29 December, 2013

Sun Court, Hadleigh

Sun Court, Hadleigh

Hadleigh is a small market town in south Suffolk, in eastern England.

Map link: Hadleigh

Like many towns in the area, Hadleigh prospered from the trade in wool and cloth during the Middle Ages.  The streets in the town centre still feature many handsome timber-framed houses built by successful medieval merchants.

The East Anglian medieval wool trade forms the background to The Town House by Norah Lofts (reviewed here earlier).  The inspiration for the house built in the 15th century by the central character, the peasant-turned-wool-merchant Martin Reed, may have been one of the houses in the centre of Hadleigh, Sun Court.

According to the Hadleigh town website, Norah Lofts saw Sun Court when she was house-hunting in Suffolk.  The house had been built centuries ago for a wool merchant. It still has a large door onto the street, big enough for a laden pack pony to enter, with a smaller door inset for people to use.

Close-up of the main door at Sun Court, showing the smaller inset door

You may wonder why even the most dedicated merchant would want to let his pack ponies into his house (!).  In The Town House, Martin Reed’s house was originally much smaller and on only one side of the passage.  He later built a solar for his bewitching wife Magda to dance in (Martin’s solar was also, apparently, inspired by one of the rooms in Sun Court), and left a space between the new solar and the original house so that the pack ponies could still get from the street to the yard behind the house.  Later, Martin roofed over this space to create a covered passage from the street entrance to his yard and built rooms above it.  So the packhorses now trotted through Martin’s house to get from the street to the yard.  Subsequent owners remodelled the house and changed its use over the succeeding centuries, but the central passage – and its packhorse-sized door – was such a key part of the structure that it always remained. (Whether this reflects the real history of Sun Court or whether it is purely fiction, I have no idea – but houses do evolve in this sort of haphazard fashion, so it seems entirely plausible).

22 December, 2013

December recipe: Medlar jelly


The medlar is an unusual fruit. Related to the rose family, the fruit looks a little like a gigantic brown rose hip.  The fruits can be harvested after the first frost or left to fall off the tree by themselves. 

When first harvested, medlars have hard white flesh and are quite inedible. They have to be left in a cool dry place to ‘blet’, a sort of ripening process, for a few weeks. During the bletting process, the hard white flesh softens to a deep brown paste.
Unbletted medlars (left), partially bletted medlars (middle) and bletted medlars (right)
Once bletted, medlars can be eaten raw, although it’s a fiddly job to pick out the seeds.  I prefer to turn them into medlar jelly.  This amber-coloured aromatic jelly is delicious with cold meats, especially poultry. (So it could come in handy in a few days’ time as an accompaniment to the remains of the Christmas turkey).  It’s a fairly straightforward process, although it’s time-consuming because of the wait for the juice to strain.  Here’s my recipe.

Medlar Jelly

Bletted medlars, approximately 3 lb (approx. 1.5 kg)
Water, 1 pint per 1 lb fruit (approx. 1.25 litres per 1 kg)

Granulated sugar, 1 lb per 1 pint of strained juice (approx. 800g per 1 litre)
Rind and juice of half a lemon per 1 pint of strained juice (per approx. 550 ml)

Sort the medlars.  They are bletted when they are dark brown and feel soft all over.  If when you cut the fruit up you find that a small part of the fruit is still hard (as with the medlars in the middle of the photograph above) it’s OK as long as most of the fruit is bletted.

Wash the medlars.

Cut the medlars into quarters and put them in a large saucepan, making a note of the weight of fruit.

Add 1 pint of water per 1 lb of medlars (approx. 1.25 litres per 1 kg).  Put a lid on the saucepan and bring to the boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for about 1 hour until the medlars are soft and pulpy.  Remove from the heat.

Hang a jelly bag or a double layer of cotton or muslin cloth over a large bowl.  I use two old tea towels tied to the legs of an upturned stool (see photo).  Pour the contents of the saucepan into the jelly bag or cloth so that the juice drains into the bowl.  Leave to strain for a couple of hours (or overnight, if this is more convenient).

