Valentine’s Day! It’s got absolutely nothing to do with St Valentine…

Surprising Facts About St. Valentine - History in the Headlines


Strange but true – there is no evidence to link St Valentine with lovers or courtship, though both St Valentines – there are more than one – in the Roman Martyrology (one was a Roman priest who died in AD 269, the other an Umbrian bishop who was executed a few years later in AD 273) are said to have met their end on the 14th February, a date which since the 1300’s has been associated with love, apparently arising out of the mistaken but charming belief that birds chose their mates on this day.

It is also historically the Eve of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, in which young men dressed in goat-skin thongs went about striking women to make them fruitful (please don’t try this at home), and people chose lovers by lot.

In the 1380’s Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called The Parlement of Foules, in which the birds squabble over their suitors. And in 1477 Margery Brews wrote to her fiance John Paston, addressing him as her “right wellbelovyd Voluntyn”.

What began in courtly circles in England and France soon spread, and by the 1660’s Samuel Pepys is mentioning in his diary Valentine’s customs whereby both married and unmarried people have to draw lots and present their “Valentine” with – sometimes quite lavish – gifts (Pepys himself complains of the cost of buying one Martha Batten seven pairs of gloves for the princely sum of 40 shillings in 1661). He also refers to the custom that the first person one sees on 14th February will be your Valentine – his wife had to spend most of the day in 1662 with her hands over her eyes for fear of seeing the wrong person (she and Samuel had the painters in at the time).

There are fascinating local examples of Valentine’s Day traditions from across Britain, and not all are for lovers or sweethearts.

In Street in Somerset, talking to someone of the opposite sex before noon on February 14th was thought to be unlucky, but in some areas of the country children used to go from house to house before dawn, singing:

Good morrow, Valentine,

First ’tis yours, then ’tis mine,

Please to give me a Valentine.

They would expect gifts of fruit, money, or special cakes called Valentine Buns or Plum Shittles in return. In Norfolk, if they appeared after the sun came up they could be refused gifts on the grounds that they were “sunburnt”. Likewise, on St Valentine’s Eve there was a tradition in the county of leaving presents on people’s doorsteps, knocking on the door, and then running away – secrecy (or supposed secrecy) being an important ingredient of the celebrations, then as now. In Derbyshire, if a girl did not receive a visit or a kiss from her sweetheart on Valentine’s Day she was said to be “dusty”, and her friends would then sweep her with a broom or piece of straw.

By the Eighteenth Century, sending cards to one’s Valentine instead of expensive gifts was increasingly popular, and what at first were handmade and handwritten items became, from the 1840’s onward, commercially produced. These were embossed and gilded, and sometimes perfumed – but, as the Nineteenth Century wore on, their quality decreased, and humorous and sometimes unpleasant “Anti-Valentine” cards led to a decline in the Day’s popularity by the turn of the century.

By the late 1920’s, however, Valentine’s Day was starting to once more regain its former status, and though the folklorist Christina Hole – writing as recently as 1976 – claims that “it has not yet recovered (and probably never will) the enormous popularity of its Victorian hey-day”, today, in 2017, she might have cause to revise her opinion. The traditional date of the St Valentines’ martyrdom is now a multimillion-pound industry of flowers, chocolates, cards and dinners à deux, and one you may embrace or reject depending on your point of view and/or romantic status.


The Elements – Air (Birds)

I thought that any look at the air in relation to folklore had to include creatures that fly, and as I’ve already covered dragons pretty extensively in other posts I wanted to look at birds, which it seems to me are a good subject for study in any context, but here are three examples that struck me:


Steve Round snapped this Jenny Wren out and about in Cheshire.


