Hafren, Sabrina, Severn ~ Please Meet Our Local Goddess Plus A Tale Of Madcap Daring

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She is most usually known by the Roman version of her name: Sabrina goddess of the River Severn. I told her story in the previous post, but thought this close up view fitted the bill for Paula’s ‘pick a word’ at this week’s Thursday’s Special. The five prompts are: confined, jazzy, patulous, momentous and serene. So I’m going for the first and  last – Sabrina serene but confined to her plinth in a pool in Shrewbury’s Dingle.

It also seems she is confined in other ways too.

The statue was the work of Birmingham sculptor Peter Hollins (1800-1886), and made for Shropshire worthy, the Earl of Bradford in 1846. I thought she was carved from stone, but a little googling reveals that the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association National Recording Project ( who knew of such a body?) thinks she may be cast in some sort of metal and then covered with plaster. They also say she is afflicted with a biological growth – so that has ‘patulous’ covered too, though they don’t say what it is. I’m wondering if it’s responsible for the vaguely luminous areas. Poor nymph.

The scarcely legible quotation underneath her comes  from John Milton’s Comus , a mask in which  Sabrina is one of the main characters. This  work also has Shropshire connections having had its premier showing at Ludlow Castle in 1634, presented before another worthy,  ‘the Earl of Bridgewater, then President of Wales.’

Sabrina fair,
listen where thou art sitting
under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
in twisted braids of lilies knitting
the loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
listen for dear honour’s sake,
goddess of the silver lake,
listen and save.

And if you find these words far too gluey and overwrought, then here’s an edgier Sabrina yarn, though I must warn you – it does not end well. It was the Public Monuments entry that put me on to it. It begins with a church spire – specifically the one atop St Mary’s Church in Shrewsbury and also one of the tallest spires in England.  This church has graced the town’s skyline for over 500 years, although parts of it are far older than this, dating back to Saxon times c AD 960. Also some of its stones were apparently cut by Roman masons, and carted in from the abandoned Roman city of Wroxeter some miles away.

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I think you might call the spire momentous – even before we get to what happens next.  It is over 200 feet tall.

Enter one Robert Cadman, steeplejack and mender of weather cocks. It is the winter of 1739, time of the Great Frost, and Cadman has been employed to put right St. Mary’s weather cock that has been blown askew. He duly does the job, but he has further plans for the church spire. For Robert Cadman is also a stuntman and, for his daring descent from the cupola of London’s St Paul’s cathedral, blowing a trumpet while sliding down a rope,  he has already earned the nickname ‘Icarus of the Rope’.

He has handbills printed and spread about the town:

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The History and Antiquities of Shrewsbury From Its First Foundation to the Present Time, Comprising a Recital of Occurrences and Remarkable Events, for Above Twelve Hundred Years, Volume 1, 1837

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The River Severn is frozen solid, and so the Great Frost becomes an occasion for fun and festivities. An engraving of the time shows  skaters and people playing table tennis out on the frozen river; there are tents; there are sheep being roasted; several of the great Severn trow sailing barges are ice-bound; there’s even a printing press out there too. All in all, then, Sabrina is providing the perfect arena for the spectacle Cadman has planned.

He attaches an 800 foot rope (240 metres) through a window on St. Mary’s spire. The other end is anchored across the river at Gay Meadow – (well out of shot on the right of the next photo). The show begins with Cadman’s walk up the rope towards the spire:

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His usual act is to ascend bare-chested, performing all kinds of stunts as he goes. When he performed in Derby this walk took around an hour. The return descent, or flight as it was termed then (since there was apparently quite a yen for this kind of flying  in the early 18th century), would be swift. For this part of the act our intrepid performer puts on a wooden breastplate which has a groove cut down the middle. He then lies on the rope and hurtles down, headfirst, blowing a trumpet, and accompanied by a stream of smoke as his breastplate burns with the friction of the rope. Whew!

But on this day, when Cadman reaches the spire, he decides the rope is too tight and signals across the river for it to be loosened. There is a misunderstanding. The rope is tightened, and half-way down, the rope snaps – whipping up in horrible coils as Cadman hits the iron-hard ground, his body apparently rebounding several feet in the air. Accounts have it that Cadman’s wife, who has been moving among the crowd of spectators collecting money, runs stricken to his corpse, throwing away the money as she goes.

Robert Cadman was buried at the foot of the spire and the sorry tale is commemorated in a plaque by the main door of St Mary’s church:

Let this small Monument record the name
of Cadman, and to future time proclaim
How by’n attempt to fly from this high spire
across the Sabrine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. ‘Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell,
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Harried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night
Feb.ry 2nd 1739 aged 28

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And now just to restore some sense of serenity, here are some shots of St. Mary’s interior. The church is now redundant, but it does have a very good cafe. It also contains some wonderfully ancient stained glass windows. The final image of the set is the Jesse window above the altar and dates from between 1330 and 1350.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

36 thoughts on “Hafren, Sabrina, Severn ~ Please Meet Our Local Goddess Plus A Tale Of Madcap Daring

  1. Super stories! And you have pipped me to the post yet again with your Jesse window! I finally made it into St Mary’s last September, on previous attempts the church has always been closed!

      1. Don’t worry, I am some Shrewsbury posts in mind for the future. Once I get my laptop back as typing on a Surface keyboard is not fun and the damn thing keeps zooming in all the time which annoys me!

  2. I was convinced that the sculpture was made of stone too. Outstanding work, Tish. The images make me scroll down and up again over and over. The cathedral is equally enchanting from outside and inside. You did four out of five words. I am really impressed and grateful. xx

  3. What a post! What tales! What glorious church and window photos! Almost too rich a feast for early Sunday morning. I must confess to a liking for the lines from “Comus” despite “gluey overwroughtness!

  4. A sad tale indeed, but fascinating. Having crossed the River Severn many times, I love learning about its incredible history. I also appreciate the fact that you name the artist of the sculpture…so often neglected. Wonderful photographs…thanks…janet 🙂

  5. That is storytelling at its best, Tish! I could smell the lamb roasting and sense the crowds collectively holding their breath…and feel the tragic at the end. Great pictures too!

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