Itchy feet: a travel post

Something about the onset of fall (slow and subtle in Texas) makes me long to go a-travelling. I’m going to Houston next weekend for the IndiePalooza, but that doesn’t count as real travelling. So I’m going to compensate by looking at photographs from my last trip to Francis Bacon’s beautiful green homeland.

Mary Arden’s Farm

These are from Mary Arden’s farm outside of Stratford-upon-Avon. You have to take a short train trip to Wilmcote and then walk a few yards, but it’s well worth the extra effort.

I like to get to places the minute they open so I can have them to myself — better for picture-taking and musing about the past. Sometimes I hang around for the special activities, which are aimed at children who arrive in large buses and spend the whole day, but are often also suitable for novelists. I didn’t this time, but judging from the daily activities, I will another time.


Daily activities around the farm include:

10.00 Grooming Ellie the horse

10.45 Goose parade

11.15 Falconry display

12.15 Falconry display

13.00 Tudor dinner

13.30 Blacksmith demonstration

14.00 Meet the shepherd

15.00 Falconry display

16.00 Falconry display

16.30 Tudor music and dancing

17.00 Animals go to bed

I sincerely regret missing that goose parade!

Why visit a farm?

None of my characters are farmers, although they all grew up on country estates. They go in and out of stables and surely pop into the kitchen now and then to beg treats from the cook. But they don’t use farming implements or tend animals or process crops. Even so, I learned many wonderful things here.

First and foremost is the pleasure of being outdoors in the moist, green English countryside, which is so much not like the dry, arid countryside of Texas. When I’m in England, I walk a lot, especially in places like this, where historical preservation and recreation are high priorities. I let my senses be saturated with those layers of lush green and recognize how comfortable it is to be walking in a layer of linen (ok, cotton) and a layer of wool. My characters’ everyday clothes were well suited to their environment.

Second, I like to experience the proportions of houses and contemplate the light coming in the windows. Glazing took off in the Elizabethan period, spreading from the wealthy to the middling sort by the end. I work by natural light at home, because I had a SolarTube installed over my desk. It’s lovely, clear and sufficient, somehow softened by the plastic lens. Unfiltered daylight is too bright in Texas.

In England, it’s just barely bright enough on a average day. You’d get used to it, I imagine, and consider it adequate. Certainly, you’d suffer no harsh glare reflecting off your papers. You would take care to position your desk for optimum light and/or have your sewing chair near a window.

Then there’s the beautiful, informative signage. It’s far less trouble and more fun to stroll around the grounds and find this handy sign identifying the local birds than it would be to page through my whole Birds of England book.

Last, the people who work in these places are a marvelous resource! The kindly women in the kitchen put aside their preparations for the next busload of children to show me how to strike a light with a flint and a bit of charcloth. That was so cool! I was writing Death by Disputation at the time and had a long scene in which Tom has to stop and read an intercepted letter behind a hedge. He had to remove and then replace the seal, which requires a flame. If I were Tom, I’d carry a stub of candle around just in case and of course any active lad would have a tinder box on his person whenever he went out.

The pouch below has a flint, a stone, and what looks like a bit of bark, not char cloth, which is burnt linen. Pic from Wikimedia Commons.







More irresistible animals

These creatures are professional historical re-enactors. They can speak for themselves.

A curly-haired cutie-pig
‘Allo! ‘Ave you come to fill my dish?
Why do I keep doing this to myself?
A goose relaxing before the parade.

The season of Misrule

The season of Misrule is a descendent of Saturnalia, the Roman festival of the winter solstice. Somehow coming back hourglassaround to the sunny side of our orbit suggested the inversion of social structures to the Ancient Ones. Turn the hourglass over, reach the limit and do an about-face; I suppose that’s more or less the logic, if logic has any role in this season of Unreason.

The Wikipedia article about Saturnalia is long and interesting; I recommend it. It was one of many Graeco-Roman holidays involving role reversals. (The only one we have that I can think of is a Sadie Hawkins dance, surely now nearly obsolete.)

Turtles_all_the_way_down copy

Saturnalia was hugely popular. Everybody got the day off work, slaves were waited upon by masters, gifts were exchanged. Gambling was allowed, standards of behavior were relaxed, people got loose. This made it the holiday to beat, which is why Christmas happens when it does.

Everything is founded on something else. It really is turtles all the way down.


