Archive for January, 2014


Eller Tree: ‘at least a curious relationship to tree worship’

January 31, 2014

Eller Tree

A number of young men and women stand in a line, a tall girl at one end of the line representing the tree. They then begin to wrap round her, saying, “The old eller tree grows thicker and thicker.” When they have all got round her (the tree), they jump all together, calling out, “A bunch of rags, a bunch of rags,” and try to tread on each other’s toes.—Sheffield, Yorks (S. O. Addy).


(b) The tree is the alder. It abounds in the North of England more than in any other part of the kingdom, and seems always to have been there held in great respect and veneration. Many superstitions also attach to the tree. It is possible from these circumstances that the game descends from an old custom of encircling the tree as an act of worship, and the allusion to the “rags” bears at least a curious relationship to tree worship. If this conclusion is correct, the particular form of the game preserved by Mr. Addy may be the parent form of all games in which the act of winding is indicated. There is more reason for this when we consider how easy the notion of clock-winding would creep in after the old veneration for the sacred alder tree had ceased to exist.

Alice Bertha Gomme 1894 The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland  London: David Nutt (Volume 1, p.120).

Project Gutenberg ebook here:


Jack Straw’s Castle: Recovering a Festive Social Geography

January 26, 2014


Jack Straw’s Castle, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, was said to be the highest pub in London.  It was probably named after one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, who addressed rebels on Hampstead Heath from a hay wagon known as “Jack Straw’s Castle”. (From here).


Jack Straw’s Castle, 1903

This public house – rebuilt after bomb damage in WWII – has now been ‘sympathetically converted’, under the guidance of English Heritage, to private luxury housing. This process is called ‘Maximising value‘… A further step in the enclosure of the commons.


So it’s now:

A Landmark Development of Luxury Apartments, 2 Penthouses & 4 Houses in the prime of Hampstead, overlooking the Heath.

The braying arrogance of this statement, as today’s privileged appropriate what was once public space, is epitomised by the flashy sports car zipping sleekly across the front of the ex-pub.


The words of another rebel leader of 1381, John Ball, come to mind. They are quoted on the title page of the novel, A Dream of John Ball, by William Morris (1888).

A festive social geography

The place of Jack Straw’s Castle in an archaic social geography revolving around popular festivity is emphasised in an article by Morris Cluse in issue 77 of The Ley Hunter, edited by Paul Devereux:

In The Green Roads of England R Hippisley Cox mentions Jack Straws Castle on Kingsettle Hill (bordered by Kings Wood Warren) whence a track leads to Whitesheet Castle (2 miles NW from Mere). This Jack Straws Castle was an ancient great gathering place and a road goes SW to Cadbury. King Alfred mustered there before attacking the Danes.

Cox also pointed out that there is a public house named Jack Straws Castle on what might be termed the top of Hampstead Heath. He understood that there were some earthworks in the vicinity… It happens that the building overlooks the ‘Vale of Health’ upon which traditionally has been and still is held the August Bank Holiday Fair attended by Londoners from remote times (Ed. It also stands next to Whitestone Pond).

Cluse goes on to mention yet another Jack Straw’s Castle he found in a different part of north London:

at the top of Highbury Hill was a respectable public house called ‘Highbury Barn’. I recollect that my grandmother with a twinkle in her eye, had referred to lively goings on at Highbury Barn in her youth. Rocques map showed what looks like a square of earthworks with rounder corners at Highbury Barn. Sir Montague Sharpe in his book Middlesex in British, Roman and Saxon Times (Methuen 1932) mentioned that 5 small rectangular entrenchments were visible in Middlesex which had been threwn up by Count Theodosius in AD 368… There was one at Barnsbury… What really surprised me however was that over the area now covered by Highbury Fields (but possibly alluding to the entrenchments) was written ‘Jack Straws Castle’. So here was another place of merry public gathering. At Highbury Corner up to at least 1916, public meetings were held, sometimes 4 or 5 simultaneously in the roadway on Sunday mornings. Free Trade, Tariff Reform, Socialism and Religion were all expounded.

All in all, yet another incitement to a utopian hope for some kind of festive revival beyond the current, value-driven repression of public sociability.

Skaters dance to a band, on Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath, 1933

Skaters dance to a band on Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath, 1933


* Cluse, M. 1977. ‘Who was the Man of Straw?’ The Ley Hunter 77, pp 20-21.


