2023 for us began splendidly – house guests again, at last, over at least some of the twelve nights of Christmas.
Conversation, reminiscing, walks, special food, and some favourite films including a much-anticipated second watch of Stephen Macrae and Sarah Lamb’s riveting, demanding, and exhausting dancing in The Royal Ballet’s recording of “Mayerling”. I’ve touched on this ballet before, and it has a tenuous link to later in this post since Macrae portrays Crown Prince Rudolf in this bizarre true-life story of passion and tragedy. Rudolf was the only son of Emperor ‘Franz Josef’, and thus heir apparent to the Austria-Hungary empire. Rudolf’s death, with no male progeny, in a violent suicide pact with his teenage lover Mary Vetsera in 1889 meant that the succession of the Hapsburg dynasty passed to Franz Josef’s brother Ludwig. And thence to his son Franz Ferdinand. His assassination in Sarajevo was the later spark that triggered World War I.
Fiona’s mum, Diana, who was still with us on the last night of her visit, was keen to watch it for the first time, but I did wonder as I viewed the story unfold again, what she’d make of some of the more demanding sensual scenes – it turned out that she really loved it! However, as I suggested to her, it’s well worth reading the background history before watching the whole thing, to set it in context. Or watch this excellent short résumé. And then think about watching the whole ballet, whether or not you’re a ballet fan – it’s firmly in our top 4 favourites now, maybe our top two.
We’d started the Bank Holiday Monday with a trip to the seaside for a walk on the stunning Poppit sands, which Diana had apparently never visited before. And were blessed not just with stunning light, but a motley band of others desperate to escape from the post-Christmas gloom which has settled on much of West Wales.
We’d never seen horses being exercised on the sands in our many trips there, and these were a particular delight for Diana and Fiona since both were keen riders in their younger years. Although the sand was lacking in its usual array of fascinating patterns, a few still caught my eye. Despite Diana’s 90 years, we made it most of the way across to the distant river Teifi, and back again with fond memories which will linger.
We drove back through the nearby coastal town of Cardigan, which lies 3 miles up river from Poppit’s beach, and up past the newish catholic church of Mair y Tapr – Our Lady (Mary) of the Taper, the National Shrine of Wales. The history of this shrine is interesting since one of the many “common” ancient names for snowdrops across Europe, in different languages, is “Mary’s tapers”. Indeed as I’ve discussed in a section of my Galanthophile talk, written about here, snowdrops have formed a significant part of Candlemas celebrations on February 2nd, with their symbolism of new life and light during the (still) darkest season of the year. Just as Mary’s burning taper or candle are symbols of the Christian belief of Christ being God’s gift of light to the world. The history or myth of exactly when and how snowdrops first arrived on our shores, has no easy answers, but still fascinates me, as does their ancient and current associations with people and places. Historically, catholic Candlemas services would have involved the blessing of candles for the whole congregation’s benefit. These holy candles, once taken home, would have been lit and prayers said to ward off evil spirits and forces. It’s only recently been recognised that some of the taper burn marks found on doorways and fireplace bressummer beams in Royal palaces, as well as less grand, but ancient buildings (like the old hall at Great Dixter which is where we first heard about their recent interpretation in 2018), weren’t simple accidental burn marks on the timber. But rather were carefully created and had a significant religious, or more specifically apotropaic (my first new word for 2023 = “designed to avert evil or bad luck”) purpose – to ensure the residents were protected from evil infiltrating their hearth and home, or even the risk of the bad luck of a major fire starting in a timber framed building.
Since I first started to think about the possible historical or mythical links between candles, burn marks, and the use of snowdrops as symbols in the history of both early and contemporary church services in some countries, much more has appeared online. I’d urge anyone intrigued by just why this burn mark practice was used so widely, to read this excellent well illustrated recent review, by James Wright of Triskele Heritage (Mediaeval Mythbusting Blog #8: Burn Marks), from July 2021. He even performs his own experiment to try to replicate such “accidental burn marks”, and writes:
“The candle or taper was steadily held at a 45 degree angle to the timber so that the hottest part of the flame lightly touched it. The procedure almost instantly created sooting on the woodwork but, as time passed, the burn very gradually began to wear into the woodwork. After 5 or 10 minutes the flame created a burn a few millimetres deep at the base with a tapering above. A charred crust eventually formed which inhibited further burning and it was found that after scraping out the base of a burn site with a knife blade the burning could be reactivated. Whilst surveying a farmhouse in Worcestershire, I recorded striations within burn marks on a fireplace lintel which seemed to offer physical evidence of this practice. What is very apparent is that the creation of tear-shaped burn marks required time, patience and deliberate human intervention – they are unlikely to be the result of mere accident.”
