Views From the Morville Lych Gate

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The lych gate is of course the corpse gate, the covered entrance wherein the dead might be laid until a funeral could take place in the parish church. In the past there was often a several day wait for this essential ceremony, during which time the deceased must be shielded from bad weather, robbers and worse.

This particular lych gate stands on the path to Morville’s parish church of St. Gregory.  Morville, itself, is a small hamlet on the main road between Much Wenlock and Bridgnorth, and like Wenlock has a monastic past, although the church is all that remains of this period. I suspect that the fabric of the actual monastery may well have been re-purposed in the building of the next-door Morville Hall, which began hot on the heels of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s.

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In Saxon times the place was a thriving manor, and after the Norman invasion of 1066, continued to be so, its existing church and associated  lands bandied about as pieces of valuable real estate in deals between kings, earls and churchmen, its native inhabitants bound by fetters of superstitious dread and the obligation to provide wealth and labour for their overlords.

The Norman earl Roger de Montgomery took over Morville (along with most of Shropshire) in 1086. Here he had built a Benedictine monastery, an outpost for his more prestigious Shrewsbury Abbey some twenty miles away. He also had Wenlock’s Saxon priory remodelled on a monumental scale, and ordered the building of numerous other religious houses in every adjacent small community across the county.

I do not think this extensive building programme had much to do with piety. This was first and foremost about stamping Norman authority over the land. It was also an overlord’s means to control people, the wealth they created, and by the ordering of good works from the wealth accrued, so ensure his own place in heaven. It was his insurance policy in an era when everyone lived with a mortal terror of hell and the devil. As Baldrick in Black Adder might say it was a very cunning plan – political, physical and psychic control all of a piece – a top-down wealth management strategy.

If you go inside the church you may see, as you will in many old churches, the evidence of the psychic tyranny. The present building dates from the 1100s. Between the column arches on both sides of the nave, serpents slither down – an early medieval manifestation of ‘fake news’ perhaps? Imagine having them breathing down your neck every Sunday from infancy to grave. There was no opting out of the experience. Your very soul was in peril should you try to, and anyway this and the other snakes are endlessly hissing at the horrendous cost of becoming an outcast.

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Even when the service is over – the mysteries of it conducted in a language you do not know, you are sent on your way by this jolly trio, just to reinforce the sense of threat for the rest of the week:

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Today, the church in its country churchyard and the nearby hall  are quintessentially scenic. My senses tell me that this is a lovely spot. But I confess, too, that increasingly I struggle with the rustically picturesque and the meaning I take from it.

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For one thing, I still detect traces of susceptibility. The view of the hall, though presently owned by the National Trust, is still likely to induce a fit of the Downton Abbeys…P1010953

…that ultimately distasteful sense of nostalgia for a fake past of benign lords and grateful retainers. We may have Henry VIII to thank for loosening a little the stranglehold of the ruling elite, and broadening the class of major players to include merchants and professional men, but nearly five hundred years on, most of the country is still owned by small and powerful factions including the monarchy.

The fascinating thing is most of us don’t seem to notice, or realize how the way land continues to be controlled affects our lives in critically fundamental ways – the cost of a home – to buy or to rent – and the acceptance of ever-rising property ‘values’, the acceptance of mortgages for life. It is not for nothing that these holdings are referred to as ‘land banks’, or that any release of land for development is minutely managed to ensure maximum return from high priced, often poorly built, overcrowded properties.

We no longer have to plough milord’s fields, or give him our tithes in wheat and eggs, or bow to his whims, and tug forelocks, but the vestiges of feudalism are alive and well and residing in Britain, and more particularly, idling in its well-worn seats in the House of Lords, currently the focus of ‘a bit of a scandal’ as reported by the Electoral Reform Society. Of course we could do something about all this – if we really wanted to – if we stopped romancing about the past and started planning for a present that embraces everyone’s needs. It’s an interesting thought anyway.

