B & W Sunday ~ Stronghold ~ The Telling Of Family Tales

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Most families tell tales about their origins: legends of high-born connections, of inheritances lost or missed-out on, of forebears famous or notorious somewhere in the family tree. These stories, the ideas of who we are become strongholds of sorts; a defence against times when others make us feel ‘not good enough’, or just plain dull.

I seem to remember when I was eight or nine telling one very competitive school friend, and as a piece of deliberate one-upmanship on my part, that one of my ancestors was a well known poet and buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Mother had told me so.

Indeed, Mother told me lots of family stories about her Derbyshire Fox and Bennett antecedents, and because a) she still had her own childhood interpretation of what her own mother had said, and b) was framing them in a way she thought I would also understand, the ensuing narrative, much like Chinese Whispers, came out more than a little garbled. In other words, our family connection to the poet ancestor is probably so much tosh.

From time to time I have little delving sessions on the internet in a bid to clear up the maternal myths, and last year came across two fellow searchers into the Fox family of Derbyshire’s High Peak. It turned out we were each descended from three siblings William, Robert and Deborah Fox, all born at Callow Farm in the manor of Highlow, in the 1770s. And it’s odd, but I find I treasure this present-day, albeit tenuous blood connection, almost more than anything I might find out about our mutual family past. I mean, well, who would have thought it; without the internet, we never would have found each other.

The Fox siblings’ father, George Fox, came from many generations of farmers. Over the years the family appears to have owned several pieces of land in the parishes of Hathersage, Longshaw, Eyam and Abney (one was a sheep run, others were possibly both farms and lead mine workings), but the Foxes, certainly in recent centuries, were mostly the tenants, first of the Eyres at Highlow Hall (pictured above), and later of the Dukes of Devonshire who came to rule much of Derbyshire from their own dynastic stronghold of Chatsworth.

If the Eyre name rings bells, well it is true (just to add another story thread) that Charlotte Bronte was staying with her friend Ellen Nussey in Hathersage in 1845, around the time she was writing Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall is said to be drawn from another Eyre family stronghold, North Lees Hall. She and Ellen went visiting there. Other local features are also present in the book, including Hathersage itself, which was apparently the model for Morton, the village where Jane Eyre ends up after running away from Edward Rochester.

My Fox ancestors, it seems, were also good storytellers – fact mixed seamlessly with fiction. When Robert Fox’s son, my great, great grandfather George Brayley Fox was forced to sell up his possessions at Callow Farm in 1892, this piece appeared in the Derbyshire Courier:

Derbyshire Courier 25 March 1893

My own feeling about this ancestral yarn is that it was a bit of a face-saving exercise for a family that had indeed been part of the local scene for generations. Some of the details may well be based on some misremembered version of reality. Early medieval charters of the 12th and 13th centuries certainly have Foxes farming in pretty much the same location. Now, I and my two fellow Fox hunters are trying to tease the facts from the myths.

But one thing I do know (because I have the photo), my great grandmother, Mary Ann Fox, rode her pony along the winding lane from Callow Farm. She would have ridden past Highlow Hall on one of her regular missions. Grandmother said she went to Chatsworth Hall to deliver the farm tithe in eggs to the Duke of Devonshire. Here she is c1880s in her late teens, before she was silly enough to run off with a Manchester spindle manufacturer and, at thirty, end up the widow of a bankrupt with three young children and a stepson to support:

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And here is Callow farmhouse, the photo taken by a family researcher in the 1970s. It sits on a hillside below Highlow Hall, and looks down on the River Derwent and the small town of Hathersage. If there is a house of 1391 here, as the newspaper article suggests, then it is very well hidden inside a very much later exterior:

Callow Farm, Hathersage c 1970s

But if I said that these images and family tales have not affected how I see myself, then this would not be true, although it is only recently that I have seen this. For some reason, too, in my later years, these particular maternal ancestors seem to mean more to me.

The thing that speaks most loudly is not so much the gentry connections – real or imagined – but the sense of landscape, of the bleak uplands, the rugged scarps of millstone grit, the arcane, but tough world of lead-mining in which all classes toiled from the Eyres downwards; the fact that men and women worked so hard in this land, lived on oat cakes and homemade butter, cheese and ale, reared often very large families, and (in a surprising number of cases) lived into their eighties and nineties.