For over 20 years we hadn’t noticed that I’d been going to bed each night with a taper-shaped burn mark, on the A-frame bedroom woodworm ridden oak beam just 2 feet from my head!On re-inspection this morning, I see that it’s also the only beam in the house that has simple gouged lines on the side of the beam at this point. What significance do these straight gouge lines have? I suspect they were inscribed very early on in the history of the building, this section of which dates back to around the 1600s. Perhaps this is why Gelli Uchaf has always seemed such a happy, peaceful home?
But back to the Cardigan shrine and the history of Mair Tapr/Mary’s taper. To quote from the church’s history notes:
Legend tells how, in the Middle Ages, a beautiful statue of Our Lady, her Son on her lap, and a burning taper in her hand, appeared on the banks of the River Teifi in Cardiganshire. Any attempt to move the statue to the parish church in Cardigan resulted in its reappearing at the spot where it first appeared. It became a place of pilgrimage and St Mary’s church was built on that spot in 1158. A chantry priest sang Mass daily in honour of Our Lady for pilgrims who came to pray and leave gifts. They lodged with the Knights Hospitallers of St. John, where the Angel Hotel now stands. The site resembles an earlier shrine in the city of Arras, which was then in Flanders. (Home to the then highest quality wool cloth and tapestry artisans in Europe- sic) Did Flemish merchants, who settled in Cardigan and traded in Welsh wool out of the port, bring the statue back with them? The original statue was destroyed in the Reformation.
(At the beginning of the 20th century, monks from Brittany gave their abbey church the name of Our Lady of Cardigan and revived the devotion. They made the same dedication to the small church they built in Cardigan in 1912. The monks left in 1916 and the devotion lapsed. In 1952, Bishop Petit learned that there had once been a shrine in Cardigan and decided to restore it. He commissioned a new statue, which was blessed in Westminster Cathedral in 1956. Unfortunately, the statue wore badly, and in 1986 a new statue – in bronze – was installed in the Church on Pentecost Sunday in the presence of 4500 pilgrims. It was blessed in Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral, and like its predecessor, it toured throughout Wales before being placed in the current Church. The Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Taper was designated as the Welsh National Shrine of Our Lady by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1986.)
Interestingly, the church commissioned a series of new stained glass windows by Amber Hiscott, for the church’s renovation project. It seems that either no one involved was a galanthohphile, or perhaps that the Welsh language never developed the use of “Mary’s tapers” as a commonly used moniker for snowdrops – eirlys and lili wen fach are both used, since a snowdrop doesn’t appear amongst the stained glass scenes, and the website states:
There are over 50 flowers that, in the Welsh language, are associated with Our Lady and are named accordingly. Mair (Mary) forms the basis for many country flowers; Mennyg Mair (foxglove), Mantell Mair (Lady’s Mantle), Chwys Mair (buttercup), Rhos Mair (rosemary) and Dagrhau Mair (fuchsia).
Cardigan is also significant as the location for a major, early medieval battle, Crug Mawr, around twenty years earlier in 1136, than the appearance of the statue of Mary with the burning taper on the banks of the river (and presumably close to the scene of the battle’s slaughter), which led to the first shrine to Mair y Tapr being created. The then-resident Norman forces led by Robert fitz Martin who controlled Cardigan castle and the surrounding area mustered an army of about 10,000, including 1,000 Flemish infantry and 2,000 mostly heavy, cavalry. The Welsh army was slightly smaller at about 9,000 but included 2,000 longbowmen. It was this force of archers, which launched a massive arrow attack on the Normans’ attacking forces, that would prove to be the decisive element in the fighting – one of the very first engagements in which longbows were used in numbers in any European battle. The Normans were routed, and in retreating across the (presumably wooden?) bridge to reach the safety of the castle in Cardigan, their sheer weight of numbers caused the bridge to collapse. Hundreds drowned and whilst some made it back to the castle, and even survived a siege there, a Welsh victory was achieved, and the rest of Cardigan was torched. Skulls riven by axe blows have been located near this site.
