A Magical Place

Christina here. There are some places that definitely have a magical feel about them. Places that have inspired countless stories, and where you can easily imagine yourself transported through time. I can’t compete with Pat’s fabulous journey to the land of the Incas in the previous post, but I recently visited Tintagel – the village and its ancient ruins – on the north Cornish coast, and it made a huge impression on me. It’s not as exotic, but it is still awesome!

Tintagel is located in a truly spectacular position. I hadn’t been there for a very long time, and was struck by how beautiful the place was. If I’d been a king or a chieftain of old, I would have wanted to live there too, even if it’s probably extremely cold during the winter months.

Not only are the views breath-taking, but it’s great for defensive purposes too. Originally, Tintagel was important during the 5th to the 7th centuries AD, when it was a port and stronghold, probably occupied by Cornish kings. Later on, in the 13th century, the Earl of Cornwall built himself a small castle there. The ruins of Tintagel castle, and whatever Dark Age dwellings existed before that, are built on a on a headland that is more like an island connected to the mainland by a small sliver of land. There are tall cliffs on three sides, scarily steep.



Below, on either side, are little coves where you can land boats or go swimming, weather permitting. There is even a cave tunnel that goes right the way through from one cove to the other, and going inside it feels very mystical indeed.



Visitors can still see what’s left of a Medieval hall and other buildings from the Earl’s time, but I was more interested in the older structures. There are about a hundred small rectangular structures from the Dark Ages (so called because we know very little about the period as there are very few historical sources), so it must have been quite a substantial settlement. Just walking around there made my writer’s brain start spinning with ideas, and I’m not alone – Medieval authors used it as part of the stories about King Arthur, who was supposedly conceived at Tintagel. I really wanted to believe that as it’s so magical!

Most people will have heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It’s a story that has fascinated people through the ages, and it’s easy to see why. A brave and noble king with a magical sword that only he can wield, a sorcerer to help him defeat his enemies, a queen who betrays him with one of his handsome knights, and a treacherous nephew, among other things. All wonderful ingredients for an exciting tale – what’s not to like? But the thing we probably all want to know is (or at least, I do) – was he real? Did he actually exist? Sadly, no one knows for sure, and most historians doubt that he was a historical figure, although it is possible.

Some people think he was a Roman leader who stayed behind when the legions left Britain in the 5th century. Others believe he might have been Welsh, and a leader of the Britons fighting against the Anglo-Saxon invaders who came swarming in shortly after the Romans’ departure. His name is intriguing – I’ve read that Arth/Arto meant ‘bear’ in Welsh/Brythonic respectively, and Ursus is also Latin for ‘bear’. So perhaps the two were somehow joined together to form one name by people who spoke both languages? It could also be derived from the Roman family name Artorius, or from the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Major – Arcturus (which means ‘Bear Guardian’).

Tristan and Isolde by John William Waterhouse – Wikimedia Commons

Someone called Arthur is mentioned in an early Welsh poem called Y Gododdin, and in a few other historical sources, most of them written down long after the time when he was supposed to have lived. Later writers used these tales as a basis for their own re-tellings – particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes. Their stories added a lot of imaginary details and new characters, and are the ones we would recognise as those of King Arthur. And the original tale spawned many others that we know and love today, like Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde as she’s also called).

Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton – Wikimedia Commons

In this wild and windswept place, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 5th century, and to conjure up brave warriors and their families living there. It made me want to write something set during the Dark Ages, just so I could use this fabulous location as the background. I could quite see why poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and artists like the Pre-Raphaelites were obsessed with tales of chivalry set in locations such as this. As a huge fan of their work, I understood where their inspiration had come from.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse – Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century revival of interest in the Arthurian legends gave rise to so many amazing paintings. These two works by John William Waterhouse and Edmund Blair Leighton show their take on the Tristan and Iseult story. I love old-fashioned poetry, and Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott is wonderful! If I’d been a painter, I would have wanted to capture this story on canvas as well.

