Monday 18 April 2011

A Wayfarer's Cabinet of Curiosities

THESE ARE THE BLOSSOMS of the Wayfaring Tree, a shrub common along the lanes of Southern England, which could be confused with Elder, except that it flowers earlier and bears a scent not nearly as sweet. Its leaves can be used to make a black hair dye, and its name was told to us on a recent happy wayfaring to visit our dear friends Andy (writer, professor, bagpiper, musician extraordinaire) and Nomi (rope-swinging aerialist, MA student in Gender Studies, artist extraordinaire) in Oxford.

Goodness! What a cornucopia of enchantments they offered to us on these balmiest early April days. Artfully they whisked us through a plethora of wonders - musical and museological and memorable. On the Thursday evening we were treated to the open-mic delight of song and story that is Oxford's legendary Catweazle Club, where anybody can come and perform their art to a warm and friendly room of folk. Sitting on the floor listening to extremely good and unknown musicians playing just there is a tremendous thing. There was storytelling and poetry too, most notably by Alan Buckley. Catweazle is also the place where Andy's wonderful darkly crafted folk band Telling the Bees met some years back.

Friday saw us tripping through the old and sunny city.We walked along towpaths where narrowboats hung in the quiet greenblue world-just-outside-the-city that is the canal, festooned with new spring leaves and joyous birdsong.

(above photograph by Nomi)

There were even boats within boats.

We were taken through eminent doors,

down interesting lanes,

past ancient tomes,

under green men;

we walked in quadrangles

(above photograph by Nomi)

and stepped into museums...
And oh! The cabinets of curiosities that awaited!
The Oxford Museum of the History of Science houses scientific instruments of golden and intricate beauty, painstaking craftsmanship and alchemical intrigue...

Medieval Islamic astrolabes and orrerys and compasses and Chinese incense clocks and planetary spheres

(please click to look in detail)

and tables for communicating with angels

and satirical snuffboxes

and paintings of old alchemists

and Chinese Feng Shui compasses

And then, to stir our curiosity-cauldrons even deeper we stepped into the dimly lit Aladdin's cave of the Pitt Rivers Museum. I really cannot believe that I've never been to this wondrous place before, but I shall most definitely have to return, with a bagful of time and sketch books.

Its crowded display cases of objects apparently pillaged from all four corners of the world at the end of the 19th Century are themselves crowded in the main museum court, forming a mazelike network of passages between them, where at every turn you are stopped in your tracks by wildly astounding and often horrific anthropological artefacts.

The arrangement of the objects within the cases appealed to my cave-hoarder nature: things were crammed together in cabinets of curiosities arranged by theme rather than by any cultural identity; but I liked this, and spent ages peering through the glass and reading the hand written labels which were sometimes obscured by another treasure placed on top. There were drawers too beneath the cases which could be opened and explored.
I took many many photographs, though mostly they were taken without flash in the museum half-light, so I've ended up with yellowed and blurred images which suggest some sort of dark magic hallucinatory reverie, though actually this conjures the experience very well.
To avoid long strings of photos, I've bundled them together by theme, just like the Pitt Rivers' display cases themselves. They'll be too small to see detail unless you click to enlarge them, which I heartily and gruesomely encourage you to do!...

There were cases and cases of amulets and charms, magics from North, South, East & West, beads and bones and divinations...

There were masks to frighten and delight, beautifully and powerfully made.

These below are wooden carved and painted Japanese Noh masks.

And from masks to actual heads, we came abruptly to the cabinet rushed to by children visitors on arrival at the museum: The Shrunken Heads! These shrunken heads or tsantsas form part of the "treatment of dead enemies" display and come from tribes of the Upper Amazon region of South America. A shrunken head was made by removing the skull and brain and boiling the skin and then shaping the features with hot pebbles, sewing up the mouth and eyes with thread and blackening the skin with vegetable dyes before stringing the head on a cord to wear around the neck. The making of tsantsas was part of a ritual which pacified one of the dead enemy's three souls which resided in the head. This was believed to form a post mortem kinship between the enemy and the killer's tribe.
The dead enemies cabinet housed some gruesome and disturbing exhibits, the shrunken heads are in the top right and bottom left of the image below.

There were cabinets full of gods,

beautiful Buddhas crouching between cases

and plump Syrian bronze birds.

