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The Peacock's Tale

The Peacock's Tales

When working with vintage materials I often wonder about the people who originally owned them; daydreaming whilst embroidering is the best way to spend a couple of hours!  I'm fascinated by our folk heritage; ancient traditions, customs, songs and tales reflecting a way of life that has all but disappeared, even from our collective memory.  In The Peacock’s Tales I'd like to celebrate those connections to our past and revel in the seasonality they often reflect.  Do share your stories too; it would be wonderful to hear from you.

By Vivien Massery, Apr 23 2016 02:59PM

I love John Clare’s poetry, he writes so clearly, so truthfully. I can ‘see’ every single detail of the hedgerow he passes daily, or the hares that he watches play on "the roly poly up and down of pleasant swordy well”. His connection to the seasons and how they affect the land around him is evocatively described; above all his love for the countryside that he inhabits is tangible.

In January when I first started to plan my spring and summer embroideries I turned immediately to John Clare and read and re-read The Woodlark. I kept returning to the lines “as safe as secrecy her six eggs lie, mottled with dusky spots unseen by passers-by”, I could picture the nest hidden away amongst the grass and ferns with Mrs W sitting low on her six eggs whilst farm labourers, cattle and probably even the odd fox went by, oblivious to the little bird and her brood hiding just out of sight.

Having decided on my subject and text I then had to find out just what a woodlark’s nest looked like and for that matter a woodlark. We’ve many birds in Malvern, plenty of green woodpeckers fly on the hills making their ‘yaffle’ call and there are at least three pairs of buzzards who spend a lot of time circling lazily in the skies above, but I've never seen a woodlark.

So I turned to Birds Britannica, a wonderful book edited by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey. This book suggesed that in John Clare's poem the woodlark was an alternative name for the tree pipit. I felt disappointed, pipit doesn't sound nearly as romantic as woodlark. Then I read on and learned that in the eighteenth century the pipit family were referred to as 'titlarks', which literally meant 'small larks' and thanks to John Clare's precise description of his 'woodlark's ' behaviour it seems that he was referring to the tree pipit. Both birds have mottled dusky eggs, both are songsters but the description that John Clare gives of the bird's rising flight whilst singing and then her dropping to earth are apparently more evocative of the tree pipit; I find it amazing that two hundred years after the poem was written the species of bird can be so confidently discussed because it has been so accurately observed in the writing.

For good measure I thought I would see what my great grandfather’s collection of books, The Outdoor World had to say on the matter. Published in 1895, leather bound with marbled end papers and complete with beautiful line drawings and colour plates, the book of British Birds would doubtless have more information on the subject. It did. Under woodlark was the following statement: "In appearance the woodlark is a lesser skylark...It ranks with the six or eight finest British songsters but is the least known of all. The tree-pipit, sometimes called woodlark, is a much better known songster".

So, a tree pipit or a woodlark? It's a moot point. She can continue to lay her mottled eggs safe in the secrecy of her nest and I can embroider my nest safe in the knowledge that somewhere in Britain a woodlark will still be flying under whatever name she or John Clare chooses.

The Woodlark

The woodlark rises from the coppice tree;

Time after time, untired, she upwards springs;

Silent while up, then coming down she sings

A pleasant song of varied melody,

Repeated often till some sudden check

The sweet-toned impulse of her rapture stops,

Then stays her trembling wings and down she drops

Like to a stone amid the crowning kecks

Where underneath some hazel's mossy root

Is hid her little low and humble nest

Upon the ground; larks love such places best,

And here doth well her quiet station suit;

As safe as secrecy her six eggs lie,

Mottled with dusky spots, unseen by passers-by.

John Clare

By Vivien Massery, Nov 22 2015 10:41AM

Today is Stir Up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent. In the Anglican Church the collect for the day begins "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord...", hence the name. "It warns the Sussex housewife of the approach of Christmas, and to commence to "stir-up" her plum pudding, and tells the grocer to stock his shop-window with Christmas fruits for sale", so says the Sussex Archaelogical Collections of 1883.