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Thursday’s Special: Traces of the Past

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Our Very Own Treasure ~ Wenlock Books

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Aren’t we lucky to still have our own independent bookshop when across Britain such places are sadly becoming a thing of the past. So here it is, Wenlock Books, a landmark on the High Street, and housed in a wonderfully restored 14th century building. Its owner, Anna Dreda, is passionate about book selling, and has nurtured it and us for over twenty years, creating a haven for book lovers of all ages, from infants upwards. Downstairs the shelves are brimming with crisply published new books, while upstairs you can sit in cosy corners surrounded by ancient timbers and read the pre-owned and antiquarian books. Or if you are nosy like me, you can look out of the window on to the street below and surreptitiously see what Wenlock’s citizens are getting up to.

Also when you pop into Wenlock Books for a good browse, don’t be surprised if you are offered a cup of tea, or invited to join one of the reading groups that meet around the big upstairs table. The most recent book on the go in the Slow Reading Group has been George Eliot’s Middlemarch wherein those taking part, week by week discuss a single chapter over coffee and biscuits. The next slow read starts in September with Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. That month too there will be the Children’s Book Launch,  starting with local writer, Sarah Griffiths, who will be reading  her book Douglas’s Trousers  to 2-8 year olds.

It will not surprise you, then, to learn that the bookshop has won national awards. Anna was also the founding force behind the hugely successful Wenlock Poetry Festival which over several years has hosted poets of international standing, and has Britain’s former Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy as its patron. (You can what poetry lovers get up to in the town HERE.)

This year the festival has taken a break. Anna also has been very unwell, but I’m glad to say, she tells us that she is feeling very much better.

So all best wishes, Anna, for your continuing good recovery.

In the meantime, if you go to the Wenlock Books link, you can meet Anna in a splendid 3 minute video. You can also have a snoop inside the bookshop and see just why it and its owner are so very much loved and appreciated by all of us.

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past

Window On The Past ~ Looking In, Looking Out At Much Wenlock Priory

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Our small town of Much Wenlock has been continuously inhabited for a thousand years. It grew up around the Priory and, until the Dissolution in 1540,  its citizens’ lives were ruled by the Prior who held his own  court. Of course many worked for the Priory directly, while others were farm tenants, the Prior being the preeminent landowner in the area, so fulfilling the role of Lord of the Manor.

In exchange for their tenancies of up to 20 acres, the farmers were expected to do work for the Prior. Sometimes his demands were greatly resented. So much so that in 1163 Wenlock’s peasant farmers rose up, making suit to the King to remove the overbearing prelate. It is recorded that they ‘threw down their ploughshares.’ In return, the Prior excommunicated them, the worst punishment imaginable short of execution. But still the farmers did not back down. They besieged the church and fought off the knights who had been despatched to restore order. The Prior was forced to hold an enquiry, and abide by the decision of a committee whose members were chosen by the farmers themselves – four knights and six monks whose judgement they must have trusted. And so justice was done – people power medieval style.

 

For more about Wenlock Priory see an earlier post HERE

And at Thursday’s Special the theme this week is WINDOWS.

“The Smallest House In Great Britain”?

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Doubtless there are poor souls, objects of London landlord avarice, who are currently forced to live in smaller premises, but for many a year Quay House in the Welsh castle town of Conwy has claimed the title of Great Britain’s smallest house.

Local tales say it was built in the 16th century, but the official heritage listing says it was built as a fisherman’s cottage around the late 18th century or early 1800s. It nestles in a crevice beside Conwy’s Castle’s outer walls (they were built 1283-89 by Edward I). One room up, one room down, the vital statistics are 3 metres ( 10 feet) high, 2.5 metres (8 feet) deep, and 1.8 metres (5 feet 9 inches) wide. The last occupant was one Robert Jones – a fisherman, and since he was 6 feet 3” tall (190 cm), he was unable to stand upright in either of his two rooms. He lived there until 1900 when the council condemned the place as unfit for habitation.

The little house, though, is still owned by Robert Jones’ descendants, the property inherited down the female line, and the present owner continuing to run it as a tourist attraction. Inside, on the ground floor there is only room for an open range and a bench with storage space along one wall. A ladder provides access to the upstairs single bed and tiny fireplace. The guide wears what passes for the traditional dress of Welsh womenfolk sans styrofoam accessory.

