St Thomas's Day

Midwinter candles, to light the darkest day of the year.


The holly and the ivy
Now are both well grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

Go day, go day,
My lord Syre Christemasse, go day!

Good day, Syre Christemas, our kyng,
For every man, both olde & yinge,
Ys glad & blithe of your comynge;
Go day!

Go day, go day,
My lord Syre Christemasse, go day!
Godys sone so moche of myght
Ffram heven to erthe down is lyght
And borne ys of a mayde so bryght;
Good day!

Go day, go day,
My lord Syre Christemasse, go day!


St Thomas's eve

Tomorrow is the feast day of St Thomas. It is also the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. Brother Walter tells me it will be a day of strange magic, when fay folk and ghosts walk the forest paths and keep close to the hearths of the living.

The mummers sang outside the abbey gates today. The brethren gathered by the gateway to listen. Brother Walter was in the hen house when they started to sing and there were a few puzzled glances amongst the brethren when they caught the faint echo of the mummers' song. 'If I didn't know better,' Brother Simon-Peter said in bemusement, 'I would say the hens have joined with the mummers in welcoming Christmas to the abbey.' Fortunately for the hob, the bell for None rang out before anyone went to look inside the hen house. We left the mummers and Brother Walter to finish their song in peace.


The midwinter mummers

I set off for Yagleah early this morning, accompanied by Brother Walter the hob. He was in fine spirits and entertained me royally by singing most of the way. The hob has spent many a midwinter and Christmas in the shadows beyond the fire in village huts and warriors' halls, listening to stories and songs. Over the years of his very long life he has learned many of them by heart and he now takes delight in sharing them with me. Some were in a language I did not recognise, but Brother Walter carefully explained the meaning behind each one to me. He is as learned as he is wise, and the best of companions.

To Brother Walter's delight, we came upon a group of mummers in Yagleah. They wore masks to disguise themselves, shaped like animal heads. There was a hare and a cockerel, a bull and a hawk. Their leader wore a fine set of antlers and led the singing in a deep voice that boomed across the snowy green. They danced and played the pipes and lute, and the villagers gathered to watch them and join in the merriment. The hob clapped and stamped his feet and capered in time to the tunes. He stayed safely out of sight behind a cart near the blacksmith's shed and I stood beneath an oak tree nearby to listen and nod along to the old familiar tunes. For a while, the biting cold and harshness of winter were forgotten and we shared a gladness of spitit that warmed us as surely as the brightest of fires.

The mummers' songs reminded me of Christmases past, when I was a boy growing up in my father's house on the High Street in Leicester. I remember standing in the churchyard of St Martin's, watching the miracle plays being performed on the back of wagons and carts. Ancient mysteries unfolded before my eyes, amongst the brightly coloured costumes and richly painted back cloths of distant lands. I saw dragons and angels, saints and kings and even God himself - though I knew him to be just an actor in robes of gold and a mask fashioned to look like the radiant sun. I can still recall the bitter chill of those far-off frosty days, and warming my hands at a brazier in a corner of the churchyard before we set off for home. I can still taste the honey-dipped apples bought from  sweetmeat sellers in the street and hear my father laugh as we watched an old man with two dancing dogs. They hopped and turned on their hind legs as the old man played a bone whistle. My father threw him a coin and I gave him my barely touched apple. He nodded and winked and shared it with his dogs.  

One year, a group of travelling mummers came to the town. The sang and played by the High Cross during the Wednesday market before Christmas. I listened then as I listened this morning, thrilled by a sense of wonder as I caught a glimpse of something ancient and profound beneath the words and music.


The first snow of winter

We woke this morning to a world made white with snow. It had fallen during the night, silent and soft, a winter ghost haunting the forest and fields. We stood and shivered in the cloister and gazed out at the garth. Snow garlanded the branches of the old walnut tree and buried the herb beds. Brother John could not resist walking from one side of the cloister to the other, just to see the prints of his boots in the snow. Later, as I went about my daily chores, I noticed another set of prints, small and hob-shaped, passing twice around the walnut tree and scampering off towards the north alley. A glance at the sky told me there would be more snow before long. I hope it falls before anyone notices the strange small footprints and wonder what creature made  them.

