The horse flies know when I’m coming. They lay in wait to dive bomb me like Nazi Stukas with oily spark plugs, neeeeeeooowwwaaam, spiralling downwards from the deep azure sky to plant themselves around my collar line, my arms, my legs or any bit that’s exposed that will afford them a good meal. There are hardly any rose blooms left to be seen, that’s why I posted the picture of the roses, climbing the lavender tree at the side of my French retreat. It doesn’t matter though, as I can tell whether I have found Rosa Spinosissima, the legendary Towton Rose, just by looking at the stems and the heps (hips). For those of you that have not read my previous blogs, I am on a quest to find the legendary Towton Rose. The one that is meant to only grow in places where the blood of those fallen in battle has enriched the soil.
I am beginning to wonder whether the Rosa Mundis we found from the battle site, might be the ones that ancient records refer to, and have to keep re-visiting them to verify descriptions. Certainly sweet smelling roses like the Rosa Mundi were highly prized in the late medieval and Tudor periods.
O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their maskèd buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths, are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.
The canker blooms he refers to are the common dog rose of the hedgerow, which have little or no scent, and are therefore of little merit. I have been researching this and scented roses were valued because their petals were used to make rosewater and scattered at special occasions, including funerals, to emit a more pleasant odour than was usually present around the unwashed bodies of the days of yore.
So, that could potentially be another reason why the heavenly scented Rosa Mundis were found around the area, we know there was a garden, with a viewing mound if you please, at the site of Lead church and as I’ve said before there was a chantry in the vicinity of Towton Hall.
According to the expert though, wild Rosa spinosissima is not without a pleasant scent, so I can see these rose petals being put to good use in those days.
All of this is as nothing to the horse flies who torment me endlessly as I wearily trudge the ancient pathways. I shall have to include a fly whisk as part of my accoutrements, as I continue this noble quest.
Archive for July, 2010
These were the words sang by the choir at St. Oswald’s church in Kirk Sandall yesterday. St.Oswald’s does not operate as the community church in this sleepy Yorkshire hamlet anymore – it is now far from the beaten path of the modern village but stubbornly serves as an outpost and a reminder of what we have all but lost.
Luckily, there are a few public-spirited people that dedicate their time to preserving this beautiful old medieval church, and organise open days like the one I was invited to yesterday.
As part of their open day attraction, Towton Battlefield Society were asked to come along and participate. Our re-enactors provided some colour, Neil “the medieval surgeon” had his gruesome table of instruments and pots of unguents to cure all ills, on display and I had a table promoting The Shepherd Lord, with my YouTube trailer.
We had a busy old time of it and I sold quite a few books but the highlight of the day, for me at least, was when the choir came along and sang some medieval madrigals.
As you can divine by this Blog, The Silver Swan was the piece that captured my imagination. Here we were in this beautiful church, patronised for generations by the Rokeby family, venerated by the old villagers that had buried their dead there and someone had decided to breathe some life back into this majestic old fellow of a building by singing this heavenly music – more geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.
How apposite, I thought, a beautiful church passed by because we are time-starved in this modern bustling world where we hang on to the words and actions of Girls Aloud, Wayne “Gobby” Rooney, Simon Cowell, the entire cast of East Enders and the foul-mouthed audience of the Jeremy Kyle show, in preference to our rich history, tapestried with heavenly music, breathtakingly beautiful architecture and one or two dedicated people who refuse to give in to the naysayers.
Apparently, Orlando Gibbons was making a protest about the demise of the Elizabethan madrigal with this song. Regular visitors to my Blog know I like to impart the odd pearls of wisdom on these pages, so here you go. (I’ll do my Michael Caine impression here). Did you know that the origin of the expression swansong comes from this? The mute swan was supposed to have been silent all of its life until, in the throes of death, it emitted one last but beautiful song. Obviously, a great inspiration for Orlando Gibbons Esquire. Not a lot of people know that
I was delighted to receive an invitation from a follower of my Blog to see him compete on the BBC’s Mastermind contest, hosted by John Humphrys. I am a big fan of Mr. Humphrys. For those of you that are not familiar with the show, it is the UK’s most high-brow quizz show – a bit like Millionaire for grown-ups. He comes across as quite an irascible character on the Today programme, but on the evening in question he was the epitomy of charm with the Manchester Studio audience.
