These photos were taken during our blustery stay on Anglesey, North Wales, back in early January. The hawthorn tree in the farm hedge has been sculpted and stunted by the prevailing sea gales over decades. In its dormant state it is now so rigid a structure that the winter blasts have little apparent effect. By contrast, the grasses were bowing flat in the bed outside the converted chapel where we were staying. One knew how they felt.
Month: February 2022
Rocks, boulders, Stiperstones
Shropshire’s mysterious Stiperstones featured in a recent Square Odds post. Here are more shots in monochrome, plus a few facts for geology lovers.
The grey-white rock of the ridge is quartzose sandstone known as the Stiperstones Quartzite Formation, created some 480 million years ago in the Ordovician era.
The tors and the rubble-like surroundings we see today are the work of more recent events in the last Ice Age (c. 115,000 – c. 11,700 years ago). During this time, the eastern edge of the Welsh ice sheet was nudged up against the Stiperstones, not covering it, but causing the quartzite to fracture during periods of intense freezing followed by thawing.
The highest point (Manstone Rocks) is 536 metres (1,759 ft) above sea level, making it the county’s second tallest hill after Brown Clee. The ridge extends some 8 kilometres (5 miles), the summit crowned with a series of six distinctive outcrops.
For geology buffs there is a detailed overview of Shropshire’s 700 million year geological history by Peter Toghill HERE.
This next photo: men on Manstone Rock, the highest point on the Stiperstones…
Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: rocks, boulders, stones
Odd Moment With A Sheep And Old Tales Of Dodgy Deals
I don’t know about you, but I feel quite uncomfortable being so closely scrutinized by a member of the ovine tribe. It happens now and then as I tramp the lanes and byways of Much Wenlock.
This one was in the field opposite Wenlock Priory ruins, which interestingly had much to do with sheep rearing in the early Middle Ages. In fact the sale of wool from its flocks was an important source of the Priory’s wealth. And so you may imagine the brotherly fury (even to the point of murderous intent) that was roused when, in the late 1200s, the then Prior, John de Tycford, engaged in some dirty dabbling in the futures market and sold 7 years’ wool crop in advance and then kept the proceeds.
One monk, William de Broseley was so incensed, he left the Priory and gathered a gang in the woods, all set to ambush and kill the Prior. News of this plan did not go down well with the higher authorities, who instructed sheriffs to arrest ‘vagabond monks of the Cluniac order.’ William was duly captured and received his just deserts (not defined by chroniclers, but doubtless deeply unpleasant).
Meanwhile the Prior, who also went in for monastic asset stripping as well as having a history of fraternizing with money-lenders, had friends in a very high place: first King Henry III and then his successor-son, Edward Longshanks, aka Edward I. De Tycford, it seems, was good at political intrigue and had been royally employed on a diplomatic mission to nearby troublesome Wales. It did not seem to matter that he had run the Priory into debt. When he left Much Wenlock in 1285 it was to take up an appointment as Prior of Lewes in Sussex, not only another grand Cluniac house, but also a politically sensitive location. The army of Henry III had retreated into the Priory in 1264 during the barons uprising led by Simon de Monfort. This had caused serious division between the monks, many of whom were later punished or banished back to France.
And so it goes. It’s how the world runs. Power and money control ALL aspects of our lives, although we’re mostly too distracted to see how deep and wide this goes. Perhaps the sheep is trying to tell me something. Perhaps I ought to tell it: I am not a sheep.
The Wenlock Poppy Bomb
One mid-summer evening when I was leaving the allotment by the gate rather than by my usual route through the field hedge, I glimpsed, on the far edge of town, over rooftops, and between trees, an astonishing scarlet blaze where I’d never seen one before. Home was forgotten, and off I went to investigate: over the main road out of Wenlock and down a lane beside the old railway bridge, into a field with an abandoned barn by the gate, and there it was: an entire field of poppies.
They looked to have exploded from an oil seed rape crop, but it was hard to tell. Had someone sabotaged the farm seed, or did the farmer do it on purpose? Whatever the cause, it’s not happened since. But it was one of those weirdly wonderful happenings wherein it was hard not to grow very over-excited and run amok. I took lots of happy snaps, then dashed home to spread the news to he had a much smarter camera. And then we went back and repeated the excitement, all fuses fired by poppy power.
