The fay thorn

On the way to Yagleah,you will pass a hawthorn tree on which mistletoe grows. The local people take care never to harm this tree, for it is believed that it is sacred to the fay. It is said that on Midsummer eve, the fay dance around the tree in the moonlight. A darker tale tells of a black dog that haunts the trackway close by the thorn. It is known hereabouts as the Shuck. Some people say it guards lonely travellers on their way through the forest, but others say that to see the Shuck is bad luck; those who look into this fearsome beast's burning red eyes will die within the year.


Wish hounds under a harvest moon


It is almost Michaelmas, one of the two quarter days of the year when night and day are of equal length. The dying summer is fading now into the mists and frosts of early autumn. The harvest is nearly all gathered in. The harvest moon will light the way of the last carts and weary workers as they make their way home from the fields.

The hob tells me this time of year has always been important, and has always been celebrated. The church celebrates the feast of the Archangel Michael, the saint to whom Crowfield Abbey is dedicated. But long before the abbey was built, and long before Michaelmas, the people who lived in clearings in the forest lit bonfires and feasted. They prayed to their gods and goddesses and made pilgrimages to their sacred places, to stone circles and hallowed trees, holy wells and rivers. Echoes of these old ways still linger and from time to time I glimpse something I cannot explain. People in nearby villages and farms tell stories of the Whistling Hollow, a strange and haunted place close by the abbey gates. The hob remembers a time when offerings were made to the spirit who inhabits the pool at the heart of the Hollow. I sometimes wonder if the malevolence that can be felt there is because the spirit resents being abandoned and forgotten.

There can be few people within a day's walk of Crowfield who have not heard of the Wish Hounds. They are the wild black dogs who hunt in the forest with the Unseelie king. They have fiery eyes and brimstone breath, and their baying cries chill the blood. Autumn is the time of the Wish Hounds and people travelling along the forest tracks are careful to be safely home by dusk.


The face at the window: a ghost story

Crowfield Abbey is haunted. We who live here do not talk about it, we simply accept it and get on with our daily work. Perhaps it is the curious nature of the haunting that allows us to forget it for eleven months of the year, for the ghost only appears in September.

The Crowfield ghost is only seen through windows, and there are a great many of them in the abbey. It is never seen in the same window twice in a row and there is no way of knowing when or where it will be glimpsed next.

This morning, Brother Mark was working in the vegetable garden when he had the strongest feeling that he was being watched. He looked around, puzzled, and then noticed a face at the small window of an empty store room overlooking the gardens and orchard. The room is kept locked, and as it is empty, nobody has any need to go inside. It was, he thought, the face of a young boy, pale and frightened. The boy's mouth moved as if he was calling out, but Brother Mark heard no sound. He hurried to find me, for I have keys to all the rooms and cupboards and chests in the abbey, and together we went to the store room and unlocked the door. It was empty and cold, as we had known it would be.

Whoever he was, that troubled soul, he had gone but we know he will be back. Today is only the first day of September, and there are so many windows here at Crowfield...


St Bartholomew's Eve

For the first time since the Great Plague ravaged this land a full six years ago, the Bartlemas Fair will return to Weforde. The green will once again be bustling with people. There will be singing and dancing, and stalls selling Bartlemas gingerbread and mead, honey and nuts and plums and Wardun pears.

At least, I hope all those things will be there, and much more besides. The truth is, I do not know what to expect when Brother Piers and I take our baskets of gingerbread and jars of honey from the abbey hives to Weforde tomorrow morning. With so many houses standing empty, their crofts and tofts overgrown, and so many farms abandoned, will there be anybody left to come to the fair? And even if there is, far too many familiar faces will be missing, faces of old friends who died in the terrible summer and autumn of 1348. All are sadly missed and fondly remembered.

Brother Walter and I spent the afternoon making Bartlemas gingerbread in the kitchen. He has a sweet tooth and likes honey above all other things, but honey and hob's fur are not a happy combination and I had to stand him in my largest bowl and pour warm water over him to wash him clean. He sat in a patch of sunlight in a corner of the yard and let the warm breeze dry his fur.

