Keepers of the Sacred Place


White Horse, Uffington, seen from the ground

Seven years ago I finished my Renaissance quartet with A Gift for the Magus and was faced with the question of what to do next. What — or where — did I love as much as Florence? The answer was very close to home: White Horse Hill, Uffington. Martin Henig of Oxford University led me to the story, not of the Horse’s inception (now known to be Bronze Age), but to a later time and a later people: the tribes of the Iron Age. As a sacred site, or sanctuary, it was a no-man’s-land, a place where three tribes met, but the Atrebates, who used it as a design for their coins, seem to be most associated with it.

Calleva horse1

Bronze horse found at Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) – Reading Museum

The bronze horse found at Calleva (Silchester) is clearly based on the Uffington Horse but it always shown facing left for some reason. Flip it over and you see the Horse all joined up, as perhaps it was in those days.

The territory of the Atrebates once ran from the Thames down to the sea but by AD43 it had shrunk to the southern-most settlement at Noviomagus (Chichester). The bones of the story may be found in Martin Henig’s The Heirs of King Verica. With his permission, I took those bones and added muscle and flesh to bring back to life Togidubnus, once called ‘Great King’ but now almost entirely forgotten. Yet he was the first, according to Henig, of a line that includes Arthur and Alfred who shaped the nation now called England.

Triple-tailed horse2

Coin of the Atrebates, Henley Hoard, Ashmolean Museum

In the final week of 2017 I am putting the finishing touches to the first part of a duology called Keepers of the Sacred Place. A final edit is required, maps, glossaries, etc., but I’m hoping for publication by Easter.

Expect lots more background material!


The Empty Lake

The local swans first came to our attention when they took possession of the seasonal pond opposite our house. We called them the Webbs, thought they were cute and treated them like living wallpaper to our lives, which is to say, we barely noticed them.

The ‘secret’ lake, of whose existence we were oblivious until about three weeks after we moved here, was cleared of its Sleeping Beauty brambles and opened in 2014. Clearly this was where the swans had permanent abode. They were often on the ponds and ditches of the common, but most often here. In October of that year, one of them paid a visit to our back garden. Adult but whether male or female I didn’t know (now I do – it’s the cob, the male). We guided it back to the lakes, but a couple of days later it returned. Our garden is tiny. As a landing strip, it’s just about long enough for a pigeon to flutter in and out. But here was our swan again, and once again we conducted it to the lake.

Apollo copy.jpg

A friend reminded me that the god Apollo can take the form of the swan (so can Sarasvati, I learned later). From that moment I began to honour the sacred in the bird, and to acknowledge that I know nothing of its life cycle. Books I read didn’t tell me what I wanted to know so I decided to watch them for a year, bought a large sack of proper swan and wild duck food and began to visit the lake more often. In May 2016 I was greeted by the proud parents of a new brood apparently bringing the children to meet me.

Swans spring 2016 copy.JPG

I took to visiting the lake every day. There were six cygnets. One by one they disappeared until three remained to grow to the next stage, which is called ‘bluebill’: a young adult with some brown feathers amongst the white and a bill yet to turn that lovely ochre colour of the full-grown adult. Why did they disappear? The usual culprit is the pike. Some villagers say that they have seen a cygnet suddenly pulled under water. Stuff happens…

Over the year, especially at bank holidays, boys go a-fishing from the jetties. Now I do not wish to kick up a fuss about this, because I want to see the young out in nature, but then the worst thing happened. On New Year’s Day the cob got caught in a line. Swan Support sent someone up from Slough and she took a six-pronged lure out of the cob’s foot.

Joanne and the swan copy.JPG

Injured swan foot copy.JPG

By now I was passionately involved. Throughout the winter I continued my daily visits and the swans (and gulls and ducks and, sometimes, the odd coot) would come to my call. The family was now down to five (three cygnets grown to ‘bluebills’) and I used to chat to them like an idiot as they nibbled the water with a smacking sound. Around early spring, I began to wonder if I should stop feeding, because surely it was coming up to the time for the young to depart? I didn’t want to make it harder for them.

swans walking copy.jpg

In the picture above, Dad is still protective of the young and is coming to see me off.