Abbot of Unreason 

Early Christianity adopted the role reversal portion of the ancient festival, with the license for looser behavior. Wikipedia tells us that the Lord of Misrule or the Abbot of Unreason was an officer appointed by drawing lots to preside over the Feast of Fools. The intention was that someone low on the institution’s totem pole, like a peasant or a boy, would be made ruler for one day of wild partying instead of sober work and worship. Wild by monkish standards; I’m sure they sat around the table drinking wine and giggling themselves sick over obscure academic jokes. The Boy Bishop could order his superiors around, though custom constrained his powers. He could make the real bishop cut his meat for him or dance a jig; temporary, funny, harmless things.

Misrule at the Elizabethan Inns of Court








The educated sophisticates of Jacobethan times got a big kick out of medieval gags like the Lord of Misrule. There was no misrule in Elizabeth’s Court, but the universities, Inns of Court, and trade guilds had great fun with the tradition. Too much fun sometimes; a drunken riot followed the choosing of a Lord of Misrule at Pembroke Hall at Cambridge University in 1628.

The City of London chose a Lord of Misrule and held a procession of Morris dancers, followed by the Lord’s Council, followed by the Lord himself in a gown of gold brocade. A Lord of Misrule entered the City from Whitechapel with a great company and many guns and halberds, trumpets blowing. They rode through Newgate, in at Ludgate, round about St. Paul’s and into Cheapside and so home to Aldgate.mardi_gras_wikicom

This was a time when real processions displaying real lords and ladies occurred at regular intervals. But people in all times and places enjoy hitting the streets in their fancy duds. The magnificent personages shown here were part of the Mardi Gras parade in Shreveport.

Gesta Grayorum 1594

The Gesta was Gray’s record of their “law sports” — their misruly entertainments. This volume happened to be preserved because it mentions a performance — possibly the first — of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

Gray’s Inn would never be outdone by mere City men. Every year when the Michaelmas term ended (Saturday, Dec. 3 in 1586), they elected a court of Misrule, led by the Prince of Purpoole. (Purpoole was the name of a lane east of Gray’s Inn Road.)

Here’s a typical sample of the pompous nonsense they found amusing:

“After many Consultations had hereupon, by the Youths, and others that were moil forward herein, at length, about the II th [2nd] of December, with the Consent and Assistance of the Readers and Ancients, it was determined, that there should be elected a Prince of Purpoole, to govern our State for the time ; which was intended to be for the Credit of Grays Inn, and rather to be performed by witty Inventions, than chargeable Expenses.”

They elected a full Privy Council, ten Gentlemen Pensioners to attend on the prince’s person, and a guard with a Captain to defend him. Their activities seem to have consisted chiefly of sending diplomatic missions to the other Inns of Court and receiving such missions at Gray’s. We can assume an abundance of liquid refreshment at these august encounters. The prince and 80 retainers dined in state with the Lord Mayor and his retainers at Crosby Place (once owned by the Duke of Gloucester.) They had their masques, written by Graysians like Francis Bacon, and sometimes players, written and performed by professional players.

Here’s another taste, this time describing the appalling conditions under which Mr. Shakespeare’s plays were performed. One imagines he was used to it, although it sounds like Inns of Court society was far less orderly than the audience at the Globe. Remember how big the clothes worn by these “worshipful Personages” crowding onto the stage and how drunk half of them must have been!

“When the Ambassador was placed, as aforesaid, and that there was something to be performed for the Delight of the Beholders, there arose such a disordered Tumult and Crowd upon the Stage, that there was no Opportunity to effect that which was intended: There came so great a number of worshipful Personages upon the Stage, that might not be displaced; and Gentlewomen, whose Sex did privilege them from Violence, that when the Prince and his Officers had in vain, a good while, expected and endeavored a Reformation, at length there was no hope of Redress for that present. The Lord Ambassador and his Train [from the Inner Temple] thought that they were not so kindly entertained, as was before expected, and thereupon would not stay any longer at that time, but, in a sort, discontented and displeased. After their Departure the Throngs and Tumults did somewhat cease, although so much of them continued, as was able to disorder and confound any good Inventions whatsoever. In regard whereof, as also for that the Sports intended were especially for the gracing of the Templarians it was thought good not to offer any thing of Account, saving Dancing and Reveling with Gentlewomen; and after such Sports, a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus [another play about mixed-up sets of twins]) was played by the Players. So that Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever afterwards called, the Night of Errors.”



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