But the cabinet which drew me to linger longest was the collection of folk magic artefacts. Such strange and wonderful curses and cures: hag stones, mandrake roots carved into men, moles' feet (to ease toothache), a bottle said to contain a witch, curious cloth hearts, stuck with pins (for witchcraft purposes) and an object said to be a toad, stuck with thorns (for witchcraft purposes)... oh I was captured!

(please do click to enlarge and read the wonderful labels)

The dark materials we found in these museums put us strongly in mind of Philip Pullman's Alethiometers and trepanned heads, and I am sure he found inspiration there too. Indeed, we've been inspired since to revisit his marvellous Oxford again by way of the unabridged author-read audiobook whilst we work.


And then, as if that was not illumination enough, evening took us down past Port Meadow, a tranquil water meadow which lies just minutes from Andy and Nomi's home. By day it was green and blue and calm, edged by grazing horses and blossomed branches and dipped in by herons.

By night, it had turned amber under the setting sun as the last duck floated home.

And on that orange and mauve evening we walked by the water to find the cluster of trees beyond where we would gather with friends that night. And there Nomi hung lanterns and bunting whilst firewood was collected and people crept in.

Sometimes occasions just collect goodness to them, and the minutes settle themselves into the fire like sticks, tessellating into the perfection of the night, and you recognise that clear familiar joy under the stars of being outside by a fire with the edge-folk you love so.
It was a beautiful gathering, and we were blessed with the most exquisite music you could wish for. Sharing the fire with such accomplished musicians makes for quite a stirring experience, and I am happy to share a little of that magic here for you:

The firelit musicians' faces are those of three quarters of Telling the Bees, and all three members of Brythonic folk-dance band Wod - you can hear English bagpipes, fiddle, guitar, flute, and Anglo concertina. While they played the sparks wrote fiery hieroglyphs on the windless night, we held hands over the curled dog between us, and we smiled.


Our journey home was broken by an lovely pause at Cadbury Iron age hill fort in Somerset, which is reached by an ancient track carved by centuries of feet into the hillside. On top we sat with a thermos and snack looking out over the green Somerset levels until dusk and the rest of the road to Dartmoor urged us on.

Dartmoor welcomed us back with blackthorn blossoms of delicate and exquisite beauty.

And Macha treads once again on her carpets of Celandine and Bluebell-to-bloom, looking for things that smell delicious under the trees.

We are in the eye of a happy Spring whirlwind at the moment though. There are fairs, which you are all cordially invited to, whether you are near by or far off. First, on Friday 22nd April, there's a Spring Artisan Fayre in Chagford (<- flyer over there to the left) at which I'll be selling prints and my Tom will be selling his incredible handmade leather masks which I've seen emerging over these past weeks. They'll be available online soon too, but this is a small local unveiling of sorts, and I secretly think he'll sell out!

In May we're off to the always brilliant Weird & Wonderful Wood fair in Suffolk on May 14th & 15th, and there'll be more as the year rolls on. Do come along and say hello if you're about. If you're not, please come by my online stall and come buy! There are a few originals for sale in the shop just now too, some of them professionally framed. All this roll-upping is an attempt to boost the coffers because of an exciting hillock on our happy road... we're moving house!

This little cottage has been sweet and just the thing, but two of us and a hound and an inordinate number of elbows seem to be poking out of its seams. We long for a garden and fields to step out into, for a bath, and vitally - a room that isn't also the living room to work in. And this is just what we've found! An ancient thatched cottage on a Hill of Trees, with room to grow vegetables and to dream green expansive dreams.

I shall tell more of this exciting new chapter soon, but for now, I'm away to contemplate the bedroomful of cardboard boxes and just what vegetables to plant and other such Spring busies. It's all rather wonderful, actually!


Giallo Antico said...

How I wish to visit that magical place, Rima. And your place as well. The astrolabes are so amazing, as well as the other things there. And such a privilege that Iam the first one to comment on this post! :)


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Such a happy, lovely post. I enjoyed every word and image. Especially that paw in the springtime grass. And the cottage! Wonderful! I understand your preoccupation with vegetable planting!! That is exactly what I've been doing tonight. I'm planting my allotment garden this week. Cucumbers, okra, tomatoes, half-runner green beans. And loads of marigolds!!

PK Studios said...

Wow...what a post! You just took me on a magical mystical tour de force! Was this all in one day? My step-daughter is going to school this semester in London and I just forwarded your blog to her....I wish I could transport myself to your wonderful world : )
Cheers, Penny

farmlady said...

I always have a delightful little moment when I see that you have posted something from the Hernitage.
As usual, it's an interesting and beautiful journey.
I would love to visit this Oxford Museum of the History of Science. What a fascinating place!
Tell us more about the little house soon.

Kathryn Dyche said...

Seeing the photos of Oxford made me homesick. I love the pitt rivers museum but haven't been there in years. Last time I went home I did the Ashmolean Museum but next time I'll definitely have to revisit pitt rivers. You see something new each time you go.

Crafts @ Home said...

My heart also skips a beat when I see a new post from you, what a beautiful post, the pitt rivers museum has long been on my list of places to visit... It looks like new and exciting times are ahead for you... Is it my computer, I only manage to hear two seconds of delightful music and then it stops... and I know there's more :(

Alice said...

So lovely to see you enjoying the waterways... it is most definitely a wonderous time of year here on our boat tucked away under trees laden with blossom where the birds wake us lazily each morning :-)

And how wonderful your new home looks! I have been busy myself planting a floating roof garden, which I hope will soon be flourishing with peppers and lettuce leaves and chillis and tomatoes!


gz said...

A wonderful trip of contrasts and inspiration. I could do with more of that and a little less desperation!
I went to the Pitt-Rivers Collection on a trip with Cardiff Art College (when that was what it was!) in the early 70s. I doubt that it has changed!
However what I really remember from that visit was in a different museum..the Ashmolean. The Alfred Jewel.
Hope your move goes well.
Blessings Be.

Limner said...

Agent Pendergast would love such a cabinet of curiosities, and everything else. I know I do.

Anna-Mari said...

What a magical day you had! Or more like, what a magical world you seem to live in! Thank you for sharing your beautiful stories and lovely photos. Congrats on the cottage, it must be wonderful!

bhán said...

Your outings and company sound fantastic, and congratulations on your upcoming move!

Tonia said...

The Buddha you pictured has the most wonderfully at peace expression on his face that, when I visited years ago, I stopped and stared at him for whole minutes, noise and bustle whirling around but not breaking the spell. Thank you for reminding me about this place - only an hour away, why do I not go more often?

Oya's Daughter said...

I'd completely forgotten about that museum of witchery and artifacts. I really must go back and peruse it a bit more whilst I can still get about with a hobble.

Glad to hear things go well for you, and happy garden-planning!

Unknown said...

Gorgeous post. Was such a pleasure to see you all - come and do it again - we only scratched the surface! Lots of love xxx

Arija said...

What a wonderful home you have found. I wish you all the happiness possible to fill the house and garden and the wood beyond.

A memorably grand opening with likeminded people around the bonfire, with stirring music and sparks shooting into the night.

Please don't lose the fringe-dwellerness about you, it is what we mere mortals dream about.

Heather said...

So much to see and read - wonderful photos as usual. I love that medieval door and the Pitt Rivers Museum is an amazing place. I enjoyed the Spring Fire music and everything else in this post. I wish you and Tom every success at this year's Fairs and love the look of the thatched cottage - it's beautiful and so inviting.

Nomi McLeod said...

The new home looks bloody marvellous! Well found...

And a beautiful post :) what a delightful time it was, showing you the magic corners of Oxford.

Hope to see you soon xxx

Amy said...

Rima, I'm very much liking the angel communicating rune. Thank you for sharing. Much happiness on your blog and the move to the thatched home looks lovely and exciting! ~Amy

Catherine Vibert said...

Oh what a lovely adventure! Museums, fire, music and look at your new home! One could not ask for more. Lovely lovely lovely. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Thankyou Rima - the links on your blog make up yet another cabinet of wonders to wander through and wonder at!

Zen Forest (Runic Rhyme) said...

Rimaaaaa! You and Tom's smiles flare my heart chakre up into such warmth! Macha's paw - such an intimate photo, i felt like I was sitting in the grass beside him!
The music! The new home! The excitement of growing your own things!
How beautiful to watch from further West as a new Hermitage chapter commences!
Beautiful :) And I send you my thoughts of continued blessings ♥

∞ Tiff

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Rima! What a wonderful house. Thank you so much for sharing your trip to that incredible museum. I've always wanted to go to Oxford. When I'm there, I'm definitely stopping by to take a gander at the folk magic artifacts.