While we worked, stirring breadcrumbs and pepper and powdered ginger into the pot of warm honey, the hob asked me about St Bartholomew.
      'Does the holy man like gingerbread?'
      'I'm not sure he ever tasted any,' I told him.     
      'Perhaps he'll be there tomorrow,' Brother Walter said hopefully. 'He can try some then. I think he'll like it.'
      'St Bartholomew died a long time ago,' I said. ' He's in heaven, with God and all the saints and angels.Tomorrow is his holy day, when we remember him.'
      The hob stared at me, and lowered his honey-sticky fingers from his mouth. 'The holy man is dead? That's very sad.' He thought about it for a moment and then said, 'Perhaps he won't mind if I eat his share of gingerbread?'
       'I don't think he'll mind that at all.'
       Brother Walter busied himself patting the warm gingerbread into small round cakes. I began to mark each one with a wooden stamp, carved into the shape of a knife. Brother Walter watched me curiously.
       'Does the holy man like knives?'
       'Bartholomew was put to death in a cruel way,' I explained. 'He was skinned alive because he believed in God. And now, the knife is his symbol.'
        The hob was quiet for a long time. His face was puzzled and sad at the same time. He left the kitchen without a word and I was worried that I had upset him. I decided that the gingerbread fairings would look better plain and I set the stamp aside. I had just finished shaping the last one when Brother Walter returned carrying one of the baskets from my workshop. He climbed onto a stool and set the basket down. It was filled with flower heads. Carefully, he pushed a flower into the middle of each soft gingerbread cake.
       'I think the holy man might like flowers more than knives,' he said quietly.
       'I think you are right.'
       So tomorrow, those who come to the Bartlemas Fair will be able to buy gingerbread cakes covered with flowers, and I think they will agree that flowers are a far better way to remember a good man's sacrifice than knife blades.


Holey stones and hazelnuts

Brother Walter has a weakness for hazelnuts. Ripe, unripe, roasted in the embers, it is all the same to him. He tells me that two forked branches of hazel can be used to find water flowing underground. A long time ago, before the abbey was built and even before Weforde was a village, a man called Eadred farmed land in a clearing of the forest. He cut two hazel branches and walked his land until he discovered a stream beneath the ground. He dug a well and to this day, the well has never run dry, come drought or winter freeze. The water is clear and pure and it is locally believed that it cures afflictions of the eyes. Brother Walter tells a different tale. He says that as soon as Eadred dug his well, a water fay came to live in it. It is the fay who heals those looking for a cure. But woe betide anyone foolish enough to forget a small offering of thanks - a hazelnut or a bent bronze pin are always acceptable, the hob assures me. No iron pins, though; fays do not like iron and such an offering will only draw the fay's wrath.

The hob brought me a gift today, a holey stone. He tells me it is possible to see the Otherworld through the hole in a stone, but it must be one that has formed naturally. Perhaps this glimpse of a place beyond the everyday world is granted only to those with the Sight, for I saw nothing.

We walked in the forest today. Berries and nuts hang heavy on branches and it felt as if we were following in the footsteps of the Green Man of the Woods, but always a few paces behind. I didn't see this woodland spirit, though Brother Walter caught a glimpse of a leafy face in a hawthorn thicket. Perhaps, the next time we go into Foxwist, I will take one of the hob's holey stones with me and who knows? Perhaps I will see the Green Man for myself.



The Green Man of the Woods

This morning, Brother Walter the hob showed me the carved stone head of the Green Man of the Woods which he found on the roof of the cloister. I had never seen it before, though I have lived here in the abbey for twenty six years. In truth, I had difficulty turning my head to see it now, as I have an affliction of the spine which ensures that I see more of my boots than I do of the sky. Nevertheless, I did see the head, and a curious sight it was too. A man with leaves and branches growing from his mouth, a spirit of the woods far older than the hands that carved it or the minds that have contemplated it since then. Brother Walter tells me the Green Man is a guardian of all the creatures living in Foxwist Wood. He was delighted to find it carved here amongst our angels and saints and said it made him feel safe to think of the Green Man watching over him within these walls. He has promised to tell me more about this forest spirit later, when we have a few minutes to sit by the fire in my workshop.


The track to Yagleah, close by the Sheep Brook

A warm morning, with fruit and nuts ripening in the forest. Brother Walter ate two out of every three hazelnut I collected. He fell into the Sheep Brook after reaching too far out to pick a particularly large nut, but his fur dried quickly in the breeze. He did, however, have to remain outside my workshop until the worst of the smell of river mud had worn off.


A Crowfield Abbey angel

Crowfield Abbey has angels of wood and stone, and this is one.

The abbey has its secrets, too...