Wednesday, 25 April 2012

This is the third in my trilogy of ‘armchair detective’ articles about events and mysteries in the fifteenth century.
Acknowledgments to the Richard  III Society whose books and articles have helped me in my search for the past. 


 My friend to her teenage son: ‘We’re going out for a couple of hours. Want to come?’
 ‘Where to?’ he says.
 'To see if we can find this house where Richard III might have lived.’
 He stares blankly. ‘Why?’

 A good question.

 Tooley Street was the first port of call. There, according to accounts, the Pastons had lived in Sir John Fastolfe’s old home and there two anxious young fugitives had stayed, dreading every unknown step. George and Richard, the children of the Duke of York whose head had been severed from his neck and shoved on a pike with a paper crown. George and Richard, the one fair and fearless and the other dark haired and dark eyed with secrecy and tension. In the house of the good and faithful Pastons with their gift for a fair anecdote, their brother Edward had visited daily, bidding them trust in him, in God and a bright future.
So much for expectation.  Of this dwelling – no trace. No plaque, no pub with a sign proclaiming a king had slept there. Even ‘The Duke of Clarence’ was a later model and not golden haired George gasping in Malmsey.

 So we left Tooley Street with the Paston House keeping its secrets and went in search of Crosby Place. This was easier to find.

 There were conkers and yellow leaves in the streets as we walked through, mist and light over the Thames. I stood on the site of Sir Thomas More’s garden and thought about him and Margaret, his daughter and Will Roper, his son-in-law, and it was as if time turned back. I could have reached out my hand and touched those fragile, orchard ghosts.
Originally in Billingsgate, Crosby Place was moved, stone by stone in 1910, to Chelsea. Cecily Neville, Richard III’s mother, known poetically as the Rose of Raby, had stayed there.  A lovely name. I can never resist the rose imagery of Plantaganet and Tudor days. She was also known as Proud Cis, so I wonder what she was really like. A rose with prickles probably and hidden stingers. Richard lived there too, as Shakespeare describes, when he was planning his bid for the throne. All within sight of the Tower where the Princes were kept. I wonder  what Cecily Neville thought about it, what she saw. She was their grandmother. Surely she can’t have sat there doing her tapestry or whatever and let them be slaughtered across the water. Maybe she holds the key to the truth.

 Crosby Hall was open to the public then, when I visited. A beautiful place. Rose-red brick and Tudor chimneys, latticed windows glinting in the autumn light. In later years it become a place of sanctuary for university women. Portraits of scholarly female academics stared down intently at us from the walls.

 As we left I was reminded not so much of Richard and Cecily and those lost children, but of women like Dorothy L Sayers, Phyllis Bentley or Vera Britten – the early days of Somerville when students called each other ‘Miss’ until they became good friends and would then make formal request for the honour of using first names. I thought of choir practices and games of lacrosse, chaperones and the peeling of bells.

 The tables in the ancient dining hall at Crosby Place were laid that day – sparsely laid. A knife, a fork, a spoon, a glass tumbler for water. Tables laid for a hundred. I counted them. Who were they for? Who would be there? It was like a ghost room.






This is the second in my 'armchair historian' articles.

 When Prince Richard was born, his elder brother Edward was three years old and had just been settled into Ludlow Castle to put the fear of God into the turbulent Welsh. He was a golden haired child, anxious to be a good king, intelligent, virtuous, scared of the dark and suffering badly from toothache.
Ludlow Castle stands on high ground overlooking the River Teme. In its day it was large and spacious, new apartments were built for the Prince and sanitary arrangements were adequate – one tower had a privy on each floor. There were rooms of all sizes – a Great Hall, two chapels, towers, battlements, leg-aching stone steps, kitchens and store rooms, windows overlooking the Teme and a magnificent view in every direction – woods, hills and meadows, open fields, common land and a winding blue river.
So much to recommend it, but even so the thought of that tiny boy within Ludlow’s cold walls can still cause a shiver. It was a dark castle and once the light had faded only candles and flares could relieve the gloom. There was little furniture except for trestle tables, benches and the occasional stool, huge beds in rooms with bunched up curtains and rushes on the floor, rooms leading into one another separated only by hangings blowing in the chill winds that whipped across the hills from Wales.
The Castle seems so spacious, even when full of summer tourists, but in the Middle Ages there was no privacy: people slept where they could – on the spiral staircase, on the hard floor, crouched in window seats – snatching what rest was possible between the cold and damp and constant noise and smell of horses, dogs and men. A hard, bleak place to be when snow fell on the battlements and the Teme was frozen or when icy rain lashed against the stone walls and the wind howled across the hills or when thick, damp fog crept through the narrow windows. No doubt roaring fires, the prayers of his priests and the company of his guardians may have comforted the little boy, but even so it must have been a hard life and there were few women at the Castle.