In folklore the wren is often characterised as female (“Jenny Wren”), wife to the robin. In Latin it is called regulus, or “little king”. Harming or killing a wren is said to bring misfortune – in Scotland, killing one was meant to make your cows give bloody milk, and in France if you robbed a wrens’ nest your house could burn down, or your fingers rot off as your punishment. However, for one day in the year – usually St Stephen’s Day (26th December) – there was once a custom called Hunting the Wren, found in Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and some parts of England, which saw groups of boys (the Wren Boys of Christmas) use poles and cudgels to catch and kill one of the birds. The unfortunate creature was then laid on a tiny bier, and with it the boys would visit every house in the village, and be given ale in exchange for a feather plucked from the bird’s breast. It would then be solemnly laid in a specially dug grave. There are many different explanations of this ritual, some connected to Christianity – that the wren’s fluting song betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or even St Stephen himself as he tried to escape his jailers. But it is likely that this most sacred of birds, haunter of hedgerows and dark places, has been ritually sacrificed since pre-Christian times, so it might bring people good fortune for the coming year.


Barn Owl - Facts, Pictures, Diet, Breeding, Habitat, Behaviour ...


The screech of a barn owl is an eerie sound, and it’s perhaps no wonder that traditionally it is said to presage death – likewise, if you see one during the day, or one knocks against your window, it is an ominous sign.

Again, there’s a Christian connection – the apocryphal story of Jesus begging a baker’s wife for bread. When she was about to bake him a good-sized loaf, her daughter snatched most of it away, deeming it too large for a mere beggar – but the dough swelled up suddenly, and in her surprise the daughter turned into an owl.


Robin (Clive Timmons)


Like the wren, the robin is held sacred – it was once said to have had a white breast, turned red by Christ’s blood from the cross (various versions account for how this happened – that the robin was taking water in its beak to relieve Christ’s suffering, or that it was trying to pluck a thorn from the crown of thorns; another story is that it was singed while carrying water to souls in Purgatory).

To injure a robin, or steal its eggs, therefore brings misfortune, as it would for a wren – but as is often the case, there are counter-traditions that hold that the robin is a bird of ill omen, and there are accounts of people throwing away Christmas cards with pictures of robins on them for this very reason.

The link with death is more general that just the crucifixion, too – if they came across a dead body, robins were supposed to cover its face with leaves and twigs, out of charity and respect.






Twelfth Night, Odin & the King of the Bean

The Bean King (The King Drinks) - Jacob Jordaens

The Bean King (The King Drinks), by Jacob Jordaens (1638)

Today, the 5th January, marks Twelfth Night, a date that, if they think about it at all, most people nowadays associate with two things – the Shakespeare play of the same name, and taking down the Christmas decorations.

But in pre-industrial Britain, the celebrations of Christmas once lasted the full Twelve Days, although there was some disagreement as to whether Christmas Day itself was counted as one of these – if it wasn’t, then the 6th January, Epiphany, became the Twelfth Day, though the 5th January was still called Twelfth Night, confusingly. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, in 1752, made matters more complicated still, as many people persisted in marking the old dates rather than the new ones. It is for this reason that many wassailing traditions in England are still held on January 17th – Old Twelfth Night.

What’s certain is that Christmastide was once regarded, across Medieval and Early Modern Europe, as a dangerous time, when Odin’s Wild Hunt rode through the sky, werewolves stalked the woods, and the dead came back to haunt the living. For all that, though, it was still no doubt a welcome break from work before the agricultural year began again on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany). People would elect an Epiphany King, or “King of the Bean” (in France the equivalent figure was called l’Abbé de la Malgouverné – the Abbot of Unreason), a “Mock King” tradition that goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, a festival held from the 17th to the 24th December, when a slave would be chosen to be King, and the usual order overturned, with men dressing as women, folk wearing animal masks, and feasting and general licentiousness prevailing.

The Mock King’s medieval descendant, the King of the Bean, was chosen by placing a bean and a pea in a cake called the Twelfth Cake. Whoever found the bean in their slice became King, and they were crowned and robed for the duration of the feast, and the woman who found the pea became the Twelfth Day Queen (if a woman found the bean, she had the right to name the King; if a man found the pea, he chose the Queen).

In France, the Twelfth Cake was called the gateau des Rois, and, when it had been cut into slices, a small child hidden under the table was asked whom each should go to. He would randomly nominate people from the assembled company until all pieces of the cake had been accounted for, and the finder of the bean became the Epiphany King.