Ignorance is a wonderful thing, makes cuddly pillows of all the gaps in knowledge. Time to depart! What did I expect? The three kids saying, ‘Hey, Mum, hey, Dad, hope you don’t mind but we’re thinking of leaving home…?’ The reality: the cob turning suddenly from protective father to force of repulsion, busking, beating wings, flapping in the face of the male bluebill. OK, I’m anthropomorphising (is that the word?), but I saw that young swan suffering as it cowered on its own further along the bank. I did keep feeding them and sometimes he would join the group, but not for the food. He just wanted to be with the family… Then dad realised he was back and the great show of aggression began again. The two girls seemed immune but they were not.

This is a long story. I’ll cut it short. I found the young cob dead in the water on Good Friday. Easter Sunday the body was still there, so no resurrection for him. A couple of days later, I saw a single swan flying over the village and understood it to be one of the girls. The family, what was left of it, was out on the culvert pond, the parents cold-shouldering the remaining young pen, who stood staring out over the meadow, her back to the pond. Then dad turned on her and, in a panic, she pushed through the fence and into the main road. With a couple of neighbours I herded her back to the lake. It was the last we saw of her. Presumably she, too, flew off.

Now it is May and the lake is empty. Some days I see the male on his own. He doesn’t come to my call and is not interested in food. The pen will be on the nest in the reeds somewhere. In a week or two, they will bring their fluffy new brood to meet me, but for now I am left with an empty lake and the sour feeling of having woken up to the brute realities of life. I listened to a beautiful song yesterday where the image of two swans is used as a metaphor of eternal love. Well, phoo-eee.

‘That’s Nature!’ say my friends, as if that’s supposed to help. Those young swans felt grief; I feel it, too. Grief also is natural.

Seeing Maria Again

I’ve just been into the bowels of my computer looking for visuals for Maria but then remembered it belongs to my photocopying days and all I have is on paper! So then I went googling and the results were, for me, revelatory.

First I found another blog on her which, when I read it, turned out to have been written by me. How memory loss is exacerbated by the blizzard of information technology!

The only known images of Maria related to two medals, one struck for her brother, Angelo Poliziano, and one for his Pico della Mirandola. Because my images are on paper and filed away in a cobwebby corner, this is the one that has lodged in my mind, and made me think of her as somewhat frumpy.

Maria Poliziana Angelo's medal.JPG

The beauty of the internet is, of course, access to the treasures of knowledge. There are more surviving medals than I’d realised, and some of them in fine nick, which replaces the frumpiness with beauty.

Maria mature on Angelo medal.jpg

This next one is obviously the main inspiration for Paulina’s doll. It shows Maria as young virgin (long hair down) on the obverse of the Three Graces motif used on the medal of Pico della Mirandola.



Seeing Maria

I’m never quite sure what my characters look like, even when there are contemporary portraits. I hear voices rather than see faces. That said, I like to pin them down visually and will often wile away a happy hour avoiding writing by ‘casting’ my characters, using the images of actors. This allows me to describe them very well, but see them? Nope.

Sometimes I get visual clues in snatched glimpses, clues that help me develop the character and make them more rounded. Thus Antonio, the villain in A Tabernacle for the Sun, was wooden and two-dimensional until I caught sight of a young man in the passenger seat of a car driving away in a street in Volterra. Mandred, a character in my current W.i.P, was spotted as I drove through Moreton-on-the-Marsh and saw this unusual character lurching along, helped by two others. That was the inspiration for the character though when I ‘cast’ him later, I used the form and face of a popular TV historian, but the Mandred in my mind conforms to neither image. He just is.

In Pallas and the Centaur and The Rebirth of Venus, one of the major characters is the sister of Angelo Poliziano. Almost all my characters were immortalised in contemporary portraits and, oddly, there is even an image of Maria surviving in a bronze medal cast for Pico della Mirandola. But she looks a little frumpy and the character who evolved in my story was different; still plain, but a lot more interesting. Maria sprang to life for me in the face of a young woman with whom I more or less shared the same space in a very crowded vaporetto. I looked up and, there she was. Very toothy but striking.

Judy Thompson is a retired costumier/set designer who is writing a novel using the same period and characters. She does things very differently, commissioning Paulina Gravagno to make dolls which she keeps in a dolls’ house called the Villa Querceto (Pico’s villa on Fiesole).