I've never made a Christmas Pudding but I do like to make my own mincemeat and Christmas cake and so my Stir-up Sunday usually involves bags of raisins, sultanas, suet, citrus rinds, brown sugar and copious amounts of brandy. However this year I thought I'd look back to earlier times, a Medieval Christmas, and forgo the mincemeat and fruit cake for a beautifully fragrant and rich gingerbread; a proper gingerbread full of ground ginger, stem ginger and all the other wonderful spices that signify Christmas and it'll be made a little nearer the time. So today, to get in the mood and to mark Stir-up Sunday I'm going to make my Aunty Glad's Ginger Cake; comforting, sticky, delicious and redolent of childhood Sunday afternoon teas in a tiny cottage in Cefn-y-Bedd in North Wales. And, in case you'd like to bake your own gingery goodness, here is the recipe:

Aunty Glad's Ginger Cake

275g (10oz) self raising flour

1 level teaspoon salt

2 level teaspoons cinnamon

1 1/2 level teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 level teaspoon nutmeg

225g (8oz ) demerara sugar

175g (6oz) melted trex (a solid vegetable product for baking)

225g (8oz) black treacle

2 beaten eggs

150ml (1/4 pint) of milk

75g (3oz) sultanas

Grease and line a deep 7" (19cm) cake tin and preheat oven to Gas mark 3, 170 C

Sift together the flour, salt and spices and stir in the sugar. Add the melted trex, treacle and beaten eggs. Beat well then add the milk and sultanas. Pour into the cake tin and bake for one and a half hours or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.

And whether you're making mincemeat, puddings or cake don't forget the most important thing, everybody in the family gets to stir the mixture and make a wish! Now what am I going to wish for......

Stir up, we beseech thee,

The pudding in the pot,

And when we get home,

We'll eat it all hot.

(Children's old rhyme)

By Vivien Massery, Oct 15 2015 11:34PM

Today the fledgling 'The Peacock’s Tale' is released into the big wide world; a very exciting adventure, it’s been a while in the making and is the realisation of a long held dream. I hope you enjoy looking at our website as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together.

The year is turning and once again we’re moving towards winter, very soon we’ll be gearing up for Christmas and its celebrations but just now it's time to pause for a moment or two. I love all of the seasons but there is something infinitely satisfying about the quiet, slow, wind down towards the end of the year. While the wind whistles down the chimney and the rain lashes against the windowpane there is nothing nicer than to be safely indoors sewing cushions, sachets and other treats to give as gifts or to keep us comfortable and cosy in the months ahead; preparations for winter that form the rhythm of the seasons, a feeling that is very heartening and at the same time instinctively primitive. It’s the perfect time of year to launch The Peacock’s Tale, as all the planning for the website and our first stall at the Worcester Guildhall Christmas Fair fell very neatly into these annual preparations, just on a larger scale.

Whistling winds and dark nights are also the perfect setting for a spot of storytelling, especially the ghostly variety and even more especially during All Hallows Eve on 31st October. I’ll be carving the annual pumpkin, which will go into the window to welcome Trick or Treaters, a fairly new custom here yet apparently in some areas of Scotland there was, and maybe is, a tradition that on Halloween children would go from door to door ‘guising’, dressed in costume and asking for nuts and sweets, not so different really from today, although I suspect it involved less E numbers and aspartame…

I wonder if the idea of disguise, trickery and mischief at Halloween has connections to fairy lore; allegedly fairies and elves are at their most active on Halloween and are notoriously mischievous. Lewis Spence in 'The Fairy Tradition in Britain' wrote that in Ireland Halloween was the “season par excellence in which the fairy haunts were open and the elves swarmed everywhere”, he also goes on to quote W.B. Yeats, “the offering to the Sidhe is generously made at Hallowe’en, the old beginning of winter.” So not only should we keep our eyes open for ghosts and Trick or Treaters but also elves, goblins and fairies!

Whether you’re out making mischief or sitting cosily by the fire telling ghost stories I wish you a magical and wonderful start to the winter season.

Wee folk, good folk trooping all together; green jacket, red cap and white owls feather

The Fairies – William Allingham

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"The time has come the Walrus said to talk of many things; of shoes - of ships - of sealing wax-  

of cabbages and kings."

Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll