Pentre Ifan Revisited

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These few massive stones are all that remains of a 5,500 year old chambered tomb. Originally it extended some 120 feet (36 metres), the whole structure covered by an earth mound. It must have looked spectacular, dominating the uplands above Cardigan Bay. When I took this photo I was also taken with the rather searching stance of the man at the fence. I spoke to him later. He told me he had been so keen to reach the monument after parking his car, he had dived across the nearest farm field instead of discovering the official footpath, and thus found himself on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence. He was trying to see if he could climb over. We both decided it looked too risky. And then he told me about his awe-inspiring visit to the Great Pyramid. A man clearly much moved by ancient places.

For more photos: Scenes from the realms of ancestors

 

Cee’s Black & White Challenge: stones or bricks

Look Out! Ghosts On The Line

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Last week the Severn Valley Railway had a fit of the Sleepy Hollows: witches, ghouls and other scary entities popping up all over the place; ghosties wiffling off platform lampposts, skellies rising from station gardens, mega cobwebs and evil pumpkin faces. There was even a huge red devil to give you the willies if you were thinking of catching the train from Kidderminster. It was schools’ half-term holiday of course, so there were plenty of kids ready to go in for some serial screaming at Bewdley Station’s gruesome set pieces. It all added to the fun of trundling along on a steam train. We spent the whole day doing it – up and down the 16 mile line – Bridgnorth, Hampton Loade, Highley, Arley, Bewdley, Kidderminister, and back to Bridgnorth in time for tea.

Here’s a gallery of things we saw on the way, mostly through the train window – a very flooded River Severn for one, and also a most surprising sight in rural Worcestershire. But you’ll have to wait till the end for that.

And last but not least in the way of motley scenes and sightings on the Severn Valey Railway: elephants at Bewdley Safari Park.

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Six Word Saturday

Another Thrown-Away Field Treasure

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I find it hard to credit that this pretty little Victorian ink bottle was a throw-away item, of no more value than the empty juice cartons, tins and the general supermarket packaging trash that we junk attempt to recycle. They were cheap of course, perhaps a penny or two. The base is only 1.5 inches square (4 cms). When it was bought it would have had a cork stopper, suitably sealed. But once opened it was eminently functional. The neck is angled for easier nib dipping and then there are ridges across the top for resting one’s stick pen, and the ridged sides and heavier base would also make spillage less likely.

The one in the photo was found behind our old privies when we were having a hedge of alien snowberry dug out. Graham had a fine time pretending he was on Time Team and excavated quite a little stash – mostly medicine and condiment bottles. But this is my favourite find. It reminds me of Roman glass and I love the colour. I haven’t been able to get its innards quite clean of Silurian clag, but it’s just the thing for a single small flower, a rose bud for instance, one that some careless gardener has knocked off while not paying due care and attention.

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Line Squares #30

Further Lines Of Enquiry In Townsend Meadow

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In the last post I featured the clay tobacco pipe gleanings that I’ve been picking up from Townsend Meadow, the broken stems and bowls of pipes discarded by haymakers, harvesters and ploughmen of times past. Or dropped by lime burners, tanners and quarrymen on their way to restore lost bodily fluids in one of Wenlock’s many inns. But there’s another explanation too, and this could also account for the pot shards I’ve been finding in the field. Up until the not too distant past, broken domestic items were usually thrown into farm cesspits, privies and middens. Later they would end up spread over the fields, mixed in with manure.

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My trek across the field follows a broadly similar route, give or take a metre or two. These shards are all separate finds, though not found too far apart, and I think they could belong to the same dish. My trawl on the internet tells me these are examples of comb decorated slipware. Once they would have made a broadly rectangular loaf or baking dish of a type common in the late 18th century. Very handsome pots in fact.

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The shards with the yellow swirly pattern on a dark ground are also from slipware loaf dishes made in the late 18th century. They come in round and rectangular versions. You can see stunning examples of these and other English pots at the John Howard Gallery.

 

Line Squares #29

Pipe-Lines

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Much to my surprise the field behind our house hasn’t been ploughed yet. This is good news for the birds: lots of wheat gleanings to forage amongst the stubble. And gleanings for the erstwhile archaeology student too (that would be me). Since late September I’ve been walking back and forth to allotment across Townsend Meadow, and as I go I pick up the remains of old clay pipes; the residue of ploughmen-past.

After rain the bowls look like bird skulls emerging from the mud. I dig them out and bring them home to wash. The bits are mostly quite plain, except for indistinct maker’s stamps on the bowl bases. But then, most unusually, I found a stem with a well known manufacturer’s mark  on it: W.Southorn & Co, Broseley.

Clay pipes were made in this corner of Shropshire from the late 1500s when Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the nation to tobacco. In the 17th century there was a pipe works on Much Wenlock’s High Street, but at this period it was the Southorn works in King Street, Broseley, a few miles from Wenlock, that was much more  famous. As well as work-a-day models they produced the most elaborate creations including the delicately long Churchwardens (for a long cool smoke). In fact so great was the international reputation of the factory the pipes themselves came to be known as Broseleys. It was thriving trade too, the fragility of the product doubtless stimulating repeat orders. During the 19th century Southorns employed 90 workers.

The works were still in operation until the early 1950s. The pipe kiln there could hold between 75,000 to 100,000 pipes for each firing which lasted 4 days. When the factory closed, the place was simply left, remaining just as it was when the last worker closed the gate behind him. I remember walking past it in the 1970s and ‘80s. It still belonged to the Southorn family then, but remained, much like Miss Haversham’s wedding breakfast* in a time warp all its own. The premises are now in the care of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

There is some extraordinary 1938 archive film of the works HERE.

* Great Expectations Charles Dickens

Line Squares #28

How To Look Like A Lord In The 13th Century ~ Build Yourself A Castle

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We were here last week with accompanying drizzle (so apologies for the gloomy vistas). This is one of Shropshire’s best loved historic gems – Stokesay Castle near Ludlow. Well, all right. It’s not so much a castle as a fortified manor house, though it does have a very huge moat. And it is one of the best preserved 13th century edifices of its kind in England. Pretty much everything still here was built between 1285 and 1290, and the only substantial later addition is the very impressive timbered gatehouse out front. This was built in 1640, and is seen in the next photo from the doorway of the Great Hall.

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The man who built Stokesay Castle was Laurence of Ludlow, a commoner and tradesman, but one of the richest men in England. Like his father before him, he was a big wheeler dealer in wool, the nation’s main export of the time. He did his trading face to face too, travelling to Europe  – to the Low Countries and to France – operating out of premises in Shrewsbury and in London, selling vast consignments of Shropshire-Herefordshire fleeces which were of the most excellent quality.

His business acumen earned him royal favour. He became Edward I’s financial advisor, and when the king needed funds for his war with France and thought to raise them by seizing all the nation’s wool, Laurence devised a very self-serving cunning plan. ‘Sire, why not triple the tax paid by the wool growers.’ And King Edward did. The wool growers were badly squeezed while the wool merchants got off unscathed. And so when in 1294 Laurence drowned in a sea-storm, en route for Europe to deliver wool and money to the Edward’s allies, there was self-righteous jubilation among the wool producers, or so it was written at the time:

‘Because he sinned against the wool-growers, he was swallowed by the waves in a ship full of wool.’

Anyway, here is what Laurence built with his wool money and where his descendants lived for the next 200 years before the house passed into the hands of other families. This is the Great Hall with its magnificent cruck (A-frame) beams. This is where most of the household business (including feasting) would have taken place.