Tiffany D. Davidson said...

Oh, and Rima - do save all that cardboard once you get moved. It's the perfect weed barrier/first layer for sheet-mulching raised beds using permaculture ethics :)

Aoife.Troxel said...

It all looks amazing! You seem to capture each thing so well and I feel like I'm there even though each experience is different. This post went every which way but I was carried along with it, enjoying every moment.
The cottage looks lovely.

Karen said...

What a rich wonderful tapestry of a post. Thanks for sharing everything especially the trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which has been on my list of places to visit for too long a time. I must make an effort and go and visit soon.
Good luck in your new home to the both of you, it looks enchanting, the perfect place! x

Lindsey said...


Anonymous said...

Like so many of your fans, it is always a highlight of my day to read a magical post from you! Congratulations on the new home! It's positively dreamy. Is there a name for that style home? I know it is pointless to look for something like that in the US, but maybe one day we'll be house-hunting over there & I'll want to know what to look for :-).

Lrc said...

What a wonderful wandering through a fascinating museum, blossoms, your dog's foot in the fresh green grass, your new thatched home! It has been too long since I've been to Oxford--the last time I was 7 or so and I love those labels on the witchcraft items. I have a great book called "A Small Book of Grave Humour" by Fritz Spiegl which some of the typography reminds me of...great,gossipy and sad epitaphs of England. Thank you for drawing me,like so many others here, into your wonderful world...It inspires me to create and wander myself. I am thinking of what to grow in our apartment amid the unfolding of spring.

Diana said...

Thank you for an especially lovely, fascinating and uplifting post!

Ciara Brehony said...

Wonderful news, Rima! So delighted for you, it looks just about perfect.
And what a happy trip you had, nothing nicer than spending time with good friends.

In fact, what an altogether happy post! :-D

Ent said...

Sounds like you had the same experiance as me in the Pitt Rivers museum - that folkloric cabinate drew me in - especially remember that mas of nails and black that may have once been a toad... Glad you photographed it... The other place in their I found interesting was the bows (they had a bow wich fired pellets and not arrows) and a modern display upstairs on body modifaction, everything from scarafacation, tatoes and 'face chisseling' to victorian corsets, african male corcets and silicon breast implants - made them seem very forien and bizzar - like reading a science fiction book by ursulllar la guin, only it was 21st century britian. Pit rivers is amazing.

Loving your friends band as well. - Got a Chagford tune I have learned from EFDSS library online.

Unknown said...

What wonderful stories I discovered here. I feel, almost, as if I was there. Just beautiful and I does stir ones imagination and curiosity!
Thank you

Velma Bolyard said...

you've reminded me of the time i visited england; i was 21, alone, and loved the april into may time i was there!
i, amazed, saw the marvelous thatched places like your new house!

steven said...

rima it sets me dreaming reading about and seeing all the tiny precise gears and cogs spinning and driving the bigger toothier cogs and wheels of your existence gathered together in this one glowing place. steven

Anonymous said...

Just to quickly say how wonderful to see you both so happy. Love the pics. You look very queenly, m'dear & Tom like a visitor from the Shire lol.

Oxford is on our list of places we'd consider moving to for the right job & I think your post has bumped it up in the ratings !

Such a glad home-coming too. Can't wait to see you at W&W & hear all about your new place.

much love

Anonymous said...

I haven't posted a comment here before, but I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your wonderful world with the internet! This post has been particularly lovely, although it inspires a somewhat melancholy longing for a life like yours. It is far removed from my city-centered, commuting restricted, technological life!

We are moving to the countryside soon (well, the very edge of the city) but our countryside (near Glasgow) is not the same as your countryside at all! It's much less wooded, for a start. And interesting faires such as those at which you sell your wares don't seem to be particularly common (or indeed exist at all?). So thank you for sharing these things so the rest of us can at least dream!

Ted Marshall said...

Congratulations on your magical new home.
This post was quite a journey and I'm fascinated to see what makes its way from what you saw into what you create. I hope no shrunken heads...

Emily said...

