Welcome again to ‘Touchstone Tuesday’.
When I started writing this series, I thought it was a useful way of focusing on task: to blog consistently. All advice manuals tell you that regularity is the key. Yet in sitting down and seeking a subject I was often lost, flailing and thus inconsistent. But then I remembered one of my most elementary truths: write what I love. And I love my touchstones, those objects I keep around me in my writing space. Love them and love to tell their stories.
This week: the Shepherd’s Crook.
Here it is, pictured against Fulford Harbour, with Mount Maxwell, on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, in the background. But like me, the crook is a transplant from another, very different land. I found it (or it found me, more of that anon) while walking on the Wenlock Edge…
…in the fabulous county of Shropshire, in England.
Let me describe the staff first and then come onto our meeting. It stands at about four feet tall and is a hazel ‘wand’ – hazel being a magical wood as any fan of Harry Potter will know. Hazel is also one of the hedgerow trees – others are oak, beech, hawthorn – that are shaped and bent to grow along the edges of the fields of England. Found by someone with an eyes for such things – as the man I met certainly was – he’d have taken the stick, cut it to length, snipped all the side shooters off, and left it to season for a winter in a shed with no walls, protected from rain, open to the winds. Then he’d straighten it, varnish it with several layers of ship deck varnish before taking a ram’s horn, boiling that till malleable, then shaping it under steam to the perfect crook you see, affixing it firmly to the wand (the fixing a mystery to me!). Finally he’d attach to its end what became my favourite word for a while: ferrule. A circular brass cap, protecting the wand’s end from splintering.
It’s a practical tool, of course, as any good stick is. I use it for walking, and it has saved my ankles and knees on many a rough slope. Shepherds use it to herd, ushering sheep into the pen their collies have driven the flock to. The crook end, reputedly, is for hooking a strayed lamb from hedge or pond.
How did my stick and I meet? Another example of what I call ‘Humphreys Happenstance’ – the seemingly random events that hover around my life like butterflies in a summer field.
It was late Summer 2004 and I was in Shropshire, that county on the English-Welsh border, the land that is for me the quintessence of England: hedgerows, gorse and bracken high hills studded with sheep, plunging valleys, Saxon or Norman churches, the 500 year old pubs snuggled next to them.
A place I love. I hadn’t been for a while, as my son had been born six months before. But I needed to get away to research my new Young Adult novel – THE FETCH, (Click on title to read more), which was to be largely set in one of the places where I most like to be – another example of ‘write what you love’. So I’d been walking on the Wenlock Edge – (Click HERE if you want to read the wonderful A E Houseman poem and get a feel for that ancient landscape) – on a warm early Summer’s day. Heading back to my car I fell into step with a Lancastrian shepherd, (as you do) who had two border collies frisking around him, a breed I love. He also had an old and weathered crook, which he’d made – one of many ways he occupied his time while tending his flocks. As we neared the car park he told me that he was on his way back from a County Fair. That he’d been commissioned to make a crook for some nobleman who’d failed to show up and collect it. ‘This one,’ he said, opening the rear door of his jeep, pulling out…
It was love at first sight. And like that rare and wondrous feeling, it left me a little breathless and slow of thought. ‘Does that m-mean,’ I eventually stuttered, ‘that this is now for sale?’ He considered. ‘Suppose so,’ he said at last, ‘since the bastard Duke never showed up.’
Money changed hands – 80 pounds if memory serves. Not cheap – but I’d have paid double, such was my desire. And the craft alone, the care that went into its making? Priceless.
I still take it for any extended hikes I do. It is the perfect ‘feel’ for me, its ‘grip’ right where it should be, my lower arm extended out in an exact right angle from my body. Mostly now it just rests near the door of my writing hut. Not in sight, my eyes would get drawn to it too often. But ready to be lifted and swung when I need a break, for mind and body. And this I know: it is Number One on the list of ‘Things I’d grab in a fire’. (Something I’ve thought about more lately, since my new novel FIRE is coming out next month).
So now, next Tuesday… hmm! He looks around, spots… Oh yes! By way of complete contrast, geographically, historically – why not a piece of the walls of Constantinople? Now there’s a story.