When the writing is on the wall…

Examples of plague graffiti – church monuments memorialise the elite while graffiti remembers the ‘common voice’.I always thought graffiti was a modern day curse – but no, it’s been around for years but we just hadn’t spotted it! Apart from the surprise of discovering so much of it in our ancient churches, it is also fascinating as it is the ‘voice of the people’ – it’s not the expensively carved monument of the landed gentry, it is often the only record of ‘ordinary’ people, many of them children, who lived and died and completely disappeared.

A project to record the graffiti, which began in Norfolk churches, is gradually spreading across England. Medieval graffiti of pentagrams, crosses, ships and ‘demon traps’ have given historians a fascinating glimpse into England’s past. Armed with just a torch and a camera, a team of volunteers has recorded more than 28,000 images from churches in Norfolk alone! Although the graffiti discovered so far offers an insight into the minds of some (possibly bored!) churchgoers in the Middle Ages, the meaning of the scratched images is not always clear.

The graffiti of the the three sisters’ names has been ‘re-worked’ to highlight the writing, otherwise it is near-invisible to the eyeHowever, other graffiti is easier to interpret. Heart-breaking graffiti uncovered in a Cambridgeshire church has revealed how three sisters from one family died in a plague outbreak in 1515. The names Cateryn, Jane and Amee Maddyngley and the date were carefully inscribed on stonework in Kingston parish church. 

The graffiti project had shown that church plague graffiti was far more common than previously realised. The Maddyngley family lived in Kingston, seven miles from Cambridge, and were tenant farmers who, in the way of things, would rarely turn up in parish records.

Archaeologists believe Cateryn, Jane and Amee must have been children because their names are not found as adults in any of the records. The Maddyngleys had lived in Kingston since at least 1279. In 1515, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in London which spread across south east England. 

Kingston Church.In times of plague, children were particularly hard-hit and usually hastily buried in unmarked graves, their little lives lost forever. The carving of the sisters’ names, who archaeologists believe died in the plague outbreak, has created a lasting memorial to them.

The project has confirmed more graffiti was created during times of pestilence such as the Black Death of 1349 and subsequent outbreaks of plague. Was it a way of remembering the dead, or commending them to God, or what? One can only imagine what it must have been like in those far off dark days to lose your children and have no memorial to them. I know lives were shorter and children often died through all sorts of ‘natural’ causes, but I found the image of a heartbroken father standing there and diligently scratching his dead daughters names and the date they died into the fabric of the church deeply touching.



Ginger it up!

Fresh ginger rootI was in a lovely traditional veg shop the other day and among a very nice display of fresh herbs, was a basket full of ginger root all gnarled and knobbly. And I thought, what an unprepossessing appearance it has for such a versatile and very special plant.

If I stop and think about it, ginger forms part of my diet in lots of different ways. Ginger is definitely one of my favourite herbal teas. If I haven’t got any ginger tea bags, I have been known to crush a fresh piece of ginger, pour boiling water over it and add some honey – delicious. I am also quite partial to ginger beer, the hotter the better, and the very mention of it always makes me think of Enid Blyton and her wonderful children’s books where every picnic included ‘lashings of ginger beer’. 

I bake with it quite often and love a spiced ginger cake and also ginger biscuits. If I am cooking a curry, there will be ginger involved, fresh or powdered, whatever I have to hand. If it’s Christmas, you will be sure to find some crystallised ginger in the house.

It has an utterly unique flavour, spicy, peppery, warming – and it is as much a sensation as a taste and smell.

From 1585, Jamaican ginger was the first oriental spice to be grown in the New World and imported back to Europe, so it has part of our diet for a long time. Today, India, is the largest producer with over 33% of the global production, with China in second place.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a flowering plant in the family Zingiberaceae whose rhizome, ginger root or simply ginger, and this is what we use as a spice. It is a herbaceous perennial which produces clusters of white and pink flower buds that bloom into yellow flowers. It is a reed-like plant with annual leafy stems, about a meter tall. You can grow ginger in this country, even though it is a tropical plant. I personally haven’t tried, but if you have how did you get on? Here is a link with some advice if you fancy having a go.

Zingiber officinaleIt is said to be a good remedy in the early stages of an infection because, as a warming spice, it can ‘promote a fever and hasten healing’. Ginger’s warming effects are also said to relieve rheumatic aches and pains by widening the blood vessels and stimulating circulation. It is interesting that, around the world, we like to use ginger as a soothing, healing medicine and yet there is little or no scientific proof that it actually does any good!

In limited studies, ginger was found to be ‘more effective than a placebo’ for treating nausea caused by seasickness, morning sickness and chemotherapy, but the results were negligible. And yet, look in almost any culture and you will see ginger used to help with nausea, travel sickness and headaches. Perhaps it is nothing more than the fact that its warming spiciness makes us feel better, and at the end of the day, perhaps that’s sometimes all we need!