The idea of chivalry and romance has always resonated with me – perhaps because I was hooked on fairy tales as a child. My only problem with them is that most of the Arthurian stories seem to have sad endings. They always seem unnecessary to me, and I itch to rewrite them. (Actually, I usually do that in my head). I guess I’ll just have to pen my own Dark Age story with a guaranteed happy-ever-after!

How about you – do you like the stories of King Arthur, and do you believe he could have been a real person?

What We’re Reading in June

The Word Wenches have been reading the most lovely books.

Mary Jo's recommendations for this month include one of my own old favorites.

Mary Jo:

WwTheIvyTreeI've read some new books this last month, but the only stories that really grabbed me were two oldies.  The first was Mary Stewart's The Ivy TreeWe've discussed Mary Stewart here before–the Wenches are major fans and she shaped the writing for several of us, me included.

The Ivy Tree was the first Mary Stewart I ever read, in a condensed version in my mother's Ladies Home Journal.  I was riveted, and the big story twist was like being clubbed. (I'm harder to surprise now, but it's still one heck of a twist. <G>) 

Stewart is marvelous in her descriptions of story settings, and she makes a Northumberland summer come alive with sensual warmth.  Good suspense and romance, too.  (A lot of smoking goes on, as in most of Stewart's books, a sign of the changing times.)  It's still a wonderful story. 

My other favorite book is Sarah-Kate Lynch's The Wedding Bees, which I learned WwWedding Beesabout on an earlier WWR.  I think it was recommended by Anne Gracie and Pat Rice.  I was a little wary, not being over fond of stinging insects, but within a couple of chapters, I was hooked.  It's kind of magical realism with the heroine, Sugar Wallace, exiled from her beloved Southern home and each year moving herself and her bees to a new city chosen by her queen bee, one of a succession of Elizabeths.  (The current queen is Elizabeth the 6th.)

This time she's led to New York City in an apartment with a great views, a terrace for her bees, and a half dozen other units in the building occupied by miserable people.  Sugar is a healer with both her honey and her warmth, and by the end of the book, everyone in the building is happy, and they and her bees have healed her into happiness and love. A delightful story.


Susan brings us a most interesting mystery series and a rather famous book about writing itself.

WwdyingfallSusan:  This round, I read something new to me and something much-read (I won't mention the stack of to-be-reads, half-reads, meant-to-finishes, and forgot-I-hads that I didn't get through!). I'm leisurely making my way through Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway mystery series, picking one up now and then, and Dying Fall was a very good point in the series, about halfway through so far. Archaeologist and forensic bone specialist Dr. Ruth Galloway–single mom to a toddler she shares with Nelson, a local detective chief inspector–is drawn into a major archaeological discovery by an old friend who is soon murdered.

Read more

An Apple A Day…

Red_AppleA few weeks ago Wench Joanna celebrated oranges and lemons
in a blog post. Today, as Apple Day approaches in the UK, I thought I would
talk about apples. Apples are like reverse oranges and lemons; they aren’t
rare, they aren’t generally exotic although these days some apples have been developed especially for their exotic look and taste, and they will grow just about anywhere in
the UK. Yet until the 18th century most eating apples were
considered luxuries and sold mainly in London. It was the humble cooking apple
that was a staple of the ordinary man and woman’s day-to-day diet, which was
why it was particularly important to store apples correctly so that they would
last over the winter. Chaucer, in The Cook’s Tale, laments
the way that one rotten apple can turn the entire barrel and this was pretty important when the apple was a fundamental source of food.