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Six Word Saturday

Unusual

You can read more about the sights of Conwy and surrounding area here.

Wandering Around Cotehele House In The Rain ~ Traces Of The Past

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Cotehele House in the Tamar Valley in Cornwall began life around 1300 when it was owned by a family of the same name. Fifty years on, a marriage delivered it into the Edgcumbe family who owned it for the next (almost) 600 years. These new owners remodelled the house in the 15th, 16th, and 19th centuries, as well as building themselves another (their principal) house further down the Tamar River at Mount Edgecumbe.

In 1947 the 6th Earl gave the house to the nation in lieu of death duties, and it is now owned by the National Trust, one of their more atmospheric  properties. It was particularly atmospheric on the rainy May day when we were last there, and also on the rainy December day when we went there to see the famous Christmas garland.

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15th century Gatehouse

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The house has extensive grounds. In the 16th century there were two parks and orchards. The 1730s estate map also shows a bowling green, and the dovecote of the first photo. This dates from around the end of 16th century. The lantern top provided access for the birds, which were of course cropped for meat.

The gardens we see to today were most shaped in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and extend to around 6 acres: lovely even on a wet, and gloomy Cornish day.

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Thursday’s Special: Traces of the Past

Traces Of The Past ~ Monuments To Cornwall’s Tin Miners

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My very good chum Lesley, took me to Kit Hill for a sun-downer walk back in May. It is an amazing spot, the highest point in Cornwall’s Tamar Valley. From the summit you can see for miles and miles  – south across Cornwall, north to Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor.

The hill itself is an outcrop of the Cornubian batholith, a mass of granite rock formed 280 million years ago, and covering much of the Cornwall-Devon peninsula. The granite is formed from crystalized and solidified magma that has boiled up from deep within the earth’s crust. The resulting rock is mineral rich: principally the tin ore cassiterite, but also copper, lead, zinc and tungsten.

There are signs of mining dating back to medieval times, although this involved only surface quarrying of weathered out tin stones, or ‘shodes’. It was not until the eighteenth century that men were working in deep-shaft mines, drained by adits (horizontal shafts driven into the hillside.)  However, you look at it, tin mining was a tough way to make a living.

The ornate chimney in the first photo dates from 1858. Now it is used to house various masts. Back then, and until 1885, it was part of the pumping arrangements for several mining concerns on the hill. Further down is the the chimney of the South Kit Hill Mine (Bal Soth Bre Skowl in Cornish), and the town of Callington below it.

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The shaft of this mine reach a depth of over 90 metres (300 feet). The chimney served the steam engine house which operated machinery to crush and sort the ore. The mine was worked between 1856 and 1882, but foundered as the quality of accessible tin declined and the business became mired in legal actions for fraud.

Now these chimneys serve only as mysterious and dramatic landmarks within a 400-acre countryside park. It is a wilderness place rich in wildlife: deer, badgers, skylarks, buzzards, stonechats and sparrow hawks. There are signs of ancient humankind too – a 5,000 year old Neolithic long barrow, and some 18 burial mounds, dating from the Bronze Age, including one beneath that ornate chimney stack.

When Lesley and I were there we were treated to some marvellous views of a cuckoo – a bird  more usually heard than seen, it having well known tendencies to sneakiness and stealth. There was also a rapid fly-past by two small raptors – too swift for identification but probably sparrow hawks since this is their well-known milieu. Stone chats and pipits bobbed about in the gorse, and around us the land stretched out as far as the eye could see, its fields and boundaries, in their own way, a document of human activity and endeavour over many centuries. And a very special place. Thank you, Lesley.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past

Through A Glass Darkly ~ Looking Out With Henry James’ Eyes?

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Faithful followers of this blog will know that my home town of Much Wenlock was host to writer Henry James on three occasions. He came as guest of local worthies, the Milnes Gaskells who owned both the Prior’s House (which they called The Abbey) and  Wenlock Priory ruins.