In England, the King of the Bean ceremony has, to the best of my knowledge, long since disappeared, though Twelfth Cakes continued to be made and sold well into the Nineteenth Century, before the decline of Twelfthtide celebrations, and the increasing popularity of the Christmas cake, finally did for them.

It’s a shame, though – personally, I don’t think one should need much excuse for cake, so I’m all for reviving this particular tradition…


Before the Flood

Those of us living in the UK can’t fail to have seen and heard about the devastating flooding caused by Storm Desmond last weekend, and been moved by the stories of people whose businesses and homes were wrecked, in some cases for the third time in a decade.

The hardest hit part of England was Cumbria, and I was only there on holiday the week before the storm hit. Already then the rivers were running high and fast, but I don’t think anyone had any inkling that they were going to burst their banks, especially as new flood defences had only recently been completed.

Below are a few photos I took, of Keswick, and Cockermouth, and Carlisle, three of the towns most affected, only days before the flooding, and I hope the people there are able to get back on their feet soon – those of us who love this part of the world know what a special place it is, and I wish everybody there all the best.


Crow Park, Keswick. If you look hard you may be able to see a rainbow…


The Bowder Stone, Borrowdale, near Keswick.


Memorial to William Wordsworth, Cockermouth.


William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s childhood home, Cockermouth.




Carlisle Castle.

“The Last Kingdom” – review

The BBC’s adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s epic Saxon Stories series of historical novels began last Thursday evening, and for an opening episode – saddled with the usual problems of establishing setting, characters, and plot – it was pretty promising.

I haven’t read the original novels – indeed, I must confess I haven’t read any of Cornwell’s work – but I am certainly familiar with the time and place the tale is set – Ninth Century England – having long since fallen under the spell of the story of the Anglo-Saxons, that brave, melancholic people who created the English nation, and gave it its identity, its language, and many of its customs, leaving behind a rich cultural legacy which endures to this day.

Cornwell’s retelling of that story begins in 866, in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, with Viking longships bearing down on the coast, and a young boy named Uhtred, of Bebbanburg (later to become Bamburgh Castle), caught up in the dangerous battle between his father and the Danes. When his father is killed – and there was a great early scene where the Saxons were trapped between two Danish shield walls, and had to push against them like some particularly lethal game of rugby – Uhtred is adopted by the Viking Ragnar the Fearless (you’ve got to love those Viking names), and his blind father Ravn (played here in a lovely little cameo from Rutger Hauer). He adapts well to his new life, and before you know it he’s all grown up and heading off into the woods for a spot of (tastefully filmed) recreational sex with Brida, who like him is a Saxon orphan brought up by the Danes.

But while they’re away, Ragnar’s hall  – and Ragnar himself – are burnt to the ground by Kjartan, an old enemy, with the apparent connivance of Uhtred’s scheming uncle, Aelfric, and Uhtred is out for revenge, and to take back Bebbanburg.

Most of the main characters in the opening episode are fictional, though there was a brief appearance from Guthrum, a real Viking warlord, and – in a trailer for Episode Two – from Alfred the Great, the man with whom Guthrum would have an ultimate showdown at the Battle of Edington in 878.

The title – The Last Kingdom – refers to Wessex, the last Saxon kingdom to hold out against the Danes after they had overrun the rest of the country.

Inevitably, the new series has been compared to Game of Thrones, which Cornwell amusingly dismisses in an interview with the Radio Times, and indeed it’s rather more low key than that comparison would suggest, lacking (so far at least) the boobs and beheadings that characterise so many GOT episodes (though there was still a fair bit of gore, and Matthew Macfadyen, as Uhtred’s father, gets a very nasty sword to the neck).

Randy fourteen-year-old boys might be disappointed, then, but I think The Last Kingdom may provide subtler charms, and the story of how Alfred and his descendants, against the odds, rolled back the Danish conquerors, and created a united England, is always worth hearing again. And, what’s more, it’s true.