Somehow the more I uncover of my ancestors’ world, the more it becomes my stronghold, the mental hinterland wherein I am truly rooted.  I stand up more strongly, look out across those moors with their prehistoric stone circles, and ancient burial cairns, the stone walls, and the sheep fields. The wind is in my face. My gaze broadens and lengthens. It is like standing on top of the world, looking down the endless spiral of time of which I am a part, and forever will be.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Reference: For more about the Peak District

Black & White Sunday: Stronghold  Go here to Paula’s to her and others’ strongholds

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #5

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For the final post in this Hidden Wenlock series I thought I’d show you Ashfield Hall, one of the most impressive houses on the High Street. Yesterday I said how many of the town’s ancient timber-framed buildings had become hidden within later stone exteriors. With this house it was rather different.

The left-hand wing with the arch was built some time between 1396 and 1421 by one William Ashfield, a town resident. The impressive timbered wing was added in the 1550s for Richard Lawley. He and his brother, Thomas, were members of a leading local family, and it was they who, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, bought the Priory and its estate from Henry VIII’s physician, the Venetian, Augustino Augustini.

Augustino seems to have been a slippery type, always short of money. He had been Cardinal Wolsey’s physician before Wolsey lost royal favour. He then became embroiled in the intrigues of King Henry’s ‘fixer’, Thomas Cromwell, who had also been  a Wolsey retainer. One of Augustino’s missions was to go to Germany to lobby support for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The Priory was thus his reward for services rendered. He wasted little time in selling it off, and the Lawleys paid him £1,606 6 shillings  8 pence for it. On the proceeds of the deal he then headed home to Italy.

In the 17th century Ashfield Hall became the Blue Bridge Inn, named after the bridge that crossed the malodorous stream, the town’s open sewer that ran down the main street, and was known for good reason as the ‘Schet Brok’.

Despite the insalubrious quarter, legend has it that King Charles I stayed at the Blue Bridge in 1642, en route for Oxford and the Battle of Edgehill. Thereafter, the place went seriously downhill, and became a lodging for itinerant labourers.

But there are earlier stories than these relating to Ashfield Hall. The High Street used to be called Spital (Hospital) Street, and it is believed that the archway probably gave access to the Hospital of St. John whose existence is first documented in 1267. In 1275 an appeal went out for the Master and Brethren of the hostel “to which lost and naked beggars are frequently admitted for their relief, the house being in great poverty.” Merchants coming to town with grain and other goods to trade were called on to give some assistance. By 1329 the Priory was taking over the premises, although it is not known if they continued to run the charity.

This reminds me, though, of a statistic I read years ago in an economic history of Medieval Europe. It shocked me at the time, but it seems it was the norm pretty much everywhere in the Middle Ages for 20% of the population to be beggars (professional or otherwise) and living off lordly charity. Giving to the poor was apparently an important means by which the rich got over their guilt at being rich, and so gained grace. It was how society worked.

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By the 18th century, we have a different story. Much Wenlock has some of the most comprehensive pre-1834 English Poor Law records still surviving. The dismal picture they paint is more about local bureaucrats trying to save the town from the expense of supporting any more poor than it absolutely has to.  The destitute were mostly women and children. The women, often no more than girls who had been sent off as apprenticed labour and returned, impregnated by their overseers and masters, were subjected to pre-birth, and post-birth bastardy examinations to determine their right to stay in the parish. If churchwardens and overseers found against them, they were subject to removal orders. Pauper children were sent as indentured apprentices to anyone in need of cheap labour. I have a copy of a Much Wenlock churchwardens’ indenture of 1805 which places

Thomas Williams aged eight years or thereabouts, a poor Child of the said Parish ~ Apprentice to James Barker of Madeley Wood, Whitesmith…with him to dwell and serve…until the said Apprentice shall accomplish his full Age of twenty one years ~

In return, James Barker is to train the lad in the business of a whitesmith (tin working), and give him “sufficient (the quantity is unspecified) meat, drink, apparel, lodging, washing and other things necessary and fit for an apprentice.”

It’s a sobering glimpse of life for the powerless and underprivileged. It shows, too, the disparities between rich and poor, the respectable and socially unacceptable in a small, but  largely prosperous town like Much Wenlock.

Which rather brings me back to the Schet Brok, the town’s once infamous open sewer. In fact it was not until Victorian times that the stream was finally enclosed and culverted, and a proper sewerage system installed. These improvements were down to the town’s good physician, Dr William Brookes, he who also masterminded the Wenlock Olympian Games and inspired the modern Olympic  movement.

