Thursday, 3 December 2015

Christmas Truce 1914: The Pte Heath letter

Out of the dozens of 1914 Christmas Truce letters transcribed from newspapers by volunteers of the Operation Plum Pudding project, this one stands out from all the rest. Partly, it's because Private Heath writes about the whole truce, from beginning to end. But also it's the beautiful - almost poetic - way it is written. It is as relevant today as it was in 1914. It was found and transcribed by Marian Robson. 

That Christmas Armistice
A Plum Pudding Policy Which Might Have Ended The War
Written in the trenches by Private Frederick W. Heath

THE night closed in early - the ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches came to keep us company as we stood to arms. Under a pale moon, one could just see the grave-like rise of ground which marked the German trenches two hundred yards away. Fires in the English lines had died down, and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud, the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs, and the moan of the wind broke the silence of the night. The soldiers' Christmas Eve had come at last, and it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.

Memory in her shrine kept us in a trance of saddened silence. Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve. With overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost, I leaned against the side of the trench, and, looking through my loophole, fixed weary eyes on the German trenches. Thoughts surged madly in my mind; but they had no sequence, no cohesion. Mostly they were of home as I had known it through the years that had brought me to this. I asked myself why I was in the trenches in misery at all, when I might have been in England warm and prosperous. That involuntary question was quickly answered. For is there not a multitude of houses in England, and has not someone to keep them intact? I thought of a shattered cottage in -- , and felt glad that I was in the trenches. That cottage was once somebody's home.

Still looking and dreaming, my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy's trenches was so rare at that hour that I passed a message down the line. I had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front. Then quite near our dug-outs, so near as to make me start and clutch my rifle, I heard a voice. there was no mistaking that voice with its guttural ring. With ears strained, I listened, and then, all down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: "English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!"

Friendly invitation

Following that salute boomed the invitation from those harsh voices: "Come out, English soldier; come out here to us." For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other's throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. 

Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity - war's most amazing paradox. 

The night wore on to dawn - a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired, except for down on our right, where the French artillery were at work.

Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink. Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches. Here, indeed, was courage; no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons on the Germans. Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.

Still cautious we hung back. Not so the others. They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads, asking us to do the same. Not for long could such an appeal be resisted - beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side? Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. 

Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.

The Gift of Gifts

Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany. But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered.
And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war. How far this unofficial truce extended along the lines I do not know, but I do know that what I have written here applies to the -- on our side and the 158th German Brigade, composed of Westphalians.

As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely. Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.


This letter is also published in a hand-stitched book price £4.99 (available in the UK only) from my website.

NOTE TO OTHER PUBLISHERS: This work is out of copyright but if you do reprint it please credit the hard-working volunteer - Marian Robson - who found and transcribed it. A book of all newspaper letters about the truce - Not A Shot Was Fired -  is available from Amazon.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Fairies Return