Oh dear... museum drool! I think it is the type of place if I entered I may never come out... well I guess the guards would politely escort me at closing time, but barring that...

Peacocks and Sunflowers said...

Rima, another wonderful post, full of sunlight and dancing shadows! I suspect a good few more of the e-footprints leading to this doorway have been from Oxford lately - I so enjoyed seeing our spring through your lens that I had to share the link with other Oxford folk. I've certainly been far from complacent about this spectacularly blossom-ful spring we're having, but it's good to renew appreciation of the magical nooks and crannies Oxford is full of - too easy to pass by when they are there every day. Do you know the Narnia-related riddle about the Green Lion door carving in one of your photos?

bright star said...

Helli Rima ,I enjoy following your blog and this was particularly fascinating.I am so glad you are happy!

Lisa Ferguson said...

Hello Rima, I love your blog and this is the first time I have posted a comment. Please, please show us lots of pictures of your new cottage. We don't have cottages like that in Canada and I love soaking up every detail of them. You are so lucky to be able to live in a place with such glorious history.

Mo Crow said...

Thank you for sharing Rima, love all the photos & links to the Pitt Rivers Museum, just spent a pleasant few hours visiting all sorts of interesting magical things from your fair isle, love the witch's ladder & the handy pocket compass sundial & the fireside music, lovely and your cottage, do you have to re-thatch it regularly?

herhimnbryn said...

Hallo Lady R,
You have made me homesick for an enlish spring!
A glorious post that I am going to forward to Alchemist (my other half). We both love Oxford and as he is a chemist, I think a trip to the museum of all things alchemical will be on the agenda for our next visit to the uk.

jerilanders said...

What a marvelous museum, it must have been difficult to leave.
The thatched cottage, what dreams are made of, delightful! Lucky you. One must always have a garden, I do not know what I would do if I couldn't dig my fingers into the good earth each and every day.

fatmoss said...

wow... what delights, and that cottage looks so perfect and curved

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post this is! I'm thrilled for the three of you that you've found an enchanted cottage home to grow into, and was transported by your wanderer's tales of Oxford. I too find the Pitt Rivers Museum captivating , and found myself getting quite excited as you wove your way through all those marvellous curious cabinets, thinking 'oh will she will she find the witch in a bottle?' - and of course you did :)

Wishing you every happiness in your move, and a few faery hands to help with the heavy boxes.

mama p said...

such a journey to dream of! and how lucky we are that you share it. a million thank-yous :) and happy spring!

Anonymous said...

This is the most interesting blog I have ever found... Your location is so beautiful, the history, the music... and your house! Thank you, I truly enjoyed reading your blog... the pictures showed such beauty and detail and I fell in love with the music.

Lisa said...

Hands down: your blog is probably the most beautiful one I visit. And interesting. Thank you for sharing!


Jess said...

Your new house looks stunning! I thought your current one was lovely, albeit small, but this!
The Pitt Rivers museum is a place I always visit when in Oxford and occasionally the science one too but after seeing your discoveries I shall stay there longer next time. How did I miss so much?! Your evening by the fire with the wonderful music sounds absolutely blissful. :)xx

Krys said...

Rima, I always enjoy reading your blog and was happily exclaiming over your pictures from the museums while my husband worked as his own laptop across our dining room table. Suddenly he looked up, startled, as I burst into tears. He stood up and looked over my shoulder at my screen, then hugged me tight when he saw what I was looking at. You see, the view you took from the top of Cadbury is my favorite place in the entire world, and always has that effect on me when I go there. The strong reaction from simply seeing it in a photo just caught me off guard. I'm so happy that you had the chance to enjoy some time there!

C said...

world's weirdest parties.

I remembered your dissertation.

jamjar said...

lovely post rima, wonderful music and your new home looks amazing.

Herrad said...

Hi Rima,

Since I have been spending more time sitting in my wheelchair I have not been visiting.
Tonight I decided to visit as many blogs as possible.
I just passed by to say hello.
I have thoroughly enjoyed your post and photos.
I hope you are doing well, it sounds like you are.
Enjoy your move to your new house..

Judith van Praag said...

Have I happened upon a Renaissance fair, or is this the real thing? I've entered a world that indeed makes me want to put my feet up while at the same time wishing to dance on. Your blog is a wonderful place to visit!