Saturday, 15 December 2012

Goostrey Parish Archive

We’re just about getting used to the huge variety of work here at The Blackden Trust.   It’s a real eye-opener of how much goes into running the Trust, and it’s become our weekly highlight.   

Over the last few weeks we’ve been market researching everything from rare books to creative writing lessons, and prices for future courses, trying our hand at blogging, drinking a lot of hot chocolate and helping to create something very exciting: the Goostrey Parish Archive.

Goostrey is a village with a long and fascinating history, but that history’s survival depends on local people.   So, a group of volunteers (including us) are aiming to create an archive of documents, photographs, oral history and any other kinds of artefacts from local people, so that we can make Goostrey’s history available to the public.  This is great news and we can’t wait to get started, especially because we’ve already seen a glimpse of the wonderful things that there are in the village...

... like this brilliant, but faded, photograph of St Luke’s Church, taken in the late nineteenth century.

And this engraving made before the graveyard was extended in about 1860.
Bethan and Phil

Thursday, 6 December 2012


Tucked in at the northeast facing gable of the Old Medicine House, enclosed by the glass window of the link and the retaining brick wall in front of Toad Hall is an enclosed space: the Labyrinth.   Easily missed by the casual visitor to the garden, but once found and walked, it hums in the mind: it is a journey along a blue brick path set into a square of cobbles to find wisdom.  The wisdom that in folktales is found at the well. 

“What can you see in the well?”
“Ferns on the wall and a dead frog in the water.”
“What else?”
The child leans over the parapet and looks into the water.
“I can see myself.”

Then the walk back along the outward ripple of the path, through the big stones of the constellation of Orion and the cobbles that echo the sun’s shadow at the equinox.

The Labyrinth shows a different face every time you are there.   A special and a private place.

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Owl Service

This week we scanned book covers  for The Blackden Trust website, where the Trust is planning to sell books online.  Among the books on sale will be one of our childhood favourites: The Owl Service.

Here's the beautiful dish that inspired the book - the real Owl Service. The decoration round the edge seems to be floral, though some people clearly see owls' eyes staring up at them.

So what happens if you put the "owl" motifs together?

A complete owl, with wings and a body.

More next week,
Bethan and Phil

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A Mysterious Day

Arriving for our work experience at The Blackden Trust for the first time, we were greeted by a sneaky looking fox and a mysterious pile of feathers. Great fun for the cats, but not for the hens.

We're two local sixth form students. We're going to be here until the summer, helping out at the Trust and keeping the blog up to date with weekly snippets of Blackden goings-on.

The doorbell's ringing. Who could it be?

There's nobody there...

It's definitely a mysterious day.

Till next time, Bethan and Phil

Friday, 13 July 2012

Bursting Berries and Flying Fruit cages

Two weeks to go to the Goostrey Gooseberry Show.  Tension mounts.  Reputations are at stake.

In a bid to grow the heaviest berry, the trees have been thinned of small berries to concentrate the nourishment in the bigger ones.    For that you need fertilizer and water, but not the unremitting rain we have been having.

Berries burst if the tree sucks up too much water too fast.   And burst berries are discarded.  Only whole berries may be weighed in the show.   The trees in the Frank Carter collection are covered in burst berries.  Disaster for any grower.  The more I pick off, the more seem to appear.  Something has to be done.  So, with the help of my young gardener friend, I do what all gooseberry growers do: cover the trees. 
Not a problem when you grow trees in three foot high pens, which is the preferred method of most gooseberry growers, but our trees are grown in a six foot high fruit cage to make them more accessible to visitors. 

We pull a tarpaulin over the frame.

With the tarpaulin tied securely, I stand back satisfied that I have done my best to protect the berries from an excess of water.  With a bit of luck, some berries might be worthy of their breeder at the show.

‘Mind you,’ says my young friend, ‘with this wind, the whole cage could fly off!’

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A Place of Making

Fifty five years ago at 11 o’clock in the morning of 7th of June 1957 Alan Garner turned the key in the lock of the ‘cottage’ at Blackden for the first time.  His memory of that day:

The doorknocker was, and still is, a brass replica of the Lincoln Imp.  I had marked it as a favourable omen at first sight, but now there was no need for me to use it, because I held the key.  I opened the door.

For the first and last time I saw the house untouched by habitation and could appreciate the size of the rooms and the scale of the timbering.  If I’d had any doubts they would have been dispelled.  Here was something ancient and big.  The smells were of oak and lime and thatch and wood smoke, a permanent ambience, touched briefly by the fading odours of floor swabbing and disinfectant.