Summer's end

I set off this morning to walk to Bethlehem, the abbey's farm near Yagleah. It was a day of rich colours, as if some unseen hand had painted the leaves of the trees in the forest. The weather has been calm of late, but when the October wind blows, it will strip the trees of their rich garb. The wheel of the year will turn and once again, winter browns and greys will settle over the fields and woods, and if I am truthful, also in my heart.


Nine Men's Morris

These first few days of October are holding hard to the last warmth of late summer. We wake each morning to mist on the flood meadows beside the river. The grass is wet with dew when I walk through the vegetable garden to my workshop, and spiders' webs, as fine as spun silk, shine in the low sun. Tiny beads of dew catch the light and sparkle like a king's treasure which has been scattered across the ground in the early dawn. It soaks the hem of my habit but my boots, well rubbed with tallow, stay dry.

Sometimes, we find a few moments in the day to sit in the cloister and play the game of Nine Men's Morris. Many years ago, someone scratched a game board into a stone seat in the north alley. We use small river smoothed pebbles, collected near Sheep Brook ford, as gaming pieces. Some are black, some are milk white, and they are kept in a wooden box which old Brother Adam carved long ago.


The first day of September

There was a chill in the air this morning and a mist on the flood meadows. The year is on the turn and summer is slipping away. The hedgerows are full of the promise of abundant fruit and berries, and the first flush of scarlet and yellow is threading through the forest. The hob tells me he smells autumn in the air and feels the days shortening. But for now, while the sun is warm and the sky clear, we will work in the abbey gardens and sit for a while on the bench by the workshop door, to warm our bones.


Brother John

Brother John came to live at Crowfield Abbey at Midsummer. He brought with him youth and a pleasing nature, and the love of stories. In recent weeks, my joints have been troubling me and I have not been able to go out into the forest and fields as is my usual routine. Brother John has taken it upon himself to gather plants for me to use in my workshop, in my caudles and salves. He brings each basket full of roots, bark and leaves to me, along with stories he has gathered along the way from the people he meets.

I listen to his tales as I work, and Brother Walter the hob listens too, for Brother John is a fine storyteller. I suspect that Brother John knows the hob is there with us in the workshop. He has said nothing, so I cannot be sure, but from time to time his glance goes to the corner by the wood basket where the hob sits when we are not alone. One day soon, I will bring the hob out of hiding and let Brother John meet him. I think these two will get along well. Brother Walter has stories which the monk will never have heard before, tales of the fay and the Wildwood, strange and thrilling stories, filled with magic and darkness. I would like to think that after I have gone to my grave and the hob returns to the forest, as he surely will one day, the stories will live on in the hearts and minds of men through Brother John.


The listener at the door

The last few days have been windy and rainy. Doors and window shutters rattle as if unseen people are pushing at them, anxious to get into the abbey. Or perhaps they are trying to get out.

This windy weather has left the hob unsettled. Indeed, all of those who live here at Crowfield feel the same sense of restlessness. The fire in the warming room burns fitfully, more smoke than flame, and is miserly with its warmth. But it is the rattling of the doors in particular which makes Brother Walter nervous. He scurries past them as if frightened of what might be on the other side. I must confess, I have caught a little of his uneasy mood and find myself reluctant to open certain doors in the abbey.

This morning I found him hiding in a corner of my workshop, his fur bristling and his eyes wild. There was, he told me, someone outside the door last night. Someone who came and went, rattling the latch, scratching on the wood, and listening.
            'How do know that they were listening at the door?' I asked.
            The hob patted his head. 'I could feel it in here.'
            'Who was it, do you think?' I will admit, I was not sure I wanted to know the answer to this. The hob's eyes were as round as coins, more gold than green in the light from the fire. He shook his head and whispered, 'I don't know, but I think they were trying to find something that is lost and gone, though I don't know what that might be.'

Brother Walter and I busied ourselves in the workshop for the rest of the morning, but neither of us felt inclined to talk. I had the feeling that the hob was still listening for that hand at the door.