Mr Phelps' photograph of a water fairy

THE Lake District's fairies are back.
For centuries this part of the world seemed to be awash with fairy-folk. At Ambleside, they would happily mingle with humans at the weekly market. And Fleswick Bay, near St Bees, saw the fairies of Saltom Rock dance the summer evenings away with human folk from nearby villages and the harbour town of Whitehaven.
But the 20th Century saw the arrival of the motor car, two world wars, television and many other distractions. And crag-rats (tourists) also started to swarm over the fells previously inhabited by boggles, elves, pixies, hobthrushes, sprites, brownies, wag-on-the-wa's and the like.
Apart from a burst of Lakeland fairy encounters by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s, there's been no fairy sighting in the county for two or three generations (although they are known to visit Gelt Wood each summer).
But now 76-year-old Terry Phelps has stepped forward to reveal he photographed what appears to be a fairy at Swinedale Beck in the east of the county in September 1998.
He recalls: "It was a beautiful day. Seated close to a waterfall, I noticed that the small rowan tree above it had mysteriously grown sideways across the fall, and thinking this rather strange I took this photograph. I then became aware of experiencing a curious inner warmth which accompanied a sudden elevation of spirit, together with a dramatically increased awareness of the beauty of the place. This joyous experience was sudden, unusual and intense."
This was in the pre-digital age of course and it was only after he had his photographs developed that he noticed a curious 'light' above the waterfall.
He said: "There was no similar feature on the other photographs which I had taken that day, and it wasn’t in any of the photos taken before or after this event either. 
"I did not, I should add, see any ‘light’ when I took the photograph.
"A few days later I went back and took 14 more photographs, all of which I still have: all are unremarkable, i.e. show no ‘light’."
He submitted both the photograph and the negative to Kodak but they were unable to explain the ‘light’. Terry points out that it is not central to the photograph, and that it cannot therefore be ascribed to a flash malfunction.
He added: "It is vivid on the negative, which I still possess, and both pictures are sharper and clearer in the original print than in these scanned versions."
Mr Phelps, who lives in London, points to the work of Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s who reported his fairy sightings in the Lake District in his classic tome, Fairies At Work And Play. He notes that Hodson identified one particular type of fairy - the undine - which favoured living near waterfalls.
Hodson wrote: "The undine belongs to the element of water and, so far as my experience goes, is never to be found away from river, stream and fall. She is definitely female in form and is always nude; she does not usually have wings, and only rarely wears any kind of adornment. Her form, whether diminutive or of human stature, is always entrancingly beautiful, and all her movements are perfect. The waterfall is her favourite haunt, and there she is to be seen disporting herself, generally with a group of her sisters, enjoying to the full the magnetic force of the fall."
And Mr Phelps points out that even fell-walking hero Alfred Wainwright  admitted he "often sensed the presence of fairies in Lakeland"*.
So did Mr Phelps encounter an undine near Haweswater? Is this evidence of the return of the fairies? We can only hope.

 * Wainwright in the Valleys of Lakeland (See Part Three, The Western Valleys, Ennerdale)
* My book Fairies of the Lake District is available as an ebook from Amazon or as a real book from my online shop.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The ghost of Tripe Harry

St Nicholas Church Gardens, Whitehaven - the burial site of Tripe Harry
THERE can be few lovers of tripe who have shown such dedication as Harry Spence of Whitehaven, Cumbria.

The itinerant tripe seller has continued his trade in the harbour town for nearly 200 years - not letting a little thing like death stand in his way. His ghost - or 'boggle' as such things are known in Cumbria - continues to walk the streets with his tripe basket on his arm. Not much known is about this tripe champion but in December 25th 1952, W. Watson wrote an article in The Whitehaven News about Harry which revealed some biographical details:

"He lived in  a small house at Douglas Bourne Passage in the Market Place. It was said he owned a small brig called 'Providence' which was lost with all hands about the year 1816. The disaster evidently turned his brain and he hanged himself about 10 years later in his bedroom. He was buried in St Nicholas Churchyard but his immortal spirit was not so easily disposed of and nothing gave it so much consolation as to walk the streets at midnight with a tripe basket on his arm."

Mr Watson goes on to relate that "the ghost appeared most frequently to night watchmen who passed most of the night dozing in the shelter, and the old fellows would make solemn declaration as to how, when, and where they had seen Tripe Harry, with minute details of his appearance."

He is just one of a number of ghosts walking the streets of this Georgian town though none of the others have continued with their trade beyond the grave. Nor do we have any report of anyone actually stopping the spectral salesman and tasting his tripe. Tripe Harry has not been seen for a few years but we have every confidence that late-night revellers in need of some sustenance will be served once more by this bountiful boggle.

* See also The Tripe Marketing Board

(My thanks to Mary Chisholm for her help in the research of this article).

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Keswick's Fairy Postman

The Fairy Stone at Fourstones, near Hexham.
The Earl of Derwentwater has strong links with Keswick. When Sir Francis Radclyffe was made a peer in 1688 he used the name of Keswick's Lake for his earldom. The third earl, James (Francis' grandson) would, however, lose the peerage in dramatic style: He was a prominent Jacobite and in 1716 was convicted of high treason and executed at the Tower of London.