 I had spent several summers staying near the pretty town of Bewdley in Worcestershire and thought myself familiar with its old streets, picturesque river, soft hills and green fields. The most exciting thing to have shattered the calm of centuries seems to have been during World War II when there were sightings of German parachutists landing in the woods and guns were fired and church bells rung frantically in warning. Germans or bales of hay blowing high?  Bewdley’s veterans know the truth.

 So, casually reading a book about the Princes in the Tower * I was startled to see a reference in the book to Tickenhill Manor in Bewdley as being the summer holiday home of Prince Edward. Here, it seems, he came with his retinue while the Castle had its annual clean up and floors were scrubbed, knives sharpened and the ditches cleaned of sewage.

 I had to find it, know exactly where it was, re-create its life in my own mind.

 As usual, I drew a blank at first. Certainly Tickenhill is mentioned as being a royal residence for the Yorkist and Tudor monarchs. Certainly there are reports of a five hundred year old beam which is all that is left of the original building. Certainly it was used, just a few years after Edward’s disappearance, as the funeral stop-over for poor Prince Arthur who died of the sweating sickness at Ludlow, so leaving the realm and his Spanish bride, Catherine, to the mercies of Bluff King Hal. I scoured second hand bookshops, enlisted the kind help of the Richard III Society, but no – not a mention of my Princes. Also, the exact location of Tickenhill itself was more than a bit in doubt.

 Summer came again and I was once more in the area, this time with a friend who is more than content to go armchair detecting with me. We set off in a car, which was perhaps a mistake, with an armful of maps and our intuition. What were we looking for? All the wrong things as it later turned out – a high hill, a landmark, a ruin, an old sign, a road name – any of these would have helped. A group of hikers was glad to share maps, suggestions and brief companionship with us, but as daylight darkened we were still far from finding Tickenhill.

 In the end we did find it – close to the town, not at all in the hills which had seemed so right. An old pamphlet was unearthed in a dusty room – and there was Tickenhill, upgraded to a Palace by this document, with clear directions to the location, now a private residence and not a ruin at all.

 We trudged round there but it didn’t feel right. An elegant old house in a quiet, residential area. Within the imposing gates large dogs growled unpleasantly. Something was missing – the vibes that had led me to Water Lane in Shrewsbury when I was searching for the birthplace of Richard, Duke of York – they were not here.

 And yet – this was certainly the site of Tickenhill which, in Saxon times, meant ‘hill of the goats’ I could imagine the goats with no trouble and when I thought about Prince Edward I could see him there – just – fishing in streams, safe away from bandits, plagues and wicked uncles, content for the day. And yet ... maybe, after all, Tickenhill is still a quest to be finished.
From Ludlow to Bewdley it is not far, even on horseback, and although a generation later someone described the route as ‘the foulest, cold, windy and rainy day and the worst way I have ever seen,’ he was travelling in winter and was part of a funeral procession. In summer it might have been better.

 *Alison Weir ‘The Princes in the Tower’




I have been writing some 'armchair historian' articles based around events in the fifteenth century, mostly to do with the Princes in the Tower. This, the first article, is about Richard, Duke of York, the younger prince.

The sons of Edward IV had brief lives, or so we suppose. Commonly known as the Princes in the Tower, it is their lives that haunt me as much as their deaths. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there must be more to a man’s life than the manner of his leaving it. On a cold, foggy autumn day I set off on a quest.

 It was the younger boy that was hooking me. The older prince, Edward, spent most of his childhood at Ludlow Castle, cared for by a doting retinue, until enticed out by those that would kill him. At least he was safe for a while.

His brother was Richard, Duke of York. Not much is known about him except that he was ‘nimble and merry’ and always ready to play or dance. Also that he was his mother’s pride and joy and she kept him with her, constantly, right up until the terrible day when he was taken away from her into the Tower and the mists of time. It has been suggested by historians that, by her motherly over-protection, Elizabeth denied her younger son the chance of learning the skills of hunting, fighting and masculine conversation and that, had he lived, he would have grown up soft and weak. A medieval wimp. Who knows? He comes down the years as a delightful child and that is all we have to go on.

 His birthplace seemed a good place to begin. Books on the subject were hazy on details but I managed to piece together the information that he was born in Shrewsbury on August 17th 1473 in the royal quarters of the infirmary attached to the Abbey, at the bottom of Water Lane on the River Severn.

 Trying to instil into my companion a desire to see a place that might no longer exist, we set off early. As it turned out, we had forgotten about motorways, road works, cones and delays. Edward IV and his retinue would probably have made the journey quicker on horseback than we did by car. We arrived in Shrewsbury at five o’ clock in the afternoon as it was getting dark. The streets were choked with cars and ferocious yellow lines. Not too historical.