Straining the medlar pulp

When all the juice has strained through, discard the pulp.

Measure the amount of juice.

Put 1 pint of juice in a large saucepan with 1 lb of granulated sugar (approx. 800g sugar per 1 litre juice). Add the rind and juice of half a lemon. Heat gently, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved.

Add about a teaspoon of butter (I am told this helps to prevent the jelly sticking to the pan, and have never been brave enough to try missing it out to see what happens).
Bring to the boil.  It should boil at a full rolling boil, i.e. bubbles should cover the whole surface of the jelly and it should boil hard enough to spit occasionally.  Don’t lean over the pan, and keep pets and small children out of the way, as a spit of boiling jelly can give an unpleasant burn.

Boil until the jelly reaches setting point.  Test for set by dripping a teaspoon of jelly onto a cold plate.  It should form a pool (if it forms a bead, the jelly is done; take it off the heat immediately).  Push the pool with your finger.  If it wrinkles, the jelly has reached setting point.  If not, boil for another 2 minutes and test again.  I find it usually takes about 15-20 minutes to reach setting point.

Remove from the heat.  Pour into a heatproof jug, then use the jug to pour into jars.  Cover and seal immediately.  I use cling film and then a screw-top lid.

The jelly is ready for use as soon as it has cooled down, and will keep in a cupboard for at least a couple of years.

Medlar jelly

30 November, 2013

The House at Sunset, by Norah Lofts. Book review

First published 1963. Edition reviewed: The History Press, 2009. ISBN, 978-0-7524-4870-1. 287 pages.

The House at Sunset is the last in a trilogy of novels telling the story of a Suffolk house and its inhabitants from the fifteenth century to the twentieth. The trilogy began with Martin Reed and his children and grandchildren in the fifteenth century in The Town House (reviewed here earlier), and continued with further generations of Martin Reed’s descendants during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in The House at Old Vine (reviewed here earlier). The House at Sunset covers the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. All the main characters are fictional.

Like its predecessors, The House at Sunset is told in a series of independent but interlinked narratives, rather like a collection of short stories.  Each is recounted in first person by a different character, and the narratives are separated by interludes told in third person.  The characters come and go, appearing in the book when they arrive at the house and disappearing again when they are no longer connected with it.

The novel is beautifully written in deceptively simple prose.  The historical background feels very real, capturing changing social attitudes as well as the effects of new technologies, such as the impact of the railway arriving in Baildon.  Some things have surprisingly modern resonances, such as the anxiety of the Victorian shopkeepers when they think a large retail chain is planning to move into the town:

“They sell cheap muck, they give no credit, they’ll undersell for a year to ruin honest traders and then get a monopoly….”

which exactly parallels modern fears when a giant modern supermarket chain announces plans to open a superstore in a market town. 

One of the aspects of the Town House trilogy that I particularly like is its focus on day-to-day life, made compelling by the vivid characterisation.  The main characters are varied individuals, each with their own foibles, fears and hopes, each shaped by their circumstances and experiences, and each with their own dilemmas to face.  Many of the secondary characters are just as vivid, although drawn in less detail, such as the unhappily married Mike and Millie, keeping house (after a fashion) in two rooms and hating every minute of it; or Frances Benyon’s selfish husband; or the mercenary lawyer’s clerk who tries to deceive Felicity Hatton.  In The House at Sunset, the Old Vine starts to change hands by purchase rather than by inheritance, so most of the characters are no longer descended directly from Martin Reed.  Their circumstances vary as social and economic change alters the economy of Baildon and the uses made of the Old Vine. The arrival of the railway changes the street from a residential area to a commercial district and the Old Vine from a private house to a series of thriving shops; two world wars and the Depression reduce it to an overcrowded, overpriced, semi-derelict slum. Similarly, the characters associated with the Old Vine vary from minor gentry to prosperous local business owners – cattle dealers, shopkeepers, restauranteurs – to impoverished tenants and a conscientious environmental health officer.  It’s sad to see Martin Reed’s historic house suffer decline and neglect at the hands of an exploitative property company, though the book ends on a hopeful note with the prospect of a sympathetic owner who may care for the house again.