Apples have a rich and varied mythology. Greek and Roman mythology refer to them as symbols of love
and beauty but equally they have a bad side. Although the bible does not
specify that it was an apple that Eve offered to Adam in the Garden of Eden, referring to
it only as fruit, an apple has often been used to depict the forbidden fruit.  Apples also get a bad reputation in some fairy
tales, most notably in Snow White. In Arthurian legend the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur is laid to rest, translates as the Isle of Apples. The Swiss National hero William Tell was said to have shot
an apple off his son’s head with a crossbow in order to ransom both their
lives. The symbolism and mythology of apples is everywhere, perhaps because of
their satisfying shape, perhaps because they are everyday items yet beautiful.

The arrival of the apple

Apples arrived in Europe from the Tien-Shan Mountains of
China, accompanying traders along the Silk
Apples Road. Homer’s Odyssey mentions
apples and apple orchards. Whilst there is some evidence that apples actually
grew wild in England during the Neolithic period it was the Romans who brought
the cultivated varieties to England – (apples, rabbits, carrots, parsley, feet and inches…That’s
what the Romans did for us!) The apple was particularly valued because all of it is edible, even the pips and core. However too many apple pips can be fatal as they contain a cyanide compound.

The Costermonger

Many Roman villas had their own orchards. These were
abandoned after the Romans left England in AD 383 but the apple flourished in
the wild and King Alfred the Great was the first to mention English apples in a
document of 885 AD. The Normans brought with them new, improved flavours and
the orchards of medieval monasteries grew apples of the variety Costard, from
which the word costermonger, an apple seller, comes. Costard was a cooking
apple. It’s counterpart as an eating apple was the variety Old English, which
is recorded as far back as 1204.

Costermonger 1631Costermongers are first mentioned in the 17th
century and they developed their role from apple sellers to being all-purpose
fruit sellers on the streets of Regency and Victorian cities. They would use a loud sing-song chant to attract attention
and would generally sell their fruit from a hand cart or basket. (Hence the
phrase “don’t upset the apple cart” which was first used in the late 18th
century). Costermongers gained a fairly unsavoury reputation for their
"low habits, general improvidence, love of gambling, total want of
education, disregard for lawful marriage ceremonies, and their use of a
peculiar slang language." 

The Queene Apple

You often hear about the great devastation caused by the
plague the Black Death in 14th century
Old apples England; it’s a little
known fact that it wiped out apples too because there were so few people left
to cultivate the stock. A series of droughts in the Middle Ages put orchards
under further strain and the Wars of the Roses finished them off. It was Henry
VII who was the unlikely saviour of the English apple. He instructed his royal
fruiterer, Richard Harris, to establish large-scale orchards in Kent. The most
common apple in the Tudor period was called The Queene after Elizabeth of York,
Henry’s wife.

The Gravity Tree

WoolsthorpeA couple of years ago I visited Woolsthorpe Hall in Lincolnshire where Isaac
Newton is said to have formulated his law of gravity when an apple either fell on his head
or he saw one falling from the tree. The orchard at Woolsthorpe still contains
the variety of apple that supposedly fell on Newton from what is now know as
the “tree of gravity.” It’s a pretty amazing thing to stand there and look at
those apples and think about the role they played in scientific discovery!

The New World Apple

Meanwhile, over the other side of the Atlantic, the Pilgrim
Fathers discovered that there weren’t many edible apples around. The
Massachusetts Bay Colony requested seeds and cuttings from England and other
settlers brought apple stock to Virginia and the South West. The first apple orchard in North America was planted in 1625 by Reverend William Blaxton but it is probably John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, who was the most famous pioneer nurseryman for the apple, planting nurseries rather than orchards across a number of states.

Regency Pips 

The most famous pip of the English Georgian period was planted in 1809 when Mary Ann Brailsford grew an apple tree that was to become
the mother of all Bramley apples. This was a very useful cooking apple as it worked well in pies, desserts, chutneys, jellies and cider making. By this period almost every farm from Northumberland to Cornwall had an orchard. Labourers were paid in cider right up until the end of the 19th century. 