The last witches…

A photographer friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page of a commemorative plaque (right) that he had spotted in Exeter. When I saw it, I felt a mixture of shock, anger and great sadness. The plaque says: 

The Devon witches
In memory of Temperance Lloyd
Susannah Edwards
Mary Trembles
of Bideford died 1682
Alice Molland
died 1685
The last people in England to be executed for witchcraft
Tried here & hanged at Heavitree
In the hope of an end to persecution & intolerance

I had no idea that this country still hanged people (almost exclusively women) for the trumped-up charge of witchcraft as late as the end of the 17th century. And I had never heard of these poor, unfortunate women – the so-called ‘witches’ – being the last to be so killed, and in Devon, of all places. I decided to get Googling and see what I could discover…

Known as the ‘Bideford witch trial’, Temperance, Mary and Susannah were tried in 1682 in the town of Bideford on the north Devon coast. I wasn’t surprised to read that much of the evidence against them was hearsay. They were labelled ‘the last witches’ but in fact there were other, less well-documented cases after this. It is sometimes said that Alice Molland was really the last person to be hanged for witchcraft but again, it isn’t clear and there is no evidence that the sentence was carried out but it is most likely she was hanged.

An illustration of a ‘typical’ witch trial of the era.All this happened over 300 years ago and the reporting of the time is unclear and, to our modern eyes, quite ridiculous. The three unfortunate women were accused, by their neighbours, of casting spells. On Saturday, July 1682, Thomas Eastchurch, a Bideford shopkeeper, complained to some of the town’s constables that Temperance Lloyd had been practising witchcraft. The charges were: ‘Suspicion of having used some magical art, sorcery or witchcraft upon the body of Grace Thomas and to have had discourse or familiarity with the devil’. Grace Thomas thought that Temperance Lloyd was responsible for her illness, because the previous September, Lloyd had wept with joy and expressed pleasure in seeing that Thomas had regained her health. Hmmm, certainly doesn’t spell ‘witchcraft’ to me!

Reports by Thomas Eastchurch and other accusers include stories of magpies flying in at bedroom windows (a sure sign of witchcraft) and a tabby cat, believed to be the devil, walking into Thomas’s shop.

Reading the reports now it comes across as nothing more than bigotry, ignorance and probably fear. But of course back then such accusations had terrible consequences compared to what a bit of mud slinging would have today. The ‘witches’ were defenceless women, probably poor, possibly disabled in some way (there are gory descriptions of physical defects) and quite possibly with mental health problems – outcasts and oddballs and easy targets for blame.

As the commemorative plaque so eloquently says ‘In the hope of an end to persecution & intolerance’. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case in 2014? Yes, we have achieved a lot, particularly for womankind, but we still have a very long way to go…


The myth of the magpie

I was watching a magpie in the garden yesterday, a big bold bird, its black and white feathers pristine, with iridescent blue among the black, and thinking how handsome it was. Its eyes were bright and fierce and it was watching me with what looked like real intelligence. But these belligerent birds stir strong emotions among people, and are widely hated, so I fell to wondering why,..

When anyone mentions magpies I think we tend to think or three things: The rhyme “One for sorrow, two for joy…” the hip and trendy kid’s TV programme of that name, popular when I was a teenager, and the fact that magpies are thieves. Seeing a magpie when I was a child was quite rare. Now it is one of the most common birds in the UK. They are described as challenging and arrogant and, love them or hate them, you can’t miss them. Their numbers have increased by 112% over the last 30 years. They are scavengers and collect objects and ‘cache’ food just in case there’s a shortage later on. They are also seen as predators, eating other birds’ eggs and their young, as well as plants

Where suspicion of the bird exists it often goes back to folklore and myth where magpies were thought to be bearers of bad omens and associated with the devil. You can even find negative comments as far back as Shakespeare’s time, when their “chattering” was complained about.

Of all birds it is probably the poor old magpie that is most associated with superstitions. However, most superstitions regarding magpies are based around just a single bird. Throughout Britain it is thought to be unlucky to see a lone magpie and there are a number of beliefs about what you should do to prevent bad luck.

In most parts of the UK people will salute a single magpie and say “Good morning Mr Magpie. How is your lady wife today?” By acknowledging the magpie in this way you are showing him proper respect in the hope that he will not pass bad fortune on to you. By referring to the magpie’s wife you are also implying that there are two magpies, which bring joy rather than sorrow according to the popular rhyme.

Other things you can do to prevent the bad luck a lone magpie may bring include doffing your hat, spitting three times over your shoulder or even flapping your arms like wings and cawing to imitate the magpie’s missing mate! Fortunately, as we are now pretty much overrun with the things, I don’t think I shall need to do much spitting and flapping! 

As the well known rhyme “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told,” shows it is only seeing a lone magpie that brings bad luck and groups of magpies are said to predict the future. There are many different versions of this rhyme with some counting as high as 20 birds.  Like many other birds, magpies mate for life and this may be the inspiration for this rhyme.

Here are a few magpie facts, rather than myths and superstitions: 

  • It takes a pair of magpies around 40 days to build their large, domed nest.
  • A typical magpie clutch is six eggs.
  • Only the female magpie incubates the eggs – it takes 24 days for them to hatch.
  • Young magpies leave the nest around 27 days after hatching.
  • Magpies are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, ranging from grain and fruit to carrion.
  • Magpies have been recorded catching and killing frogs, lizards, snakes, bats, mice, voles and even rabbits, as well as small birds.
  • Magpies will cache surplus food during times of plenty.
  • They are extremely intelligent and have been shown to mourn their dead.
  • Magpies can recognise themselves in a mirror – the only non-mammal to do so.
  • They can talk (imitate) as well as mynah birds and jackdaws – in fact most birds can be taught to talk… but that’s another blog altogether! 

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?