Perhaps, when the door rattles again, as it surely will, we should open it and see who is there.


Hob-things and stone pictures

The snail brother has gone to stay at the grange farm at Bethlehem for a while. The brother men who live there have sneezing-coughs and he will tend to them until they are better. He has left me, Brother Walter, in charge of his workshop. This is a very important task. I have swept the floor, scrubbed bowls and pots and tidied shelves. The snail brother told me to sweep away the cobwebs from the rafters, but the spiders said they did not want me to do that, so I have left them alone. I did, however, tell the rats that they must find somewhere else to live. They are not happy. The big one with yellow teeth and scars across her nose says it is too cold to leave such a warm and comfortable hut. She does not want to move into the brother men's stone rooms; they are chilly and damp and there is little food to be had since the brother men brought a cat to live in the kitchen. The cat, an ugly brindle creature with evil yellow eyes, has already eaten too many of her relatives. Maybe in the spring, the rat tells me, they will find a farmhouse to live in. I suggested the grange farm, and the rats are considering this.

I went into the forest yesterday, foraging for roots. I met the Old Red Man, a hob-friend who lives by himself in an old beech tree near the pig-keeper's hut. He has been collecting treasures, he told me, and took me to his burrow to show them to me. What treasures indeed! Golden and silver coins, and things with pins for people to wear on their clothing. He showed me a small clay lamp. I remember seeing such things being used long ago by the people who lived in the painted stone house in the fields near Weforde.

The house is no longer there, but the villagers' ploughs sometimes bring up small square stones of red and white and black. They do not know what the stones were for, but we do. We saw the wondrous floors in the painted house many, many years ago, with pictures of fish and strange wild beasts made from the stones.

The Old Red Man has carefully laid the stones he has collected on the floor in his burrow, so he has his own picture. It shows a tree with a black trunk and red leaves and it is quite splendid. I may make a floor picture in the snail brother's hut as a surprise for when he comes home.


The holly and the ivy, a midwinter tale

Early this morning, I set out to visit Wat Croube, the basket maker. He lives in a clearing in the forest. Old Wat has been making baskets, hurdles and fish traps for more years than anyone can remember. His wife, Merilda, keeps bees and sells the honey at Weforde market, but she also helps Wat, her small and nimble fingers weaving patterns into the finer baskets.

Brother Walter the hob kept me company on my errand. He rode along on the back of Crowfield Abbey's new donkey, Joseph. The hob and Joseph are firm friends already and Brother Walter takes pleasure in weaving garlands of straw to hang around Joseph's long ears, much to the bemusement of the brethren at the abbey, who do not know that a hob lives amongst them.

On our way through the forest, the hob told me a curious thing. Today is the 21st of December, the feast of St Thomas, but it is also midwinter's day, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Every year on this day, deep in the forest, an age old battle takes place. The holly king, the ruler of the forest from midsummer to midwinter, fights the oak king and is defeated, and the oak king becomes the ruler of the forest from now until midsummer's day.

On this day, the sun stands still. The darkness has grown strong. The forest holds its breath. In the winter stillness between the trees the sound of fighting can be heard, the ring of wooden staffs as the two kings battle each other. But the fight ends as it must, with the light victorious over the dark. The holly king slips away into the Deepwoods to wait for midsummer, when the struggle begins all over again. And there, in the summer woods, the oak king will be defeated and the slow wheel of the year will turn once more towards the winter.

'Have you ever seen the two kings fight?' I asked.
The hob nodded. 'Once, many years ago.'
'And what did they look like, these kings?'
The hob considered this for a while. His green-gold eyes stared into the woodland without seeing anything, as the faraway memories filled his mind. I saw a little fear and a great deal of awe in their depths.
'The holly king was green and red, and made of leaves and shadows, an old, old creature whose strength was almost gone. The oak king was brown and black, made of living wood, branches and twigs with buds ready to burst.'
I glanced between the trees, half expecting to glimpse a leafy figure. I listened for the sound of clashing weapons, but the forest hid its secrets well.