Monday, 26 December 2016

The Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas by John Mason Neale

Good King Wenceslas look’d out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I, we’ll see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament,
Through the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”

“Mark my steps, be brave, my page;
Tread thou in them boldly;
Then thou’lt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which his foot had printed.
Therefore Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Although strongly criticized by the purists, and compilers far more learned than I, this popular carol is one of my favourites. It was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853, the music being a Finnish melody for spring, dating from three hundred years earlier. But who was King Wenceslas and who was St. Stephen, whose day many of us now celebrate as Boxing Day, 26 December?

Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia in the tenth century. A Catholic, he attempted to spread Christianity among his people and so was murdered by his brother Boleslaus (also Boleslaw and Boleslav). Wenceslaus (original English spelling) was martyred following his death and is the Patron Saint of the Czech Republic. His Saint’s Day is 28 September. The regal dignity was conferred on him posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia. The carol tells of a legend connected with Wenceslas’ life.

John Mason Neale set his words to ‘Tempus adest floridum’ or ‘The Time is Near for Flowering’, a spring carol of Finland, which first appeared in the collection ‘Piae Cantiones’ of 1582. Good King Wenceslas was first published in 1853, in a collection entitled Carols for Christmas-Tide by Neale and Thomas Helmore.

The Feast of Stephen is the Saint’s Day of Saint Stephen, in the west nowadays more usually referred to as Boxing Day. Stephen, who died circa AD 35, was the first Christian martyr. He belonged to a primitive Christian community in Jerusalem and is mentioned in Acts as one of those seven who were ‘of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom’ chosen by the community to support the twelve apostles. Stephen is given credit as ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. He apparently died (stoned to death) near the so-called Damascus Gate in the northern wall outside Jerusalem, killed by a mob. His death is celebrated on 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church. Some countries commemorate him on 9 January, the same day in the Julian calendar. Stephen is the Patron Saint of Serbia and his day is a public holiday in many countries.

In Finland, there is a tradition whereby sleighs pulled by horses take to the village streets in the merry ‘St. Stephen’s Day ride’, a chance for the people to rejoice following the piety and silence of Christmas. Other old traditions include parades of singers and people dressed in festive costume.

In Ireland, Boxing Day is still sometimes called Wren Day. It was once the case that a wren would be killed, then carried by children from house to house, asking for money in exchange for a wren’s feather, which was believed to bring good luck. Visiting each house on St. Stephen’s Day is a tradition which survives in many countries, particularly in Scandinavia, where the day is spent in partying and going to see friends.

By the Regency, Stephen’s feast day had become a day for the wealthy to give Christmas boxes to their dependents, either servants or tradespeople who had given them good service through the year. While the term Boxing Day was most likely coined by the Victorians, who so liked to propound the myth and customs of Christmas, the tradition of giving ‘boxes’ of money or a small gift certainly predates the 1800s. In his diary entry of 19 December 1663, Samuel Pepys states ‘Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.’

There is some conjecture as to when the custom originated – it may have been in the Middle Ages with alms put in boxes for the poor, but there is no doubt it was in existence by the Georgian era. Required to work on Christmas Day to provide for the family they served, servants were often allowed to visit their families on the Feast of Stephen, clutching boxes of leftovers and largesse from their employers. However, it must be remembered that in those times Christmas wasn’t necessarily a public holiday, as it is now. For many it was just another working day.

Happy Christmas!

© Heather King

Friday, 16 December 2016

Who is Father Christmas?

Father Christmas, with his rich, red suit and bushy white beard, has been an iconic figure since Victorian times, but the personification of Christmas has been part of English folklore since the fifteenth century. After the Puritans banned Christmas during the English Civil War, supporters of the Royalist cause published political pamphlets marrying the old customs of feasting and merrymaking with the festivities, in the process taking Old Father Christmas as their ‘figurehead’.

‘The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas’ (1687) from a pamphlet by Josiah King.

Although his popularity dwindled following the Restoration, Christmas folk or mummer’s plays kept Old Father Christmas alive through the late eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth.

Christmas as a festivity for children developed during the Victorian era. Prior to then it had been a time of feasting and carousing strictly for adults, sometimes even with an air of menace when associated with the Lord of Misrule, a mock king introduced by the Normans, who wore red robes and made sure the celebrations were run in the old pagan manner. Villagers would leave out food and drink to pacify any malicious spirits. This association gradually died out when the tradition of the Lord of Misrule also became lost in the annals of time, although into the Regency, a servant was made a king or queen for the night on Twelfth Night and a misruling lord still exists in the British military through the officers and NCOs serving the men Christmas dinner.

In a fifteenth century carol purported to be written by the Rector of Plymtree between 1435 and 1477 makes an early mention of Sir Christmas. This is quoted from Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, 1833, by William Sandys.

In Die Nativitatis

Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell.
Who ys there thay syngith so nowell, nowell?

I am here, syre cristsmasse;
Well come, my lord sr crstmasse,
Welcome to vs all bothe more & lasse,
Com ner, nowell.