Such was the reputation of Oxfordshire’s famous 1818 Kempster Pippin apple, which was developed into
220px-Deutsche_Pomologie_-_Aepfel_-_036 the Blenheim Orange variety (which is confusing!) that coaches would stop at Woodstock to allow people to glimpse the apple trees and thieves would shin over the orchard wall at night to steal some wood to graft! Here's a Blenheim Orange on the right.


Unlike exotic fruits, which can only survive the British climate in a hothouse, apples flourish here, and apple trees still grow wild in the hedgerows. The number of customs and games that we have created around the apple echoes the importance it has had in our lives. Bobbing for apples used to be a traditional Halloween game when I was a child. I can't say I enjoyed putting my face in a bowl of water in an attempt to catch a fruit but it was a custom that went back centuries. 

And that brings us on to cider.  In England we have the Normans to thank once again for popularising cider drinking and the medieval monasteries enthusiastically applied themselves to cider production. To this day the UK is the largest cider-drinking nation in the world.

Cider wassailI'm a big fan of cider and when we lived in Somerset 20 years ago we enthusiastically
took part in the old tradition of the cider wassail, first recorded in 1585.
This was a ceremony of drinking a toast to the apple trees in the hope that
they would give a good harvest the following year. I wrote my first traditional
Regency, True Colours, when I was living in Somerset and I included a cider
wassail in the story. In the Regency period as well as marching to the orchard
and raising a glass of cider to toast the health of the harvest it was also the
custom to loose off several rounds of ammunition in order to scare away any
evil spirits that might be lurking around the trees to put a blight on the
harvest. Needless to say, by the time we were taking part in the cider wassail
ceremony that element had been banned for health and safety reasons. In True
Colours and in my own experience the wassail was followed by a big barn dance
with mulled cider for refreshment and plougman's cheese, bread and pickle to go with it. A fine feast.

Tonight I'll be celebrating the apple harvest with a dish of monkfish served with potatoes, pancetta and cider. I heard a celebrity chef say recently that fish and fruit should never be served together but in this case I definitely make an exception to that rule! it's delicious.

Are you a fan of apples? Do you cook with them or enjoy apple juice or cider? And are there any apple-related traditions where you are?


Rochester sleepingNicola here. Today I’m talking about sleep. Do you sleep like a log (like Rochester in the photo) or are you a light sleeper? An insomniac, even? I tend to sleep for about four hours, wake up, lie awake for a while and then go back to sleep. Until recently I had no idea that this might actually be quite normal and a throwback to the not so distant past. New research however suggests that as recently as the 19th century the idea of “first sleep” and “second sleep” was common. It was only with the introduction of artificial lighting and the push towards a more efficient use of time after the industrial revolution that the idea of sleeping over two separate parts of the night disappeared.

First and Second Sleep

"And at the wakening of your first sleepe You shall have a hott drinke made, And at the wakening of
Full moon

your next sleepe Your sorrowes will have a slake." This quotation comes from an early English ballad called Old Robin of Portingale. In the medieval period it was the norm to sleep in two portions. The “first sleep” started about two hours after dusk. Then there was a waking period of about two hours when people would have a cup of tea, smoke a pipe, write letters, read a book or even go out to visit friends, and then there was “second sleep” until daybreak. Evidence for this comes from court records, diaries, medical text books and other literature including prayer books, which give a number of readings and prayers suitable for the time “between sleeps.” Between sleep was also the best time to have sex, if you believed the medical practitioners of the day, and the best time to conceive.

Spreading the Light

The lamplighter“Second sleep” started to disappear in the late 17th century when coffee houses in the cities started to open all night and more entertainments took places during the hours of the night. Previously the period after dark had been the province of criminals and of the supernatural, the haunt of highwaymen, prostitutes and witches, as one writer said. Although the wealthy could afford candles, most ordinary people could not afford to light the nighttime hours. Paris became the first city to light its streets at night in 1667, with Amsterdam following and London lit by 1684. It became fashionable amongst the urban classes to be up at night although in the country where there was no street lighting, fashions did not change so fast.