Although his country seat was in Dilston in Northumberland, he had a home on an island on Derwentwater - and was therefore called Lord's Island. The great affection in which he was held by Keswickians is probably shown through the legends that survive about him. It is said, for example, that on the night of his execution a particularly brilliant display of the northern lights occurred and they were henceforth called Lord Derwentwater's lights. And it is said his wife, fleeing the island with the family treasure, scrambled up a side of Walla  Crag (previously believed to be inaccessible) and it is now known as "Lady's Rake". Some gold coins she supposedly dropped have, legend says, been found on the route. But it is worth mentioning that another legend says she threw the treasure into Derwentwater.

The legend of a fairy postman who visited the Earl of Derwentwater is noted in 1903 by author Thomas Carrick. In his book, The Border Land, he talks about the belief in fairies along the Borders (between England and Scotland). He says: "They were neither wholly human, nor divine, nor demoniacal, but a kind of medley of all three - a strange mixture of body and spirit - and they could assume either, or both, as the case demanded or necessity arose. They were called by particular names, according to the place where they dwelt, the work they did, or the aspect they assumed."

In telling of the fairy postman he says: "When the last Earl of Derwentwater was undecided as to whether or not he should join the standard of the rebellion, he was alone on the banks of the river, in great distress of mind, cogitating what to do. As he was leaning against a tree, a phantom-like person delivered to him a letter, and mysteriously vanished. That letter decided him, and sealed his doom. That visitant is called the Fairy Postman to this day."

This is, unusually, one legend where we might be able to ascertain the origins. In 1863 Sarah Smith-Jones wrote a history of the Earls of Derwentwater and she includes this note:

"There is a fanciful tradition left in the neighbourhood of Dilston which from the romance attaching to it will very likely long remain but which we can scarce deem worthy of any reliance. In this it is stated that Lord Derwentwater maintained a correspondence with his friends at this time by means of letters deposited in a hollow stone called by the people generally. The fairy stone but which was in truth an old Roman altar situated a little to the west of Hexham. These letters the tradition affirms to have been brought and deposited by a little boy very beautifully dressed in green the fairy colour while such was the superstition of the people at that period that although he was seen and noticed frequently they dared on no account intermeddle with his doings as being a messenger from fairy land. Those who were in pursuit of the earl would not be very likely to be long withheld by such scruples however neither would intelligence so deposited be safe so there is little likelihood that either the earl or his friends would trust it there."

But it would be a shame to lose such a delightful legend so quickly. Just imagine a tree in Keswick where, when you are unable to make a difficult decision, the fairy postman - a little boy beautifully dressed in green - brings you a letter which makes the decision for you. Even if, as in the case of the third Earl, it's most definitely the wrong one and ends with you being beheaded in the Tower of London!

My hand-bound book, Fairies of Cumbria, is available from my website. An ebook version is also available to download from Amazon.

See also the wonderful blog by Andy Curtis.


Thursday, 26 March 2015

Billy Watson' Lonning

Billy Watson' Lonnin, Harrington, Cumbria

THIS ballad was written by dialect poet Alexander Craig Gibson and was first published in 1874 – the year that Gibson died. Amazingly, the lonning still exists in Harrington, Cumbria (Gibson's place of birth). It’s a delightful poem about the lonning and how it was the author’s favourite spot to take a young lady. It’s made all the more atmospheric by Gibson’s inclusion of many other local place names: Hempgarth Brow, Clay-Dubs, Lowca Lonning and so forth. A huge debt is owed to Harrington History Group for identifying where many of these locations are (see Harrington Through The Years Book Six). They also did some fine detective work on who Billy Watson might have been. At the end of the day, we can only be sure his name was Billy Watson and he lived near the lonning that now bears his name. Surely, it’s not such an awful legacy that the only proof of your existence on earth is the name of a beautiful country lane near to where you lived.

