn, just the harvest is sown, it ripens, the crop is harvested and then the spirit, represented by the corn dolly, is eventually ploughed back into the soil where it grows again.

Each county had its own variation on the corn dolly theme resulting in lots of different shapes and designs. In Devon, the most traditional design was the ‘neck’, which was always made from the last sheaf of corn to be cut on any farm. Linked to this was the tradition of ‘crying the neck’ in which great ceremony was displayed when cutting the last sheaf.

It appears that there were two sorts of tradition concerning the last ‘neck’, it was either taken in as it was or made into a corn dolly. Either way, the neck was kept until after Christmas and then on ‘Plough Monday’ (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) it was cast into the first furrow and returned to the soil, this would ensure a good harvest for the year. If the dolly was not ploughed under then the harvest was doomed to failure.

Wheat straw was the easiest material to plait and old varieties with long hollow stems – such as the wonderfully named Maris Widgeon, Flamingo or Squarehead Master – were used. Today, farmers grow shorter stemmed cereal varieties and modern harvesting methods cut the straw shorter. Finding ears of corn with stalks long enough to make corn dollies has become difficult and sadly they have largely faded into harvest lore. And yet, a few farmers still grow the old, long stemmed cereal varieties for thatching and some people who have retained the skills still make the dollies. So, if you are lucky, you might come across a ‘dolly maker’ at a country show and craft fair.

Well, I’m debating sneaking outside and digging a small furrow and burying the remains of this particular corn dolly specimen. I’d hate to blight the crops, and it might do my garden good. I’ve just got to manage it when Richard isn’t looking…!

 

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Holly Lady

OK, OK, I know… it’s not Christmas yet… but surely you have vaguely thought about it? My mother was asking when I could get her cards finished as she wanted to start writing the letters that go inside them, so yes, I seriously do have to start planning Christmas!

This pretty lady reminds me of my Mum about 70 years ago when she was young, we have a wonderful picture of her in the cloakroom as part of a family gallery – it’s a great way to use up the masses of sepia and black and white pictures I have.

This card relies quite heavily on Signature dies for its embellishments and if you haven’t had a browse through that section of our website yet, there are certainly plenty to see!

The lady herself is from our Victorian Christmas Triple CD which usefully is on offer at half price just at the moment, so might be a worthwhile investment. The torn strip of parchment across the card adds a lovely snowy type feel doesn’t it? So come on have you started your cards yet?

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Vinegar – magic in a bottle!

I was rummaging in the slightly chaotic kitchen cupboard where I keep my vinegars, herbs and spices when I discovered that I had about ten different bottles of vinegar of varying antiquity. There, alongside my favourite balsamic, were also bottles of apple, red wine, white wine, cider, white and malt vinegars, plus a couple of others too tattered to identify. I’d obviously bought different types of vinegar for different recipes over the years and then not used them again. Never being one to waste anything if I can help it, I started Googling vinegar and its uses and, as so often happens with the internet, was amazed at all the fascinating things I discovered!

Laundry
Did you know you can clean your washing machine with vinegar? No, neither did I! If you pour 450ml of white distilled vinegar into the dispenser and then run a full cycle, without clothes or detergent, it will clean out soap scum and disinfect the washing machine.

White vinegar, either distilled or full strength, is also amazingly useful for removing stains. I found too many to list them all here, but to give you an idea, white vinegar can tackle bloodstains, ink, rust, orange juice, black coffee and beer! 

Cleaning
I think most of us know that vinegar is useful for cleaning windows and you can also buy household cleaners based on vinegar. But why not try making your own?  Simply fill a recycled spray bottle with 2 parts water to I part distilled white vinegar and a couple of drops of washing up liquid for a quick clean solution.

Outdoors
As we seem to be enjoying a bit of an Indian summer, you might still manage the odd BBQ, or lunch outside. To keep flying insects at bay, you can place bowl filled with apple cider vinegar near some food, but away from your guests, and by the end of the day you’ll find lots of uninvited guests floating in the bowl!

Health & beauty
The healthy and beauty benefits of apple cider vinegar seem to be endless! From constipation to corns and from arthritis to warts it seems to be a cure-all. If you look online, or consult a reference book you’ll find lots of suggestions on how to use apple cider vinegar. Here are just a couple I came across: 

  • If you suffer from arthritis, try placing 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and honey in a glass of water, and stir vigorously, then drink. This mixture is said to help relieve pain.
  • If you have warts, put apple cider vinegar on a plaster and wrap over the wart. Replace the plaster each night and, after about a week, the wart will have gone!

Vinegar has been revered throughout the ages – it is mentioned many times in the Bible. The Romans used it, as did Hannibal, and it came to the rescue in all sorts of ways in the Middle Ages, not least as a protection against the germs of the Black Death. So, the next time you put it some malt vinegar on your chips (naughty!) or more healthily some balsamic on your salad remember, there’s a lot more to vinegar than just a nice taste!

 

 

 

 

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