Dievs wous garde, brewe srs, tydyge y zow bryng,
A mayde hath born a chylde full zong,
The weche causeth zew for to syng,

Criste is now born of a pure mayde,
In an oxe stalle he ys layde,
Wher'for syng we alle atte abrayde,

Bevvex bien par tutte la company,
Make gode chere & be right mery,
And syng wt vs now joyfully,

This celebrates the birth of Jesus and exhorts parishioners to ‘Make good cheer and be right merry, And sing with us now joyfully, Nowell.’ So it is clear that already the seed of Father Christmas was there, beginning to be nurtured.

In the seventeenth century, various plays and masques, including The Masque Of Christmas, 1616, by Ben Jonson, continued to preserve the persona of Christmas as an individual.


Enter Christmas, with two or three of the guard, attired in round hose, long stockings, a fine doublet, a high-crowned hat, with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarf and garter: tied cross, and his drum beaten before him.

WHY, gentlemen, do you know what you do? ha! would you have kept me out? CHRISTMAS, old Christmas, Christmas of London, and captain Christmas? Pray you, let me be brought before my lord chamberlain, I'll not be answered else: ’Tis merry in hall, when beards wag all: I have seen the time you have wish’d for me, for a merry Christmas; and now you have me, they would not let me in: I must come another time! a good jest, as if I could come more than once a year: Why I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends of the guard. I am old Gregory Christmas still,
and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.

In a court masque of 1638, by Thomas Nabbes, it is said the stage directions assert that Christmas is represented by ‘an old reverend Gentleman’ in a furred gown and cap etc.’

By the eighteenth century, it seems, traditions muddled on much as before, but in the middle of the century, according to William Sandys, Stevenson introduced ‘…Old Christmas talking of the former festivities of the season, of sitting by the fire with a bowl of lamb’s wool; after which some sang carols; the servants went to dancing, and sung one to the tune of Hey,

            Let’s dance and sing, and make good cheer,
            For Christmas comes but once a year. 

So, it would appear from this that the character of Father Christmas as we know him today is beginning to evolve.

In 1774, David Garrick produced A Christmas Tale at Drury Lane, to popular acclaim. Although forgotten once the season was over, it ran for nineteen performances and was a spectacular piece of magic, music and romance.

‘…Mr. Palmer, in the character of Christmas:


Behold a personage well known to fame;
Once lov'd and honour'd - Christmas is my name!
My officers of state my taste display;
Cooks, scullions, pastry-cooks, prepare my way!
Holly and ivy round me honours spread,
And my retinue show I'm not ill-fed.
Minc'd pies by way of belt my breast divide,
And a large carving knife adorns my side;
'Tis no Fop's weapon, 'twill be often drawn;
This turban for my head is collar'd brawn!
Tho' old and white my locks, my cheeks are cherry,
Warm'd by good fires, good cheer, I'm always merry:
With carrol, fiddle, dance and pleasant tale,
Jest, gibe, prank, gambol, mummery and ale,
I, English hearts rejoiced in day of yore;
For new strange modes, imported by the score,
You will not sure turn Christmas out of door!
and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, as
good a Protestant as any in my parish...

In the Georgian era, any gifts given were usually exchanged on Saint Nicholas’ Day, the sixth of December. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors and Russia. The North American tradition of Santa Claus is a corruption of his name and stems from the Dutch custom of giving presents to children on his feast day. However, it is likely that the custom of giving presents on Christmas Day, the Nativity of Christ, has travelled across the Atlantic. The holy demeanour of the bishop became a jolly, fat gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a white beard. In 1809, Washington Irving, in the Knickerbocker’s History of New York, portrayed Saint Nicholas as a portly, jolly chap who drove a wagon through the skies. This was further augmented by Clement C. Moore in 1822, when he wrote the poem which starts, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas…’ This portrayal was of a gentleman with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks with dimples, a red nose, snow-white beard and a round stomach ‘that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.’ As with Saint Nicholas in Holland, he is a supernatural and generous figure, who comes at night down the chimney and leaves gifts for the sleeping children.

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly. It was Thomas Nast who immortalized the modern perception of Father Christmas when he produced an initial illustration, in an issue of the same magazine in 1863. It proved so popular, he created this 1881 image.

Saint Nicholas was born in the fourth century in the then Greek village of Patara, near Lycia (now in Turkey). His parents were wealthy and he was brought up a devout Christian. He devoted his life to God and the needy, using his inheritance to help those suffering sickness or poverty. He became Bishop of Myra and his fame spread, leading to his persecution and imprisonment for his faith. When he died, on 6 December 343, he was buried in the cathedral at Myra. His life inspired great devotion and in 1087, Italian sailors are said to have removed his bones to Bari in southeast Italy to preserve them from the many wars around Myra. A shrine was built over his remains and became a major place of pilgrimage. There is now a magnificent church there. 