Of Wenlock’s odd miracles and holy wells
Much Wenlock has at least three saintly wells. St. Milburga’s, a few steps from the town centre, is the best preserved, though it is doubtful the superstructure we see now had much to do with this Saxon saint. She came to Much Wenlock around 690 to take charge of a religious community of monks and nuns, this after being trained in her vocation at the monastery of Chelles near Paris. Double convents were not unusual in Saxon times, though the men and women worshipped in separate chapels. Milburga was also the daughter of Mercian king Merewald and, along with her appointment as abbess, came the responsibility of managing the lay people and lands of a very large estate that extended many miles into Corve Dale to the south, and across the Severn Gorge in the east.
For the next 37 years she ruled over her communities, temporal and spiritual. She appears to have done a good job because the many legends about her attest always to her healing (and other mystical) powers. She had a particular propensity for striking springs from barren ground and, it was said, could ripen winter-sown barley – from seed to harvest – within a single day. She even brought the dead back to life on more than one occasion. And in between these miracles, spent much time dodging the unwanted attentions of lusty chaps. This seems to be a common narrative in the tales of Saxon princesses who opted for a life of chastity. In Milburga’s case, rivers rose up to thwart her pursuers.
Water, then, is a common theme here.
She was still remembered four hundred years after her death. In 1100 when the convent church was undergoing repairs, some human remains were discovered near the altar. With their sweet fragrance and mystic glow they could be none other than the bones of Milburga, and so began the cult that over succeeding centuries brought much pilgrim business to the growing town. Two of our town pubs owe their origins to those times.
In fact beliefs in Saint Milburga’s powers persisted even into the 20th century. Catherine Milnes Gaskell, who lived in the old Prior’s house not far from the well, tells in her book Spring in a Shropshire Abbey how one day she met young Fanny Milner, sent by her grandmother to fetch some well water. Grandmother apparently needed it to bathe her eyes so she could read the Sunday scriptures. When questioned further about the well’s potency, 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 bursting with learning.”
Lady Catherine also relates how the well had once been the focus of more profane 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”…
Hm. High jinx and ale brewed from church roof run-off – that’s quite a picture to conjure, isn’t it. I hasten to add, we don’t such things these days 🙂
And Another Shropshire Ghost
In an earlier post this week I mentioned Wild Edric our heroic Saxon warlord who challenged the Norman interlopers and ended up as a ghost haunting the Stiperstones. Now shunt forward a few hundred years to the 1640s, a time when England was locked in civil war: Roundhead Parliamentarians versus Charles 1 and the Royalist army. The Parliamentarians were intent on curbing the king’s proclivities to do as he liked at the nation’s expense; the Royalists were set on protecting the monarch’s prerogative.
We’ve shifted from the South Shropshire hills to Wenlock Edge, a wooded limestone escarpment that rears up above the county’s farming lowland for nearly 20 miles. Enter one Major Thomas Smallman, fleeing on horseback from his home in nearby Wilderhope Manor. He is a King’s man, carrying despatches for the Royalist headquarters in the county town of Shrewsbury, some dozen miles away. On his heels are Cromwell’s troops. Trying to evade them, the major veers off along the Edge. But there’s no escape. He and horse leap over the precipice. It is a two hundred foot drop. The major was caught up in a crab apple tree, and so survived to deliver his despatches to Shrewsbury, but his valiant horse was lost. Perhaps that’s why a ghostly major on horseback may sometimes be glimpsed near this signpost on the Edge footpath.
And to give you a notion of what lay before the major when his horse took off:
The Square Odds #10
A Fine Herring-Flying Kind Of A day?
I don’t know about you, but I had never encountered a weather fish before. This one is atop the tiny ancient church of a very tiny farming settlement below Shropshire’s Long Mynd. The church is 12th century and you can find out more about it and its location in an earlier post: On the way to Myndtown to see which way the fish blow
For now, just a smidgeon of history.
As you will see, the word ‘town’ in Myndtown is misleading. It should be understood in the old Saxon sense of ‘settlement’. In the Domesday accounts of 1085 it is described as being held by Leofric who in turn holds it from a French lordling nicknamed Picot, otherwise known as Robert de Sai (from the Orne district in France).
Leofric (a good Saxon name) is a freeman, overseeing some 240 acres (one and half hides), enough for three and half ploughs, and on which tax is due. In the settlement there are four villagers, four smallholders with two ploughs and two slaves. There is one hedged enclosure. The conqueror’s accountants state whole is worth 30 shillings, half the amount is was worth in 1066.
Historians surmise that the fall in value at this particular place and time is due to incursions by raiders from nearby Wales.