There is no Author’s Note, perhaps because all the people and events are fictional.

Beautifully written portrayal of the varied people associated with a medieval house in a fictional English market town from the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth century.

29 November, 2013

November recipe: Butternut squash soup

Butternut squash soup

Butternut squashes are usually available in the late autumn and early winter.  I’ve previously posted a recipe for stir-fried chicken wings with butternut squash.

Butternut squash also makes a satisfying autumn soup.  With its warm colour, this soup helps to brighten up a cold grey day.  It can also be made with pumpkin if you don’t like or can’t get butternut squash.  This quantity serves 2 as a main meal with bread, or 4 as a first course.

Butternut squash soup

Approximately 1 lb (approx. 450 g) butternut squash
Half an onion
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground cumin
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground coriander
0.5 pint (approx. 300 ml) water
6 fl. oz (approx. 170 ml) milk
2 fl. oz (approx. 60 ml) single cream
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) sage or parsley

Peel the butternut squash and remove the seeds.  Cut into pieces approximately 1 inch cubed (approx. 2.5 cm cubed).

Peel and chop the onion.  Peel and crush the garlic.

Fry the butternut squash and onion in olive oil over a medium heat for a few minutes until starting to colour and soften.

Stir in the crushed garlic, cumin and coriander.

Add the water.  Season with salt and pepper.  Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer over a low heat for about 20 minutes until the squash is soft.

Remove from the heat and liquidise the soup to a smooth consistency.  It will be quite thick at this stage; if it is too thick to liquidise easily, add some of the milk.

Stir the milk, cream and herbs into the liquidised soup.  Reheat the soup gently over a low heat until just starting to bubble.

Serve hot with bread.

20 November, 2013

The children of Urien Rheged

Urien (also spelled Urbgen, Uryen) was a warrior-king of the royal house of Rheged some time in the late sixth century (see post on Urien Rheged).  One son, Owain, was celebrated in the poetry attributed to Taliesin and later a hero of medieval Arthurian romance (see post on Owain son of Urien). Another son, Rhun or Rum, is mentioned in Historia Brittonum in a context that suggests he was an important figure in the Christian church (see post on Rhun son of Urien). What can we say about Urien’s other children?



Both the Harleian and the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North) genealogies end with Urien and do not mention any descendants:

[U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen

--Harleian Genealogies, available online 

Vryen uab Kynuarch m Meirchavn m Gorust Letlvm m Keneu m Coel

--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 

Llywarch Hen poetry

The medieval manuscript ‘The Red Book of Hergest’ contains several poems attributed to Llywarch Hen (Llywarch the Old).  According to the genealogies, Llywarch was a cousin and approximate contemporary or Urien, and the poem ‘The Death of Urien’ describes Llywarch carrying Urien’s severed head after Urien had been assassinated.  The poem also mentions warfare in the aftermath of Urien’s death:

Dunawd, the leading horseman, would drive onward,
Intent upon making a corpse,
Against the onset of Owain.

Dunawd, the chief of the age, would drive onward,
Intent upon making battle,
Against the conflict of Pasgen.

Gwallawg, the horseman of tumult, would drive onward,
Intent upon trying the sharpest edge,
Against the conflict of Elphin.

--Llywarch Hen, The Death of Urien, available online

Owain is identified as a son of Urien in the poetry attributed to Taliesin.  The similar structure of the verses suggests that Pasgen and Elphin are also to be regarded as sons of Urien in this poem.  A Pasgen son of Urien is identified in the Welsh Triads.


Three Fettered Warbands of the Island of Britain
And the second, the War-Band of Rhiwallawn son of Urien when fighting with the Saxons

Three Arrogant Men of the Island of Britain:
Sawyl High-Head, and Pasgen son of Urien, and Rhun son of Einiawn.