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The hair-raising medieval staircase leads up to the timbered apartment seen in the header. This was probably the guest quarters. As you will see, they are spacious premises and once kept warm by a very substantial fireplace, now sadly lacking its 13th century canopy:

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Here are the stairs from the downward perspective. The timbers were dendro-dated to the 1280s.  Anyone who suffers from vertigo should look away now:

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Back in the Great Hall you must imagine that these windows were probably unglazed but protected at night by wooden shutters. There was a central hearth with no chimney, and so the smoke would have hung about in the rafters. The small window above the doorway allowed the ladies of the house to keep an eye on things from the privacy of the solar (coming up next).

The solar was ‘done up’ in the 17th century with the addition of some very fine panelling and a very extraordinary over-mantel above the fireplace. Not at all the sort of thing you’d expect in a polite drawing room, nor the garish decoration of the original carving that English Heritage have re-created in one of the room’s interpretation panels.

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I always find myself quite interested in the toilet facilities. I think I spotted two garderobes or privies on my way round. Usually in castles and big manor houses the outflow simply went out through the external wall, dropping into the moat, or over the ramparts. At Stokesay one of the loos has a very fine view of the moat, now waterless. A draughty experience I should think.

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Stokesay is in the care of English Heritage

Line Squares #22

 

Wenlock Priory ~ Ruined Lines

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It’s almost always the case with things on your doorstep: you forget to visit them, or even to appreciate their handy existence. I’ve known Wenlock Priory for over half a century which possibly adds its own miniscule historical dimension to this most ancient Shropshire site. Anyway, a few weeks ago I took myself off there for a long-postponed visit. It’s only a short walk down the Cutlins path past the MacMoo clan. I quite enjoyed playing tourist in my own town.

The photo shows the remnant south aisle of the once vastly prestigious monastic edifice built in the 12th century CE to house monks from their mother foundation in Cluny, France. But then that’s only half the story.

We need to wind the time-machine clock back another thousand years. The Romans were here too, though what they left behind has been hard to interpret: villa, bathhouse, shrine – all, or only one of these. The remains anyway survived into Saxon times and were apparently repurposed in the building of a double convent i.e. for both monks and nuns (in separate quarters). This work was commissioned by King Merewald of Mercia (basically the English Midlands) in the 600s CE.

His daughter Milburga (later to be sanctified and made pilgrimage-worthy) served as abbess once she had been sufficiently well educated over in France. Her two sisters were also similarly educated to be abbesses of other religious houses. Their mother too, left Mercia and her marriage, to become abbess down in Kent. Such positions entrusted to royal woman allowed them to control extensive landed estates along with their agricultural and mineral assets, as well as to look to the spiritual welfare of the land’s lowly inhabitants.

Over succeeding centuries, Milburga’s convent underwent various phases of redevelopment. When the Normans arrived in the 11th century the site was re-dedicated to the Cluniac (monks only) monastic order. But after the finding of what were believed to be Milburga’s bones in 1101, the priory received a very big upgrade, along with a saintly shrine and the patronage of the King of England. So began the era of pilgrim-tourism and the up-sprouting of Wenlock town to cater for the influx. In fact two of our well-loved public houses – the George and Dragon and the Talbot  have their origins in these times. So much history then in one small place. So many long-established ties with Europe. Makes you wonder what our forebears would have thought of Brexit.

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Doorway from the south aisle to the now roofless cloister.

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For Historic England’s schedule summary of the Priory’s history please go HERE.

 

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Indoor walkways, hallways, elevators

Line Squares #19

Sticks, Clogs, Ribbons And Bells ~ Yesterday Was A Big Hurrah For Apples At Coalbrookdale’s Greenwood Trust

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The Ironmen lining up.