The brook still causes the town problems, even though (mostly) we can no longer see it. Come heavy storms on Wenlock Edge, and the culvert has been known to cause terrible flooding, the last event being in 2007. But that, as they say, is another story, although I’ll leave you with some pictures courtesy of Much Wenlock’s Flood Action Group. It is a good example of how the doings of the past, hidden though they may be, can be very much with us.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

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5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

Pauline at Memories Are Made of This nominated me to take up this challenge. The idea is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate Anke at Life in Baku. She has been living and working in the capital of Azebaijan since 2012. Her blog is an on-going quest to reveal in words and photos, places and people, their ways of life. Join her on this fascinating journey. 

P.S. To those who are taking up my challenges, I gather from Jo at Restless Jo (who is also doing it this week) that it should be ONE photo. Oh well.

Hidden Wenlock #1

Hidden Wenlock #2

Hidden Wenlock #3

Hidden Wenlock #4

 

Reference: W F Mumford Wenlock in the Middle Ages

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #4

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As I’ve been writing these pieces about the less obviously seen quarters of my home town, I’ve been aware that there is a danger of casting all in a glow of antique glamour.

It’s true that these days Much Wenlock is a very attractive place to visit. For a small town, the range of architecture (representing as it does a thousand years of continuous human habitation), is fascinating. There are grand medieval mansions, and  small stone cottages, and many quirky vernacular details. The magnificent timbered Guild Hall glimpsed below, and dating from 1540, is still the town’s council chamber, and with seats that feel like the rock of ages to those of us who have sat through many a council meeting.

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But this is all very well. For centuries, life for the labouring people of Wenlock must have been pretty grim, and one of the grimmest places to work must surely have been in the town’s many quarries, known locally as ‘the Rocks’, which I think says it all.

I’ve explained elsewhere how the town sits beneath the twenty-mile limestone scarp of Wenlock Edge, an up-thrust fossilised, tropical seabed. I’ve written, too, of how the limestone has been exploited for centuries, and at least since Roman times. Milburga’s Saxon monastery, parts of which survive beneath the parish church, was built of local stone, as was the grand Norman priory that superseded it. Later, after the Dissolution, much of the stone was re-purposed in many of the town’s buildings, and often used to clad earlier  timber-framed buildings. So it is that many of the town’s oldest surviving dwellings, including a medieval hall or two, are quite hidden from view behind much later stone facades.

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Other key uses for the quarried limestone were as a flux in the growing iron industry (i.e. from at least the late 17th century) and for lime burning to make fertiliser and building mortar.

For centuries quarrying would have been a manual task with heavy hammers, rammer bars, stone rakes and barrows as the quarrymen’s main tools. The use of black powder explosives, and then gelignite for blasting, was a much more recent practice, and not without its own serious hazards.

Lime-burners also had their kilns near the quarries, but operations were seasonal, and lime-burners did not appear to make much of a living despite the demand for their products.

The quarry featured in this post is Shadwell or Shady Well Quarry. It lies directly behind Windmill Hill, and is the nearest one to our house.

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Workings here seem to have begun only in 1849 when Francis and John Yates of Ironbridge took a 14-year lease of a new quarry in Windmill Hill field, later called Shadwell Rock. They expected to dig 9,000 tons a year ( Glyn Williams Much Wenlock’s Limestone Quarries). In the 1860s the arrival of the railway plus the provision of a dedicated siding, saw Shadwell develop into an industrial operation. The South Wales & Cannock Chase Coal & Coke Company took over the lease, and in 1873 despatched 22,500 tons of iron fluxing stone to the Black Country in England’s industrial Midlands.

The quarry continued to be worked until 1996. Since then it has been left amid growing desolation. A few years ago there were plans to open a diving school with fifty cabins in the woods below the windmiill, but nothing came of it. The water has a strange blue-green hue which makes me think of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. The pool is said to be over 70 feet deep and, from time to time, daft young men who have had too much cider, film themselves diving off one of the cliffs. There have been a few near misses survival-wise.

But at least some life forms have been making good use of the cliff faces. Since the blasting stopped peregrine falcons have begun to nest here. The same is apparently true for the other abandoned quarries along the Edge. There are ravens there too, although not yet at Shadwell. Perhaps they will come. It’s a pleasing thought: a case of positive re-purposing.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Related:

Sun setting over Wenlock Edge: Or did the earth move?

Old stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea

 

5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

Pauline at Memories Are Made of This nominated me to take up this challenge. The idea is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate Hanne T Fisker. She takes stunning photographs. Her blog is called Simplicity of Being, but her compositions brim with textural drama, and the light-and-shade complexities of the natural world. Please take a look at her work.