Saint Nicholas’ Day became a day of rejoicing and giving, as a celebration of his teachings. Due to his reputation for kindness and giving, many legends evolved through the centuries, of the miracles he performed. Stories are told of his calming storms, saving his people from famine, rescuing those in dire need and saving those wrongfully accused. One story goes that the father of three daughters was too poor to provide dowries for marriage. On three consecutive nights, a bag of gold was thrown through an open window, to land in stockings or shoes drying by the fire and thus save them from shame and slavery. The tradition of hanging up stockings or putting out shoes for gifts comes from this legend. Another story has Saint Nicholas bringing three boys back to life, having been variously murdered by a wicked innkeeper and put in a salting barrel or killed by a butcher to be made into pies.

There are a variety of customs in Europe to celebrate Saint Nicholas’ Day. In some countries he is believed to ride a white horse while spreading his largesse; in others, boys pretending to be bishops beg monies for the ‘poor’. This tradition of feasting and exchanging gifts on this day continues still in many European countries. The sharing of sweets, gifts, riddles and initials made of chocolate takes place on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the Netherlands, and the children fill shoes with carrots and hay for his horse, in the hopes of presents being left in return. It was this tradition of Christmas being primarily a holiday for children which was instrumental in bringing about the switch of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas/Santa Claus and the exchange of gifts from Saint Nicholas’ Day to Christmas Day.

 The Yuletide feast of midwinter among Briton, Norse and Saxon peoples, along with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, among others, were probably influential in this regard as well, since feasting, ceremonies, decorations, symbolic figures and values, spiritual beings and the giving of gifts have long been a part of the winter solstice. It is not too far a stretch of probability to consider the association of Father Christmas with the North Pole, reindeer and snow to have come from Norse or Scandinavian customs in connection with Yuletide. In A Visit from St. Nicholas (’Twas the Night Before Christmas), eight tiny reindeer fly up to the house-top drawing a miniature sleigh. Kris Kringle of Nowegian tradition has a sleigh and reindeer which glide over the house tops in a fantastic manner, this having definite connections with the ancient Norse legend of Odin’s white horse Sleipnir, who was possessed of eight hooves and was the fastest horse in the world.

Supernatural beings have been a part of winter celebrations since pagan times. In many northern countries, demonic creatures such as vampires, witches, ghosts and trolls are thought to be abroad on Christmas Eve, but folklore also allows for the tiny manifestations of goblins, sprites, fairies and elves, so the cheery, green-suited human ushering children into ‘Santa’s Grotto’ is not so very surprising after all.

I will leave you with this lovely word picture of Christmas, courtesy of William Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.

All images public domain, most courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Happy Christmas!

Saturday, 5 November 2016


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Have a great weekend, everyone, and Happy Reading!

Monday, 31 October 2016




On the first of November, known as All Saints Day in the Christian calendar, the lives of the dead are honoured and celebrated by relatives and friends. All Hallows’ Eve is the night before, now better known as Hallowe’en. Hallow (or hallowed) means holy or sacred; ‘Hallowe’en’ is derived from the compression of All Hallows’ Even. It has now been further simplified into Halloween and has done wonders for the pumpkin industry!


The celebration originates more than 2000 years ago, when the Celtic druids occupied Great Britain and some parts of Europe. On the thirty-first of October, they celebrated the last day of the year in the Celtic calendar, a night when witches and warlocks mingled freely with ordinary folk. Now considered the pagan festival of Samhain, the revels associated with that night signified the end of summer and the onset of winter. In many minds, the dank, black chill of the grave and death itself very often had associations with dark and cold winter days.

It was believed that on the night of Samhain, the cloak between the spirit world and the living was but a thin veil, allowing the dead to rise up and come forth from their graves. Huge bonfires were lit to assist the fading sun god and the people would disguise themselves to avoid being recognized. Gradually, witches, vampires, demons, werewolves and fairies were also thought to emerge with the darkness of winter, to join the spirits of the dead in a night of rejoicing.

In order to claw back some semblance of control, All Saints’ Day was created by the Church in 835. Originally held on the thirteenth of May to commemorate all martyrs and saints without a special day, it was moved to November as an exercise in damage limitation and thus Hallowe’en replaced Samhain.

Prior to the late seventeen hundreds, Hallowe’en was considered a night of fear and dread. While malicious spirits, itinerant demons, other supernatural beings and wicked hobgoblins roamed the night, sensible men kept themselves and their families safe by the hearth. In those superstitious times, it was the custom for people wearing strange costumes and masks, known as guisers, to pass from house to house, protecting the occupants by dancing and singing or, alternatively, to represent goblins, ghosts and other spirits of darkness.

By the turn of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, All Hallows’ Eve was becoming a time for jollification for children and over the years, the superstitions surrounding this magical night evolved into lanterns, costumes and games. The now synonymous pumpkin lantern has its origins in a time when offerings of food were made to the spirits of the dead and the American custom of ‘Trick or Treat’ is the masquerade descendant of the guisers’ parade. It survives in other parts of the world, too, as a children’s festival.

A girl might place hazel nuts on a hot grate and giving each the name of a potential husband, recite, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.” In a variant, any cracked nuts indicated those suitors who were fickle.

