Pants

Morning coffee spot by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Last Thursday, the most amazing sound filled the evening air. Bells! I don’t think I’d realised how much I’d missed hearing them until they were ringing again. Thursday night is bell-ringing night at the parish church behind our house. Or, at least, it was before the pandemic. It made me realise how much of our community fabric I thought had unraveled without the evidence of fetes, allotment produce shows, and the bustle of people at the community café (now sadly closed down). But the bells made me hopeful. Perhaps it is there, the thread a little looser, but still a carpet after all. 

It is the beginning of the school holidays, here in Devon. Swifts screech overhead, and the hedgerows are full of tansy and meadowsweet on my rounds. Here is the view from my morning coffee stop on Saturday. Those grey clouds brought rain later, for which the ground was very glad. I asked Wren what her plans were for the holidays. “Wear pants,” was her reply. Fair enough. But I did insist she wore more than that to sign up for the summer reading challenge at the library.

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Potatoes

New potatoes in a colander by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Every window and door in the house is open as I type this. Is it hot with you? I got very red in the face digging up the last of my new potatoes at the allotment. There were rumours of blight circulating the site – it spreads so easily amongst the tightly packed plots – but I seem to have got away with it, and I have no main crop to worry about.

My little car is like a sitting in a roasting tin as I do my rounds at work. Alongside the ‘Heat Wave Contingency Plan’, a chart was circulated Trust-wide so that staff could monitor the temperature of wards and offices. Funnily enough, there was no mention in the plan of monitoring District Nurses car temperatures. The one bit of silver lining was that I didn’t have to hunt for a loo at all over the weekend. 

Term is drawing to an end here in Devon. There were plans for a Summer Fayre, which were postponed, and then eventually scrapped. The year 6’s residential took place in tents on the playing field. Sports Days were scheduled, then re-scheduled, then re-scheduled again when children in bubbles had to isolate. I was put in charge of the teacher’s end-of-year collection for Finch’s class, dropping off the present this morning. Mr. B. probably shouldn’t drink it all at once, though he may be tempted after the disrupted year we’ve had. Hats off to you teachers. I don’t know how you do it. 

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Super powers

Hay meadow in Devon by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

It has been very wet down our way. At the weekend we disturbed Meadow Browns from un-cut fields of hay, the butterflies still flying despite the showers. I suspect the farmers will be glad of the hot weather forecast to get it safely stowed in their barns.

The big news of the weekend was that Finch finally lost his first milk tooth. He has been waiting so long, his friends have been gappy for ages. The significance of the moment was not lost on him, and, as we lay on our backs on his bed, looking up through the skylights after bedtime story, his thoughts turned to the future. He had been considering what he would like to do for a job when he grows up. He reckoned these were his options:

A tennis/football player – inspired, unsurprisingly, by recent sporting events.

A computer programmer – they’ve been doing coding at school.

A tractor mechanic – he loves Reuben from Our Yorkshire Farm.

A super hero. Obvious really.

“What super powers do you have?” I asked.

“You don’t need super powers, Mum,” he scoffed. “Iron Man’s just a guy in a suit.”

I didn’t like to mention that Iron Man happens to be a billionaire in a suit. But Little Owl foresaw other obstacles.

“You don’t have the abs,” she told him.

But he wasn’t put off. “Give me chance – I’ve just lost my first tooth!”

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Good Farmers

Early morning on a Devon farm by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk

Here’s the view from our camping pod, early on Sunday morning, nipping out to the loo. It was wonderful to be somewhere different and look out on rolling hills. It’s a fabulous farm, not far from us, where the sense of how much John, the farmer, and his family, care for their land, is tangible. There’s something very special about showing my children just where their food comes from, and the amount of work that goes into making quality produce.

I happened to be reading Chris Stringer’s Homo Britannicus while we were away, and a section in chapter 3 made me savour the hard work of good farmers all the more. During one of the warm interglacial periods in Britain’s history, archaeologists were perplexed to understand why evidence for human occupation came to an abrupt halt. There’s still a lot of mystery around this, but researchers found evidence of burning, deforestation and soil erosion. Such environmental degradation would have made life untenable and it may well have been caused by humans, employing a slash and burn economy approach to forests, which ultimately back-fired. It’s easy for us humans, with our relatively short lifespans, to miss the damage we do to the planet – we don’t see the impact of successive generations employing exploitative land practices, but archaeologists are looking at time spans of thousands of years.