“The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth – review

The Wake: A Novel by Paul Kingsnorth

I moved to London back in 1998 – prior to that, I had grown up in Somerset, and spent three years at university in Sussex.

I was 24, and had never lived anywhere so big before. I found the capital simultaneously exciting and scary, and on my second day managed to get punched in the face at a bus stop. Welcome to London! After living in places that were culturally and ethnically pretty homogeneous, the mix of colours, creeds and languages was strange and novel, but also disorientating, and, perhaps inevitably, it made me think, in a way that I hadn’t before, about who I was, and where I fitted in to modern British society.

Politically, this was a period of devolution, with new assemblies being set up in Wales, Northern Ireland and London, and a new parliament for Scotland. There was a brief attempt to repeat the trick in the rest of England – where most of the population of the UK live and work – but it was stillborn: in 2004, the people of the North East firmly rejected a plan for an elected assembly for the region, and the government backed away from trying to introduce them elsewhere (though they did introduce unelected assemblies instead, made up of local councillors, businessmen, etc.).

There have been attempts since to answer the West Lothian question – whereby England is seen to be disadvantaged by devolution to the other home nations – from the Campaign for an English Parliament to the “northern powerhouse”, a phrase repeated to the point of meaninglessness by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. But what does seem clear is that the UK is increasingly moving towards a federal or quasi-federal constitutional settlement – or, failing that, to complete breakup (the Scottish National Party now hold 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats).

Against this background, I, like many others in England I suspect, have been wrestling with questions of English  – and my own – identity for the past 15 years or so. And much of this search – for me at least, as someone who usually recoils at the word “nationalist” – has manifested itself in cultural terms – folk music, history, literature – and also in the English landscape, its beauty, and strange, eerie pull.

And so I found myself reading some of the books Paul Kingsnorth mentions in the bibliography at the back of his debut novel, The Wake – Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England, Michael Wood’s In Search of England, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I wasn’t looking for answers as such – I was looking for something to call my own. What did it mean, in the 21st Century, to be English? Were we all now living, as Michael Wood claims, in “After England”?

The blurb on the cover of my edition of The Wake describes it as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago”, and it traces the history of Buccmaster of Holland, a free farmer, or sokeman, in Lincolnshire at the time of the Norman Conquest. He loses first his sons, and then his wife and land, to the Normans, and becomes the leader of a gang of outlaws in the fens and woods around his home. As everything that is familiar to him crumbles, he struggles to hold on to the “eald ways… the eald hus”, and sees visions of Weyland the Smith, telling him to “feoht… be triewe”.

The novel is written in what Kingsnorth calls a “shadow tongue”, a mixture of Old and modern English that may put some readers off, but which the author argues is essential to try to get inside the minds of the Eleventh Century Anglo-Saxons. Having finished the novel, I have to say I agree – and frankly I don’t think it matters if some words defeat you (though a glossary is provided), it’s impossible to imagine this story told any other way. Buccmaster’s character – his contradictions, bloody-mindedness, and attachment to the old, pagan gods – come through in the choppy, percussive sounds of his words, and though his creator’s sympathies undoubtedly lie with his struggle – doomed though it is – he is also happy to let us see the damage of his mind, for this I think is the central theme of the book: that the conquest of one people by another is a tragedy not just in the loss of the physical, exterior world (and the Normans, of course, understood the architecture of power – Kingsnorth memorably describes the building of one of their castles: “it was lic sum wilde wiht had toc a great bite from this place and many folcs with it”), but in its corollary – the interior loss, of identity, language, place, and indeed often sanity itself (“there is no gods… but in thy deorc heorte man” one of Buccmaster’s followers says to him).

Kingsnorth is one of the founders of the Dark Mountain project, a group of writers and artists who “have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself”. According to Naomi Klein, it provides “a space in which we can grieve” in the face of all but inevitable environmental and political collapse. While this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, it finds an echo in The Wake – Buccmaster’s struggle has value, despite, or even perhaps because of, its ultimate futility. It is a gripping and sorrowful book, beautifully written, and full of anger and wonder, and if it doesn’t quite capture the melancholic spirit of the great Anglo-Saxon poems, the fact that I’m mentioning it in the same sentence ought to be recommendation enough.