Other games also have their origins in Hallowe’en rituals. Throwing the complete peel of an apple over a shoulder revealed the initial of a girl’s true love. In Scandinavia, she set her shoes in the form of a ‘T’ on Hallowe’en and recited the words, “Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a ‘T’,” to ensure she dreamed of her future love. (The ‘T’ was a strong talisman representing the hammer of Thor, the god of thunder, agriculture and the home). It was also on All Hallows’ Eve when a girl hoped to see in her mirror a candlelight reflection of her future husband.

A more sombre ritual was that of building a bonfire on a burial mound, since these were thought to be portals to the spirit world. Once it was blazing, the locals held hands and danced around it. Young boys vied to grab burning branches and run across the fields, waving them like torches. Then, when the flames had died down, the lads had a jumping contest over the glowing embers, all the children bobbed for apples and the adults danced until bedtime.

So, on a night of magic when the spirits of the dead awaken and supernatural beings dance to a pagan drum, if you prefer your vampires to be romantic rather than terrifying creatures of darkness, perhaps you would rather curl up with a glass of wine (red, of course) and read the tales of some honourable, eternal, gentlemen.

Vampires Don’t Drink Coffee and Other Stories

Out of the night steps a figure; mysterious and dangerous, sensual and otherworldly. An individual destined to spend eternity alone, forced to hide in the shadows, preying on the innocent to survive and yet nursing a deep need for love. Is this lost and troubled soul predator or protector? Callie is mugged when walking home with her daughter and rescued by a man who is the image of her dead husband. Melissa inherits a house with a vampire living in the basement. Sabrina, a healer at the time of the Civil War, is drained of blood and left for dead by an evil vampire, then saved by his twin. Condemned to death in the seventeenth century for being possessed by a demonic presence, Katalin shocks vicar Christopher when she turns up at his church claiming he is the reincarnation of her long-lost love… With both contemporary and historical settings, this tantalizing collection of stories is a romantic feast, full of humour, passion and love.

A collection of fourteen tales bringing together irresistible heroes and memorable heroines who battle against demons, muggers, lost loves, loneliness and unholy thirst to find their true loves.

© Heather King





Sunday, 30 October 2016

Vampires Don't Drink Coffee...

To celebrate Hallowe'en, I am sharing one of the stories in my Vampire Romance anthology, Vampires Don't Drink Coffee and Other Stories

Blood Transfusion

I expect you consider vampires to be either the stuff of myth or blood-sucking monsters – if you think of them at all, that is. Believe me, they are real – and contrary to popular belief, most just wish to be left alone. Of course there have been occasions when blood-lust and power have turned a vampire evil, but then that can happen with humans too. As is the case with mortals, there are some undead souls who yet belong with the angels – and I mean those of the Heavenly persuasion, not the Fallen.

I know such a vampire. His name is Dimitri Nikolaides and he must surely be descended from the gods of Mount Olympus! Tall and leanly muscled, he is incredibly good-looking, the sculpted planes of his pale, angular face accentuated by his long black hair and vibrant blue eyes. I met him at a fund-raiser for leukaemia, which I had organized following my own life-shattering diagnosis with the disease. The event had helped me to feel that I was fighting back, but one thing is for sure – if I had not met Dimitri that night, I would have died.

My name is Tessa Brandon and I used to be a children’s nurse. I loved my job and I lived life to the full. Being a self-confessed, fun-loving party animal, I had a different boyfriend nearly every week. I told myself variety was the spice of life, but the truth was I had always shied away from commitment because my parents had broken up when I was small. I had never considered any of my relationships to be worth that pain. Then the disease struck. Knowing I was going to die without anyone special to care about me turned the once-colourful palette of my existence to a drab, soulless grey.

It is probable that I contracted the disease through radiation build-up whilst working on the terminal ward. It is a low risk, but nevertheless one of the hazards of the job. At first, when I was diagnosed, I went to pieces. It is one of those things you think is never going to happen to you, then when it does it is utterly devastating, but the dignity and courage displayed by all the wonderful children I had nursed inspired me not to give in and crumble. Hence the fund-raising.

This particular function was a dinner and auction of promises. As organizer I was expected to be there, but I planned to keep a low profile. It was being held in the glittering ballroom of a plush hotel, where floor-to-ceiling mirrors along one wall reflected back scores of candle-effect lights from a dozen chandeliers. Wine-red velvet curtains showcased hundreds of richly dressed socialites.

Diamonds winked in the ears and around the throats of sex-kittens and divas, while gold and platinum adorned the wrists of playboys and magnates. This was no place for catalogue bargains or polyester. The local ‘haves’ were shamelessly displaying their worth, salving their collective consciences by giving generously to the ‘have-nots’. The promises on offer ranged from balloon rides and slaves-for-a-day to a supermarket grab-it and a day-share in a racehorse. Since the tickets cost fifty pounds each, the number of ordinary folk likely to be present was limited, but the object was to make money and lots of it. Those in attendance were, in slang parlance, rolling in it.

I had felt reasonably happy with my appearance when I left the ladies’ rest room. Having been at the hotel all day, to ensure that everything was in place for this multi-faceted jewel in the charity’s money-raising crown, it had seemed ridiculous to go all the way home to my tiny flat just to change. Faced with all the glamour in the ballroom, however, my confidence was rapidly fading, along with my energy.