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #3

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Saint Milburga’s Well is my choice for Day 3 of Hidden Wenlock. (Again thanks to Pauline at Memories Are Made Of This.)  It can be found just off Barrow Street, not far from the back gate to The Abbey which featured yesterday.

There are many strange myths associated with this particular saint, and her affinity with wells and springs: remnant (or not so remnant) pagan beliefs interwoven with notions of Christian miracles. But first some facts.

St. Milburga was a Saxon princess, daughter of the Mercian King, Merewalh, who held sway over much of the English Midlands during the 7th century.  These were turbulent times – the spread of Christianity going hand in hand with securing territory. And Merewalh was a man with a plan. Instead of arranging dynastic marriages for his three daughters, he made them rulers of new religious houses across his kingdom. In this way Merewalh consolidated spiritual and political prestige, commanding both bodies and souls.

According to Milburga’s contemporary, the historian Saint Bede, she was educated for her religious life at the monastery of Chelles in Paris. Then around 690 AD she returned to England and took charge of an abbey in Much Wenlock. It was a community of both monks and nuns, although they worshipped separately. There Milburga presided for the next thirty seven years, ministering to the people of her extensive domain lands.

As I said, there are hosts of legends about her, her healing powers and her ability to strike springs from the ground, and bring winter-sown barley from seed to harvest in the course of one day. There are also tales of her fierce resistance to male suitors, and rivers rising up to thwart her pursuers. After her bones were rediscovered in 1101, the cult of Milburga continued to grow over succeeding centuries. It was said, among much else, that she brought several people back from the dead.

The water from her well was also supposed to have very special powers, curing even blindness. Something of this belief persisted into the last century. Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, chatelaine of The Abbey until 1935, relates a conversation with a Wenlock girl, Fanny Milner. Her granny had sent her to fetch some water from the well  so she would be able to read her Sunday scripture, “glasses or no glasses”. This is what Fanny tells Lady Catherine:

“It be blessed water, grandam says, and was washed in by a saint – and when saints meddle with water, they makes, grandam says, a better job of it than any doctor, let him be fit to burst with learning.”

 

Lady Catherine also relates how the well  had once been long associated with rather less sacred pursuits:

It is said that at Much Wenlock on “Holy Thursday”, high revels were held formerly at St. Milburgha’s Well; that the young men after service in church bore green branches round the town, and that they stopped at last before St. Milburgha’s Well. There, it is alleged, the maidens threw in crooked pins and “wished” for sweethearts. Round the well, young men drank toasts in beer brewed from water collected from the church roof, while the women sipped sugar and water, and ate cakes. After many songs and much merriment, the day ended with games such as “Pop the Green Man down”, “Sally Water”, and “The Bull in the Ring”, which games were followed by country dances such as “The Merry Millers of Ludlow”, “John, come and kiss me”, “Tom Tizler”, “Put your smock o’ Monday”…

Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring in a Shropshire Abbey

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These days it is hard to imagine this gloomy and mysterious well being the focus of so much racy celebration. The well’s spring has anyway been capped, so there is no longer any holy water inside. But it might be nice to throw it a good party and wake it up, though I’m not sure about beer brewed from church roof water. Mm. Essence of mossy slates and lead guttering at the very least.

Now here’s a photo of the church in question. It stands on its green in the heart of the town. It was originally part of the Priory, and is said to be on the site of Milburga’s nuns’ church. If you look hard, you will see the plastic owl on the tower parapet. It’s there to discourage the pigeons, although I’m not sure if it works. From what I have seen of them on my allotment, Wenlock’s wily pigeons would know a plastic owl when they saw one.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

The idea of this challenge is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate Janet Weight Reed at My Life As An Artist. For one thing she is a magical water colourist. For another, she is so very generous with her artist’s knowledge and techniques. One of her specialities is humming birds. Go and see. Believe me, they will fly out of your screen.

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #2

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Day 2 of the 5 Photos 5 Stories challenge (thank you Pauline at Memories Are Made Of This), finds me scrambling around at the back of the town graveyard, trying to sneak this photo of Prior’s House. It adjoins the Priory ruins (see 5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1)  and peeking over the parish church wall is the only place you can get a good view without being an invited guest. Most of the town’s visitors never see this particular vista.  The house, long known as The Abbey, is privately owned, and has been since 1540, and Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Below is the view of the house that visitors to the Priory see. It originally included an infirmary, and so wasn’t solely the Prior’s domain. However, the place would have seen many high times with minstrels, feasting and much medieval jollification. The monks also liked a spot of hunting, and a few other unseemly pursuits, which I’ll get to shortly.