Towards an esoteric prehistory of textiles

January 15, 2014


I’ve added a new article, both to this blog and to The Gran Geamatron Project. The latter blog is dedicated to exploring the esoteric dimensions of textiles in art, archaeology and society…


Maes Howe, ‘The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone’ and buzzards over Embley Wood

January 14, 2014

Out on the road nearly two years ago, it was a joy to hear the work of  Sally Beamish featured on Radio 3’s ‘Composer of the Week’. While I was listening, parked in a lay-by near East Stratton where I’d often observe buzzards, there was something about Beamish’s discussion of a particular composition – The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone – that prompted me to turn the volume right up as the music was about to start, grab my camera, leap out and start filming the buzzards which were soaring overhead. That something must have been the striking observation she made about the Winter Solstice sun illuminating the passage of a Neolithic tomb in Orkney, discussed on this archaeologically-related forum:

For the piece The Imagined sound of sun on stone for saxophone and chamber orchestra she described visualising the beam of light which enters Maes Howe as like a stylus ‘playing’ the sound out of the stone (emphasis added).

I’d clean forgotten about the Maes Howe beam of light, but I’m sure it must have been that striking detail that spurred me to start recording the music and the wildlife as the sun blazed on the gravel of the lay-by. Listen hard for the plaintive mewling of the buzzards – just about audible – I think it complements the music well. It’s only an excerpt of Sally Beamish’s piece – either the battery/memory was going or I gave up, under assault from the big black flies brought out by the unseasonably warm weather!

I know it’s a bit naughty, I’m aware of ‘copyright issues’, but the recording was made on the spur of the moment as a creative reappropriation of a piece of music, setting it in a different context. Well, that’s my excuse…

The full title and recording details are here:

The Imagined sound of sun on stone for saxophone and chamber orchestra

Conductor: Ola RUDNER Performer: John HARLE – Saxophone Performer: Swedish Chamber Orchestra

BIS, CD-1161, 1-4 (Naxos).

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday, 1st March 2012


Widdershins: Gothic Marxist Review

January 12, 2014

Against the Clockwork Rhythm of Civilisation…

A few years ago I tinkered around with a fantasy project to pursue some of the themes suggested by the conjunction of an archaeologicised Finnegans Wake interpretation and what Margaret Cohen has described as the ‘Gothic Marxism’* of Walter Benjamin. The result was a mocked-up front page of an imagined magazine, with an array of tempting article headings to seduce the casual reader.

6879791-0Thanks to the intervention of my technical team (‘the lads’), the file has been retrieved, duly pdfed and jpegged. More a ‘to-do list’ in the guise of a vanity project, it’s still something I like the look of. Widdershins evokes the circular procession or dance of witches, performed in an anti-clockwise direction – ‘widdershins’. The title of an anarchist/situationist magazine of the late 1980s, Anti-Clockwise, probably had a subtle influence on that choice of name: against the pseudo-cyclical rhythm of capitalist work and leisure, a prison of measured time.  The use of the symbols of the four suits of playing cards I suppose evokes the interruptive play of chance against the determination implied by the forward march of linear time and the ideology of progress. To some degree the Widdershins project has been absorbed into what I’m trying to do with The Grammar of Matter, though there are still loose ends, which is exactly how it should be…

                    ♣          ♠

* Margaret Cohen. 1993. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press


A Lingering Echo of the Old High Woods

January 1, 2014

A list a cousin made of her favourite music of 2013 put me onto this group – The Memory Band – who made an album, On The Chalk (Our Navigation Of The Line Of The Downs), ‘a musical journey along the mythical Harrow Way’. Coincidentally, hours before I’d seen the link, I’d been researching an alignment which crosses the Harrow Way south of St.Mary Bourne, at a place called Chapmansford – a placename which evokes the passage of peddlars trudging to distant fairs. This particular song/video montage really strikes a chord with me, as I spent several years driving about the highways and byways around Andover, so it prompts some happy memories as well as some utopian hopes for some kind of festive revival beyond the current repression of public sociability, realised on one level with the mass cull of pubs.

The traditional song performed by The Memory Band was originally the accompaniment to a ceremony called ‘The Horning of the Colt’, enacted at the now long-defunct Weyhill Fair, whereby young men new to the fair were inducted into ‘the mysteries’ of livestock herding and droving. A band member describes some of the research he undertook:

On Old Michaelmas Day I walked from the site of Quarley Hill to the site of the old Weyhill Fair, which traditionally had started on that day.  It was near here that the name The Harrow Way had survived. The fair was seen as a continuance of an ancient practice of driving cattle to market along the ancient tracks, complete with the ceremony of the Wearing Of The Horns by the apprentice drovers upon arrival at the public houses of Weyhill during the Fair.

(Retrieved from here)

Two versions of the song’s words are printed on this page from Volume 22 of Folk-lore from 1911 (from here).


Postscript 1/1/14:

I would have written more but for the sad news I heard while composing all the above last night… The lingering echo of a voice I’ll no longer hear, of someone who would have felt at home, I’m sure, among those assembled at Weyhill. The road goes ever on…


The Bush Inn, Ovington

January 1, 2014

The Bush Inn, Ovington

Dedicated to John Ryman.