The industrial revolution encouraged an idea of clock- watching, time-consciousness and efficiency. Parents were encouraged to get their children out of a natural pattern of two sleeps per night. A medical text book of 1829 disapproved heartily of a first and second sleep; it was no longer the done thing and by the early 20th century the idea of splitting the night into a first and second sleep had completely vanished from public consciousness.

A Fascination with Sleep

Sleep, however, continues to be of fascination to us both in terms of our own experience and also in
Sleeping beauty Burne Jones literature. Fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White involve magical sleep, as do other myths. King Arthur, for example, is said to be asleep by enchantment and will come again to save Britain when he is needed. The myth of the sandman, which I remember my grandparents telling me when I was a child, also stems from the medieval period. Shakespeare wove themes of sleep through his plays, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Macbeth, for example, and wrote beautifully on the subject:
"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, the death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast."

In the past there were not the scientific and physiological explanations for sleep that we have today hence its close association with magic and even death. But that wasn't to say that people had not noticed the detrimental effect that worrying had on good sleep. Charlotte Bronte commented: "A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow." William Wordsworth tried counting sheep and imagining the soothing sound of rain falling and the hum of bees. These days there is everything from Sleep Labs to hypnosis to help us get a good night's sleep but I wonder if the reason some of us still wake is because sleeping through the night is actually an artificial state for our bodies and we are actually meant still to have a first and second sleep?

So how well do you sleep? Do you have a favourite myth or story that involves sleep? Do you like the connection between sleep and magic? And if we still had first and second sleeps, what would you enjoy doing with your “between sleep” time in the middle of the night?


Cara/Andrea here, inviting you to come on another peregrination . . .

Between the glittering elegance of London’s ballrooms, the bubbling charms of Bath’s Pump Room and the rugged splendor of Scotland’s Highlands, Wales—and the Welsh—tend to get overlooked in historical romance stories. I’m not sure why bucks of the ton and men in kilts get all the attention, for after a recent visit to the country, I came away utterly . . . enchanted!

Wales-flag Really, how can one not fall in love with a country that features Y Ddraig Goch—the Red Dragon—on its national flag. Dragons play a big role in Welsh mythology. The Historia Brittonum, which dates to around 820, contains the first written reference of the fanciful beast as the symbol of Wales. Ancient tradition then has it spreading its wings as the battle standard of King Arthur and other noble Celtic leaders.

Caerleon_Amphitheatre The Arthurian legends are part of the heart and soul of Welsh heritage. Camelot and the Round Table is said to have existed in the present-day town of Caerleon, which also was headquarters of the Second Legion Augusta, the Roman force which occupied this part of Britannia  from around 75 to 300 AD. Today, you can explore the impressive ruins of the bath complex built by the soldiers, and walk around a circular amphitheater built into the verdant meadows.

King_arthur It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in the 12th century wrote the first detailed accounts of the fabled ruler and his exploits. Arthur, Uther Pendragon, Merlin, Mordred—his Historia Regum Britanniæ, a chronicle of the lives of Britain’s rulers, served as inspiration for centuries of Welsh bards. (Geoffrey didn’t mention Camelot. That embellishment to the story originated in the French courtly romances of Chretien de Troyes.)

The_Mabinogion-8 These core tales of Arthur are also part of one of the most famous historic Welsh literary works—The Mabinogian. Inspired by folklore, myth and history, these collection of tales were part of the rich oral tradition of storytelling before being written down in the 13th century. They were first translated from Welsh into English in  the early 1800s by Lady Charlotte Guest, daughter of the 9th Earl of Lindsey , who worked from two late medieval manuscripts—the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. (Lady Charlotte traveled extensively in Europe after the death of her Welsh husband, and was an avis art collector. She bequeathed a wonderful ceramics collection to the V&A Museum, and an assortment of fans, playing cards and board games to the British Museum.)