In an interview with the New York Times, Kingsnorth says: “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough.” More than enough, I would have thought.

“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” – review

I must confess, I haven’t read the original novel by Susanna Clarke, but the TV adaptation, which finished its seven-week run on BBC One on Sunday night, was a bit of the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts.

Seven hours is a lot of television, and few British-made dramas – especially this kind of fantasy, which doesn’t come cheap – last as long. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is set in the early Nineteenth Century, in the years leading up to and just after the Battle of Waterloo. A middle-aged magician from Yorkshire, Gilbert Norrell, after years sequestered in his manor house, reveals himself to a stunned world, and becomes embroiled in the political intrigues of a nation paranoid about potential invasion. Meanwhile, the younger and more impulsive Jonathan Strange, looking for a career, is inspired to take up magic by his encounter with the street magician Vinculus. He becomes Norrell’s pupil, and serves as the Army’s magician in the Duke of Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon. The main propulsion for the plot comes from Mr Norrell’s fateful decision to summon a fairy – the Gentleman With Thistle-Down Hair – to help him bring back from the dead the young wife of Sir Walter Pole, a member of the government. This, and his and Strange’s eventual falling out, leads to terrible consequences for both men, and they realise that the only way the Gentleman – who becomes increasingly dangerous and involved with human affairs – may be defeated is to summon the Raven King, the greatest of all English magicians.

That, in a nutshell, is the story, and I was only scarcely less confused writing it out just now as I was when I was watching it on the telly. It’s a pretty convoluted plot, and disappears up a few cul-de-sacs and dead ends on its way to the final denouement. Apparently, Clarke produced the novel over a period of years by stitching together several different short stories, and it shows – maybe in the book things are explained more clearly, but there were quite a few “Eh?”, “Huh?”, and “You what?” moments for this particular viewer when watching the TV version.

That said, the money was on the screen – horses made of sand emerged from a beach, recently dead soldiers came back to life, a dark vortex engulfed Venice – and the special effects were employed carefully, and didn’t overwhelm the story as they sometimes do (I know this observation has been made many times before, but it still bugs me when directors fall back on computer-generated wizardry to paper over the gaping holes in the plot, something that wasn’t so easy back in the days when such effects were much harder and more expensive to execute – but forgive my middle-aged griping, I digress).

I did enjoy the performances, especially Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange, sweeping about the place looking increasingly wild-eyed in a dashing sort of way. Eddie Marsan provided a nice counterpoint as Mr Norrell, though after foolishly bringing the Gentleman With Thistle-Down Hair to life, he took a backseat, sulking in his library as the story centred on Strange and his increasingly desperate attempts to rescue his wife (played by Charlotte Riley, superb) from the clutches of the fairies. Again, I felt this was a weakness in the plotting, and seemed a waste of Marsan’s talents, though he manfully endured the most atrocious periwig I’ve seen in many a long year of watching dramas set in Georgian England. Marc Warren had a lot of fun playing the Gentleman, though he also had that habit…that supernatural villains often do…of speaking…very…very…slowly…

Clarke’s ear for the language of the period is well developed, and I especially enjoyed it when characters like Lady Pole and her servant, Stephen Black – ensorcelled by the Gentleman – are unable to tell others what is happening to them, and can only spout nonsense. These moments were genuinely affecting, and gave a nice sense of what it might be like to hover, terrifyingly, between worlds.

If you’ve read the book, you will no doubt be curious to see this adaptation – but if, like me, you haven’t, I’m not sure it will make you run to the nearest shop to get a copy. That said, it was long-listed for the Booker Prize – and I am fully aware that the faults I identify above may be more due to Peter Harness’s script than Susanna Clarke’s original novel. But I don’t want to end on a sour note – if I had really disliked it, I wouldn’t have stuck with it for nearly two months every Sunday evening. And perhaps compressing dense, epic fantasy into the time-limited demands of film or TV always entails that something – detail, usually – be lost.