The warning of history is clear, exploitative land practices such as the intensive cattle feedlots you see in America, or large-scale crop monocultures supported by heavy pesticide use, do degrade soils, often irreparably. Here in Devon, we are lucky to retain a patchwork of small, family run farms, where even bad farmers understand that if they want their families to remain farming on the land for successive generations, they have to care for the soil now, mindful of its long-term health. For those of us lucky enough to live nearby, but unlucky enough not to have land of our own, we can be beneficiaries of that local economy… but, we need to be prepared to pay for it, and that means valuing more than just profit margins and getting a ‘good deal’ (monetarily but in no other way) on our weekly shop.

Back at home, the kitchen saga rumbled on. Little Owl was sent home to isolate after a close contact at school tested positive for Covid. Thankfully the latest lot of fitters were happy for her to stay isolated in the attic, using a different loo, and on we went. While it’s still not quite finished, we now have a working hob and oven, and a delicious looking joint of beef from John to cook in it!

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Bouquet

Photograph of flowers picked from allotment by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

To cut a very long story short, we are on day eight of cooking on a camping stove and washing up at the outside tap. The kitchen fitters who were supposed to be installing our new kitchen had to isolate after working in a house where there was a case of Covid, and the ones who were supposed to replace them, caught Covid somewhere else, and are in hospital. Goodness only knows when we’ll get our kitchen fitted, but in the mean time, I do wish them all a speedy recovery. The absolute irony is that we are booked to stay in a camping pod at the weekend… where we will be paying good money to cook on a camping stove, and wash up at an outside tap!

And that’s not all. Year 4 were turned away at the school gates this morning, the Headteacher only just having learned that a student in the bubble had tested positive for Covid. There hasn’t been a class off in Finch and Wren’s school since September, so this was a real shock. Just when everything seemed to be going so well, and so many plans made for July 19th.

I hope there is better news your end. Here is a cheering bouquet from the allotment. I think I’ve finally cracked cornflowers now I’ve given up direct sowing – isn’t that a bit of news to hearten us all 😉 

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At long last…

Common Spotted Orchid. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
Common Spotted Orchid

I hope you enjoyed my delvings into the folklore behind my children’s novel, The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle over the last few weeks. In the mean time, life has been marching on… the swifts arrived and with them, finally, at loooong last, some warmth. I had to re-sow my perpetual spinach at the allotment, clearly placing too much faith in the beneficence of the season. But biggest news of all is that Finch found a 100%, genuine, four-leaf clover! 

Another ‘at-long-last’ occurred at the weekend – Big Dreamer’s parents made it down from Yorkshire. For Father’s Day, we sat all together at the top of a steep, south-facing slope, watching a soft summer rain fall over an orchard in a deep, wooded Devon combe. We munched on toblerone, and supped coffee and hot chocolate. The orchard was full of wildflowers. Ox-eye daisies, golden grasses, and orchids glistened with raindrops, the air full of birdsong. It was perfect. I hope you had a wonderful Father’s Day, and maybe an ‘at-long-last’ too.

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Folktales: Witches

Cherry blossom by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery has no memory of the group of witches who promised to look after her when she was a baby. The witches live in a magical house called Cunningfoot, with doors that open all over the world. I loved developing the witches’ characters and thinking about what each of them may be like. There are stories of witches in most places in the world, although they vary quite a bit in what they are like and the roles they play in folktales. These folktale witches gave me a grounding for thinking of my witches as a really multicultural group of friends, working on the side of ‘good’ magic. There are seven of them in all. In old stories, the number seven often signifies completion, perfection, or wholeness. I don’t suppose I was really thinking that the witches were perfect, because they really aren’t, but I liked the idea that the fact there were seven of them in their friendship group might have some magical significance.

Cassandra is the first witch we meet in the book. She has long red hair, and wears silken dresses with lace at the cuffs and neck. She’s very pretty, and Avery is taken with her from the moment she meets her. I chose the name Cassandra because there is a witch called Cassandra in Greek mythology. This Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. The god Apollo fell in love with her and so granted her the gift of seeing the future, but when she didn’t return his love he cursed her. Now, when she told anyone what she had foreseen, they never believed her. Cassandra is a tragic figure in Greek mythology, living a cursed life, and dying a sad death. Although my Cassandra is very much a Scottish witch, she too is quite a tragic figure. I’ll say no more for fear of giving away too much!

Mab is another Scottish witch, and one that Avery really doesn’t get on with. Like Cassandra she has long red hair, but she is severe and harsh. Shakespeare uses the name Mab for the Queen of the Faeries in A Midsummer Nights Dream. There are lots of modern ideas around Mab the faery Queen as coming from British folklore, but I don’t think anyone has managed to show conclusively that the idea existed before Shakespeare. Certainly Shakespeare’s Mab is an ambivalent figure, and so is mine!

