Tuning in to the BBC’s religious affairs programme on 1 October, Sherds was amused to hear Emma Restall Orr, founder of the Druid Network, talking about the ‘long hard struggle’ to persuade the Charity Commission for England and Wales to grant charitable status to the Druids. This was a frustrating process exacerbated by the fact the Charity Commissioners ‘had no understanding of our beliefs and practices, and examined us on every aspect of them’. Emma gave listeners a flavour of the process when she described one interview with a form-filling functionary:
Functionary: So what do Druids believe in, then?
Druid: Oh, all sorts of things.
Functionary: Do you believe in one god, for example?
Druid: Some of us do.
Functionary: So some Druids believe in more than one god?
Druid: Yes, some of us are polytheistic. But some of us are also pantheistic. And some of us are animistic — and some of us are atheistic, because we don’t believe in any gods.
No wonder it took nearly five years for the Charity Commission to come to a decision. But they have done so, and they have even managed to define in a sentence the core of Druidic belief: the conservation of Britain’s heritage and the preservation of the natural environment.
When you think about it, that makes us really rather special; lots of professions have their institutes and associations and even their learned societies, but those of us who work in conservation and heritage can now claim to have our own religion! Our slogan: archaeology with added spirituality.
If the Druid Network wants to recruit new members, it might find fertile ground amongst disaffected members of the National Trust. Everybody’s favourite charity has now been accused by some of its own supporters of waging war on those shy and elusive spirits of mountain and moor, trees, pools and springs, rocks, coasts and rivers that are worshipped by some Druids (though not all!).
The accusation stems from the National Trust’s promotion of the countryside as a place for barbecues and mountain bike trails, which one critic described as ‘making nature reserves more like American national parks’. Stephen Bayley, the author and cultural commentator (and, who knows, perhaps a covert Druid), said the Trust risked ‘surburbanising the countryside’, which should be ‘wild, feral and free’, not ‘packaged, commoditised and stylised by the National Trust for a docile public.’
On the other hand, English Heritage has been criticised for being too wild: or, rather, of allowing one of its properties to become a little overgrown. Until this year, the grassy banks of Carlisle Castle’s moat have been trimmed to regulation height following guidelines probably set out in a Ministry of Works manual of the 1950s. Today, though, a new rule book is in force — the health-and-safety manual — and mowing has ceased, on the grounds that it is too dangerous.
The good people of Carlisle are not happy: they describe the banks and moat of the Castle, one of the city’s premier tourist attractions and the backdrop to the city’s bustling commercial centre, as looking ‘scruffy and neglected’. English Heritage is now experimenting with remote controlled robot mowers as part of a ‘review of options’.
When city councillor Gareth Ellis asked ‘how many people have been hurt cutting the grass?’, he was told that this was not the point. Banning mowing was a ‘proactive approach to improving health and safety’, designed to ensure that nobody has an accident, not a response to an actual incident. Besides, the risks involved in mowing the banks do not just include the possibility of a fall; they also include the hidden and insidious risks of repetitive strain injury.
It all makes you wonder whether the English Heritage press office should not be employing more Druids. Any Druid worth his or her salt would point out the positive side to letting nature take its course: the beauty of grass and wild flowers in their natural state, keeping the good people of Carlisle in touch with the passing of the seasons, introducing a note of pastoralism into the heart of the city, and reminding urban consumers of the city’s dependence on nature for food and spiritual sustenance.
Does the well-dressed Druid wear socks with sandals? That’s a tough one, and not just on grounds of taste and fashion. Whilst some Druids might welcome the extra warmth during the chilly mid-winter festival, others might object to copying the fashion of the detested and oppressive Roman invaders.
Back in 2005, an unusual Roman razor handle (pictured here) was found in the River Tees at Piercebridge, near Darlington in County Durham, in the shape of a human leg and foot — and this showed quite clearly that Roman sandals were worn with thick woollen socks. Further confirmation has now come from the remains of a sandal excavated this summer on a site beside the A1 between Dishforth and Leeming in North Yorkshire.
The site was described by its excavator, Blaise Vyner, as ‘an ancient industrial estate, including a water-powered mill used to grind flour and grain, located close to the site of the Roman fort at Healam Bridge’. Important for the sartorial argument is the discovery of textile fibres embedded in the rust on nails from Roman sandals found at the site.
Those who have an irrational dislike of socks with sandals argue that chilly Roman Britain might have been the exception: socks were perhaps not worn in warmer climes, though troops stationed at Vindolanda demanded extra vests, socks, underpants and hooded woollen cloaks to help them cope with the harsh realities of the climate at the northern frontier.
Evidence that even that theory is wrong can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you take a stroll through the fascinating, but little-known, textiles collection, you will find a display of ancient textiles towards the end of the gallery, and there you will see a pair of fuscia-red socks from sunny ancient Egypt with a bifurcated toe: knitted thus, of course, to allow the sandal strap to fit between the big and index toe. The sock wearers surely win the argument.
Bad news for Druids opposed to all things Roman is the news that longevity derives not from an Asterix-like diet of wild boar, apples, cheese, honey, bread and beer, but from something called the ‘Mediterranean’ diet, which UNESCO wants to designate as an example of intangible World Heritage. That news resulted in a thousand newspaper articles singing the praises of pizza and pasta, with gourmets such as Carluccio declaring his pleasure that the home cooking of his native Italy was to be honoured in this way.
Sadly for those who think that pasta with truffle butter or bacon and cream with lashings of flaked Parmesan is healthy, the truth is that the real Mediterranean diet is much more austere. The term was coined by medical researchers in the 1950s after studying the links between longevity and diet on the island of Crete. Large-scale studies involving tens of thousands of long-lived adults in Greece have since confirmed that the best diet for longevity and freedom from disease is to eat wholemeal bread — either fresh or in rusk form — with whatever salad ingredients are in season: olives, olive oil, wine, fresh and dried fruits and nuts. Cheese, meat and fish are eaten very sparingly — often just a slice or two of air-dried pork sausage to add flavour to the bread. Consumption of lamb, goat, poultry, yoghurt, milk, eggs and cheese is largely restricted to feast days (hence the name). Oh, and the peasants who live free of heart disease and cancer on this diet also lead very active physical lives: no shopping in the local supermarket for them — most feed almost exclusively off the fruits of their own labour.
To this day, soul food on Crete is wild salad, sold in markets or served in restaurants at very high prices, and consisting largely of ‘weeds’ foraged by Cretan peasants from the island’s hillsides, fragrant with wild fennel and made up of mustard, chicory, rocket, chives and even the leaves of some varieties of thistle and poppy. If UNESCO is to honour the diet with World Heritage status, it should perhaps drop the misleading ‘Mediterranean’ word and call this the ‘Cretan’, ‘Greek’ or perhaps even the ‘Neolithic’ diet.
Sherds is very grateful to Keith Foster, who responded to the Blue Plaques report in CA 246 by pointing out that there is no Blue Plaque in Swadlincote marking the place where flowers were placed after Princess Diana’s death. She did, however, visit Swadlincote on 16 January 1991, and three plaques commemorate that visit: one at the bowling centre, which she opened; one at the Cloverleaf china teapot and jug factory, which was celebrating its bicentenary at the time of her visit; and one at the Oaklands Aged People’s Home, where she joined in the birthday celebrations of three residents.
Thanks also to John Messenger who adds saddle-making Walsall to the list of town’s that have a museum of leather — indeed, the town proudly calls itself ‘Britain’s leathergoods capital’.