Sunday, 4 December 2016

The grand old Duke of York

City walls of York
The walls of York began as an earthen and wooden stockade surrounding Eboracum (the Roman name for York.) Stone sections were added during the Roman occupation of Britain and a few of these remnants are still visible. During the centuries of Anglo-Saxon and Viking York (Eoferwic and Jorvik) it is likely that the walls were patched up in places but generally left to the weather’s ravages as the city focused on Christianity and Trading. During medieval times, though, when York became the York we know today, the walls were enlarged and reinforced and it is mostly these walls that have been renovated enough to walk on when you visit the city in 2016.

Barley Hall

York has a formidable distinction of being a thriving contemporary city (with its forward-thinking EU Remain-voting populace.) It is also a place that exploits its past for the tourist pound, but in a mostly respectful (and academic) fashion. Barley Hall is a prime example of the potential for forging new economic possibilities from a building that was about to be demolished – until the archaeologists realised how much of the original medieval structure was still intact under the layers of additions and alterations. In a recent visit I enjoyed a vivid display of the costumes from the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall. Even without the headline-displays Barley Hall is evocative of a distant past that, in some ways, reveals itself to be unnervingly similar to today, even though swans and peacocks rarely feature on 21st century dining tables.

O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!

I’ve always loved York since learning at a young age that the castle nearest my childhood home in Wakefield, Sandal Castle, was the site of the nursery rhyme
Oh, the grand old Duke of York!
He had 10,000 men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again….
Tragically, of course, the grand old Duke of York also had the blood of his son, Edmund, smeared over his face by Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI and effectively the commander of the Lancastrian army at Sandal Castle during the Wars of the Roses. To add further humiliation Margaret placed a mock paper crown on the Duke of York’s head before slaughtering him and removing his head to be hoisted on a pike above Micklegate Bar in the city of York. Is all that true? It’s not in the nursery rhyme, that’s for sure, but Shakespeare has it covered in Henry VI Part Three. Ah, the good old days….
Margaret of Anjou kills the Duke of York (in Shakespeare's version) at Sandal Castle, Wakefield

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Sweet though in sadness

I’ve already recorded that I love Autumn (birthday, sense of new start with the new school year, colours of nature.) Of course I also love Winter, Spring and Summer – each season generates distinctive features that I appreciate but I feel unfeasibly cockle-warmed when walking through the “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” of Autumn woodland. The quotation is from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, one of the most famous poems about Autumn, a hymn to the wind, “thou breath of Autumn’s being.”

Only Connect

In the poem Shelley imagines all the seeds buried beneath the earth like corpses now, waiting to burst into life again and break through the soil in a few months’ time. He imagines the dead leaves blowing and falling like thoughts, carrying messages across the world. The West Wind is “Destroyer and preserver.” Currently he feels earth bound, trapped in Autumn, but witnessing the maelstrom of nature preparing for its next phase and wishing his words could travel through the air like leaves. Only connect cries the poem, as EM Forster was to write in Howard’s End. Listen! Hear the voices! Hear the spring of human consciousness! Winter is coming…. And then…?

Stanza V from Ode to the West Wind

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (published 1820) – written in a wood near the River Arno in Florence
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?