I carried in my maternal great-grandmother’s chair, a part of her trousseau.  My cousin helped me manoeuvre our paternal grandfather’s table over the threshold.  Another story had begun.

Alan Garner

The cottage was in fact half of a medieval hall that had been divided into two cottages some time in the 1880s.  The tenant of the other cottage was Betty Carter, the daughter of the first tenant. 

Between Betty’s mother and Alan the occupants of the two dwellings had been agricultural labourers, servants, laundry women, signalmen, house painters and teachers.  Alan, the son of a house painter himself, is the first writer to be nurtured by Blackden.  The second is his daughter, Elizabeth. 

Here is Alan in 1960, the year of the publication of his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  This patch of Blackden is where he works and where he has written all his novels. 

And The Blackden Trust continues the creating and making with our visitors.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Cherry Tree Felling

This cherry tree was a sapling when Alan Garner found Toad Hall in 1957.  Every year since, its blossom has been a glorious affirmation of spring, but last year one branch was less glorious than the other and we feared that it might have died.  We had to wait until the tree blossomed this year to be certain.  There was no doubt about it.  One branch was dangerously dead.  It had to be felled.

The tree surgeons worked with skill and balletic grace ...

... bringing down the branch safely …

... leaving a neat pile of cherry wood.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Spring Lift Off

As flowers appear in unplanned places and the garden becomes more colourful, we begin the countdown to the season of events. 

It starts in April, but first we have to prepare and erect the multi-purpose tent, where we run some of our courses, and serve teas to our visitors, and feed the students during the archaeological training excavation in August.

First, the metal frame is put together over the only level area of grass in the garden.

As soon as it is off the ground, we clean the metal frame of the roof.   It’s unreachable once the tent is up!  This is the fourth year we have raised the structure, so we know that we have to follow the counterintuitive instructions to put the canopy on before we raise the roof.

Gently and carefully we pull the canopy over the frame.

We fix the canopy to the frame and then with a co-ordinated lift by the strong and a fitting of the legs by the nimble, the tent is up.  

In go the side panels …..

…. and the workers sit down for a well-deserved lunch. 

The tent is up: we have lift off!    Come and join us!   

It is a beautiful place, where, in the sixteenth century Old Medicine House, we shall be writing creatively; working with herbs; and discovering  the history of the people who have lived here. 

For details of what we are doing, go to:

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Gooseberry Plates

Although this is Dave Heath’s second Frank Carter Memorial Plate, it is unique; subtly different from the first in design.  Each one records the year, the name of the winner and the name of the winning berry and each plate is commissioned specially from John Hudson.

Frank Carter was a legendary grower in the second half of the twentieth century, who developed seventeen new cultivars; many of which are still winning shows decades after they were first shown.  All were grown on Blackden soil and many in this garden.

Frank was born in this house; probably in the downstairs room, as the midwife could not climb the stairs in the cottages.  You can see where the door to the cottage would have been.  The older gooseberry growers of Goostrey remember coming here when Frank was alive to gather his mother’s berries for the show. 

On Friday all the previous winners gathered for what has become the pattern of presentation, where last year’s winner presents this year’s winner with the plate.  Here Emma Williams is presenting Dave Heath with his plate.

Then we all have tea and cakes together and tales are told.Tales of wisdom and absurdity: of when to fertilise the trees and of how one novice grower sprayed his trees with diesel to deter wasps and killed the lot.  Wasps are the bane of growers. They say that a wasp landing on a ripe gooseberry can burst it and a burst berry cannot be shown.   

What the novice should have done was to put a saucer of diesel under each tree! ‘Not,’ said one of the growers, ‘as it makes much difference.’

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Relatively Confused

Visitors to The Blackden Trust will recognise this portrait.  He looks at you as you come in through the oak door into the middle room of the Old Medicine House. This, we have told our visitors, is Griselda Garner’s great–grandfather, Myer Salaman, who was the first Jewish Freeman of the City of London.  I have the framed strip of vellum that states, ‘Myer Salaman, of London, Fanmaker was admitted into the freedom aforesaid … on the 23rd day of February on the 45th Year of the reign of Queen VICTORIA, And in the Year of our Lord 1882 …’   

I wasn’t absolutely certain that the portrait was of Myer.  A few weeks ago, when I was looking for other information in the family tree, I spotted ‘Meyer Solomon, first Jewish Freeman of the City of London 1831’.   I was thoroughly confused.  Meyer was Myer’s uncle.  Which of these two was the rightful claimant to the honour of First Jewish Freeman of the City of London?    I asked, Richard Morris, the Chairman of Trustees and academic sleuth par excellence, for his help.  He found twenty-four Solomon and Salaman Freemen of the City of London.   Curiouser and curiouser. 

