Friday, 8 September 2017

Requiem for the written word

Review of Percy Kelly 'Painted Letters' exhibition at Whitehaven Archives, September 2017

I'VE long been a fan of late artist Percy Kelly - not so much of his paintings as his 'painted letters'. When he wrote to friends - and even when writing to the taxman - he would illustrate his letters with drawings and paintings of the local landscape or perhaps the room he was sitting in. They are a beautiful blend of words and pictures. And fortunately for me many of his painted letters are cared for at Whitehaven Archives - just a few yards from where I live.  

During September, a number of his letters were dug out of the vaults and put on public display for an exhibition. They are a requiem to the written word. In an age of texting, email, messaging and other temporary mediums, Percy Kelly's letters remind us of the beauty of the written word. Let's be honest, even those of us who still use pen and ink only scribble out handwritten notes on rare occasions. Few of us would take time to write in neat italic or copperplate - and then spend half an hour painting the view out of the window to go on the bottom of the letter. One can hardly blame today's generation for simply texting CUL8R. 

Percy - born in Workington in 1918 - once said 'I believe in years to come these letters of mine will gain as much fame as the drawings and paintings'. I think they will fare better than his traditional art because his letters represent one last hurrah for handwriting in the final days of this ancient but doomed art. 

His letters are a final farewell before we sink into digital hell. It won't be long now before UK schools follow other countries and drop the teaching of handwriting in favour of keyboarding. For a few years there will be old fuddy-duddies like  me who will still fight handwriting's corner but then it will be gone. Streets and cafes will be full of people tip-tapping away into small metal devices in the palm of their hand. Messages they are convinced are vitally important will vanish into the ether as quickly as they do. There will be nothing worthy left behind.

I'm sure some folk will still gaze in wonder at Percy's letters and no doubt someone will point their smart phone at it, take a picture and post it on Twitter. For a few hours it will 'go viral' but I fear most still won't understand what Percy was trying to tell us: that the medium is the message, that sometimes how you say something is just as important as what you are saying. That the pen is mightier than the word.

- Alan Cleaver

- See also 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Letters of Dora Harcourt

Telling the bees - and draping the hives in black ribbons

TWO hundred years ago people knew precisely what they must do when someone died: Tell the bees. While the unfortunate soul was being carried to his or her final resting place, someone from the household would be seeking out the nearest beehive and telling the bees about the death. The hives might even be draped in black ribbons and some of the funeral cake left at the entrance to the hive for the bees to enjoy.

It's just one of the strange customs revealed in my new book that details superstitions, customs and folklore from West Cumbria at the start of the 19th Century. The Letters of Dora Harcourt  reveals some curious, intriguing and downright daft superstitions of our ancestors. Dora was actually a 'posh' Londoner - a Sloane Ranger from the Georgian era - but she spent several months staying with her relatives a couple of miles south of Whitehaven. Her father - Cecil Harcourt - had a keen interest in folklore so asked her to write to him with the various customs and bits of folklore she witnessed. Her letters are full of such delights as a Christmas mummers play, new year's eve traditions, harvest festival customs, maypole dancing and even superstitions surrounding funerals. 
Barring Out

One of the most interesting is barring-out. Pupils in village schools in the north of England would 'bar out' the teacher, barricading the school door so he couldn't get in. They then demanded days off for holidays before they let him back in. The custom died out once school holidays became a legal right in the mid-19th Century.

The letters were re-published by Dora's father in 1850 in Arts Illustrated Magazine to share her memories of rustic superstition. They have lain forgotten ever since but recently the magazines have been digitized and so a search of keywords 'Whitehaven' and 'folklore' brought them to light. And having found this rich resource, I thought the letters deserved to be republished for a wider audience. My partner, Lesley Park, and I have annotated the letters explaining the reason behind some of the superstitions and also saying if any of them survive today. Lesley's mother - Babs Park - for example maintains the new year custom of not doing any washing on New Year's Day in case she 'washes out' any of her relatives!

The Letters of Dora Harcourt is available from Amazon for £5 (Kindle £3). A deluxe hand-bound and stitched edition for £15 is also available from my online bookstore or  Lowes Court Gallery in Egremont.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Self-publishing - what to do and what not to do

Starting your self-published book

MORE and more people are turning to self-publishing. It’s becoming easier, cheaper - and for those who just want to print and hopefully sell a few copies of their book, it’s a better option than seeking an agent or a publisher.