A stage had been erected at one end of the function hall, in front of a cream-painted wall on which coloured lights could be trained to create special effects appropriate to the event in progress. Tonight, photographic slides were being projected on to the wall to ‘advertise’ each promise. Currently, a super-size black thoroughbred racehorse was in full gallop across a long strip of verdant green turf, a tiny blob of a human clinging like a monkey to its huge back. In the background, the strains of the theme to the television series ‘Black Beauty’, which I used to watch as a child, were playing over the speakers. ‘Galloping Home’ it was called, I remembered, smiling to myself at the lack of originality. Most of the crowd were probably too merry to notice, anyway.

On the stage, the horse’s owner or trainer was talking up the ability of the nag and the races it had already contested. It did seem to have done quite well, but apart from the Grand National, I don’t know one race from another, and I don’t suppose the rest of the moneyed throng did either, so they could have been flogging a real dud for all I knew.

Nevertheless, the bidding was brisk, especially from one corner of the ballroom, where a group of businessmen were egging each other on with noisy enthusiasm. Evidently already three sheets to the wind, they managed to outbid each other – and everyone else interested – to the tune of five thousand pounds. Brian Gibbs, one-time colleague, old friend and tonight’s Master of Ceremonies was nearly apoplectic with delight and almost screamed his encouragement down the microphone. It was a lot of money, but rather cynically, I could not help thinking to myself that if the horse was as good as the owner/trainer had implied, then the red-faced gent in the tight-fitting white dinner jacket who had had the final bid was likely to win an awful lot more than that.

The next lot was the services of a limousine and driver for the day. On the display behind the dais was a picture of a gleaming Lady Penelope-type pink Rolls Royce, whilst on to the stage tottered (I cannot say walked, for her heels were too high) the leggy blonde chauffeuse… in tight baby pink jacket which revealed a quantity of cleavage – no blouse, needless to say – and a matching pink mini skirt which barely covered her… assets. Of course all the men in the room, including the balding, bespectacled auctioneer, were virtually drooling at the mouth. I noticed more than one wife or girlfriend poke an errant ‘other half’ back to a semblance of twenty-first century, rather than Neolithic, behaviour.

Even so, the ballroom was in an uproar as bids flew in from all sides.

“Fifty quid,” shouted one bright spark from the back of the room.

“One hundred,” roared another.

“Gentlemen, please!” entreated Wallis, the auctioneer. “I cannot accept an opening bid of less than five hundred pounds. And please remember that only Miss Pinkerton’s driving skills are being auctioned.”

A loud groan echoed around the room followed by a burst of laughter. I wondered wearily if some of them would stay sober long enough to view all the lots. In spite of evident female disapproval, however, competition was fierce and Miss Pinkerton was finally knocked under the gavel for three thousand, five hundred pounds. I almost laughed out loud when I saw that the winning bid had been made by the diamond necklace and tiara-wearing wife of a local bank manager. I had a strong suspicion that she would be enjoying the services of the chauffeuse while spending large quantities of her husband’s money on a shopping spree. That would teach him, I thought with a certain amount of glee.

It was beginning to feel very stuffy in the crowded hall and as the next lot was introduced, a straightforward balloon ride, I started to think longingly of floating away myself. My attention began to wander and it was then that I caught sight of my reflection in one of the mirrors. I could not help but cringe.

My face was the colour of whey and the cerise lam̩ turban which I had bought from a charity shop to hide my absent ash-blonde curls had clearly been made for someone with a rounder head than I. In the cloakroom mirror, it had seemed content to stay where I put it; in the warmth of the function hall, it had slipped drunkenly sideways. Unfortunately Рor perhaps fortunately, given the way matters turned out Рnone of this seemed to bother Brian.

Two lots later, as proceedings were drawing to a close, he swooped down on me before I had a chance to engineer my escape. Ignoring my wan face and badly-fitting headdress, he dismissed my pathetically garbled veto with a wave of his hand and dragged me up the three steps on to the stage. It was at that moment that I saw Dimitri for the first time.

I suppose I noticed him because he was standing on his own to the other side of the dais, with his attention on the merry gathering rather than the ‘merchandise’ and a glass of red wine instead of the customary champagne in his hand. His gaze held mine and for several seconds I had the oddest sensation we were the only people in the room. Slowly, almost insolently, he then allowed his eyes to travel over the spangled black party frock I had hired for the occasion. He raised an eyebrow and instantly I had a strange notion that he understood how much I hated the limelight. Something new and unheralded uncurled in my stomach and came to life beneath his scrutiny. My lips opened on a breath and my heart beat a rapid tattoo against my ribs.

I began to feel light-headed as Brian pressed me to make a speech. The bright lights of the crystal chandeliers seemed to spin before my eyes. All colours of the rainbow – pink, red, blue, green – swirled around me like a shoal of exotic fish in a turquoise ocean. Oddly, the events which followed seemed to take place in slow motion and yet at the same time, while I remember each moment with perfect clarity, they were over in a flash.