An aura of mystery and magic pervade these imaginative tales—which I’ve been told shouldn’t be surprising, as  the Welsh are a people who love language, both written and spoken. Celts are renowned for their storytelling traditions, so poetry and song are deeply rooted in their culture. To this day, it’s given voice in a variety of artistic expression, both in English and in their wonderfully tongue-twisting native language. (Like the Scots and the Irish, the Welsh have an uneasy history with England. Conflict has colored the past centuries, both before and after the first Act of Union in 1536 joined Wales to its larger neighbor . . . but that is a subject for another time.)

Country2 Inspiration is easy to understand when you are in Wales. It is a small land of immense and scenic natural beauty—craggy coastline, sandy beaches, rolling meadows, majestic mountains. Though it’s only 8,00 square miles in size (roughly the size of Massachusetts) it features a great variety of terrain, from the bucolic pastures of the Wye Valley in the southeast to the rugged Snowdon Mountain range in the northwest. (Sir Edmund Hilary trained in Wales for his famous ascent of Mt. Everest.)

Carphillycastle For those of us who love history, Wales is equally alluring. Over 600 castles dot its hilltops and peaks, including Caerphilly, one of the largest in all of Europe, Castell Coch, built in the 19th century by the Marquess of Bute, and Caernarfon, a splendid Medieval fortress built by Edward I, where the present-day Charles was crowned Prince of Wales. There is also a wealth of fascinating museums and libraries to explore. Or you can meander through the winding country roads, visiting places like Caerfyrddin, said to be the birthplace of Merlin, and Llyn y Fan Fach, a remote lake in the Black Mountains which has its very own Lady of the Lake legend.

Hay And then there is Hay-on-Wye, a tiny town on the English border that is a must-see for anyone who loves the printed page. World famous for it antiquarian, specialty and secondhand bookshops—there are over 30 for a population of 1500—Hay-on-Wye holds an annual festival in late spring that draws people from all over the globe for author readings, panel discussions, and a general celebration of literature.  But even if you can’t make it for that week, the stores are open year-round, as is a large traditional market on Thursdays, which features antiques, crafts, flowers, homebaked goods and local foods.

Cheesestack Speaking of foods, all the wonderful things to see and do require a goodly amount energy. So it’s fortunate that Welsh food is so delicious. Make sure to stop often at one of the many charming tea shops. Welsh cakes, a sort-of flat scone dusted with sugar, and bara brith, a fruit cake laced with raisins and walnuts, are two of my favorite snacks. Salt marsh lamb and Usk Valley beef win culinary kudos. Oh, and don’t get me started on the amazing array of local artisanal cheeses. Teifi Celtic Promise, Cenarth Perl Las, Gorwydd Caerphilly . . . needless to say, I came home packing a few extra pounds—alas, on my person, not in my suitcase!

Ioan-gruffuddThis short tour does not nearly do justice to the magical kingdom that is Wales. (If you've never been to this part of Great Britain, I heartily recommend a visit!) Like Celtic bards of old, I could wax poetic for hours describing the hauntingly beautiful legends and landscapes. However, I shall leave you with just a last, short word. I dearly love my traditional British historical heroes—a London Corinthian, with gleaming Hessians and a perfectly tied Trone d’Amour still makes my heart go pitter-pat. And a Highlander with kilt and claymore is a sight to make any lady swoon. But after meeting a number of black-haired, blue-eyed Welshmen, with the lilt of laughter and poetry in their voices, I’m already imagining a hero for my new trilogy. His name is Gruffydd . . .or Rhys . . . or Ioan . . . (shown here is Welshman Ioan (Horatio Hornblower) Gruffudd as Lancelot. Need I say more?)

Now, how about you? Are you familiar with Wales and its legends? Did you love the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table as much as I did as a child? Or did you have a favorite tale or myth from another country. (My mother was Swiss, so I also grew up knowing all about William Tell and his famous apple!)