I mention this partly because it highlights how the Western seaboard of Wales was involved in significant trade as well as being occupied and controlled off and on for many years by continental Northern European forces familiar with catholic culture and customs. Indeed Wales was, like much of the UK, a catholic country for many centuries.
But also because one of the Galanthus cultivars, (above, – it’s one of the very last to flower here), which came to me as part of my Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt project, was gifted and originated from a naturalised population growing just a few feet above sea level, close to the River Teifi in Cardigan. And near the site of the original Cardigan castle, which was built by an earlier Norman baron, Roger de Montgomery. He constructed the first, simpler motte-and-bailey fortress around 1093, about a mile away from the present castle Many Roman artifacts have also been found in the vicinity of Old Castle farm too, so the question of just when these very late flowering snowdrops arrived at this ancient port site with centuries of lost history, trade, and life stories, and indeed from where, is certainly open to speculation.
Our journey home in time for lunch, found the weather was still sunny as we came over the mountain for our descent into Rhydcymerau, with one of the most glorious local views around.
It then rained and rained, and photo opportunities, let alone outside work was very limited. 185mm falling in the first 10 days of the year.
Or as I like to think of it, 185 litres of water falling onto every square metre of our land. No wonder everywhere is so soggy.
However, the generally mild temperatures associated with all the rain, meant that different snowdrops began to emerge in numbers as they always do during the early days of January.
(G. ‘Bess’, above)
For centuries, the celebration of Twelfth Night, and Epiphany used to be a major part of the extended Christmas holiday celebrations, rather than just the date by which Christmas decorations should all be taken down, lest bad luck strikes in the New year. Twelfth Night parties weren’t complete without a special Twelfth Night cake containing a hidden bean and pea. The finders of which became King and Queen for the night’s festivities, even if this involved some humorous gender changes. (How contemporary?) These traditions seem to have largely died out by late Victorian times in the UK, with increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, and the need to get the workforce back into the factories, sober, and ready to produce at the start of the New Year.
G. ‘Mrs.Macnamara’ above.
One of Shakespeare’s great plays, of the same title “Twelfth Night – or What you Will” was probably commissioned for a premiere performance as part of the Twelfth Night celebrations held by Queen Elizabeth I at Whitehall Palace on 6 January 1601 to mark the end of the embassy of the Italian diplomat, the Duke of Orsino. It was first performed in public on Candlemas night, February 2nd, 1602, at Middle Temple Hall, and the plot incorporates appropriate gender confusion amongst the leading players.
All of this had me thinking, not for the first time, about how the very first snowdrop cultivars help substitute as tokens of cheer at this often weather-miserable time. And then I reflected on how many of those which I’ve accumulated over the years regularly emerge in time for Twelfth Night, and some even seem to thrive in our particularly wet climate. Some earlies have no garden merit, at least here, having either died or not bulked up – Galanthus ‘Epiphany’, below, springs to mind.
Others like G. ‘Colossus’, below, if not quite living up to its name have turned out to be one of the finest early snowdrops here, and a reminder of that great snowdrop garden at Colesbourne, where it was first discovered and named by Sir Henry and Lady Carolyn Elwes. Sir Henry’s grandfather, Henry John Elwes was a botanist and great plant hunter, and the broad-leaved snowdrop species G. elwesii was named in his honour. I was fortunate to have chatted with them both briefly on our only trip to Colesbourne in 2017. Indeed it was Lady Carolyn who gave my snowdrop interest a major encouragement when she persuaded me to keep lifting, dividing, and re-planting clumps, saying that their fabulous displays (above) had been created by them in just the previous 25 years, once she started to restore the gardens at Colesbourne and discover the many hidden gems still growing amongst the trees. So it was with considerable sadness that I heard that she died, very suddenly at the age of 82, just before Christmas. Her legacy will live on in many ways, and this obituary highlights what a full life she led.