Many wannabe authors have already made great strides towards self-publishing their book - only to discover they have gone down a blind alley and need to start again.

So for those literally just starting out, here are some tips on what to do - and more importantly, what not to do:

Do write your book! You need a ‘finished’ clean manuscript. Once you start preparing to publish it becomes very difficult to change, add or delete entire chapters. It’s best to work with a complete and finished product.

  • Use Microsoft Word or Open Office to write your text. The latter program is free from
  • Do consider spacing between paragraphs but the use of italics and bold (or similar) may be left until the pages are laid out. Indeed, bold, italic etc will often be stripped out when your text is imported into page-layout software.
  • Do get it proof-read. Use spell-check and grammar-check; use your friends. Proof-reading is harder than it looks.
  • Do source high quality, high res images. Pictures need to be at least 300ppi (600ppi for glossy picture books).
  • Don’t merge text and pictures. You may be tempted to merge pictures into your text at the appropriate places. Don’t. Text and images need to be separate ahead of laying-out pages. Just put a line saying “Teddy Bear picture goes here”.
  • Do start thinking about a cover - a striking image will help sell your book so it can be worth paying a freelance photographer or agency (such as
  • Do start thinking about how many copies you want printed (you can just print one!). If you are ordering more than 500 copies, how are you going to sell them? Start thinking about promotion.

Take a look at and which are the two main self-publishing websites. In particular look at what format they require your files. Also see if they will include your book on Amazon or Kindle if you want to publish on those platforms.

Finally, have you backed up your precious book? Back up the data in at least three places (hard disc, USB, the cloud) in case you lose your computer. The cloud is probably the safest place to store data.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Crier of Claife revisited

crier map
The only ghost to appear on an Ordnance Survey map: The Crier of Claife

The Crier of Claife is one of Cumbria's most famous ghosts, haunting the shores of Windermere. It also crops up in pub quizzes as the only ghost to appear on an Ordnance Survey map. But it's a story told and retold so often in 'Haunted Lake District' books that it has become rather confused. One of the clearest re-tellings and examinations of the ghost appears on Esmeralda's blog but in brief...

The old Windermere ferry. Photograph by J.W.Brunskill, photographer with a studio at Bowness, Windermere between 1860-1900. This simple rowed ferry preceded the much larger mechanised ferries. Picture by Picture Esk.

In olden times when the ferry between Ferry Nab and Sawrey was manned by men in rowing boats, you could 'call' the ferry over to collect you by shouting out. One night the ferryman heard someone crying out and rowed over to collect his passenger. But the oarsman returned a gibbering wreck and died a few days later from his madness. The other ferrymen concluded it must have been a ghost he encountered which had driven him mad so refused to row across any more in darkness. Eventually it was decided to 'lay' the ghost and they called upon monks from Furness Abbey. They agreed to hold a ceremony on Chapel Island in Barrow Bay and the villagers made their way to this desolate spot on Christmas Day for the exorcism. Although the 'Nab flay' was suitably dispensed with, his cry can still be heard - and woe betide anyone who rows across to try and collect the spectral passenger.

The Crier of Claife is indeed marked on OS maps (see above) but as to whether the name followed the ghost or the ghost arose from the name is impossible to tell. It is an eminence on the side of the lake and also a disused quarry. But is it the only ghost on a map? I'm not sure but can quickly think of Dobbie Lane at Cark which is named after its ghost. Let me know if you are aware of any others.

On re-reading this story on Esmeralda's blog, she identified Harriet Martineau's account of the story in A Complete Guide to the English Lakes (1855) as the earliest account and I wondered if - with the continuing digitisation of archives - it might be possible now to trace any earlier accounts. The British Newspaper Archive is slowly scanning and digitising old newspapers and a search on there did indeed reveal an earlier account. It was published in The Kendal Mercury on 25th December 1852 and is headlined: The Crier of Claife - A Christmas Ghost Story For Country Firesides. It is written by 'Snow Drop'. Not an auspicious start for those seeking a 'real' ghost but bear with me. The article is a detailed and colourful account of the Crier of Claife and one suspects it was Martineau's source for her story. It's a long article (I'm happy to email the full article to those who want it) but the crucial section is here:

"It was a wild stormy night about Martinmas, somewhere about 330 years ago, when a shout from the Nab called the Ferry boatman from amongst a lot of roystering travellers that had taken up their quarters at the then humble alehouse, from the inclemency of the weather and furious storm that raged out of doors. There was something particularly wild and awful about the night. Nothing could be more spectral; great flashes of lightning now and then made the hills look like giant phantoms, while the intervening hail showers had clothed them in a shroud, and they stared at the boatman with a still white face, the trees along the water edge, stood like huge skeletons, lifting their bleached arms towards the trooping clouds that hurried swiftly across the sky, like witches flocking to a ghostly feast. When sufficient time had elapsed for the boatman to return, the half-drunken guests staggered to the landing, to see who the newcomer might be, for in those days travellers were few, but the boatman had returned alone, a sober, silent man, with terror marked in every feature of his face. he was with difficulty got to bed, and awoke next morning in a violent fever, that carried him off in a few days, but he never could be prevailed upon to say a word of what had befallen him at the Nab. For weeks after, when the weather was boisterous, there were eager and violent shoutings and cries at the Nab, but the story of the apparition had got noised abroad, so that no boatman could be found that dared to venture across the lake after dark. These times were the days of Abbeys and Convents, and the Cistercian Monks held sway and ruled Furness Fells from the Abbey of Saint Mary in Furness, and a monk or friar used to attend the little convent on Chapel Island, half a mile north of Bowness Bay, to ease the inhabitants of the district of their sins and money. To him was application made about the much dreaded Nab affair. These monasteries founded at first as the abodes of piety and letters and refuges for the desolate and penitent, had become the haunts of idleness and superstition, and ready, very ready were the monks to comply with the request of the neighbourhood to remove the ghost, on condition that a certain amount of money was forthcoming when the incantation was completed, for in those days, as in our own times, amongst the Roman Catholics, there was "no penny, no paternoster". As to the exact year in which the ceremony was performed, all is left in doubt and dimmest twilight, but there is every certainty that it was Christmas day when the monks and their attendants met the zealous inhabitants of the thinly-populated district on Chapel Island.
"In the sacerdotal performance there was much rhapsody and little sober reason or religion, very much that was calculated to inflame the inexperienced imagination, but little that could direct the erring judgement. It was a sad spectacle for half a dozen cowled monks to persuade as many hundred people they possessed power over supernatural things. But it was an age of faith, and the whole multitude left the island firmly believing that henceforth and forever the 'Nab flay' must take up its location at the Crier. Since then centuries have passed away, and not a name exists of any individual that took part in the solemn service. The district is still busy, far busier than in those days; the hum of business and the notes of pleasure are still going on, but the simple inhabitants of the township then are far, far away, the veteran souls of many centuries. We might tell how that in times past, the fox-hounds, when in full chase, often came to a stand at the place that had become the dwelling place of ghosts, without any one being able to assign the reason; and of a schoolmaster from Colthouse, who, within the present generation, left home one evening to go past the spot, but was never seen or heard of more, and many other strange mysterious tales of people being mightily terrified, but time and space will not permit. Some will be ready to exclaim that these old prejudices are swept away, and such notions are discarded; that we have shaken off the trammels of ancient delusion, and folks do not believe in the imps of darkness now, but really the writer never knew an individual who visited the place in twilight without confessing to a heart clutching fear of unearthly company."

The question, of course, is whether this was complete fiction or if it was based on a known legend. I have certainly come across this style of newspaper article before where a legend is taken and enriched. The Whitehaven News in 1924 included an article by Joseph wear re-telling the story of the fairies who lived at Saltom Rock, near Whitehaven, but the legend is written about in a pamphlet published in 1850 so is clearly a piece of purple prose but based on a known story. And there's hope that the same is true of the Crier of Claife.

The legend was written about in 1873 by John Pagen White in his book, Lays & Legends of the English Lake District. This book takes local legends and re-tells them in verse form. What is interest to us is a footnote to the Crier of Claife re-telling which mentions a sighting of the ghost by White's fellow antiquarian, Alexander Craig Gibson. White says:

"Mr Craig Gibson, in one of his graphic sketches of the Lake country, says that he is qualified to speak to this, for he himself has heard him. "At least," says he, "I have heard what I was solemnly assured by an old lady at Cunsey must have been the Crier of Claife. Riding down the woods a little south of the Ferry, on a wild January evening, I was strongly impressed by a sound made by the wind as, after gathering behind the hill called Gummershow for short periods of comparative calm, it came rushing up and across the lake with a sound startlingly suggestive of the cry of a human being in extremity, wailing for succour. This sound lasted till the squall it always preceded struck the western shore, when it was lost in the louder rush of the wind through the leafless woods. I am induced to relate this," he continues, "by the belief I entertain that the phenomenon described thus briefly and imperfectly, may account for much of the legend, and that the origin of many similar traditional superstitions may be found something equally simple."