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In its time the Prior’s Lodging  hosted some extremely august guests – none higher temporally speaking, than the King of England. From 1231-45  Henry III made several visits, doubtless accompanied by his entire court, from guards to grooms, cooks, courtiers and blacksmiths. He also kept his wine store there, and with a royal  keeper specially appointed to take care of it.  For one particular visit the Sheriff of Shropshire was instructed to order four barrels up from Bristol.

Today the grandeur of the Prior’s lodgings merely hints at the former wealth  and prestige of Wenlock Priory. From Norman times on it was in fact an income generating corporation, from which the King, the Sheriff of Shropshire, and the Pope also took their share. The Priors dished out justice to the town, and imposed extortionate taxes on  widows, heirs and beer. The religious house also controlled the extensive lands once owned by the Saxon princess Milburga, later Saint Milburga who was abbess of the first convent on the site in the late 600s AD.

During the monastic period the monks’ possessions included farms, mills, quarries, iron foundries and coal mines. There were manorial rents to rake in, fines to impose, markets to run and a major pilgrim attraction to publicise. The monks even dabbled in some deliberately criminal money making. In 14 17, the outlaw Sir John Oldcastle brought a master forger to Wenlock to teach the monks how to make counterfeit coinage. Worse still, back in 1272, some of the monks had also attempted to murder their Prior. It seems they were angry when his slippery financial deals threatened their good life. He had not only put the Priory in debt, but then sold the future wool crop (seven years’ worth), keeping the money for himself.

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Ornately carved lavebo where the monks washed before going to eat in the refectory, circa 1180

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By 1521 things were in such a bad way that Cardinal Wolsey sent in his man, Dr. John Allen, to interview, in confidence, each and every monk. This resulted in a long list of Injunctions (orders) and Exhortations (recommendations) for more godly behaviour. These included strictures that monks should not take boys to the dormitory, carry arms or form cliques and conspiracies, gamble, have dealings with women, have private possessions or hunt. Women were expelled from the cloister and hunting dogs from the hall. The Prior was especially instructed not to ‘indulge in luxurious and extravagant living with a large household.’

Less than 20 years later, the Priory was stripped of its lead roofs and left to decay. Henry VIII’s act of dissolution in fact had interesting outcomes quite apart from the religious revolution that hit the nation. It not only released monastic wealth in terms of jewels and silver, but freed up many capital assets that would then be seized on by merchants with an eye to industrial development.

In the first instance, Henry gave Wenlock Priory and its lands to his physician, but he in turn quickly set about selling it off, parcel by parcel. So we see the arrival in Shropshire of men like John Weld, a canny London wheeler-dealer, who began to develop the monastic coal pits, and experiment in soap making. Others like him took over the ironworks, and began experimenting in iron and steel production.

It was an unintended consequence perhaps, but courtesy of the monastic enterprises, there was a skilled local workforce to hand, and in all manner of trades. Not only that, the nearby River Severn (also utilised for centuries by the monks) presented an established transport route to Bristol and beyond. There was no having to lug commodities over treacherous roads either: a system of wooden railways linking mines and foundries to the river was soon in place, and all before the 17th century was done.  Industrial Revolution here we come.

And so if anyone wonders why, in the early 18th century, the likes of the great ironmasters, John Wilkinson and Abraham Darby, came to this seeming Shropshire backwater to develop their technologies – this is why. Resources, long established industries, labour know-how, and a navigable river. They were men with plans, and a vision of an industrialised nation. It’s an interesting thought, as one wanders around the ruined Wenlock Priory, a monument to picturesque decay, how one thing leads to another.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

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5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

The idea of this challenge is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate  Robin at Northumbrian : Light. Robin takes stunning photos and tells a good yarn. If you haven’t seen this blog, go there at once.

 

 

Related:

Past and Present in the Ironbridge Gorge

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1

 

References:

A history of Much Wenlock  Vivien Bellamy

Wenlock in the Middle Ages  W F Mumford

5 photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1

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Pauline at Memories are made of this tagged me for this challenge: a photo and a story for five consecutive days. On her blog she took us to some of the world’s most resonant places, including the Taj Mahal, so please do visit her.

I thought I’d stay at home for five days, and reveal some local secrets. In fact in this first photo I want to show you something you cannot see at all. I’ll call it a ghost -more of which in a moment.

