The Gift Trilogy

Out Now!

Thursday, 13 February 2020

I hope my bones are better behaved

Founded in the C9th but largely C13th.

Nave and Altar

One of the few churches with its own landing stage!

St Dubricius Church and graveyard had a wonderful atmosphere that photographs can only hint at. Even so, this post is largely one of photographs to give that kind of hint. 

For those who, probably rightly, think a post of photographs is a kind of cheat, I’ve also included a brief history of the man himself. Its source is Celtic* where a good story necessarily trumps truth, but then again it happened so long ago . . . 

A snowdrop drift.

A C6th king of Ergyng* called Pebiau had an incurable disease which involved a steady froth of the mouth which necessitated two servants to wipe it away. On returning home from a series of battles, he discovered his beloved daughter pregnant, and because she was his beloved daughter ordered her to be drowned with the as yet unborn infant. This she survived, and so he ordered her to be burned alive. The following day he sent his guards to check she was finally dead, but instead of a charred crisp, they discovered her nursing her newborn baby. On seeing this Pebiau came to his senses and embraced both mother and child. The baby wiped his hand over Pebiau’s frothing mouth and he was immediately cured.

Thus began the career of St. Dubricius who went on to change water into wine, drive a ferocious demon from an otherwise placid young woman, and found an oratory and place of learning on the banks of the Wye. The site of his oratory was chosen for him via the voice of an angel. It directed him to build where he found a white sow nursing her piglets. Predictably he stumbled upon said white sow and piglets and there built his oratory.

The base of a 300 year old Tulip Tree. I so wanted to believe that the meshing was to keep tree goblins in their place. The reality was that mournful parishioners were scattering ashes into the hole, which presumably was not good for the tree. 

The entire area became a centre of learning and piety but all things come to an end, even St Dubricius. Worn down by infirmity, he resigned as Bishop and retired to the holy island of Bardsey where he died in 612 AD.

By 1120 his reputation was such his bones were dug up and reburied at  Llandaff with much pomp and ceremony. But even in death, St Dubricius continued to surprise. Before reinterring the much-travelled bones, they were ritually washed before witnesses in  Llandaff Church. To everyone’s surprise the water bubbled furiously and became piping hot, the event lasting more than an hour. I hope my bones are better behaved when I die.

And for those who believe in Ents

* S. Herefordshire/Monmouthshire
*The Liber landavensis. ed. by the Rev. W. J. Rees. The Welsh MSS. Society. Llandovery, W. Rees, 1840.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Let's celebrate the Simcoes

To my mind, nothing beats wandering around an old English church on a cold winter’s day. I mightn’t have said that in the full flush of youth. Time and again you come across monuments or memorials to long dead sons plucked from the shires, some achieving glory, others killed in the service of empire. 

The church of St Dubricius is a case in point.


The photo below saves me much writing, but is only the prologue to the incredible story of Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillam. 

Elizabeth’s mother died at 38 shortly after giving birth to Elizabeth. This after 12 childless years of marriage. Her father had died 8 months earlier in Germany, hence the name ‘posthuma’ with its ambiguous connotations. She was brought up by her grandmother, Jemima Spinkes, (A name that surely belongs in a Dickens novel) but at 14 moved to Devon with her aunt Margaret who had just married a widower Admiral Graves.

By all accounts, Elizabeth was talented, fearless on a horse, a compulsive sketcher and artist; she spoke fluent French, some Spanish, excelled at cards and loved dancing. Not surprisingly, when the Admiral’s godson, John Simcoe, visited, he was entranced.

John Graves Simcoe was recuperating from wounds and years of service in the American wars of Independence. At the age of 25 he’d been a Captain in the Queen’s Rangers and championed new, guerrilla tactics against the rebels. He raged against the stupidity of bright red coats and European set battles in what was then a wilderness. 

Later nicknamed Simcoe Rangers. Green was better than red and those pristine white trousers would be suitably filthy in no time at all

During the war he was wounded three times, once left for dead, then captured and exchanged whilst in the process of planning an escape. He was in Sir Henry Clinton’s words: ‘a man of shining courage.’ Far from his portrayal in an AMC series

John Simcoe

Elizabeth Simcoe

So, too, was his new wife as proved when, in 1791, she travelled with him to Canada on his appointment as Lieutenant Governor. They set said with their two-year-old daughter Sophie, and Francis, their new-born baby son. After a rough forty-six day crossing they reached Quebec at the height of a harsh Canadian winter, waited until conditions improved, and then sailed up the St Lawrence to Lake Ontario and a glorified log cabin. Whilst John Simcoe administered Upper Canada, Elizabeth sketched, mapped and explored on horseback, sometimes by canoe; in the process she gave birth to a daughter (Katherine) in a snow-bound tent.

Having established what became Toronto, Simcoe returned to England in 1796. Eight months later, as Major General Simcoe, he was fighting the French in San Domingo before returning home to reinforce the defences of the South West coast against Napoleon. 

He died in 1806 leaving forty-four year old Elizabeth with an estate and nine children. The indomitable Elizabeth died in 1850, having lived to the ripe old age of 88. By all accounts she ran her estate along benevolent Christian lines, remained an inveterate traveller and retained her interest in all things Canadian. Toronto reciprocated in 1969 by renaming the August civic holiday as Simcoe day in honour of Canada’s first Lieutenant General and the man who abolished slavery in Canada seventy or so years before America.

So much from one small churchyard on a bleak winter's  day. 

And for those struck by the Simcoe bug and Elizabeth in Canada

Friday, 31 January 2020

The Lord Of The Rings

My battered and very old copy I'm reluctant to open.

I was eighteen when I first read The Lord of the Rings and I haven’t read it since. I rarely read books twice, but in this case I was/am scared about somehow tarnishing the memory. It coincided with a time and place, a period of great happiness in my life, and the entire story left behind a sense of something hard to define, a colour in the mind, a glamour of the magical kind.  And I’m afraid a re-reading might wash it away.

I was reminded of this when my wife was given a beautiful Christmas present from our son, 

which in turn prompted her to read the three books. One evening she looked up and remarked on how good-hearted and noble most of the characters were. 
I wondered then whether Tolkien was idealising an aspect of his own culture, one that was fading but nevertheless there. His period was not perfect but as in all things there is both darkness and light.

This particular anecdote from Tolkien’s life illustrates the point, in terms of nobility, generosity and endeavour.

Tolkien received a fan letter from a young girl called Rosalind Ramage who had just read The Hobbit. He may have remembered the name, I don’t know, but he wrote back and included a poem dedicated to her. Rosalind, was in fact the daughter of a former Oxford porter. The porter, James Ramage, then a single man, had volunteered to take on all the Christmas shifts for those porters who had families. Hearing of this act of kindness, Tolkien cycled down to the College with a bottle of wine for the then unknown porter and found him earnestly studying for admission into the University.

James Ramage went on to study English at Balliol between 1951-1954 and was a teacher at the Cathedral School in Wells, Somerset when his daughter wrote the letter.  Jude The Obscure with a happy ending, you might say, and certainly a character you could envisage in Lord of the Rings.