I turned from Dimitri to make my excuses to Brian. Somehow as I turned, I lost my balance in my borrowed heels. My spangled dress had a narrow, figure-hugging skirt and as I took an unwary step to save myself, the fabric snagged around my thigh, blocking my movement. I heard the crowd gasp as I teetered precariously and then made an undignified swan dive off the stage. Before I hit the parquet floor and without apparently moving, Dimitri was there, cradling me…

I fainted into oblivion.

I awoke in a high, narrow hospital bed with monitors bleeping and various wires attaching me to them. Dimitri was gone. Brian and his wife Beryl, my second-in-command, were arguing, sotto voce, in the corner of the soulless private room. It was like a thousand other such rooms in hospitals the length and breadth of the British Isles. Painted a utilitarian and dispiriting grey, there were drab grey-green curtains at the one small window, a hard, similarly-coloured faux leather chair beside the bed and a marginally more comfortable-looking armchair against the opposite wall. On a trolley table at the end of the bed was an ancient television. I tried not to, but could not help listening to the heated conversation.

“You fool!” Beryl was saying. “Couldn’t you see how pale she was? She’s run herself ragged putting this together. Throwing the spotlight on her like that, when you know how much she hates being ‘gawped at’ as she puts it… Well, it might have been the last straw. This might be… the end.”

Her voice lowered to a whisper, but I heard the emotion there. We had been working for months on various fund-raising events and were a good team, complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We had become close friends in the process. I was aware of being weaker than I could ever remember, but it was too much effort to process what that meant. I felt numb. I wondered if this was how it was, at the end, this fog-like calm acceptance. My eyes scanned the unlit corners of the sterile, impersonal room; only dimly did I realize I was seeking the wraith of Death.

A nurse wearing lilac scrubs and a plastic apron came in, her grim expression swiftly changing to a cheery smile when she saw I was awake. As she checked my vital signs, she murmured words of encouragement, but I was not about to be fooled and neither was Beryl. I distinctly heard her sob. I wanted to reassure her that I was ready to go, but my brain would not cooperate. With a sigh I closed my eyes…

The hospital clock showed two a.m. when I next opened them. All was quiet, apart from the bleeps of the equipment and a low humming similar to that a refrigerator makes. A spicy aroma vied with the integral, sanitized antiseptic smell as the atmosphere in the room distinctly cooled. By the door the shadows seemed to shift… I blinked and Dimitri stepped forward to the bed. In the low-wattage overhead light I could see he was wearing navy chinos and a matching silk shirt. A heavy gold ring encircled the middle finger of his left hand. He took hold of mine, a white wisp against his olive-toned strength, and blood rushed to my nerve endings, making them tingle in the manner of feeling returning to a cramped limb.

“Fear not, pethi mou,” he murmured. His voice was deep and soothing, yet stirred my senses. “I can help you. Drink, now.”

My mind fuddled with drugs, I obeyed as he pressed something to my mouth. The liquid was warm and slightly salty, with a metallic taste. I grimaced, turning my head aside to avoid whatever it was he was giving me, but he spoke again – softly, compellingly – and I followed his bidding without another thought.

When I woke the next morning, I believed Dimitri’s visit must have been a dream, a side-effect of all the medication I had been given. However, I astounded everyone – including myself – by sitting up and swallowing some chicken soup for dinner. That night I slept more deeply than in a very long time and I dreamed of him again, though this time my overwrought hormones had his muscular body enhanced by a figure-hugging black T-shirt and black jeans. I woke up short of breath, as if I had been running, my nostrils full of cinnamon and nutmeg and a coppery tang lingering on my lips. Rubbing my rough scalp, I gulped a mouthful of water from the glass by my bed. I had never had such a sensuous and powerful dream. It disturbed me and yet I felt… more alive, more vital, than I had in months.

All week he came and each day I embellished the sweet fantasy, even though I knew that it could not happen. The handsome hero could not save me. Nothing and no-one could save me. Nevertheless, my condition continued to improve dramatically. The doctors were dumbstruck. I was tempted to tell them of my nocturnal visitor, but I knew they would somehow prevent him coming. I did tell my best friend Julie when she came to visit, but with sublime disregard for our long-standing relationship, she leaned back in the armchair, chuckled throatily and blamed the drugs. Being a mature, responsible adult, I threw my pillow at her.

Determined to prove I wasn’t hallucinating, that night I refused the medication the nurse brought me. Of course there was a mighty fuss at this. The ward sister was sent for – a frosty creature in a starched mauve uniform – and she summoned the on-call doctor, who considered me gravely and advised against such a course in a strained, over-worked tone, but finally I convinced them I was adamant. When the furore had eventually died down and I was once more alone, I set my watch alarm for midnight. Dimitri arrived soon after, dressed in charcoal trousers, short-sleeved white shirt and a black leather jacket. His hair, dark as a raven’s wing, flopped sexily over his brow. My hormones sat up and took notice.

“Who are you?” I asked as he soundlessly approached the bed. He seemed to glide across the two-tone grey tile-effect floor. “Some sort of Guardian Angel?!”

He said nothing at first, as if considering. “Once I was a doctor. I help where I can.” His voice was low-pitched and gravelly. It sent shock-waves of sensation to my stomach.