Ceridwen is a rosy-cheeked witch from the Welsh valleys. I have a real soft spot for Ceridwen because she is based on some of the Welsh women in my family, and their friends. She is loud, has a huge heart, and is an amazing singer. In fact, I have heard she is often to be found of an evening belting out a few Shirley Bassey classics on karaoke nights in her favourite Welsh pubs! Ceridwen is the name of a Welsh witch in traditional tales too, and like my Cerdiwen, she was a good witch. ‘Cerdd’ means poetry or song in Welsh, and ‘wen’ means white, fair, or holy, so it’s no surprise that she was known as a white witch, and was the goddess of poetry, inspiration, and of the cauldron of transfiguration. My Ceridwen has a particular talent for ‘disposals’ which comes in handy in the book, and this talent was inspired by the idea of the cauldron of transfiguration.

Kikimora is a sharp-featured little witch, who comes from Eastern Europe. She was inspired by the Slavic female house spirit called Kikimora, who is also the spirit of spinning, weaving and needlework. She’s a tempestuous spirit who is a loving guardian of children, and helps with the housework if she’s happy, but beware if she’s upset! We don’t see too much of this side of my Kikimora in the book, but I imagined her to have a similarly stormy temperament!

Lilith has big eyes, and wears round glasses. She is from the Middle-East. She was possibly born in what is now modern-day Syria but like all the witches, she is very long-lived, and can’t really remember. Lilith was based on a real character called Lilith who originates in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered the first written story. This Lilith appears in lots of places after that, from the Bible, to modern TV series. She is often portrayed as a very dark character, not so much a witch as a demoness. The word ‘lilith’ comes from a Sumerian word, which can be interpreted as wind spirits, night creatures, or screech owls. This idea of Lilith originating from ancient peoples trying to explain the strange noises in the dark really appeals to me. Can you picture them sitting around their campfire, listening…? It would be easy to imagine that the sounds of the wind, or screeching owls, were something supernatural. We have our own version of this idea in Britain in traditional names for Barn Owls like ‘Ghost Owl’ and ‘Death Owl’. In old folktales, Lilith will sometimes strike a deal to be a guardian, usually of a mother and child. This idea chimed nicely with the guardian role my Lilith has for Avery. And the strong association of the original Lilith with owls, gave me the idea that my Lilith might have a special interest in owls too, and so might be a useful source of information for Low in the future

Jezebel is a witch from Texas in the USA. She has purple hair which she piles up in a column on her head, a bit like Marg Simpson. There aren’t any folktales that I know of, of witches from Texas. Jezebel was a real product of my imagination. The name ‘Jezebel’ comes from the Phoenician princess Jezebel who marries King Ahab in the Bible. The writers of the Bible describe her as a bad ‘un and she is commonly considered a witch in popular culture, even though there isn’t anything about magic in the Bible story. It’s a difficult story to read for modern women. The biblical Jezebel comes across as clever, beautiful, and not prepared to change herself for anyone – qualities that I tend to admire. Ahab on the other hand sounds weak and a bit of a flannel if I’m honest, so you can see how Jezebel might have thought, ‘right, looks like it’s up to me to rule this country then.’ On the other hand, the writers of the Bible are clear that the worship of the god Baal, which she brought to Israel, involved sacrificing children, and if Jezebel’s contemporaries could see that was wrong, it suggests we can’t really excuse her with, ‘oh they did things differently in the past’ either. Funnily enough it turns out murder has always been wrong. She should really have known better!

My Jezebel is an entirely different kettle of fish to the Biblical Jezebel, and the only link really is the name and the biblical origins. In my mind, if my Jezebel was going to come from anywhere, it had to be one of the Southern states of the US. She is based on a mixture of several female country artists who I love – expansive, generous, down-to-earth, and someone who never goes out without her nails freshly painted and half a can of hairspray on her hair.

Baba is the witch who becomes closest to Avery and Low in the book. She has a halo of short white hair, wears layers of giant cardigans, and flaps around in over-sized granddad slippers. The name Baba comes from the Slavic witch Baba Yaga, who was supposed to appear as a deformed, ferocious-looking woman, and lived in a hut which stood on chicken legs. Baba symbolises traditional wisdom, and the wild magic of nature in folk tales, which is closely aligned to female agency and knowledge. She’s wise, powerful, and kind, but also cruel and capricious at times – much like nature itself. These deep symbols are the elements of the traditional Baba Yaga character that I have taken for my Baba.

