Ice on the meadow

January of 923 included a week or so of really cold weather – almost unknown in these later years – following on from some weeks of flooding. Thus a layer of ice formed on Lake Meadow, and as the water level fell it was left lying on the meadow.

You can see that the cold weather was protracted by the row of ice circles removed from the bird bath, one per day!

The ice was several centimetres thick and you could walk on it; it was like walking on a glass surface suspended over the grass. Sadly not safe for skating, I think, because in so many places the ice had broken and refrozen leaving holes and jagged edges.

Now, a week later, the ice is gone and there are catkins on the hazel trees.

A silver Cuthbert cross

On the 13th January, the nuns of Rumwoldstow celebrate the Feast of St Eadwald of Rumwoldstow, that local priest who received St Rumwold after his baptism. And on this day in 923, the local silversmith presented Abbess Cyneswithe with a fine silver pendant cross in commemoration. Its style is notably old fashioned, but then we are an unreformed house, honouring that early saint, Rumwold, and seeking to refound a house based on those early Christian principles.

The Rumwoldstow silver cross made by Alister Perrott in 2023
Back of the silver cross made by Alister Perrott in 2023

The Rumwoldstow Cross is essentially a Cuthbert cross, in a plain style inspired by a silvered bronze cross held found at St Hild’s abbey in Whitby, and now held by the British Museum.

Silvered bronze cross in the British Museum

Text accompanying the silvered bronze cross

Photos of the Whitby cross copyright Alister Perrott.

The Whitby cross is entirely plain, and forms almost a complete circle.

The Winfarthing cross, found in 2015, is gobsmackingly fancy but is a complete circle. It dates to around 660 C.E. and forms part of a collection of jewellery buried with a woman thought to be one of the very earliest Anglo-Saxon converts to Christianity – and fortunately for us, buried with grave goods, as soon ceased to be the custom in England.

Source: https://museumcrush.org/these-burial-treasures-open-a-window-into-early-anglo-saxon-east-anglia/

The picture above shows the cross after conservation. From earlier photographs you can see that the base is a plain shape very similar to that of the Rumwoldstow cross, but it has been embellished with indented gold wire and a gold boss.

Source: http://www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/ixworthcross.htm

So our silver cross at Rumwoldstow derives from two early Anglo-Saxon finds, both Cuthbert crosses, one plain, and one a complete circle. And we thank Alf Silversmith for his gift with all joy.

The Hambledon Deux-ans

Last year for the first time we got a couple of apples from the young Hambledon Deux-ans apple tree, planted nearly five years ago now. It was the tree that was most munched by enthusiastic young cows in its first year and I’m honestly chuffed that it’s alive at all. I put the apples in the dining room and kept meaning to move them somewhere cooler but never got round to it, and finally decided to just eat them!

All things considered, I think the apple didn’t do too badly; more than half of it was eatable, though very tart. I can see why it’s described as a cooker. Fingers crossed the tree will do better this year, though with the hazards of drought and late frost, it’s an absolute unknown quantity.

Yew tree and moonlight

Our good friend the Bogwitch made a reappearance over the midwinter festival and despite her incomprehensible ramblings in some strange language, she bore a gift! A yew tree, without which indeed no chapel or church is complete, and it has absolutely no pagan significance whatsoever. It’s on the small side and it’ll probably continue to live in a pot, as we don’t want it to be out in the orchard where livestock might nibble it. Yew is toxic, leaf berry and wood, so don’t mess with it.

Ah, I haven’t introduced you to the Bogwitch. Well, that’s something to look forward to! She’s….a bit of a character.

Anyway, yes, here’s a lovely tree. It needs a bit more soil in the pot, if it only stops raining for long enough I’ll get out there and fix it up.

I awoke before dawn (not so hard in early January) and was lured outside by the shimmer of moonlight on water…Lake Meadow is flooded good and proper, and looked very pretty.

As it was about 6am the moon, though full, wasn’t very high in the sky. But still, you get the idea, and it was well worth getting out of bed for. And I’m impressed that the camera on my phone managed to make any sense of the scene!