“You made me drink. Made me better.” It was a statement, not a question. “What did you give me?”

“It is best you do not know.”
He turned away, his movement smooth and assured. Suddenly I was afraid I would never see him again.
“Don’t leave. Tell me… Please.”

I climbed from the bed, reaching for him. As I clutched at his arm, my mind at once filled with images: star-filled skies; barren moonlit landscapes; a figure tramping dark, empty streets. I saw his loneliness and felt his sorrow, his need to hold and be held. Was this his life I was seeing? How could that be? I had never before had any kind of spiritual experience. In fact I had always had so much trouble deciding what to buy close friends and family for Christmas, knowing what they were thinking would have been a huge help.

His skin twitched beneath my fingers, as if his body was healing, coming back to life the same as mine was. What a bizarre thought! His brilliant sapphire eyes captured mine; their pupils contracted, the colour intensifying… and I felt oddly as though I were drowning in their depths. Raising my hand, he pressed a kiss to my palm. I trembled deliciously, my lips burning in anticipation under his heated perusal.

Without being aware that I did so, I reached upwards. His lips were cool and sweet, his kiss gentle and coaxing. I pressed closer to his hard, toned body and put my arms around his neck, pulling him down to me; shamelessly seeking more. His tongue sought entry to my mouth as he deepened the kiss. It was glorious and quite unlike any kiss I had ever had in my life. With each stroke against the sensitive skin inside my mouth, a charge of electricity shot to my toes. As I followed his lead, I heard a growl and then something pricked my tongue. I tasted blood – and then I knew what he was, how he had been able to save me. We stood transfixed, breathing heavily. My mind screamed denial, but my soul believed.

I should have been alarmed. Any sane, sensible person would have run from the room as fast as her feet could carry her… although if the myths were to be believed, he could be at the door almost before I had thought to move. However, my heart was soaring, already lost. I watched as Dimitri slowly brought his wrist to his mouth and allowed his fangs to descend. I knew no fear as he bit into the vein, only an all-consuming relief that I no longer fought this thing alone. He offered his bleeding wrist, one eyebrow quirked upwards.

“Will it make me what you are?” My voice was scratchy and infuriatingly weak.

“No. Drink and be well.”

Hesitantly and with a sense of unreality, I took what he offered. Expecting to feel revulsion, I was surprised to find the reverse was true. He tasted of wine and dark chocolate, a heady flavour which I found intoxicating. Desire raged through me like a forest fire. His. Mine. He smelt of spice and a musk which was uniquely him. My body trembled and I felt giddy, as if he had taken my blood.

He wanted me. I wanted him.

Dragging his shirt free of his trousers, I ran my hands feverishly over the smooth flesh of his back without breaking my hold on his vein. His muscles were taut and sculpted, like a centrefold model. With a groan I rubbed against him in the manner of a well-fed cat which has just lapped a saucer of cream.

Gently Dimitri withdrew his wrist. Sealing the wound with a swipe of his tongue, he gave me a kiss which was long, slow and full of promise. Patience, beloved, he spoke to my mind. Not yet. When you are stronger

The fire in my veins abruptly died. Lifting my unresisting body into his arms, he carried me to the bed, where he lowered me to the mattress as if I was a porcelain doll and tenderly tucked me in.

“Sleep,” he whispered, brushing his lips over mine. “You must get well. Then I will make you mine own, sweet beloved.”

I sighed, the mists of slumber already claiming me. I dreamed of exotic lands, beautiful treasures and magical creatures. I dreamed of angels dancing on pink-edged clouds and I dreamed of Dimitri, my very own dark angel, whose touch promised me both heaven and earth.

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© Heather King

Enjoy! Happy Hallowe'en!

Monday, 10 October 2016


The carriage draws up in front of the Country House and the visitor alights. The butler opens the door or doors to admit the new arrivals and the first impression of the interior they receive is within the Entrance Hall.

From the Great Halls of medieval times to the formal grandeur of the Georgian mansions, the role of the hall was to welcome the visitor and at the same time be a flag-bearer for the owner’s social standing. The medieval hall had to be large enough to house the lord’s hearth knights, courts of justice, huge gatherings for feast days and bands of travelling minstrels or players. It also had to be lofty enough for the central hearth to give no fear of setting the roof alight. It is from the medieval Great Hall that so many old houses – such as the Elizabethan Hardwick Hall and Palladian Holkham Hall – are thus titled, rather than House or Castle.

Entrance Hall, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Robert Smythson, completed 1597

Christmas Garland, Entrance Hall, Cotehele
Attribution: Adrian Platt


On a far smaller scale, built in 1709, the Entrance Hall of Hanbury Hall shows a similar style to Hardwick, with the awe-inspiring addition of James Thornhill paintings on the staircase.

Staircase, Hanbuty Hall

The early Great Halls were usually built with two rows of pillars or posts to support the roof, with an aisle down the centre. Over time these evolved into wide span roofs, braced initially by arches and later by hammerbeam, which projected from the wall below a main rafter. There was a dais at one end, for the lord’s table and doors at the other, leading, via a long corridor to the kitchen, and also to the pantry and buttery. These huge rooms were decorated with tapestries, to help retain heat where wealth permitted, and hung with armaments, coats-of-arms and martial trophies.