The things you can see are the ruins of Wenlock Priory. Before Henry VIII dissolved it in 1540, it was one of the biggest monastic houses in Europe, and a sister house to the abbey of Cluny in France. The monks in Wenlock would thus have all spoken French as well as Latin. I suppose they must have had some resident interpreter to manage all the Shropshire serfs who would have been needed to tend the Prior’s extensive domain.

The Priory itself was a place of great pilgrimage, which in turn caused the small town of Much Wenlock, with its hostelries and traders, to grow up around it. Two of the towns surviving pubs, The George and Dragon and The Talbot  date from these pilgrim days. The big draw was St. Milburga and her healing miracles. She was the Saxon princess who was abbess of the town’s first religious house back in the 7th century. When her four hundred year old bones were conveniently rediscovered in 1101, they were said to glow, and smell sweetly as saints’ bones were wont to do.

Much Wenlock, then, has a long-established pedigree on the odour of sanctity front.

But now for that ghost – more a spirit of place really.  And it belongs to writer Henry James. In the days when the Priory comprised the personal ruins of the Milnes Gaskells who lived next door in the Prior’s House, Henry James was one of their many eminent house guests. In fact he came three times. There is more about his visit  in an earlier post  When Henry James Came To Wenlock, but first a postcard view of how the ruins might have looked back in his day, in the late 1870s:

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And now you have the setting, both past and present, you can conjure Mr. Henry James from his own words. As I have said elsewhere, during one of his times here he was apparently working on his own ghost story The Turn of the Screw: Here is his description of the Priory, these days in the care of English Heritage:

Adjoining the house is a beautiful ruin, part of the walls and windows and bases of the piers of the magnificent church administered by the predecessor of your host, the abbot. These relics are very desultory, but they are still abundant and testify to the great scale and the stately beauty of the abbey. You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment and measure the great girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is in that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and so elaborate a work of art should have arisen.

Henry James Portraits of Places

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And now for more about the challenge. The idea is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate  Nurul at My Lens and Universe. Nurul is not only a world traveller, but a great writer and photographer too. There are multiple treats in store over at her blog, so please go and see.

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Related posts:

In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls

When Henry James Came To Wenlock

#5photos5stories

Clouds over Kenya

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This probably is not the kind of scene most people associate with Africa. It looks more like a stretch of bleak English moorland in December. Anyway Kenya it is, and it was taken one August in a Maasai group ranch conservancy, bordering the Maasai Mara National Park.

May to September is East Africa’s winter, and the skies are often overcast and leaden. The nights, and even the days can be chilly. Kenya, anyway, covers many of the world’s climatic zones either horizontally or vertically – from the hot and arid Northern District, bordering Ethiopia and Somalia, to the alpine heights of Mount Kenya with its glacial peaks. There are also the airy, and rarely too hot, highland plains around Nairobi, and the steamy humidity of the Mombasa coastal strip to the south.

Much of the nation’s weather is determined by the cycle of Indian Ocean monsoon winds. These, unless disrupted by El Nino effects, bring two seasons of rain – the long rains in March to May, and the short rains in November-December. In between, many areas receive little or no rain. Western Kenya, however, receives more regular rainfall courtesy of Lake Victoria Nyanza which makes its own weather.  Meanwhile in the fertile Central Highlands above Nairobi, altitude and forest combine to make June and July the season of heavy mists. It’s all a bit dreary, but the mist does have its uses – for instance, ripening the maize crops for the August harvest.

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Smallholder farms and July mists in the Kikuyu highlands, north of Nairobi

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In the late 1990s Team Farrell was often out and about in the Kikuyu highlands, visiting smallholder farms. And the reason we were doing this in the fog season was because the Team Leader, aka Graham, was – besides running an agricultural crop protection project on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government – gathering data for his doctoral thesis on smut. If you want to know more about our smut forays (of the plant variety that is) your can find out more HERE.

Rift lane after July downpour

Rural road after an unseasonal July downpour. Poor communications embed poverty, making it hard for farmers to get produce to market before it spoils.

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Lowering skies over Limuru’s tea gardens with tea pickers’ housing.

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Kikuyu farmstead 1

Kikuyu farmhouse.

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Wintery fields in Muranga where the Del Monte pineapples grow.

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And just sometimes, even on the gloomiest Kenyan winter’s day, the sun breaks through the clouds:

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Jennifer Nichole Wells OWPC: cloudy     Go here for more bloggers’ cloudy offerings.

