June Wanderings: Windmill Hill And The Linden Field

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Two sunny Saturdays in a row and an early evening stroll to check on the orchids on Windmill Hill. First, though, there’s a spot of cricket to watch on the Linden Field: a perfect English summer scene:

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Apart from the green idyll, there’s some very big history in this view. This is the ground that hosted the annual Wenlock Olympian Games, devised in 1850 by the town’s physician, Doctor William Penny Brookes (1809-1895). They are still held here and at the neighbouring school every year. Brookes was an energetic lobbyist for all round social improvement. He was responsible for the introduction of physical education in English national schools. He also wrote letters to every literary celebrity in the land, begging copies of their books for the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society’s library, a facility he founded to give local working people educational opportunities. But it was the town’s Olympian Games that were to have world-wide impact.

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In 1890, Brookes wrote to one Baron Coubertin who was visiting England to study sports education, and invited him to attend the Much Wenlock games, which he duly did. Brookes apparently filled him on all aspects of the enterprise, including the array of medals that he himself had designed and funded. And so it was that 6 years later in Athens when the first Modern Olympic Games were held, Coubertin paid tribute to Brookes who had died only months before, aged 86. The baron said it was down to the good doctor that the games had been revived, although it is Coubertin who is remembered as ‘the father of the modern Olympic movement.’

If you scan the field today, you can see it has been well treed since Brookes’ time, although he was responsible for the planting of the Linden Walk (behind the conifers in the view above). He was also responsible for bringing the railway to the town. This ran directly behind the Linden Walk, with the station just beyond the field gates. Olympian Special trains would be run to bring  games participants and spectators from all over the country.

And Windmill Hill, overlooking  the Linden Field (now obscured by trees) once provided a natural gallery for thousands of visitors:

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Today this hill is one of the town’s favourite walking spots, the windmill  (probably late 17th century) a well known landmark. The grassland all around is a surviving example of a traditional limestone meadow – rich in grasses and many wild flower species. Brookes would have known all about the local flora. Not only had he trained as a physician in Paris and London, he had also studied medical herbalism at the University of Padua. During his life-time in Wenlock he created a magnificent herbarium of pressed flowers, another town treasure, although it is now kept in Ludlow Museum’s special conservation facility. It is a marvellous document of what was once growing along Wenlock Edge and what has been lost.

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But back to the walk. Climbing the hill behind the Linden Field we soon spot the freshly sprouting pyramidal orchids. To my eye, they seem to be extending their range across the hill. I’m surmising that this is due to the new management system for the grassland: the  end of season raking up of dying vegetation that has spread the tubers far and wide.

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We also found spotted orchids…

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…and, thanks to a chum who alerted us to its location, a single tiny bee orchid. They are very hard to find, their stems only a few inches tall.

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June and July are the main flowering times on the hill. Already you can see the wild thyme on exposed outcrops. Then there are briar roses, elderflowers, red clover – all four of them long used as medicinal herbs. The thymol extracted from thyme is a key active ingredient in cough syrups. Rose petals may be used to treat skin conditions. Elderflowers are particularly potent, with a host of healing properties including quercetin. Brewed as a tea they relieve colds and flu symptoms. Red clover is also used for skin and more deep-seated complaints.

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And then once you reach the top of the hill, there the views to ponder. Always something new, whatever the season.

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By the time we clamber back down to the Linden Field the cricket is over, and now is the moment for Wenlock dogs to play. We wander home beneath the conifer avenue. I always love the play of light and shadow under these trees:

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As we go there’s the waft of lime tree in the air; only a subtle scent as yet;  the tiny green flowers are only just opening. But later in the month, and as the days grow warmer, the field will be bathed in its fragrance. And so we have another therapeutic plant, one that calms and heals, although as with all herbal remedies, it is best to consult a qualified medical herbalist as to their use.

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And a final floriferous view of Windmill Hill:

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Lens-Artists: Local Vistas   This week Anne Sandler at Slow Shutter Speed  wants to see views from home territory.

Dads And Lads At The Severn Valley Railway

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This week Cee wants to see tender moments. Here are some that caught my eye on a couple of visits to Shropshire’s Severn Valley Railway.

They make me wonder too: young dads sharing their passion for steam trains; little lads not quite big enough to be sure. Which is also touching.

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And quite another take on the topic…

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A case of sore feet and

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a tender behind… (I know, it’s an old joke)

*tender = coal wagon

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Tender Moments

Of Wenlock’s odd miracles and holy wells

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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 🙂

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The Square Odds  #13

 

A Fine Herring-Flying Kind Of A day?