* A word on that apostrophe. The grammar geeks will be querying the apostrophe on “Billy Watson’ Lonning”. Surely, it must be Billy Watson’s Lonning? Perhaps it should but that was how the title of the ballad appeared when it was first published so I’ve left it in its dialect form.

O for Billy Watson’ lonnin of a lownd summer neeght!
When t’ stars come few and flaytely, efter weerin’ oot day-leeght
When t’ black-kite blossom shews itsel’ i’ hafe-seen gliffs o’grey
An’ t’ honey-suckle’s scentit mair nor iver it is i’ t’ day.
An’ nut a shadow, shap, or soond, or seeght, or sign at’ tells
‘At owte ‘at’s wick comes santerin’ theer but you, yer oan two sel’s.
Ther’ cannot be annuder spot so private an’ so sweet,
As Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght!

T’ Hempgarth Broo’s a cheersome pleace when t’ whins bloom full o’ flooar –
Green Hecklebank turns greener when it’s watter’t wid a shooar – 
There’s bonnie neuks aboot Beckside, Stocks-hill, an’ Greystone Green –
High Woker Broo gi’es sec a view as isn’t offen seen – 
It’s glorious doon ont’ Sandy-beds when t’ sunn’s just gan to set –
An t’ Clay-Dubs isn’t far aslew when t’ wedder isn’t wet;
But nin was mead o’ purpose theer a bonny lass to meet
Like Billy Watson’ lonnin of a still summer neeght.

Yan likes to trail ow’r t’ Sealand-fields an’ watch for t’ commin’ tide,
Or slare whoar t’Green hes t’ Ropery an’ t’ Shore of ayder side – 
T’ Weddriggs road’s a lal-used road, an’ reeght for coortin toke –
An’ Lowca’ lonnin’s reeght for them ‘at like a langsome woke -
Yan’s reeght aneuf up t’ Lime-road, or t’ Waggon way, or t’Ghyll,
An’ reeght for ram’lin’s Cunning-wood or Scatter-mascot hill.
Ther’s many spots ‘at’s reeght aneuf, but nin o’ ways so reeght
As Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght.

Sec thowtes as thur com’ thick lang sen to yan, a lonterin’ lad,
Wid varra lal to brag on but a sperrit niver sad,
When he went strowlin’ far an’ free aboot his sea-side heam,
An’ stamp’t a mark upon his heart of ivery frind-like neam;–
A mark ‘at seems as time drees on to deepen mair an’ mair –
A mark ‘at ola’s breeghten meast i’ t’ gloom o’ comin’ care;
But nowte upon his heart has left a mark at hods so breeght
As Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght!

Oor young days may’d be wastet sair, but dar their mem’ry’s dear!
And what wad yan not part wid noo agean to hev them here?
Whativer trubles fash’t us than, though nayder leet nor few,
They niver fash’t us have so lang as less an’s fash us noo;
If want o’ thowte brong bodderment, it pass’t for want o’ luck,
An’ what cared we for Fortun’s bats, hooiver feurce she struck?
It mud be t’ time o’ life ‘at mead oor happiness complete
I’ Billy Watson’ lonnin’ of a lownd summer neeght!

Some help with the dialect 
Lownd, calm. 
flaytely, timidly.
black-kites, blackberries
gliffs, brief looks, glimpses
la'al, little
wick, busy, lively
toke, your bethrothed (your ‘taken’)
aslew, amiss
slare, walk slowly
langsome, lonesome
woke, walk
lonterin’ lad, loitering lad
sair, very much
fash’d, bothered
brong bodderment, brought anxiety

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Return to St Catherine's holy well

St Catherine's Well, Eskdale
THE restoration of St Catherine's holy well in Eskdale has encouraged me to revisit the various notes on this delightful spot in Cumbria. Much of the work on the well was done in the early 20th century by Eskdale archaeologist Mary Fair. She re-found the well and arranged for it to be 'dug up' and investigated. Curiously by 1942 it had all been forgotten and people were again asking where the well was. A letter (written in 1942) in Whitehaven Archive & Local Studies Centre from Mary said:

"The well is known not only by tradition but by continuity of actual knowledge. Aaron Marshall regularly got water from it and up to about 1870 it was regularly cleared out and kept in running order. After that occasionally cleared to keep the site known."