In contrast to the frozen Russian forests, my Baba comes from the Caribbean. I am so inspired by the folktales from the Caribbean and couldn’t help but conjure up a character from what I had read. Due to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, African traditions met European ones in the Caribbean, creating a whole new melting pot of ideas and stories. There are lots of witch stories for example, from animal witches to blood-sucking vampire witches. Baba probably most closely aligns with traditional stories I’ve read of Gang Gang Sara. My Baba isn’t this character at all, but I do have a sense of Baba having raised her own family like Gang Gang Sara, and that there is deep sadness in her past. For Avery and Low she adopts an almost mother-like figure with special knowledge of wild and ancient magic. She is also a keeper of memories – of wisdom and traditions that mere mortals may have long forgotten, though her memory does go a bit AWOL in the book!

So, there we are, we have reached the end of my folktales series. I hope you have enjoyed it. It is Midsummer next week, so happy Midsummer to you all. May it be filled with magic and merry dreams, though hopefully no Shakespearian donkey transformations 🙂

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Folktales: My Baddies

Peat Hags. Image used under Creative Commons License.
Real Peat Hags!

At the beginning of my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery has a horrible feeling she is being followed by something not nice… and it turns out she’s correct! There’s a few baddies in the book, and my ideas for them came from Scottish Folktales.

First up are, the Badoch – the creatures who are following Avery at the beginning of the book. Mab, the witch, describes them like this:

“They’re shapeless beings that can merge together to make themselves more powerful when they’re on the hunt. They come from the Mamores mountain range, north of Kinlochleven. They’re creatures of shadow, nasty things. You had a lucky escape.”

In Scottish folklore there is a character called the Bodach, a little old man, who is thought to foretell the death of members of a clan. My Badoch aren’t like the Bodach at all, but I did pinch the Bodach’s name, swapped a couple of letters, and made it my own. Otherwise the Badoch are pretty much my own invention – snarling shadowy creatures with long claws that try to creep out and grab you. Fortunately you only need to worry about them if you live in Scotland, as they rarely venture south of the border!

In the book, magic is on the wan in Scotland for various reasons, and this is allowing nasty creatures with malicious intent to spread more widely. One of these creatures is the Sluagh. In Scottish folklore, these are the unforgiven dead. I don’t describe them in my book, but in my mind they appear as flocks of winged, goblin-type creatures, with lamp-like eyes, sharp teeth, and claws. They tend to congregate in giant murmurations around rocky outcrops – Black Cuillin on Skye being a favourite haunt.

The Peat Hags are another group of creatures spreading as the magic weakens. Hags are widespread in Scottish folktales but Peat Hags as mythical creatures are entirely my own invention. True peat hags are a type of erosion which occur in peat bogs as a result of a flow of water, or where fire or overgrazing has exposed the peat surface to dry out and blow, or wash away. Peat bogs are special wildlife habitats, and really important carbon sinks, but they are under massive threat. I’m passionate about the environment, and feel very worried about the destruction we humans are wreaking on the earth. When I talk about creatures like the Peat Hags, I am anthropomorphising the awful consequences of our lack of care for natural habitats. Again, I don’t describe my Peat Hags in any detail in the book, but in my mind they are troll-like creatures with enormous yawning mouths. They live in underground burrows, and are generally slovenly, cruel and rude. They wear brown sacking cloaks smeared in leaf-mould, out of which foul-smelling, toxic fungi grow. My Peat Hags come from the peat bogs of the Cairngorms. In the past they were kept under control by traditional practices.

The last baddie to talk about is Bean Nighe, and this is a bit of a trick one to include here really. Here’s the moment Avery and Low meet Bean Nighe properly for the first time:

“As they rounded the corner, who should be standing between the park’s iron gates but the woman in the long brown coat and big brown boots. Lank grey hair trailed down to her waist and she stared out at them with hollow grey eyes.”

Bean Nighe is a Scottish mythical female spirit. Bean Nghe literally translates as ‘washerwoman’ or ‘laundress’, and she is often to be found near rivers or streams. She is regarded as an omen of death and as a messenger from the Otherworld. My Bean Nighe isn’t really a baddie but Avery and Low briefly think she is. I couldn’t help but portray her as fairly miserable looking because, well, wouldn’t you be miserable if you only ever got to give out bad news? In fact, although Bean Nighe is warning them about something about to happen, she also passes on some very important information to Avery and Low. Not all bad then. Most baddies aren’t.

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Folktales: Hearthfolk

Domovoii by Ivan Bilibin, used under Creative Commons license.
Domovoi

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery meets a character called Knuckle. He is broad-shouldered, with hands the size of teapots. He has black freckles clustering his shoulders, arms, and hairline, and every time he sneezes, sparkling embers shoot up into the air. He describes himself as a Hearthfolk, whose job it is to keep the home fires burning.