Seeking Spring ~ A Walk on Wenlock’s Wild Side

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I knew there was only a small window of opportunity. At nine thirty yesterday morning there was sunshine. Go out there at once, I told myself. The way the weather is these days, it might be the last you see of it. Carpe diem and all that.

So seized it I did, and it was certainly warmer to the touch than it has been for many days, and as you can see from the above photo, the ancient, and thus arboreally wise lime trees on the Linden Walk definitely think it is spring.  Drifts of green. Blissful.

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The dog walkers, too, were out en masse, owners chatting amiably on the Linden Field quite as if it were – well, spring. And despite Thursday’s appalling election results (Scots Nationalists excepted) and the return of a government that treats food banks as something to be proud of, and regards the nation as a resource for unbounded fracking, everyone I met seemed pretty cheerful. I will thus make no further mention of Tory attrition and spoil the moment.

The little green building you can see in the background behind the dog walkers is Much Wenlock’s Bowling Club HQ. It occupies a re-cycled railway carriage, a relic from our erstwhile lovely railway that once ran beside the Linden Walk and, until the 1960s, when the wretched Dr. Beeching axed thousands of miles of Britain’s railways, linked Much Wenlock to the outside world. But enough! Too much negativity already.

I headed off behind the Bowling Green to see what was growing on Windmill Hill. This quest was motivated by Meg at Snippetsandsnaps. In response to an earlier post here, she said she would like to see more of what happens on the old limestone pasture on which the windmill stands. I’d mentioned the wild orchids for one thing, so I thought  (given our erratic climate) I’d better go and check if they were flowering yet.

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They weren’t. Still too early. But the first thing I spotted were the cowslips, also known in Olde Shropshire as cowslops. The richly eggy coloured clumps were growing here and there. In the past they would have grown in yellow meadowsful all around Much Wenlock. I even remember them. When I was a child, my parents would make a point of driving out from Shrewsbury where we lived, simply to visit them. We’d have picnics amongst them.

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Once, too, cowslips were an important resource. In the days before modern farming methods seriously reduced their habitat, Wenlock’s school children would absent themselves from class at the National School in order to help with the annual gathering. The flowers were used to make herbal infusions to combat coughs and bronchitis, and in a town regularly doused in limestone dust from the quarries, bad chests would have been a common problem.

Doubtless, too, the town’s doctor, William Penny Brookes, (he who inspired the modern Olympics and planted the avenue of lime trees that we have just walked along), supported such an activity. He practised for the last fifty years of the 19th century and, as well as being a physician, he was also a highly knowledgeable herbalist, having trained both in medicine in London and herbalism at the renowned University of Padua.

And this was by no means quackery in action as some are wont to call herbal medicine. After all, from where does Big Pharma get so many of its notions if  not from trying to concoct synthetic (patentable) analogues of the deemed active chemicals teased from botanical compounds? All of which is to say, we lose our plant heritage at great cost to our future well being, to say nothing of the planet’s well being.

Besides which, flowers can mean fun and festivities. Cowslips were also used to make wine, and to strew the paths of spring brides. Mm. Just think of the air filled with their subtle, sunny scent in times when May was WARM.

And talking of warmth and nuptial pursuits, the next thing I came across while snapping cowslips, was a pair of mating molluscs, also known Cepaea nemoralis (Linnaeus, 1758), Britain’s commonest snails. Spring has certainly made this pair frisky, but I will spare you the more intimate shots, and leave you with their rather pleasing  Northamptonshire dialect name of pooties. Canoodling pooties then.

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Windmill Hill has more than its open, calcareous pasture. There are wooded flanks to the north and south and here, beneath the trees, I found violets and celandines. You can also see leaves of tiny wild strawberry plants (north of violets), germander speedwell (northeast of the celandine), and sprigs of Dog’s Mercury at the bottom of the shot.

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And coming up is Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis  perennis  or Boggard Posy) in full flush. This unremarkable looking plant is a member of the spurge family and very toxic, a fact reported in a letter from Shropshire in 1693 and published that year in the Philosophical Transactions of the  Royal Society, 203 VIII. The letter gave a detailed account of how one  Mrs. Matthews had gathered, boiled and then fried the herb with bacon for her family’s supper. Two hours later there was much purging and vomiting followed by heavy sleeping. Sadly one of her children died after remaining unconscious for several days. Mr. Matthews, however, reported going to work the next day three hours late, but feeling as if “his Chin had bin all Day in the Fire.” He had therefore been forced keep his hat at his side as he worked, filled with water, so he could keep dipping his chin in it.