An authority on 19th century costume and fashion advises that ‘the sitter's forward sweeping hairstyle and its length and the height of his collar and cravat point to the earlier part of the century’ - too early for him to be my great-grandfather, Myer, who wasn’t born until 1836. 

If this is not Myer, could it be his father, Isaac Salaman?   There is a logical line of ownership of the portrait from Isaac to me. 

Then Richard found a website called ‘Missing Portraits’ on which there was this portrait.

What Richard didn’t know was that it is a site created by a second cousin of mine, who like me, is one of Myer’s great-grandchildren.   I have never met my cousin, but we are now talking and he thinks that this portrait is of Isaac Solomon, who was Meyer’s brother and Myer’s father.   The hairstyle and fashion detail in this case suggest that the portrait was made at the end of Isaac’s life.  He died in 1872.  We know that the portrait was by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Simeon Solomon, who was Meyer’s son, which makes him Isaac’s nephew and Myer’s cousin.  

Are these two portraits of the same man?   Is this Isaac Salaman, my grandfather’s grandfather, the ostrich feather manufacturer, who made a fortune that the next three generations lived off and used philanthropically to support the arts?

I do hope so.  It would be fitting to have him presiding over our endeavours.

The portrait by Simeon Solomon is in a private collection.
For more information about the portraits and the artists go to:

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Gooseberry Godfathers

‘Gooseberry godfathers’ is how I think of my two gooseberry-growing friends. Between us we hope to establish a living archive of Frank Carter’s prize-winning cultivars and to preserve the accumulated skill and wisdom of local veteran growers for future generations.  The culture of Gooseberry Shows that once dominated the lives of men in rural Cheshire is dying out; undermined by the First World War and further eroded by the Second World War.  But the godfathers are determined to keep it alive for as long as they can.  So they have given The Blackden Trust fourteen of the seventeen cultivars developed by Frank on Blackden soil in his lifetime and are searching out the remaining three.   They patiently show me each stage in the process of growing prize-winning berries and I record what they tell me, both in these pages and also on the website.  That way something will be saved.

An essential part of the growing of gargantuan gooseberries is spraying with the right insecticides and fungicides at the right time.  This for me is the most difficult aspect of the whole procedure.  The rest of the garden is free from chemicals, but these prize-wining cultivars were developed for weight of gooseberry at a time when the negative effects of chemicals had not been recognised.   Unlike most modern varieties, these have little resistance to disease.  

As one of our gooseberry godfathers sprays, the other trains the branches with specially made supports to get the optimum spacing both horizontally and laterally. 

The berries need light and air to grow well.

The trees sprayed and supported, the godfathers tell me that now is the time for the magic fertilizer to be sprinkled round the trees.  No gooseberry grower ever reveals what he feeds his gooseberries!   A supermarket bag is held out.  I am shown the contents: a small quantity of amorphous, granulated, grey matter.  What, I am asked, do I think it is?  I have no idea.  Is this a secret I have to earn the right to know?    A great laugh from both of my mentors.  ‘Dried seaweed!’   Dried seaweed maybe, but what else? I wonder.

You can find out more about Frank Carter and his prize-winning gooseberries at

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Perverse Plants

Snowdrops are usually the first flowers in January.   Their luminous white carpet emanating light, just as the days start to lengthen.

Not this year!  As you can see, just a few flowers are beginning to show above the grass. 

And the winter jasmine, a flame of colour during the dull winter months is barely flickering this year.

So why is the japonica covered in vibrant red blossom, glistening ‘like coral’?   March is the month for japonica: March when, ‘The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers’, as Henry Reed describes the intense activity of bees in spring.   I planted the japonica in homage to his poem, Naming of Parts.

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
          And to-day we have naming of parts.

There are two voices in the poem: that of the NCO instructing recruits on the parts of a rifle; and the thoughts of the recruit who is distracted by the signs of spring outside. It is a wonderful poem of contrapuntal images and emotions.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
          They call it easing the Spring.

The japonica is trained against the wall of the room that was the parlour, when the medieval hall was first built, and is now the room in Toad Hall where we sit with our friends.  There is a radiator on the other side of the two-brick thick wall.  Perhaps the japonica is benefiting from the heat we are losing.  I wish we could ensure that the bees would be around to go ’backwards and forwards’ to pollinate the flowers.

I have quoted only two verses of the poem.  The complete poem can be found at: where you can hear Frank Duncan and Henry Reed reading Naming of Parts.