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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).

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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.

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The Square Odds #9

A Case Of Mediaeval Ribaldry?

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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.

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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.

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The Square Odds #6

A Saint On His Cell Phone?

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Once seen it’s hard to unsee (also pardon the pun).

This carved stone panel comes from the 1220s Lavabo – the erstwhile monks’ washing place among our local ruins at Wenlock Priory. The panel is one of two survivors, which date from the 1160s but were then reused in the later building of the Lavabo. They tell of the lives of the apostles. The chap on the phone is apparently John.

Here’s a general view of the lavabo remains, sitting in what was the priory cloister. The three-arched building behind was the library, and the round carved archway (far right) is the chapter house where daily business was conducted, including the issuing of punishments for disobedience. The once massive nave of the church ran at right angles to the library, between the trees and the topiary hedges.

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There’s another oddity inside the chapter house, carved on the wall. Again it seems to have been reused from a much earlier phase of the priory. This Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian style depiction of evil entities was doubtless meant to keep the monks’ minds focused on holy matters.

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I’m seeing a theme developing here for Becky’s February ‘square odds’ challenge. Expect more Shropshire curiosities in coming days.

The Square Odds #5

Who Is That Hooded Man?

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Yesterday you saw Mitchell’s Fold stone circle in winter light – an ethereal gloaming. This photo is the late spring version. Well, almost. We set off there in warm weather, but by the time we arrived, a weirdly luminous gloom had descended and there was a perishing wind. I was struggling to make the best of the flat light that made the standing stones look dull. I was also trying to show more of the circle which proved difficult with many of the stones fallen flat. I didn’t even notice this chap arrive, but suddenly there he was striding through my shot. And when I looked again, he was gone. It’s at times like that you start thinking a grasp of quantum physics might help.

The other thing you can see between the stones of this four-thousand-year-old circle are signs of Mediaeval ridge and furrow ploughing. A surprising discovery on this exposed upland, but then there is plenty of evidence that Britain’s climate was much warmer back then, i.e. before the descent into the ‘Little Ice Age’ of the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries.  The way things change.  And so much we don’t know.

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The Square Odds #4

The Things We Find When Lost

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Farrell Safaris are notorious for their cross-country deviations even when kitted out with a fully functioning map. And so it was on our recent Anglesey stay, and with an intended short (couple of miles) drive from Aberffraw to next-door Rhosneigr, that we managed to miss the turn and instead head off to who knew where.

Usually when this happens, Captain Farrell’s first resort is to keep going, perhaps in hopes that, if we do this for long enough, all will come right.  Fortunately this time we had savvy niece in the back seat, and she soon had our position pinpointed on her phone. We did indeed need to turn around. And it was while this was going on – i.e. finding a suitable turning space on a narrow country lane, that I spotted the Neolithic burial chamber in the far corner of a farm field.

Can we stop, says me, hoping for a better look over the wall and maybe a long-shot photo (poor light willing).

But once turned about, we soon saw that a proper visit was feasible. There were official signs in Welsh and in English ‘Ty-Newydd Burial Chamber’, a pull-in space on the verge and a stile.  Sister, cockapoo and niece were up for a visit, though the wind was brutal and it was starting to rain. In my rush to head the expedition as chief prehistorian I was ensnared in a hawthorn bush and held up proceedings. Meanwhile Captain Farrell gathered himself for unscheduled activity, and manfully brought up the rear.

We then tramped across the muddy field only to find the ancient capstone (a whopping 12 ft by 5ft/3.7 m by 1.5m) had been propped up on two unsightly brick pillars set on a concrete base. And while their solid intervention was doubtless necessary for many reasons, their presence jarred. The dreary light did not help.

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So it turned out that the original drive-by view had been more impressively mysterious than the close-quarters’ encounter. Ah well.

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The tomb was excavated in 1935 and is considered typical of the funerary monuments built by the first farming people (see also the Barclodiad y Gawres tomb in an earlier post). Finds included a hearth with charcoal remains, some flint flakes, a burned flint arrow head, and a chip from a polished stone axe. But there were also pottery shards of the later Beaker People of the Bronze Age, and signs of a further chamber, which suggest the tomb was used, or re-used over a considerable time-span. The large cairn that once covered the tomb is long gone – ploughed out and/or its stones re-purposed. Instead, small concrete bollards have been set out to indicate its original extent. Useful guidance on the one hand, but like the brick supports, they felt intrusive somehow.