By the sixteen hundreds, the upper servants had followed the family’s desertion of the great hall and begun to eat in a separate parlour. The 1st Earl of Dorset commissioned the King’s plasterer, Richard Dungan, to create a flat, decorated ceiling below the timbers of the medieval roof at Knowle. Economic need then brought about more compact houses for the gentry, with the kitchen and a servants’ hall hidden ‘below stairs’. Slowly the entrance hall was changing towards a more Continental usage, as a reception room for visitors awaiting an interview. Built in 1692, the Marble Hall at Petworth (seat of the Duke of Somerset) is an example of this, boasting huge mouldings, elaborate door and window surrounds, and a view through several doors to a classical bust on a plinth in the North Gallery. This ‘axial vista’ was a popular feature during the Baroque period and can also be witnessed at Chatsworth House. Of the same timescale as Petworth, the Painted Hall at Chatsworth (also in Derbyshire) was created for the 1st Duke of Devonshire by William Talman. There were originally two flights of curving stairs where today there is just the one, straight staircase, but with the gallery adjoining it, the hall is possibly even more imposing. Scenes from the life of Julius Caesar by Louis Laguerre adorn the walls above the fireplace facing the entrance and an assembly of the gods, by the same artist, appropriately decorates the ceiling.

Kedleston Hall, also in Derbyshire, boasts a Marble Hall designed by Robert Adam on the lines of a Roman atrium, with columns and classical statuary so it resembles an open courtyard.

Marble Hall, Kedleston Hall


Cross-section of the hall and saloon…


…and Kedleston Hall from the outside. You can see the pediment above the domed ceiling of the hall in the picture above.

Attribution: Glen Bowman from Newcastle, England

At Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, an enormous, church-like lantern was erected sixty-seven feet above the hall, its ceiling showing a painting of Marlborough’s battle victory by Sir James Thornhill, completed before he fell foul of the Duchess and was dismissed for suspected sharp practice over his charges. There is a similar, if less grand, arrangement at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, designed by Henry Holland. Nevertheless, the lantern in the Staircase Hall still takes the visitor’s breath away when first they see it.

Staircase Hall, Berrington Hall

Skylight, Staircase Hall, Berrington Hall


Marble Hall, Berrington Hall


At Berrington, the French-influenced Marble Hall leads into the Staircase Hall, as shown by this view through the house.

Through Staircase Hall, Berrington Hall




There are tapestries on the walls, but they date only from 1902. This was a country gentleman’s seat and therefore more modest. Some of the grandest houses of the Georgian era have rococo plaster mouldings in elaborate panels, often in the classical designs of urns, wreaths and garlands. This is a picture of some of the plasterwork at Berrington.

Wall detail, Marble Hall
Berrington Hall


By contrast, this is the entrance hall of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire.

Entrance Hall, Sutton Scarsdale Hall

Originally, the Hall was part of a Saxon estate mentioned in the Domesday Book as belonging to Roger de Poitou. Knighted by Henry VIII, John Leke passed the property to his son Francis, who was created a baronet by James I in 1611. He further advanced to the peerage when made Earl of Scarsdale in 1640 by Charles I. The 4th Earl, Nicholas Leke, commissioned Francis Smith to build a Georgian mansion surrounded by gardens, incorporating some of the existing house. Oak panelling and a mahogany staircase were installed; elaborate plasterwork was designed by Italian Francesco Vassalli, and fireplaces were carved in the style of Adam by brothers Adalberto and Guiseppe Artari. When the Earl died, the Hall was sold in 1740, becoming the property of the Marquis of Ormonde through marriage. In 1824, Richard Arkwright Junior, son of Sir Richard, the inventor of the water frame which revolutionized the cotton industry, acquired the estate. In 1805, Robert Arkwright married Frances Crawford Kemble, not only a member of the celebrated acting family but also the niece of Sarah Siddons.

Sutton Scarsdale House


Engraving of Sutton Scarsdale Hall, c. 1820

Sadly, as is the case with Witley Court in Worcestershire, the Hall is now a picturesque ruin.

Scarsdale House
Attribution: Stephen G Taylor



The Entrance Hall at Witley Court looked like this in 1882. The entrance doors are to the right of the photo.

Entrance Hall, Witley Court 1882



Now it looks like this, but the scale and grandeur of the house are still evident. This shot is also taken towards the grand staircase with the entrance doors behind the camera on the right. The support beams beneath the arches on the right show where the gallery was.

Entrance Hall towards grand staircase


This view shows the Entrance Hall in the other direction and the arched windows of the dining room. A ruin it may be, but Witley Court is an awe-inspiring and inspirational place to visit.

Entrance Hall towards Dining Room
Witley Court



If I have whetted your appetite to visit one of our wonderful stately homes, then I have achieved my aim. The National Trust and English Heritage do a wonderful job of caring for these properties, so if you can, please support them.

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs © Heather King and Public Domain images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.