The idea for Knuckle came from Slavic traditional beliefs about the Domovoi, house spirit-guardians, who usually live under the stove or the hearth. The domovoi are mainly concerned with maintaining order and peace in the home. More often than not, they are heard rather than seen, but when they are seen, they tend to appear as a small, hairy, grey-bearded human. If you’ve read anything I’ve previously written about my more than slight obsession with belonging and home, you’ll not be surprised to learn that I love this idea of a creature who is intent on keeping the home together! 

The word ‘hearth’ isn’t apparently related to the word ‘heart’ at all, but in the past hearths really were the heart of the home. This is symbolised in old Dartmoor tradition when moving house. Burning embers from the fire are placed in a tin can and carried from one hearth to the next. In modern homes with central heating it’s hard to imagine how significant the home fire was, but we all know how nice it is to cosy up around the dancing flames of a bonfire or wood burner. Hearths were so important in the past in fact, that in early population censuses, they didn’t count houses, they counted hearths. Even in a medieval peasant’s one-room dwelling there would be a central hearthstone or flat rock, upon which a fire was laid. Then an iron pot with a rounded bottom would be hung over this. Peasants could put in any vegetables that came to hand to make a traditional soup called potage, keeping it on the go from day to day. 

Hearths have proved useful in revealing evidence of 10,000-year old meals in the excavation of a Mesolithic house in Northumberland. This house had several hearths in it – shallow depressions filled with charcoal and burnt nutshells. The sheer volume of nutshells in the hearths suggests that this house was used to gather and preserve large quantities of food, probably so it could be kept in to the winter months when food was hard to find. It’s an exciting excavation because it shows that people lived in this house continuously for over 100 years. Previously researchers had thought that people in Britain at this time were always moving from place to place. It’s tricky for us to really understand ancient sites like this, and whether Mesolithic peoples would have called it a ‘home’ in the way that people nowadays tend to think of home as a fixed place. It’s too easy to assume that people in the past thought in the same way as us, especially when you consider how ideas of home have changed even in recorded history. You can read a bit more about that by seeing what Dr Lucy Worlsey has to say about the history of the home HERE

Still, whether the words hearth and heart are connected or not, I do like to think of everyone’s home having a heart. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have a hearthfolk like Knuckle in your home, quietly working away in the background to make it a peaceful and harmonious place. It’s probably worth checking the boiler cupboard now and again, and you just might catch sight of him or her!

You can read more about the excavation of the Mesolithic site called Howick House HERE.

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Folktales: Giants and Standing Stones

Stones of Callanish - apologies, I couldn't find anyone to credit for this image, or who to contact to see if it was okay to use. Let me know if it is you! :-)
Stones of Callanish

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery journeys to a circle of standing stones in Orkney called the Stones of Callanish. She is surprised to find that the stones can come to life, as a band of craggy giants, playing Scottish folk music deep into the night. Giants in European folktales are often cruel and stupid, but in Britain, giants tend to serve other purposes. In some stories, their behaviour is used to explain the presence of certain landmarks, for example Goram and Vincent who are supposed to have formed the Avon Gorge in Somerset. In others, giants represent deep memory, and the old way of doing things, such as in the story of the Welsh giant Gogmagog, who is beaten by Brutus of Troy. And in other stories, giants are associated with ruins of past places, acting as a metaphor for impermanence, and the ravages of time itself. Giants in British folktales challenge our modern ideas of progress and knowledge.

The Stones of Callanish in Orkney are a real set of standing stones, constructed some time in the late Neolithic era. One of the oldest sites like this in Britain, they are believed to be some 5000 years old. Some of the stones weigh ten or more tons! Despite archaeological work and investigation we still don’t really know why they were erected, though there are lots of theories encompassing ideas of meeting places, sites for social rituals, showing off and status, and sacred sites in which the ancestors were honoured. Some researchers theorise that the stones were arranged on an astronomical formula, to show the extreme rising and setting points of the sun and moon, showing that the ancient peoples of Britain understood the world in cycles and opposites, for example, day and night. Other researchers argue that the purpose of the standing stones is to be found in the stones themselves, often beautiful specimens in their own right, full of ripples and patterns. Perhaps their purpose was to celebrate the patterns found in the earth, not the sky?

But I love this idea from Gail Higginbottom of the University of Adelaide in Australia. The “stones represented watchers of this great spectacular sky show and of the seasons.” It reminds me of my giants beside their bonfire, tapping their feet along to the fiddle music underneath the swirling constellations of a Scottish night sky in the deep north. 

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