Castle in the Air?

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Does this look real to you?

It doesn’t to me, and I was there, a coupld of days ago on All Hallows Eve, taking this photograph. It’s a view I’ve captured before, but somehow these ruins of Ludlow Castle set high above the River Teme, always manage to look like some idealised Victorian watercolour; or a film set; even dream-like. Yet there was nothing dreamy about the conception of this massive fortification. Its construction began in the 11th century with the sole intention of keeping the Welsh princes in their place behind the nearby England-Wales border.

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It’s other significance, in my mind at least, is that in the winter of 1501 Prince Arthur Tudor, heir to the English throne and Henry VIII’s older brother, spent his honeymoon here. He had married the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, both of them still in their teens.   You can read more this story here: Honeymoon Destination Anyone?

But in any event, even with the walls intact, and some well tapestried royal chambers somewhere within, it takes a great leap of imagination to consider this an ideal honeymoon venue. Presumably Arthur’s presence  was a political gesture to impress the Welsh neighbours. In any event, it did not end well. It seems that both Arthur and Catherine fell ill with the ‘sweating sickness’, a strange and passing disease of Tudor times. Catherine recovered but by April 1502 Arthur was dead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

My own experience within the castle walls dates back to the late 1960s. It was a summer’s evening and the time of the Ludlow Arts Festival which every year staged a Shakespeare play inside the castle’s massive inner bailey. Open air of course and on very hard wooden seats. My mother had tickets for Shakespeare’s Richard III. It had poured with rain all day, and I (in grumpy teen mode) didn’t want to go. But by early evening the sky cleared and so we set off for Ludlow, armed with cushions and blankets and a flask of coffee.

There was no set to speak of. Only a platform with a throne against the looming backdrop of the bailey walls. Swifts and swallows whisked by overhead, but as it grew dark it was the turn of the bats to swoop and dive around the battlements. And then came Act 5 scene 3 – the night before the battle of Bosworth Field when Richard is visited by the ghosts of all those he has murdered. And out of the shadows, from different spots around the castle walls, echoed the eerie voices. It was thrilling. Unforgettable. And to think I hadn’t wanted to come.

#Lens-Artists: Flights of Fancy  Johnbo has set this week’s challenge. Go see his different approaches for this theme.

Good Heavens: A Real Sand Castle?

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We did not go inside the castle on our recent visit to Harlech on the Mid-Wales coast. To tell the truth I’m rather offended by the tyranny that these brutish bastions of Edward I  represent. He, the irascible English monarch (1272-1307) built a whole string of overbearing fortifications between 1277 and 1304 (Caernarfon being the very grandest), this in a bid to subjugate the Welsh. Of course, in a nice twist of historical irony, the castles are now major international tourist attractions, bringing welcome income to the Welsh economy. (Take that, Edward Longshanks!)

What interested me was a little photo exploration of the castle’s present setting.

For instance, the header photo is something of a trompe l’oeil. Quite misleading in fact. The castle does not sit among the massive sand dunes that have invaded much of the Welsh coast over past centuries and are still growing. It sits on a 200 foot (61 metres) eminence of ancient Cambrian rock (the Harlech Dome), whose footings were once lapped by the sea, and where ships bringing in supplies would once have docked.

So yes, here we have a fascinating case of falling sea levels, or rather, rising land levels. Parts of  Britain’s landmass have risen, and apparently some are still rising (e.g. Scotland) in response to the post-glacial ice weight reduction (isostatic rebound), as in ten thousand years after the event, while others, e.g. south east England, where there are newer rocks and/or compacting clay strata (as in London), are sinking or eroding each year.

Geology has much to answer for. It is ongoing, never static.  A pity that most of us (and that very much includes Mrs. Farrell) know so little about it, or the forces that have shaped and continue to influence the planet. I seem to remember my geography teacher, aeons ago, telling us that Britain was tilting. And it’s far from being the only place where geology is still  moving upwards or downwards. [e.g. an unrelated phenomenon in the Pacific where satellite data show many atolls and islands are growing in size rather than eroding].