Three Fair Womb Burdens of the Island of Britain:
The second, Owain son of Urien and Mor(fudd) his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach

Three Lovers of the Island of Britain:
Cynon son of Clydno (for Morfudd daughter of Urien);
and Caswallawn son of Beli (for Fflur daughter of Ugnach(?) the Dwarf);and Drystan (son of Tallwch, for Essyllt, the wife of his uncle March).

-- Triads, available online 

A variant of the Three Fair Womb-Burdens triad adds ‘Anarun archbishop of Llydaw’ to Owain and Morfudd. This may be a mention of Rum or Rhun ap Urien who appears as a churchman in Historia Brittonum.  Whether it represents an independent tradition, or just a note added by a scribe who had read Historia Brittonum, is open to interpretation (see post on Rhun son of Urien).


Between them, the various sources list five sons of Urien, Owain, Pasgen, Elphin, Rhiwallawn and Rhun, and a daughter, Morfudd.

Owain is celebrated in Taliesin’s poetry, where he is described as fighting alongside his father Urien and as a chief in his own right (see article on Owain son of Urien for more details). This is consistent with Owain being regarded as Urien’s second-in-command, heir and successor. In turn, this is consistent with Owain as the eldest son, although this is not definitive.

Rhun (also spelled Run, or Rum) is the only one of Urien’s children to be named in Historia Brittonum. He is described in a context that suggests he was an important figure in the Christian church, although a verse in the Llywarch Hen poetry also describes him as a secular ruler and warrior. He may have held both roles at different times (see the post on Rhun son of Urien). If he was a king of Rheged, it is not known whether he ruled alone or jointly with one or more of Urien’s other children.

Morfudd appears in two Triads.  In one she is said to be the twin of Owain.  As Owain was evidently an adult of fighting age before Urien’s death, Morfudd would also have been an adult before Urien’s death.  She would therefore have been of marriageable age, and may well have been married.

The second Triad refers to a great love between Morfudd and a man named Cynan ap Clydno. A warrior called Cynan ap Clyddno appears as a hero in Y Gododdin. A man named Clyddno Eidyn appears in the Harleian and Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies, traced back to Coel Hen (see earlier article on Coel Hen) in one, and to the king of Alt Clud, Dyfnwal, in another.  His epithet ‘Eidyn’ suggests an association with Edinburgh. Exactly how Cynan and Clyddno fitted into the plethora of kingdoms in sixth-century northern England/southern Scotland is open to interpretation.  However, if either or both were important figures in the kingdom of Gododdin and/or Alt Clud, Cynan ap Clyddno would not be an implausible candidate as a husband or lover for the daughter of Urien. The Triad may refer to a marriage between Cynan and Morfudd, perhaps to seal an alliance or agreement between Rheged and one of its northern/north-eastern neighbours. Or, given that it shares a Triad with the famous romantic tragedy of Drystan and Essyllt (better known as Tristan and Isolde), perhaps it refers to a star-crossed romance between them.  The Triad may refer to a story or poem about their relationship that was once well known but has now been lost.  More prosaically, Morfudd and Cynan may have been fictional characters from a medieval romance, who were given suitably romantic family connections by medieval scribes who thought it appropriate that a romantic hero and heroine should belong to lost sixth-century royal dynasties.

Pasgen is mentioned fighting against a warrior and/or king called Dunawd in the Llywarch Hen poetry. Owain is also mentioned fighting against the same adversary in the previous verse.  These verses occur after Llywarch’s lament for Urien’s death, so if this represents the order of events, the conflict with Dunawd was thought to have followed Urien’s assassination.  This is plausible; if Urien was a powerful ruler of a large territory, his sudden death may have been regarded by rivals and neighbours as an opportunity to try grabbing parts of the territory for themselves.  If Urien’s realm of Rheged was a relatively recent creation, perhaps put together in part by conquest and coercion, subordinate kings and chiefs might also see his sudden removal as an opportunity to regain their independence.  Unless Owain and Pasgen fought Dunawd in conflicts widely separated in time (which is possible), the description of them both fighting the same adversary may indicate that they were both of fighting age at the same time, and may have been approximate contemporaries.  Pasgen also appears in the Triads as one of the ‘Three Arrogant Men’, which may indicate the existence of a now-lost story about him.