I haven't yet found Gibson's original 'sketch'** but he wrote a number of articles and pamphlets so I'm hopeful it will one day be found. However it appears Gibson lived in the south Lakes up until 1850 (then moving to Liverpool) so it is perhaps safe to assume for now that he saw the ghost prior to 1850 - ie before the article in the Kendal Mercury. This would confirm the Mercury's 'Christmas ghost story' was at least based in part on a known folk tale. Gibson's account would also be remarkable as a first-hand witness of the ghost. And although Gibson dismisses it as a story associated with a particular type of wind that is very interesting it itself. Britain has only one 'named' wind: The Helm Wind - also in Cumbria*. So at the very least we now have a second named wind: The Crier of Claife. Worthy of a quiz question if nothing else!

* I have actually come across another named wind: The Back Wind (I jest not!) on Derwentwater, Keswick which bounces off the surrounding fells but this does not appear to be a name still used.

** I have now found Gibson's account - at least one printed in 1867 (actually a transcript of a talk he gave in 1866). For the historical record I will include it here:

"The Lakeland of Lancashire No II. Hawkshead Parish. By A Craig Gibson. Read in 1866. Published 1867.
"Still to the south rises the fine, bold, but not high hill called Latterbarrow, which there divides the vales of Esthwaite and Windermere. On the wildest and most lonely part of this height, for it is scarcely a hill, there is an extensive slate or flag quarry, long disused and overgrown with wood, some of which is of considerable age. This desolate spot bears the singular name, singular as applied to an extinct quarry, of The Crier of Claife, whereby hangs a legend, the leading particulars of which may be given here, as indicating the character of the current traditions of that locality.
"It is said that, more than three hundred years ago, "The Ferry" on Windermere was haunted by a troublesome night walker, crying in a manner that enforced attention, from the Westmoreland shore, for a boat;' the most urgent and most awful appeals always coming on the most stormy nights. One of the ferrymen who attended to this weirdly hail when first heard, and rowed across the lake against a fierce gale from the southeast, returned with an empty boat, horror-stricken and dumb, continuing speechless for some days and then dying. Travellers began to avoid the ferry, for the crier continued to haunt the knab every stormy night; and "over all there hung a cloud of fear," so that few cared to venture near it even by day, and to the well-accustomed hostelry might at length be applied the often-quoted words:
"A merry place, 'twas said, in days of yore, But something ail'd it now - the place was cursed."
It thus became desirable that something should be done to abate this fearful nuisance, and naturally the monks of Furness were appealed to for aid. These holy men commissioned a brother of noted sanctity and skill to exorcise and lay the apparition, who had come to be known throughout the country by the title of "The Crier of Claife". He soon accomplished the object of his mission and succeeded in shutting up the crier in the desolate quarry, which has ever since borne the same name: a dreary spot, worthy of its story. None of the country people will go near it after nightfall and few care to approach it even in daylight. Desperate men, driven from their homes by domestic discord, have been seen to be going in its direction and never known to return. it is said that the crier is allowed to emerge occasionally from his lonely prison, and is still heard on very stormy nights sending his wild entreaty for a boat, howling across Windermere.  
I am qualified to speak to this, for I have heard him myself; or at least I have heard what I was solemnly assured by an old lady at Cunsey must have been the Crier of Claife. Riding down the woods a little south of the Ferry, on a wild January evening, I was strongly impressed by a sound made by the wind as, after gathering behind the hill called Gummershow for short periods of comparative clam, it came rushing up and across the lake with a sound startlingly suggestive of the cry of a human being in extremity, wailing for succour. This sound lasted till the squall it always preceded struck the western shore, when it was lost in the louder rush of the wind through the leafless woods. I am induced to relate this by the belief I entertain that the phenomenon described thus briefly and imperfectly, may account for much fo the legend, and that the origin of many similar traditional superstitions may be found in something equally simple."