G. ‘Desdemona’ above.
Part of the huge appeal for me with snowdrops is that many have links in their name either to the season of first flower appearance, or better, to names of people, places, or even characters from Shakespeare plays, like the many doubles bred by Heyrick Greatorex in Norfolk in the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately, Heyrick kept no images of them, they can vary in appearance from year to year, and they can all look remarkably similar. (E.g. G.‘Desdemona’ (the wife of “Othello”), ‘Hippolyta’ (Queen of the Amazons in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), ‘Jaquenetta’ (lover of Don Armado, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”), ‘Lavinia’ (violated in “Titus Andronicus” and also Greatorex’s mother’s middle name), ‘Ophelia’ (“Hamlet”‘s rejected love), and ‘Titania’ (the Fairy Queen, “Midsummer Night’s Dream”).
G. ‘Jaquenetta’, above
Could some of these early favourite snowdrop names be woven into a themed poem, I wondered? I probably could do better, but enough time’s already been spent on this, so this will have to do!
G. ‘Shropshire Queen’, above
Twelfth Night Snowdrops
The New Year’s drowning, torrented away
Down fields slushed mossy olive green.
Dark suffocating clouds weighed down all day.
Dim monochrome, hill-snuffing, flat lead-slate grey.
The back door’s swollen, the house slam-shakes,
The barn springs gush, the sluiced tracks’ wake,
The ewes despair, their oiled rinsed wool,
No match for such incessant rain.
They stand beside the bursting banks
Silent. Still. Deranged. Our small flock
Dreams, perhaps of days gone by, of days to come,
When clouds disperse, and warmth and sometime soon, some sun.
Yet even now, as Twelfth Night fades, with waning moon
Now distant, dim, Mair’s early tapered vanguards,
Slim – Gloom piercing spears, some ancient green-white tips
Still sheathed. Still point – not only up, but back
To distant, long-forgotten times. Washed up
Or borne by Flander’s sons beside the mighty Teifi flows.
Rain swelled, since summer’s sleep, so deep, restored,
They welcome now this dull New Year.
The spears burst free, swell, cock, and by some miracle then fall,
Now virgin lanterns free, drip hung, drop arched, still yearn
For better clement days, and lesser winds, their spreading wings
Cool beacons guide, and beckon for that gold the bees may bring.
While all the rest, the massive hoard, primed not dead
Though still beneath the rotting leaf-strewn earth,
Break free, nose-up, slow-timed for Candlemas release.
Light up this land, at least those Eden plots,
Where history, myth, and legends merge,
Where angel tears meet snow-flaked ground
And light, and hope, once more are found.
So plan your feast, compile your guest list now,
Then greet in years to come, these joyful flowers.
Salute fair ‘Bess’, a ‘Shropshire Queen’, the showy
‘Desdemona’, ‘Jaquenetta’ – those Heyrick twins.
Seat all between the ‘Reverend Hailstone‘ and
Never prim or proper, the not-so-Irish ‘Mrs. Macnamara‘.
Add ‘Lyn’ and ‘Lime Tree’ – like ‘D’ & ‘J’ so hard to tell these two,
With ‘Castlegar’, ‘Colossus’, and imperial ‘Franz Josef too.
If asked politely, angel ‘Gabriel’ may sing,
Ring Ding-Dong’ s bells, such merry chimes, clap loud, exclaim,
Crossed ‘Lapwing’s flight will flatter, surely
With the encore charm she’ll bring.
They’ll not outstay their welcome,
They’ll return when you expect
And satisfy deep yearning for
A New Year, specially blessed.
G. ‘Lapwing’ above
It’s that time of the year when I quickly whizz through all the photos from the garden over the last year of blogging to pick 2 scenic ones to grace the cover of my annual blog single book order, and one smaller one of an image of wildlife to feature on the ‘dedications’ page. We had at least 4 unique options for the latter.
Always tricky choices to make, but to ring the changes, these are the three we went for from 2022, with our determinedly aggressive and amorous window-bashing Pied Wagtail winning out for the wildlife shot.
Scenes to remind us that seasons will soon change.
Finally, to close, another piece of music from a brilliantly eclectic selection “Motherland” played by Khatia Buniatishvili. A simple arrangement by Willhelm Kempff of Handel’s Minuet in G minor HWV 434. Nothing more to say, but I hope you enjoy it.