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This next plant, Arum maculatum,  also has toxic characteristics. And it has a host of intriguing country names, some of them certainly alluding to what William Shakespeare referred to in Hamlet as ‘country matters’. For instance we have Lords-and-ladies, Ladies and Gentlemen (Shropshire version), Devils and Angels, Willy Lily, Cows and bulls, Red-hot-poker. Then there are the more curious Jack in the Pulpit, Cuckoo-pint, Fairy Lamps and Shiners. Its hooded sheaths (spathes) do glow in a faintly sinister, not to say priapic fashion in the shadiest spots. When done flowering, and presumably duly fertilised, the sheath collapses in a disturbing manner. In the autumn, though, there are spires of fire-red berries that light up gloomy days.

As to usage, in the times when people still wore lacy ruffs, the arum roots were crushed to make starch, although the processing apparently gave the launderers nasty blisters on their hands. It presumably did not do much for the ruff-wearers’ necks and faces either. So yes, it’s also good to remember the toxic properties of plants along with their more healthful aspects.

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And now for something seriously edible, if you like garlic and onions, that is. The Wild Garlic or Ransoms (Allium ursinum) grows in profusion at the foot of Windmill Hill, and especially along the banks of the old railway line. Those who don’t care for the smell will appreciate its vernacular names of Stink Bombs and Stinking Nanny.

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But you can certainly cook, or add to salads, both the leaves and the flowers, and their flavour is not as strong as the smell suggests. Excellent wilted in olive oil with pasta, for instance, or in soups – cream of potato and wild garlic say.

This wild garlic photo was taken while the sun was still shining, and as I said at the start, I knew it wasn’t going to last. Even if I hadn’t read the Friday forecast of rain by noon, followed by more rain all day, the green woodpeckers would have warned me. As I headed down the hill and along the old railway line their cries, known as yaffling, dogged my footsteps. It’s interesting how this member of the woodpecker family likes to alert everyone to a coming downpour. In Africa it is the red-chested cuckoo that performs reliable rainbird duty.

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Those yafflers were dead right too. As I turned for home, the sky was leaden, and the first drifts of rain were falling through the trees. Bye bye sun!  But then the old railway line is a good place to be whatever the weather. It is one of the town’s most popular footpaths, and it is hard to imagine that along it the Great Western steam engines once came rattling into Wenlock – the Olympic special bringing thousands of spectators to the annual Wenlock Olympian Games on the next-door Linden Field; goods trains from South Wales coming to collect limestone from Shadwell Quarry behind Windmill Hill. These days, then, there a trees as well as leaves on the line (NB for those living outside the UK,  ‘leaves on the line’ has long been the old British Rail’s excuse for non-arriving trains.)

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few more shots of botanical specimens discovered round Windmill Hill and along the railway line. Clearly the natural world is busy cracking on – full of vim and vigour – even as I shiver in the cold wind, and hang on to my much layered clothing. That’s good to know though – that nature will out, even if, as time goes on, it may not quite do what we expect.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Reference: Richard Mabey Flora Britannica

Forces of Nature

This post was also inspired by Jo’s Monday Walk at restlessjo, a great venue for walkers, whether in body, mind or spirit.

 

Lions before the storm

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Before the storm we fall in with lion –

six scions out from the pride.

Unmaned, cub-spotted, they slump amongst thorns,

smug in their big-cat skins.

They know we’re here.

So now we’re adrift on the storm’s swell:

coming like lambs to lay down with lions?

Caught in their lure we listen to their breathing;

the rise and fall of soft flanks.

Our breath marks time.

Waiting – till a drift of rainfall stirs them.

Watching – till they they rise to make their kill.

 

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Jennifer Nichole Wells: OWPC Storm

Is it really spring?

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Here at Sheinton Street we are wondering if spring has  come. Certainly it looks like spring. We have had daffodils, crocus and cherry blossom, and now the crab apple tree is blooming. But this is not spring as we know it. For one thing the winds have been icy, and unrelenting day after day.  For another we completely missed out on April showers, and when they finally came on Saturday night, they came all at once and pounded away what blossom was left on the damson tree. I’ll be surprised if  the Shropshire Prune has any fruit this year. Out in the very wet garden on Sunday morning the tulips looked positively shivery. Dishevelled too.

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Definitely brrrr all round. There’s an old English saying that advises, ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May is out,’ and I can tell you there will be no clout casting in this house – probably not till July.  Time to stoke up the wood burning stove, and see how the baked spuds are cooking.

 

Happy May, Everyone, Whatever Your Season