Monday, 20 February 2017

The driverless coach

We like to think we've invented everything and pat ourselves on the back at our own ingenuity. But the latest 'invention' the driverless car is nothing new. In 1837 a man found himself on a coach and horses with no driver. His adventure was later told in a letter to Rev Nicholls of Ravenstonedale, Westmorland (now Cumbria) and published in 1877. Here it is:

"It is about forty years ago since the writer commenced a journey to Newcastle-upon-Tyne from the Bull Inn, Sedbergh, about one o'clock one severe frosty morning in midwinter, per the old Exmouth coach. The passengers consisted of myself and a lady and gentleman inside; Willy Taylor and Tom Heavyside, the driver, outside. We travelled at a good speed up to Dicky Metcalfe's, the Cross Keys, Cautley, a distance of about five miles ; and being a very cold morning, Willy the Butcher and the driver went into the inn to have a taste of Dicky's gin, but left no one in charge of the horses. Consequently they got tired with waiting, and started full trot towards Kirkby Stephen. 

Metcalfe hearing the horses, started off and ran a considerable distance after the coach, clothed only in nightshirt and slippers; but the speed of the horses being so great he had to give it up. During this time I was looking out of the coach windows, but never mentioned what had happened  to either the lady or gentleman. This part of the road was narrow and very dangerous, being entirely unprotected from a deep rocky river, so that I decided to leave the inside and hold on behind until we reached the next steep hill, called Rawthey Brow, which was about a mile further on the road; but in alighting from the step I fell upon a sheet of ice, and this prevented me from again reaching the coach, or of informing the occupants of what had occurred; but in their case ignorance was certainly bliss in crossing the moors on that dreary morning.

Still I kept on running until I reached the inn at Cross Bank, kept by Mr. Shaw, where I engaged a horse, and without saddle followed after, expecting at the bottom of each steep hill to find the coach upset; but to my great astonishment I found it standing in front of the King's Arms, Kirkby Stephen, its usual place, and the lady and gentleman in great perplexity sitting in the inn, wondering what had become of the driver and the person who had so abruptly left his seat in the coach without speaking a word, and concluded I must have been either drunk or insane, or had robbed them. But when they found their money and watches all right they could not conjecture how they had lost the coachman, nor what had caused me to decamp, until I had revealed to them the mystery, and told of the many dangers they had escaped in their journey of ten miles without any driver, while at the same time the reins were dragging about the horses' legs. 

In consequence of the heavy drifts of snow which occurred in several parts of our journey the horses had to be driven to the very edge of the road. We waited some time in Kirkby Stephen, expecting the driver; but as he never made his appearance, I was compelled to mount the coach box and drove through Brough to Spittle, a distance of ten miles, at which place we obtained another driver. Before again proceeding on our journey I did not omit the usual practice of opening the coach door and, in joke of course, tipping my hat to the lady and gentleman, who, instead of bestowing the usual gift, very politely acknowledged their appreciation of my exertions on their behalf." 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Cumberland Bridal Cake

Recipe by Babs Park

In 19th Century Cumberland, a wedding cake with a difference formed one of the marriage customs. The bridal party, after leaving the church, repaired to a neighbouring inn, where a thin currant cake, marked in squares, though not entirely cut through, was ready for the bride’s arrival. Over her head was spread a clean linen napkin, and the bridgeroom, standing behind the bride, broke the cake over her head, which was then thrown over her and scrambled for by those in attendance. We don’t have the original recipe but ‘Grandma Park’ has devised this on the descriptions available of the cake:


4 oz (120g) self raising flour
2 oz (60g) butter or margarine, plus a little extra to grease baking tray
2 oz (60g) caster sugar
1½oz (45g) sultanas, raisins or currants
2 tbsps (40mls) water


Pre-heat over to 350/180/gas mark 4.
Sieve flour into a bowl and rub in the butter/margarine until the mixture is the consistency of fine breadcrumbs.
Add the sugar and fruit and give it a good mix.
Add water to form a firm dough - if necessary add more water but only in small amounts.
Roll out the dough until ¼ - ½ inch (up to 1cm) thick. Dust with a small amount of flour to stop dough sticking to the surface and the rolling pin.
Place on a greased baking tray, lightly mark the cake into squares if desired. Glaze with egg and milk mixture and place in the top of the oven for about 15 minutes or until nicely golden brown.