The second pippin

A few months ago, Brother Alf scavenged a few apples for me from a tree growing wild nearby. It is on the edge of a small thicket of unmanaged woodland and An Expert has said it looks like a pippin – that is, a tree that grew from seed, probably from a commercial apple which somebody cast aside (well, the core thereof). I ate one of the apples immediately, sent the second to The Expert, and kept the third one until yesterday. It shrivelled up but proved sound and still very tasty.

So the apples are at least moderately good keepers – still good in late December – and in the spring I will try to get The Expert to graft some cuttings so we can have a legit instance of the tree in our orchard.

Sadly, the local rats have discovered the apple store, which we really shouldn’t have left in a doorless gatehouse but there was literally nowhere better to put it, and they have carefully eaten all the sweet eating apples. Last time I looked there were only the Bramleys left which are better than nothing but not as good when eaten raw, and some of them are going brown inside. For next year we will need to ratproof the store somehow. The traditional method for a granary is to raise it on “mushrooms”, shaped blocks that the rats can’t climb up. But a modern person would perhaps use wire mesh. The loss sucks, but definitely gives one an idea of life in an agrarian society where loss of stored food is a disaster. And where you have to be a bit more on the case 🙁

Introducing “ginger nun”

We are still rich in apples, they are literally falling off the tree now…we picked all the good apples from the “eater” in the Rumwoldstow orchard, but the Bramley in the garden continues to provide windfalls from above even after we picked the low-hanging fruit. To this end I am road-testing what I call “ginger nun”, a variant on “peasant girl with veil” (a traditional Danish recipe of stewed apple topped with fried, sweetened breadcrumbs, cream and grated chocolate).

I’ve left out the chocolate, and instead of sugar, I’ve mixed honey and ginger with the butter in which the breadcrumbs were fried.

Will “ginger nun” prove a winner or a sinner?

This made use of a good-sized colander full of the better windfalls, which had a good amount of usable fruit on each. We then picked up and sorted today’s windfalls – three buckets full! – and took them to the cows on Lake Meadow.

I was lazy and didn’t break all the apples up. Cows find whole apples hard to bite into…
And easy to drop!
Brother Alf took pity and stomped the apples into submission

Antler and bone pieces

The craftsman Pete Merrett knows his market…I could not resist buying two sets of dice from him, three made of Whitby jet and three of antler, for my in-progress tabula set. Jet dice were found in Viking-age York, and antler is a common material. Where did a Mercian abbess get jet dice from? Perhaps they were a gift from a visitor?

Jet and antler dice made by Pete Merrett

The dice are so nice! But then I got a bit carried away, and commissioned Pete to make me two sets of tablemen to go with them, carved of bone and antler in a nod to the Gloucester tabula set. So now I have SUPER posh dice and pieces. I just need a suitable board…I plan to make one of yew wood but for now, this simple leather board from my first set will do. It has the advantage of providing a soft surface on which to roll the jet dice which are more fragile than other materials, being essentially coal.

Goatskin bags containing the tablemen
Antler pieces (left), bone pieces (right), the jet and antler dice, plus a pleasingly non-binary spare piece
Antler pieces and dice – detail
Jet dice and bone pieces – detail
The game set up to play Ludus Anglicorum

My pieces are about 22mm in diameter, half the size or less than many historic tabula pieces. My pieces are skilfully made but use less material, and the board is smaller, as befits a minor monastery of modest status.

The pieces demonstrate several “re-enactor reversals”; each piece was hand-carved and took about an hour to make, so they are significantly more expensive than the ostensibly fancier resin cast pieces one can buy on Etsy as replicas of higher status tablemen. I had to coax Pete into varying the design of the pieces, to match tabula pieces of similar design, with different numbers and spacing of ring and dot decoration, instead of making them perfectly symmetrical and identical as a modern person would do automatically. The medieval person sought skill and artistry, but not machine-like regularity.