Villa Querceto.jpg

a photo of my “dollhouse,” peopled with 1:6 scale (1 human inch = 6 doll inches) Renaissance figures – Giovanni Pico, Angelo Poliziano, and Lorenzo de’ Medici among these). Enjoy! I’ve crowded them all together in one room; not usual, 😉 as there are several rooms/half-rooms at my “Villa Querceto.” The porcelain ball-jointed dolls were hand-made by Paulina Gravagno, based upon my specifications. The setting is, however, my work…. (Judy Thompson)

She has sent me photos regularly showing the stages in creation of Maria Poliziana. I’ve found these images very disconcerting. There is something slightly alarming to see your character reduced to a tiny head sitting in the artist’s palm.

Maria first stage.jpg

As she progressed, Maria began to look less like a manikin created for diabolical purposes and more like, well, a doll. Way cuter than I’d imagined but, as I said at the start, I never have that much of a clear picture.

Maria second stage.jpg

Now that she is finished, I can look at her without being disconcerted and think, possibly… possibly… Why not?

Maria puppet 1.jpg

During my researches, I went to Montepulciano to find out anything I could about Maria and had to suffer the humiliation of being laughed at. A woman? Birth records? Death records? They never kept records of women! This recreation of Maria in the imagination of at least three people (me, Judy, Paulina) is the least she deserves, is an honour, indeed, to all unrecorded women. Maria lives.

Maria puppet 2.jpg

Please don’t use any image reproduced here without permission of Judy Thompson or Paulina Gravagno.


red-stems-of-sycamoreWytham Woods is a study centre for the University of Oxford. During a guided walk there recently I had my mind changed — or, rather, put straight — about the sycamore. I am of the generation brought up to think of it as an ‘invasive species’ and I remember a principle of woodland management in the 70s and 80s was to remove sycamore. Prejudices are easily sown: I learned to shudder at the very name. When, over the years, I’ve seen a beautiful piece of creamy wood, or a five-lobed leaf on the path with a striking red stalk, I’ve been disappointed to learn it was sycamore. Well, no longer.

The European sycamore is Acer pseudoplatanus. It was growing in Britain by 1500, and some think much earlier (in Scotland, its Gaelic name — for chrann — dates it to the 6th or 7th centuries). The idea of it being a weed tree has some truth, especially in Australia and New Zealand, but in fact sycamores set seed some distance from the parent plant, not at its base. Apparently if Wytham Woods was left to itself, it would, despite its sycamores, revert to being an ash wood.

Here is what this tree of ill-repute gives us: sap sugar and honey made by bees from its nectar; wooden floors; furniture; musical instruments, especially the necks of violins. In Cornwall, oddly, it is sycamore which is ‘the May’, not hawthorn as elsewhere, and during the May Day or Flora Day celebrations, the youths gather sycamore branches and make whistles from bark.

 Like the plane tree, it is tolerant of pollution and salted roads, so is good for cities. (If you’re wondering if the avenue in your city is plane or sycamore, here’s one difference: leaves are alternate in planes, paired or opposite in sycamores). And, apart from all that, it’s beautiful. It may even be the white maple in the old song, Wassail, Wassail, all over the town.

Its distinctive double-lobed winged seed is called a samara and is formed to twist in the air as it falls, taking it away from the tree. We have a local jewellery-maker from whom I bought a fabulous pair of earrings that are, I know now, silver pendant samaras. I remember feeling ambivalent when I bought them: they were beautiful, but they were inspired by sycamore. I’m older and wiser now, and shall wear my samaras with pride.

On the guided talk we were told that the term ‘non-native’ has been changed to ‘future-native’. What sounded at first like a piece of arboreal PC is in fact a recognition of a truth that, as our native trees die out (elm, ash, larch, possibly oak), the vast gaps in our woodlands will be replaced by sycamores. We are losing what we love: time to start loving what comes next.

Pomona’s Day


It’s all apples now, falling like small thunderclaps on to the ground, crashing into the wheelbarrow. It is the wormy ones that fall by themselves, leaving the whole ones on the tree for another couple of weeks of ripening.

I chase apples through the dictionaries to find out why they are called poms. The Latin pomum, pl. poma, at first meant any fruit but in time became especially linked to the apple (and, of course, the pomegranate – pom plus grain).  We find pom in many other words, such as pomander and pomace, which is the name of the pulp left after juicing.