And the Severn Gilders Morris doing their stuff:

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While the band played:

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And apples were pressed:

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And unusual varieties identified:

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And home-made cakes and roast pork buns scoffed, stories told, local makers’ wares displayed, and all matters relating to trees and woodland widely shared, and then bottles of fresh-pressed juice to take home…

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And all in celebration of the apple whose magnificent variety and native seasonal range has been much undermined since the advent of supermarkets which managed to reduce a possible choice of 750 cultivars to half a dozen. But things are changing. Old apple trees are being rediscovered and nurtured, and orchards replanted. Nor could there be a better time to be planting them. Trees absorb carbon and we need to plant three trillion fairly fast. Apart from which, there is much to be said for the old saying: an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Line Squares #13

More Ancestral Lines ~ Carreg Coetan Burial Chamber

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The remaining stones of this ancient burial chamber sit in their own grassy sanctuary amid a little enclave of holiday bungalows in Newport. The Cadw noticeboard (the official Welsh heritage service that cares for such monuments) says it was built around 6,000 years ago. Long ago excavations inside the tomb uncovered cremated bone, stone tools and pottery belonging to the Neolithic period. These days the huge capstone balances on only two of the four upright stones. Once, too, the whole structure would have been covered  by a mound of earth as at Pentre Ifan.

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Carreg Coetan is one of several similar tombs along the River Nevern valley, all lying in sight of the craggy top of Carn Ingli mountain. That it survives now so well embraced by 21st century domesticity is either heartening or incongruous depending on your view. I rather like it. It reminded me of Brittany and coming upon a similar burial chamber that had been incorporated into the structure of a farmyard shed, the capstone providing a substantial door lintel, and elsewhere a long barrow whose gallery served as the crypt for a village church built in medieval times. It could anyway be timely to tap into some ancestral thinking. I feel they might tell us to review our values and pdq.

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Line Squares #10

Who Needs CSI Forensics? Though You may need your Glasses ~ A Welsh Potter’s Thumbprint circa 1530

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It was an extraordinary find, so tucked away. For a couple of days we’d been reading the signs to Kiln Odyn, but the message had not been sinking in. And then it did. And off we went – a short walk from the Castle Inn where we were staying, and up a little alley beside the old Memorial Hall and there it was: the best surviving medieval pottery kiln in the United Kingdom.

Stranger still was the story of its discovery. In 1921 the people of Newport began work on the building of a Memorial Hall in remembrance of community members who had died in the Great War. In the midst of digging the foundations, builders uncovered two medieval kilns. The National Museum of Wales was alerted. Its director, Dr. Mortimer Wheeler, so-called ‘father of British archaeology, was swift to ensure the site was preserved. This included having the National Museum put up the £20 he said was needed to adapt the building plans and so keep the archaeological site intact within the new Hall’s basement. A trap door would provide access to the remains..

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And so it remained for nearly a century until 2016 when the community decided the Memorial Hall facilities were badly in need of an update. There followed a scheme of creative refurbishment and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which meant the kilns, by now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, could also be re-excavated, conserved and put on permanent view. All it took was the installation of a very big window in the side of the building and some heavy-duty spotlights.

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Also added were some very thoughtful outdoor information panels designed by students of Carmarthen College. Their artwork brings medieval Newport to life. We meet the master potter and his family and see how they might have lived and worked.

We’re also told what a busy market town Newport would have been during the lifetime of the kilns (c1470-1530); not only a port exporting goods, which may well have included the jars and jugs from the pottery, but also a stopping place on the pilgrims’ route to St. David’s in south Pembrokeshire. And in 1485 we are also told there was a very particular event: Henry Tudor passed by the town, and what a sight that would have been – an army 2,000 strong, marching on to Bosworth to win the English crown and found a new royal dynasty. One of the panels further conjectures that the potter’s son might have gone off to join the army, escaping the hard work of digging, potting and firing for the thrill of battle and adventures in foreign parts.

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Kiln Odyn produced high quality domestic wares of the day: cooking pots and pitchers, alembics for lotions and potions, ridge roof tiles for high status buildings. The work, from digging the clay to selling the pots would have involved the whole family, skills passed down the generations. The Lord Marcher, who owned all the lands, took his cut of the potter’s profits instead of charging him rent.

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Credit: artwork by the students of Carmarthen College.

Accounts of the 2016 archaeological excavations HERE and HERE and some details about the pottery shards recovered with reconstructions of jars and jugs HERE

Line Squares #9