She tells how she excavated the site in the late 1920s...

"We went under the great blocks of stone forming the basin of the well firmly then set in clay and there were as well structural remains in the form of a solidly constructed framework of mainly oak, set in clay with the boulders forming the basin upon it. There were rude steps leading down to the basin at one side and at one time there had been a roughly built stone conduit in the direction of the church."

Mary speculated in 1927 that the hill near to the well may have housed a home for a hermit. She bases this, rather unconvincingly on the two summits being called Cross Howe and Harmot Howe. She adds: "(They were) also spelt  Harmitt and Harmoth, associated with a place called Arment House, all of which words may indicate that a hermit may have once occupied a small cell at the place." As far as I can tell this is the origin of the 'legend' that a hermit did live there - a story now widely repeated on the net and in folklore books.

There is more evidence for the 'Catty fair' held in a field beside St Catherine's Church. Its first written record is in the church accounts for 1766. The fair was held close to the saint's day of November 25th. According to notes at the archives office, the fair allowed for the sale of corn, drapery, woollen yarn, sheep and pigs.

The restoration of the well in 2014
The fair is again mentioned in a government report of 1889 and around 1900, the vicar of Eskdale Rev W Sykes, wrote "Kitty Fair and Bellhill bonfires remain in memory". Historian Park in his classic work on Gosforth (1926) says the fair was Dodgskin Fair but he gives no source for this.

In the Whitehaven archives there is an undated letter (it looks as if it was written in the early 20th century) from CA Calverly:

"Old Mr Porter of Low Holme told me as a child he remembered the fair held at the church. They had a service first. Catty Fair it was called and gingerbread were made in the shape of a human being, arms outstretched, I suppose to represent St Catherine  on the wheel."

The fair was held in the field between the church and Parson's Passage (what was previously a gated path - Belle Hill Gate; the name - according to a note at the archives - originating from the fact the church bells were hung in a tree beside the gate).

There also appears to have been an annual sports event held beside the church but this died out in 1924.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mystery of falling book sales solved

The book in the 1500s

The book today: So much for 'progress'

THE star of the BBC production, Wolf Hall, for me was not any of the actors: it was a small illuminated book flicked through for a few seconds about halfway through the first episode. I can't have been the only one drooling over my tea and crumpets as the brightly-coloured pages on gobsmackingly gorgeous manuscript was tantalisingly held in front of the camera. The book was typical of 16th century tomes - and I look at our books today (even our digital ones) and think "What progress? I'd rather have the 16th century book thanks".

The last five years have seen off-the-edge-of-a-cliff sales falls for printed books. Game-changing drops in revenue for publishers which must have most of the staff brushing up their CVs ready for redundancy with the next four or five years. It's only people working in local newspapers who face bleaker job prospects.

Sure, some of the decline can be blamed on people switching to digital books but to me that scene in Wolf Hall showed in one image precisely what the problem was: Today's books are dull, dull, dull. Page after page of boring 9pt Times Roman text, black on white. And Kindle experiences are no better. Black and white text on an electronic screen is no more exciting than having it on a printed page.

We've taken the book for granted and are now paying the price. Why is it that publishers think we only want bright, colourful books up til the age of 10? Thomas Cromwell's book wasn't a child's book (although his daughter lovingly caressed it). What's wrong with some illumination? Why can't a book be also a work of art? And digital publishers surely have no excuse - coloured text, moving images... they could do so much more than their 17th century counterparts but rarely do so. (My thanks to Moira Briggs for pointing me to this link on how the Wolf Hall illumination book was made).

I'll leave you with another example from the time of Henry VIII (courtesy of The British Library). It's a musical score: the words and music for a canon (round) for four voices and I can't believe the combination of music, words and pictures has ever been equalled. If Apple produced this tomorrow as the logo for their musical download app, no one would bat an eyelid..