Anyway, we paid our respects to ancient souls who then, like us, must have been alarmingly blasted by the training jets taking off at nearby RAF Valley. The New Year’s holiday was over and ‘business as usual’ resumed. Out of the gale the engines’ roar filled the sky, the earth, the universe, my skull. It was noise so loud as to be physically shattering. I had that strange sense of someone walking over my grave and a horrid glimpse of what it must to be some innocent village dweller in a war zone; to be on the receiving end of the northern hemisphere’s mighty industrial war machine.

Several times during that day the soundtrack for Armageddon rebounded through my bones and being. It happened again in late afternoon as we walked on Aberffraw’s magnificent beach. And I wondered then, as I have done many times recently, what on earth the ancestors would think of us now. We who believe ourselves so very civilised?

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A Hawk T1 or T2 (?) caught over Aberffraw estuary. And the photos taken immediately afterwards – first looking towards mainland Wales, and the second across the Celtic Sea towards Ireland:

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Lens-Artists: interesting things

This week Patti wants to see the kinds of scenes/objects that catch our eye or pique our interest. Please go and view her interesting choices.

‘The Little Church In The Sea’

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Or in Welsh: Eglwys bach y môr. Dating from the 12th century, it survives the sea storms only with the help of some robust 19th century defences. Erosion has reduced the peninsula on which it was originally built to a tidal island known as Cribinau. You can find it along the Coastal Path just north of Aberffraw (Anglesey).

The church itself is dedicated to the Irish Saint Cwyfan (Kevin) who lived in the 6th century. Whether he ever visited Anglesey is not known, but the island, once the stronghold of the Celtic Druids until the Roman invasion, was certainly a favoured retreat for early Christian hermit-saints.

You can walk across to the island at low tide and the church is still used for weddings and christenings. Come a bright summer’s day, it would be hard to imagine a more momentous setting for such important family rites.

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Six Word Saturday

Lens-Artists: double dipping

Where A Giantess Emptied Her Apron Full Of Stones

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It sits on the westerly headland above Anglesey’s  Porth Trecastell Bay, a Neolithic passage grave known as Barclodiad y Gawres (the ‘Giantess’s Apronful’). It was built around 5,000 years ago by local farming people whose only tools were made of stone and wood and bone. It comprises a stone passageway more than twenty feet long, and in the centre a once high-domed chamber with apses, cruciform in plan, the whole covered with a mound of turves. Over the millennia the superstructure weathered and, as happened with most prehistoric remains, many of the stones were robbed and repurposed, doubtless still lodging in field walls, gateways, barns and farmsteads.

But recycling episodes apart, archaeologists excavating in the 1950s were able to discover much about the original monument. Their findings in turn informed the reconstruction of both the mound and tomb entrance that visitors see today. You can also go inside, but only so far. An iron gate has been installed to protect the main chamber, the key to it only available in summer from the Spar shop in nearby Llanfaelog.

Not to be thwarted, I took this photo through the bars.

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Bone of frog and shrew and hare and grass snake…

So what did the archaeologists find? First there were the cremated remains of two young males. Then there was the central chamber hearth and within it the bony parts of wrasse (a marine fish), eel, frog, toad, shrew, grass snake, mouse and hare, the lot covered in a layer of limpet shells and pebbles. A potent brew however you look at it. Then there are the carved stones, designs pecked away with a stone chisel: chevrons, spirals and zigzags in a style seen in other Neolithic passage graves across the Celtic Sea in Ireland, or further afield in Brittany and Portugal. Clearly the Neolithic settlers on Anglesey came from voyaging stock.

And then there was the pollen grain evidence discovered beneath the mound. This suggested that far from the largely tree-less landscape we see today, the coastal terrain, when the tomb was built, was well wooded. And so we have a glimpse of another phenomenon: how prehistoric farming folk set about changing the landscape, often dramatically so.

Today, much of Anglesey comprises un-treed arable fields and sheep pasture. The boundary trees and hedges that do survive are blasted into submission by sea-gales, as were we last week when we struggled along the cliff to pay homage to the ancestors.

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P.S. Incidental info: Porth Trecastell beach is also known as Cable Bay. In 1902 it was here that one of the island’s Atlantic telegraphic cables was laid, connecting to Ireland in the first instance, and thence to the United States. Needless to say, the connection has long  been abandoned. The other cable ran from Porth Crugmor and aeons ago as a child, I remember being taken to see it by my parents. They seemed so sure I would find the visit edifying, excited themselves by this piece of historic submarine communication. I only recall the rusting hawser affair running out along the beach and finding its determined westward progression into the sea and beneath the waves very disturbing.

For more photos outside and inside the tomb: http://www.megalithics.com/wales/barclody/barcmp.htm