In the hunt, I stumble upon Pomona, a Roman goddess and daughter of Ceres and Neptune. She was one of the twelve gods called Numina, guardian spirits of Rome. Her feast day is not known: August 13th and November have been suggested, neither of them satisfactory.

As I hunt, I begin to wonder about the origins of Apple Day, for it is a tradition without a history. ‘Oh, it’s apple day!’ people cry in October, and I wonder why I never knew about it when I was a child. So my dictionary hunt is abandoned for a session on Google and I find that it’s a tradition that began in 1990, or shall we say custom? For ‘tradition’ by its nature is a word that suggests some length of time. The begetters of this custom were Common Ground. This is a group founded in 1983 to inspire people to engage with their local environments, creating projects such as Apple Day, Parish Maps and New Milestones. A bit of a success then, as such groups go, for Apple Day is everywhere now although, like Pomona, we’re not quite sure when, except sometime in October (the first, which Common Ground set up at Covent Garden, was on October 21st, but our village orchard is celebrating on October 9th this year).

And so Pomona, who was hardly heard of after her brief rebirth in the imagination of William Morris, has returned. The orchards are blushing with heritage varieties and names that were nearly lost. Our own community orchard, born of the Common Ground initiative, was planted in 1993. Local varieties were tracked down and now it hosts rarities such as Bampton Fairing, Winter Greening and Sergeant Peggie. My own favourite is a new variety which has been named after the village.

The windfalls will be juiced, turned into chutneys and cakes, and sold on Apple Day to fund more trees. As I write, my husband is peeling and chopping. Our own dear tree in the garden is Lord Lambourne and he keeps the freezer stocked for the entire year.


I am the ancient apple-queen,

As once I was so am I now. For evermore a hope unseen

Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

Ah, where’s the river’s hidden gold?

And where the windy grave of Troy?

Yet came I as I came of old,

From out the heart of summer’s joy.

William Morris.

Waterperry Apple Weekend – October 7th to 9th

Dear Young People

I am not young, I am middle class, white, and live in a village where, along with 77% of my neighbours, I voted to remain in the EU. However, by a democratic majority in the nation, we are now in the process of leaving. It is time to revision the future, and I have an idea…

We need to enfranchise the young. At the age of 16, anyone born in Britain should be granted citizenship, given the right to vote and be asked in return to join any of the political parties, with free membership until you get a job. The last year in school should have a compulsory module in citizenship, including a constitutional history of Britain, so that everyone is at least informed.

We are living in a ‘democracy’ which relies far too heavily on not having the people involved. I saw this in action when I was a member of the National Union of Journalists. I used to go to the chapel meetings and leave after about half an hour; one day I decided to stay. After half an hour, when most decent, intelligent people had been bored witless by ‘committee dialogue’ and had left, the real business began. It’s how politics operates, and I would like to see that change.

Compulsory membership wouldn’t mean we all have to attend meetings, but we would have a vote.

Today the Labour Party is in turmoil because it cannot reconcile the membership to the party, and vice versa. This is all bad news, but I’m hoping it heralds a new approach, where membership matters.

Referenda are held easily within parties. You get emailed regularly and can always state your views, either to your local candidate or the leader directly. In this digital age, it would cost nothing to have local, in-party voting systems. And then the elected members would at least be informed as to the mood of the party; they would still find ways to go against it, but they could no longer ignore it.

The thing is this, we cannot go on the way we have done in the past, electing candidates every four years, moaning about the leaflets coming through the letterbox, and then going about our business with no engagement at all except the occasional emotional outburst at the TV, or a letter to the MP about the environmental degradation of the community.

If we continue as we are, wanting only what is good for ourselves, and the leisure to play with our phones, to switch off, zone out, or whatever the current parlance is for non-engagement, then we shall be slaves.

As Tacitus said of the conquered Britons: ‘They adopted our dressing fashion, and begun wearing the togas ; little by little they were drawn to touches such as colonnades, baths, and elegant talks. Because they didn’t know better, they called it ‘civilization,’ when it was part of their slavery.’

What he meant was, the Empire knew how to keep the people quiet. It still does.

You have the right and the duty to be part of your country and have a voice in its future. Get out there and demand it.

I always believed that there was no room for emotion in political decision-making, but I think I was wrong. Emotion plays a great part, and gut-feelings are often more reliable, certainly more than opinions formed by the media. But it should always be balanced by Reason. Head and heart together.

I look forward to hearing from you.