His opening gambit was “I like doing these shows. Normally, I have to interview politicians who will do all they can to evade answering a simple question whereas tonight, the contestants will eagerly try and answer the most difficult questions we can think up!”
My host had arranged good seats for me and my wife right behind John Humphrys and I could clearly see my hands come into view on the monitor, everytime we applauded a contestant – fame for 15 minutes, indeed.
John was the consummate professional and got through the first round of specialist questions on the first take. I was impressed. My host was placed second after this round with a very creditable 16 points.
Whilst we were waiting to get the go-ahead for the second round on general knowledge, Mr. Humphrys entertained us with his store cupboard of stories, bloomers and gaffes from encounters with our politicians. My favouite was his rendition of John Prescott on his return home after an extended tour of arduous political duties overeas. “I’ve enjoyed me trip but just let me say how glad I am to be back on terracotta” announced Prezza (sorry, I suppose I should now say Lord Prescott).
My host got up to sit in the infamous chair for the second round but was stopped in his tracks as the heavens opened and dumped a torrent of rain on the studio roof which leaked through like a small waterfall onto camera 3. There was consternation for half an hour or so while the crew mopped up the leak and the poor contestant was left there in limbo. It must have been like being asked to take a penalty at the World Cup, then being stood down while the referee and linesman go off to eat what’s left of the half-time oranges.
Then, we’re on with the show. Mr Humphrys takes on the style of Peter O’Sullivan the racing commentator and peppers rapid-fire questions at my host “WhichofTolstoy’sheroine’sthrewherselfunderatrain - Anna Karenina; What’sthelengthofacricketpitch – 22 yards; WhichmonarchsucceededHenryVIII – Edward VI” and so on.
Bimey, I’ve seen it on TV a hundred times but I did not appreciate how pressurised the contestants are, sat there under the spotlight in the nation’s most notorious chair. They really have to get in the zone to focus on answering the questions.
My host finished a very credible third – there was not much in it between all the contestants. I would like to repeat my thanks on this Blog for a great evening.
Is it the Scandinavians that thrash themselves with birch twigs after taking a sauna? It’s meant to have some beneficial effect. Well, I have discovered the Anglo-Saxon version just by hunting for the ever elusive Towton Rose. Just walk through the hedgerows and undergrowth, wearing shorts (pith helmet optional) and you will get stung by so many nettles that you will be on a high all day. I’ve looked it up on the Internet and it really does increase the blood circulation and maybe that’s why I am not entirely exhausted after trudging mile after mile in the early hours of the morning. (There were also some very other dodgy posts on the Internet about nettles so don’t go there unless you’re morbidly curious).
One newspaper recently called my escapades an Indiana Jones style quest. I don’t recall Indie getting stung by nettles and clumsily slipping down river banks into claggy mud.
Peter Boyd, the rose expert, had directed me to the Castle Hill Wood area, as early records indicated that Rosa spinosissima was evident there. This meant crossing and re-crossing Cock Beck to get at the limestone slopes that favour the rose. I traversed the slopes scanning the terrain with my field glasses for any likely looking clumps. I clambered up and down the inclines, from Castle Hill right up to the lynchets, to examine every likely looking thicket but on closer inspection they turned out to be Rosa arvensis, Prunus spinossa, blackthorn or thistle. So, not a thing. Not anything that came close. I did find an old horse shoe on the edge of Castle Hill Woods though. That’s where the Lancastrians hid their cavalry for a surprise attack on the Yorkist flank during the Battle of Towton but I doubt that the horseshoe dates from then. I’ll show it to our resident archeologist though, just in case.
So, the search continues. I may be nettle stung, but not deterred.
Hope you liked the title of this piece. It’s from my favourite poem of all times from Christopher Marlowe – the poem I used to good effect in the novel and the trailer for The Shepherd Lord.