Finally, the eagle-eyed will have noticed that the jet dice in their plain form are not easy to read, especially in poor light. A jet cross from Coppergate, York was inlaid with the yellow mineral orpiment, which is an arsenic compound. I picked white gouache paint instead; an early medieval person might have used white lead or a chalk mix. After some work with a fine brush and a damp tissue, my dice are now ready for play in a banquet hall!

Jet dice after being highlighted with white gouache paint. Somehow, I didn’t fancy arsenic…

You can read more about medieval games of tabula here.

Quince, apples and cows

The apple harvest continues with Al bravely venturing up a ladder to pick the best of the Bramleys which we sorted and laid carefully in the apple store, on most inauthentic sheets of newspaper. We also picked the best eaters from the old tree in the orchard, which we have gradually restored to “tree shaped” after years of it being driven northwards in a quest for light which was occluded by a dark wall of leilandii.

I also picked the three “Hambledon Deux Ans” apples, the first fruit we’ve seen on the tree, which was planted in 2018. Creating an orchard is a slow game. I have not yet eaten any of them; they are supposed to be a very good keeper, so I should eat one now and then leave the others for some months at least.

Three apples from the Hambledon Deux Ans, one of the trees we planted in May 2018, and a pear from the Louise Bonne of Jersey tree planted at the same time.

The Louise Bonne of Jersey gave us half a dozen or so good pears this year; it seems to be quite biennial already so I’m glad to have put in a couple more pear trees this year.

Another first for the year is that our “Portugal” quince, planted May 2018, produced five quinces! Last year there was one very shrivelled and unappealing fruit, so this is a great step forward. I harvested them, peeled and poached them in a light syrup. They have a surprising orange fragrance.

“Portugal” quinces on the tree
Five quinces! What a bounty!
Poached quince

The flavour of quince is…interesting. It’s not unpleasant, but a bit like mango I am unused to it and it’s strange to me. This variety was quick to cook and I found some interesting information about the quince in wikipedia.

The quince is another fruit, like the medlar, which may be rendered edible by “bletting” – softening by frost and subsequent decay. They are commonly cooked, being hard and astringent when raw, and the term “marmalade” originally meant a quince jam, being derived from the Portugese word for the fruit, marmelo.

The quince is traditionally used to treat digestive disorders and may reduce symptoms of early pregnancy such as vomiting and nausea; a 2016 article outlines a wealth of possible pharmaceutical uses of the fruit and seeds.

I leave you with a photo of the cattle on Lake Meadow, who kindly agreed to dispose of the windfalls that I can’t be bothered to process.

Scrumping a pippin?

Despite Rumwoldstow having been in existence for some years now, and the Quest of the Pippin of St Rumwold being in its third active year, it was only this month that I consciously recognised an apple tree on a nearby inaccessible bit of land as being of potential interest, in that we have no record of that land having ever been cultivated so it might be a pippin, that is a unique variety grown from seed, perhaps because of a carelessly discarded fruit.

Brother Alf kindly hitched up his robes and acquired me a couple of fruits to try. Our local heritage tree expert took a look at the photos and said they might be similar to an Ellisons Orange, an early (c1905) cross of Cox’s Orange Pippin, and that he’s previously noticed the tree and thinks it looks like a pippin.

Wild? They were livid
The mystery apples

On the Apple Tree Man’s advice, I ate one immediately, and will see how well the other keeps. It had indeed a faint perfume and flavour of aniseed, consistent Ellison’s, and was a fresh, tasty apple of good size.

Ancient and modern…

We are at present wealthy with apples! We picked as many as we could reach from the two mature trees in the garden – one Bramley, and one eater of unknown provenance, and layered the best of them in an apple store in the west gatehouse, on newspaper and separated from each other to prevent rot from spreading between fruits. I don’t know how well any of them will keep, but at least we’re giving it our best shot. And we have at present a supply of windfalls and imperfect fruits which need to be either processed to turn anything usable into stewed apple or crumble, or piled into buckets and given to the cows on Lake Meadow.

Bramley apples going into store. Of course the variety should be named the Brailsford after Mary Ann Brailsford who actually grew the original tree in 1809.