Elphin also appears as a fighter in the Llywarch Hen poetry, but his adversary is named as Gwallawg the horseman.  This may refer to Guallauc ap Lleenauc, another late sixth-century king of somewhere in what is now northern England/southern Scotland (see post on Guallauc ap Lleenauc for more information). He may be the Gwallawg who campaigned against Bernicia at the same time as Urien.  If so, and if this was the same campaign in which Urien was assassinated at the siege of Lindisfarne, this may be a context for a conflict between Elphin and Guallauc.  Or Guallauc may simply have been an ambitious neighbour looking to extend his territory at Rheged’s expense after Urien’s death.

Rhiwallawn does not appear in the Llywarch Hen poetry.  He is mentioned in the Triads as the leader of a warband fighting the Saxons, which may indicate that he was also thought of as a warrior-hero.


Owain and Rhun can be accepted as historical figures on the basis of the Taliesin poetry and Historia Brittonum.  The other children of Urien appear only in the later Llywarch Hen poetry and the Triads.  These are later sources and may therefore be less reliable. However, what they say about the children of Urien is not implausible, and Morfudd, Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn could have been siblings of Owain and Rhun.

All of Urien’s sons are described as warriors (Owain in the Taliesin poetry, Rhun, Elphin and Pasgen in the Llywarch Hen poetry, and Rhiwallawn in the Triads).  This may just reflect a conventional assumption about the appropriate job description for any son of a famous warrior-king, or it may reflect lost material about their careers. 

It is not known whether any or all of Urien’s sons succeeded him as Kings of Rheged.  If they did, it is not known whether they ruled sequentially or jointly, in what order, for how long, or with what degree of success.  Owain and Rhun are both described in the poetry as rulers (chiefs), suggesting that they held some political power, at least for a time.  Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn are not so described. This may just be an arbitrary choice on the part of the poets, or it may indicate that they were not regarded as rulers in their own right. 

The different adversaries assigned to Owain/Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn would be consistent with (but do not prove) partition of the territories of Urien’s Rheged between his sons after his death.  If the sons each had a separate area of territory to rule and defend, they might be expected to face different regional enemies. Conversely, the sons could have been defending different border areas of the same territory, or fighting successive enemies at different times.

Morfudd appears in the Triads as the great love of Cynan son of Clyddno, a warrior-hero mentioned in Y Gododdin.  She was perhaps the heroine of a lost romance telling their story. This would also be consistent with her other appearance in the Triads and in the Story of King Urien and Modron, as the twin sister of the hero Owain and the daughter of Urien’s possibly-supernatural queen (see post on Owain son of Urien for more details). It is possible that Morfudd was a fictional romantic heroine, who was later given a connection to other famous figures of legend, Urien and Owain, by a scribe or poet who felt that she should have a suitably romantic origin. However, there is no obvious reason why she could not have been a genuine historical figure. If she was, a relationship with a warrior-hero of Gododdin or Alt Clud, Cynan ap Clydno, would not be implausible. The Triad may refer to a dynastic marriage between them.  Conversely, given that it is bracketed with the romantic tragedy of Tristan and Essyllt, it may refer to a doomed love affair that did not end in a successful marriage, for whatever reason.

The evidence for Morfudd, Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn as historical figures is very limited, relying on late sources (the Llywarch Hen poetry and the Triads). However, what is said about them is not implausible for children of Urien Rheged. Whether they were genuine historical figures, and what roles they may have played in sixth- and seventh-century history, is open to interpretation.

Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 
Harleian genealogies, available online 
Historia Brittonum, available online
Llywarch Hen, The Death of Urien, available online