But back to Harlech. There’s a diagrammatic reconstruction of the early 14th century castle’s outer defences and setting above the sea here:

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This photo above gives you a glimpse of the golf course that lies between Harlech  (castle and lower town) and the massive dune system behind the now distant beach.

And looking from the other direction:

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It should be said that the Welsh people did not take English oppression lying down. There were a good few revolts and uprisings, and one in particular in 1400 under Owain Glendwyr, an actual Prince of Wales (as opposed to the  fabricated English ones of recent times). He captured Harlech in 1404 and made it his family home and military HQ for four years. He also held his second parliament there in 1405. However, for all that, Welsh rule was short lived. English forces retook Harlech in 1409 during the reign of Henry V.

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Looking from the castle towards North Wales, to Eryri, the mountains of  Snowdonia, and the plain below where once there was sea.

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It is intriguing how things change, and how if we fail to grasp in what ways they change and why, we truly risk  losing the reality plot. As we headed to the beach I was amused by this sign on the golf course:

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Where once there was passage for ships, the biggest risk is now flying golf balls. Who’d’ve thought it.

And finally an old image of the castle around 1890-1900 courtesy of the Library of Congress on Wikipedia:

Harlech Castle c 1890 Library of Congress

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More about the Morfa Harlech dune system HERE. Yes, it is still growing.

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Lens-Artists: One Subject Three Ways  Patti wants us to look at our subject from different angles.

Centred At Wenlock Priory

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Of course for centuries Much Wenlock Priory was the centre of things for the ordinary folk who lived along Wenlock Edge and across the River Severn beyond Ironbridge. And I don’t only mean for the saving of their souls or temporal spiritual guidance. Successive priors were effectively CEOs of a large agricultural and industrial business enterprise. They ruled over an extensive landed estate in much the same way as powerful feudal lords of the manor ruled over their serfs and villeins.

The Priors laid down the law. They exacted rents, tithes and substantial death duties from the community, while the peasant smallholders, who were their rent-paying tenants, were obliged to provide a considerable amount of their labour –  ploughing, harvesting, transporting goods. The Priory was also a big wool producer and it was involved in industrial enterprises such as quarrying, milling, extracting coal, operating an iron-making bloomery in Coalbrookdale, and so presumably relying on members of the 18 local serf families to do much of this work.

The Priory also did very nicely when anyone died. One third (a terciar) of the value of the deceased person’s moveable goods would be claimed. In 1377 when John Brice a local lord of the manor died, his executors had to pay out 5 oxen, plus a further third in value of 5 cows, 7 horses, 132 sheep, 90 ewes, 75 lambs, 2 silver spoons, and 3 drinking bowls with silver decoration. Other terciar records indicate that people’s every last possession was weighed up (in all senses). This might include the value of meat in the larder, the iron parts of a plough, corn in the barn, pans and axes, a worn out harrow all converted to monetary worth and paid in coin (Wenlock in the Middle Ages  W F Mumford).

It is thus pleasing to know that there were moments when the Prior’s powers were well and truly challenged. In 1163 the villeins rebelled and ‘threw down their ploughshares’, calling for the repressive Prior to be deposed. The monks’ response was to excommunicate the lot, a truly horrifying penalty at the time. This only led to a riot. The church was besieged and knights called in to save the monks. But in the end the Prior was forced to hold an enquiry before a committee of knights and monks who, it seemed, listened to the villeins’ grievances and effected a compromise. In the following centuries, as the villeins’ own economic power grew, they were more and more able to demand payment for their services (A History of Much Wenlock Vivien Bellamy).

But with all this taxing and tithing, you can well see why in 1540 Thomas Cromwell wanted to get his hands on, as in liberate, the accumulated wealth of nation’s monastic houses. And here in Wenlock we still have the end result, nearly 6 centuries on – the dissolved relics of one of Europe’s most prestigious monasteries.

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Centred

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