“How will I recognise you” I asked anxiously over the phone. I never like rendezvous’ at train stations – there is always margin for error and parking at the short stay car parks is fine, if the trains turn up on time, but they’re invariably late.
“Well people tell me I look rather like Charles Darwin and, during the festive season, small children mistake me for Father Christmas” bellowed the voice on the other end of the line. I was talking to Peter Boyd, the worldwide expert on Rosa spinosissima, lecturer on the great Charles Darwin and environmental archaeologist for King Henry VIII’s flagship, the Marie Rose.
When I met Peter on a grisling damp morning at Manchester Piccadilly train station, he was right. He was instantly recognisable amongst the regular Friday morning commuters. We were soon whizzing our way over the Pennines in my 4 x 4, heading for Towton Dale, chatting away like old acquaintances. The sun greeted us as soon as we left Manchester’s drizzle and crossed the border into God’s Broad Acres. Ideal conditions for hunting for the elusive Towton Rose, the wild Rosa spinosissima.
At the battlefield, we were met by Towton Battlefield Society Secretary, Graham Darbyshire, our best field man on the terrain twixt Saxton and Towton. “A rose between two thorns” exclaimed Peter as I introduced him to Graham “only that phrase is incorrect as a rose does not have thorns – it has prickles”. He then demonstrated the difference by showing us the “woody” thorn on a blackthorn in the hedgerow, already laden with dusky sloes, and the “prickle” of a rose which is not part of the main stem but is an outgrowth of the epidermis. Well, that was a new one on me. We were going to learn a lot that day.
After a brief stop at Dacres Cross, to examine a Rosa spinosissima cultivar that someone had planted there, we turned our attention to the search for the real thing – the wild variety.
Ancient records mention that the rose grew in abundance in a dry valley. It was not immediately obvious where this was, but Graham was able to deduce the exact spot from his ordnance survey, a tiny contour betraying the smallest of dry valleys. I must admit, I would probably have overlooked this, being more familiar with the spectacular dry valleys in the Yorkshire Dales but if this was where the legendary rose grew, it would have special significance for me.
We had found our valley alright, bang in the middle of Bloody Meadow, but also bang in the middle of the field was a great big Limousin bull, eyeing us malevolently. Graham and I exchanged nervous glances but Peter, true British eccentric that he is, waved his rolled umbrella at the beast and strolled nonchalantly past it, bent on finding the rose. This chap said I was eccentric and there he was, wearing his old school tie, bewhiskered like old Father Christmas and carrying a rolled umbrella whilst pootling past a 2 ton bull. I was mightily impressed.
He was pleased with the terrain, proclaiming it ideal conditions for the rose to flourish in, and 100% sure that we had found the right spot, described by the antiquarians. The search for the rose was not going to be easy though and we combed all the slopes, right down to the meandering Cock Beck, where Peter poked and prodded the lush vegetation with his brolly.
“Ooh” he exclaimed “Oh, my word!” I turned sharply at this, only just preventing myself from falling in the brook. Had he actually found the rose?
No, he hadn’t. What he had seen was a damselfly, skitting around the himalayan balsam and bullrushes, its blue, bejewelled body spangling brilliantly in the bright July sunlight.
We searched long and hard that day but did not find the rose. Graham and I were given lessons on distinguishing the field rose from the dog rose by this great man. In the field rose, Rosa arvensis, the pistil stands out really proud from the stamens whereas in the dog rose, Rosa canina, they are not as nearly distinctive.
But Peter agrees with me the rose is out there somewhere, on the slopes of the battlefield. As he puts it “It has got to have survived somewhere, despite the souvenir hunters and the farmers attempts to grub it up. It may just survive as a plain white rose, all the best red and white species having being collected. If you shoot all the elephants with big tusks, then all you can breed from then on, is elephants with small tusks.”
So, on this planet, where we are losing rare species every other day, it is imperative that we find this rose. I will keep on looking. Maybe when the grass dies down it will be easier to spot the purplish black heps (hips) in the autumn. Having met Peter, I know that he will be just as excited as me, when we eventually find it.