 I ran into the Tourist Office. Then began the nightmare. I had not realised that a fictitious character lived in Shrewsbury – an imaginary monk called Cadfael who flitted through the pages of medieval whodunits growing herbs. The Tourist Office was full of souvenirs – Cadfael mugs, Cadfael calendars, Cadfael pot porri, notebooks, pencils, videos, rubbers ... no mention of Richard, Duke of York, who was born there, who once was living flesh and blood.

 I returned to the car. My companion was asleep. I studied a guide book. There was an Abbey  – but it was Cadfael’s Abbey, of course. The library – that would have the answers.

 The library was shut. ‘We’re not going to find it,’ I said despondently.

 Oh don’t give up,’ said my friend, refreshed from his sleep. ‘We’ll find it. What have we got?’

 ‘Well, it was at the bottom of Water Lane overlooking the river.’

 ‘That’s easy then. We need a street map.’

 The street map was no problem. However, no Water Lane. There was a Water Street. We headed for that.

 Round by the station is not the most salubrious part of Shrewsbury. Cold and draughty with alleyways and dark tunnels it has scraps of paper blowing about like lost souls. Raven Meadows sounded old and picturesque but turned out to be a warren of traffic lights and un-crossable roads. We couldn’t find Water Street. Shrewsbury seemed to be built on lots of levels. We kept going up steps and down alleys and up slopes and down steps, all the time losing sight of the river. I had this nagging fear that Water Lane had faded with the Middle Ages.

 I became aware that I was on my own. No sign of my companion. Down by the side of a church I found him, smug look on his face, gazing meaningfully at an old street name. I couldn’t believe it. Not just Water Street. Water Lane! He had stumbled across Water Lane.

So there it was, this dark, narrow path, going down and down with red brick walls on either side with traces of arches and bricked up windows and so overgrown above our heads there was hardly any light – but there, through the darkness, so close I could bend down and touch it, was the river, completely deserted, timeless, far from anywhere with the moon shining above it – a tiny pocket of history and I had found it. Near this small stretch of river Elizabeth Woodville’s second son was born.

 There can have been no hint of tragedies to come.



Tuesday, 24 April 2012

I am fascinated by the story of Lyuba, the baby woollly mammoth discovered in Siberia. Here is a poem I have written for her, and some pictures too.

(a baby woolly mammoth preserved in permafrost)
on that day
her mother suckled her
(there is milk in the contents
of her gut)

 on that day
her mammoth hair
(strawberry-blond the DNA shows)
grew a little bit more
on that day
she sipped water from a stream
(at one month old her trunk was long)

 on that day
she lost her tail
(no trace of it was found)

 we do not know the season
or what time of day it was
when she lumbered onto mud

 nor do we know how long it took
for her to be sucked down

 nor how much mud
she swallowed
as she died

 (there was sediment in her mouth
and in her throat)

 all we know
is on that day
she sank in a bog and life for her
was gone
and we’ll never know
if her mother searched or grieved and ached
with unusable milk

on that day

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Catching up in Spring

Poor neglected Blog. Time, I think, for a round up of fragments.

On the first day of March (World Book Day) I gave a reading and talk about 'The Onion Stone' in my local library. Questions were interesting - mainly about contenders in the authorship issue but also about the writing process itself, the nature of a novella, whether one does a lot of planning or grants freedom to the Muse. Here are a couple of photographs:

Another good thing has been The Stirred Poet competition run by that lovely forum The Write Idea. It had six rounds, one a week and  a public vote. I was lucky enough to win it by three points with many excellent poets chasing after me! It was great fun and there was a lot of goodwill.

The most exciting thing has been an offer from SPM publications, the publishing division of Sentinel Poetry Movement, to publish my next full length collection. It will be called 'All the Invisibles' and should be out on October 1st. So now I have the dilemma of sorting and organising my poems!

I've also been asked to be a regular judge for the  Excel for Charity/Swale Life competitions including the forthcoming one. I love judging competitions so I'm very pleased.

Last weekend I led a morning workshop at St Cuthman's, the beautiful retreat centre in Coolham, West Sussex. The theme was 'Exchange' in all its variations. I haven't yet written any poems prompted by my own material but I had a fine time walking round the lake and the woods and making notes on things that caught my attention. I have written them up into a spring poem:

One April day

This lake is the silver of tin.
Three geese rush on in a whirling of wings,
skid in a kick-up of splash.

Today it’s bright with sparrows and buds.
Daffodils in a downhill tumble
slither and swoop.

Elsewhere the lake is heavy:
conifer-coloured; still. A gravel path
has a twist of violets, half covered up  at the edge.

A bush of holly speckles
with leaves of a small new green. Overhead
are the questions and answers of crows.