Fortunately there was no raiding going on during our Myndtown visit. The only sound was a buzzard tracking the Long Mynd foothills. You can just spot it in the next photo (above the porch roof).
And besides the general peacefulness, there were other signs that the weather fish spoke truly: it was indeed a fine day for flying. Look up! Here comes a glider launched from the Long Mynd glider station.
Odd Rocks On The Stiperstones
With its series of other-worldly outcrops, the Stiperstones ridge has to be one of Shropshire’s most compellingly strange landscapes. The cragginess was wrought by the scything, crushing and cracking action of ice during the last glacial period. But natural forces alone don’t explain the sense of weirdness. It is also a place of old lead mines (going back to Roman times), and of older-still Bronze Age burial cairns.
And on the supernatural front, there are ghosts there, most notably of Saxon lord, Wild Edric, our local King Arthur, who rampaged against the Norman invaders and is said to have been imprisoned in an abandoned lead mine. When he rides again, it is said the natural good order of things will be restored to the land.
And last, but scarcely least, there are the sinister witchy happenings, especially when the mist falls and Old Nick himself is said to occupy the most mysterious of all the outcrops – otherwise known as the Devil’s Chair. (See Mary Webb’s novel Gone to Earth whose heroine Hazel Woodus is tragically enthralled by the landscape and legends of the Stiperstones.)
As a 6/7th Shropshire lass, I’m ashamed to say I have not yet got myself to the Devil’s Chair. On our last two expeditions we did not get further than Manstone Rock. This year’s ambition perhaps. On a mist-free day of course!
Remembering Shropshire’s Last Sin Eater
In our secular-minded times it is hard to imagine that there could even be the need for a burial ritual that involved a designated eater of sins. But it did happen, both anciently and more recently, although it is a custom mostly known of in Shropshire, Hereford and the Welsh Marches. Shropshire writer Mary Webb (1881-1927) whose novels are set in the rural lead-mining communities around the Long Mynd and Stiperstones, gave an account of it in Precious Bane. You’ll find the extract at the end of my earlier post In which the Farrells go to Ratlinghope to visit Shropshire’s last sin eater
But to give you the gist, the sin eater played a crucial part in the burial service. A ritual meal – usually bread and ale – was passed over the coffin of the deceased for the sin eater to eat. In this way, the dead person’s spirit was absolved of all wrong-doing and could depart in peace. The people prepared to take on this role might be local wise folk, exorcists, or poor people outcast from the community by some misfortune. As time went on, it was often the last-mentioned who performed the act in order to have a decent meal. A harrowing thought on many fronts.
However, the man who has the distinction of being Shropshire’s last known sin eater, was not a poor man, but a sheep farmer whose family had farmed in the vicinity of Ratlinghope for generations. He in fact chose to revive the custom, and when you read the inscriptions set around his very striking memorial in Ratlinghope churchyard, you begin to understand why. Between 1862 and 1870, Richard and Ann Munslow lost four of their children. And so it is thought that Richard took on sin eating in response to this loss and as an expression of compassion. On a happier note, he and Ann did have two more children who outlived them. Richard died in 1906, his family grave set in the most peaceful of spots and in sight of the Long Mynd where he held the sheep grazing.
copyright 2022 Tish Farrell
A Case Of Mediaeval Ribaldry?
As ecclesiastical carvings go this one definitely falls in the rude category. It is one of four known Shropshire Sheelagh Na Gigs, crudely worked images of women (emphasis on reproductive parts and/or breasts) found in parish church walls. According to The Sheelagh na Gig Project there are a dozen more examples known in Britain, but they are also found in early mediaeval churches across Europe.
This particular one is over the door of Church Stretton’s parish church (Church Stretton being Wenlock’s neighbouring town across the Edge). The church is mostly 14th century, but with earlier Norman parts, and it seems likely that this Sheelagh has been retained from the first building phase.
As you can see, she is not easily spotted. But there she is above the side door, further implying that when the Norman church was being rebuilt, she was thought important enough to re-instate. It’s worth remembering, too, that this was in times when the church ruled over every aspect of people’s lives; adherence and attendance were not optional.
So what is meant by these crude effigies?
There have been all sorts of explanations: that they’re hang-overs from pre-Christian mother-goddess worship; are warnings against immorality; meant to confer success in childbirth; are simply part and parcel of the Norman tendency to add grotesque figures to their churches.
In other words, we do not know. It is yet another example of how the ancestors’ thought processes (much like our own) are not easily fathomed. But if you want to see more examples The Sheelagh na Gig Project is well worth a visit.