Adjoining the house is a beautiful ruin, part of the walls and windows and bases of the piers of the magnificent church administered by the predecessor of your host, the abbot. These relics are very desultory, but they are still abundant and testify to the great scale and the stately beauty of the abbey. You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment and measure the great girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is in that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and so elaborate a work of art should have arisen.

Henry James Portraits of Places

I imagine the Priory remains were more romantically ruinous in James’s time, lacking the custodial tidiness of English Heritage, whose property it now is. Those lofty Corsican pines in the background would have been saplings back in his day. All the same, at least once during his visits, the writer must have stood where I was standing when I took this photo – gazing through the old glass panes of The Abbey’s Great Hall, where, in the 1500s, the Prior of Wenlock did his most  lavish entertaining.

Local legend has it that James was working on his novella The Turn of the Screw  during one of his visits.  We know from his accounts in Portraits of  Places that he was struck by the antiquity of the place, and much interested in its ghost and tales of haunting that drove the household staff to spend the night in their homes. and not under The Abbey roof.

There’s more about Henry James and Wenlock in my earlier post When Henry James Came To Wenlock

By now you may be wondering how come I’m looking out of the Prior’s window. The Abbey is still privately owned, now the home of artist Louis de Wet. Last summer we were treated to a private tour by Gabriella de Wet : Going Behind The Scenes in Wenlock Abbey. There are more of Henry James’ descriptions in that post.

And now please head over to Lost in Translation where this week’s theme is windows. As you can see, my interpretation is somewhat oblique. Paula, though, presents us with some very unusual windows.

Black & White Sunday

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The Abbey, Much Wenlock, once the Prior’s Lodging. It boasts a host of windows:

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Hurlers And Miners ~ 6,000 Years Of Heritage On Bodmin Moor

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In the last post I featured The Hurlers stone circles  near the Cornish village of Minions on Bodmin Moor. Here they are again, if only a small segment. They date from the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, around 2,000 years BCE.

The landscape around is exposed and bleak, itself  a product of the human intervention that began at least 6,000 years ago, when the first Neolithic farmers, equipped only with stone axes, began the systematic clearance of the forested uplands.

It is an arresting thought that, armed only with stone-based technology, we humans were already consciously rearranging the planet’s surface. Early farmers carried out shifting ‘slash and burn’ cultivation, clearing ground, then moving on to virgin territory when the farm plots lost fertility. By such means the earliest farmers cleared great swathes of forest right from one end of Europe to the other. On Bodmin, any chances of forest regeneration were then reduced by stock grazing, which through subsequent millennia finished what Neolithic communities had started, creating the windswept moorland we see today.

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Of course these days  we know that removing tree cover contributes to climate change and environmental degradation, by altering rainfall patterns, and accelerating soil erosion. But in this case global climate change was also a factor.  During Neolithic-Early Bronze Age times it seems the climate was much warmer, with these uplands offering a more benign environment than today. A quick look at an ordnance survey map shows that Bodmin was a very busy place back then. There are numerous hut circles, burial cairns and tumuli, tor enclosures, stone-walled field systems, ceremonial stone circles and standing stones.

The siting of burial monuments, in particular, was very important – often on the skyline to be seen from one monument to another; or else related to a naturally prominent feature such as one of the stone tors. The Cheesewring Tor is a good example. It lies due north of The Hurlers circles. You will soon see why this weathered granitic pile of rocks captured the imagination of the ancestors, just as it captures ours today.

But there may also have been practical considerations too. When it came to the gathering of clans and families for important occasions, the visibility of man-made and natural features in a landscape without highways would have been the prehistoric equivalent of SatNav.

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Looking southwest from the Cheesewring this is what you see on the skyline beyond the quarry: a series of round barrows:

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But sometime around 2000 years BCE, the climate began to deteriorate and humanity moved to settle more low-lying areas. It is an interesting irony that the combination of human action and natural climate change which rendered the abandoned uplands unsuitable for anything other than grazing, thereby led to the survival of so many of the prehistoric remains.

Farming, though, is not the only agency of landscape change in this area. Shunt forward to the mid-nineteenth century and you will spot the evidence for quite a new kind of invasion. There’s a clue in that first photo of The Hurlers. Here’s another glimpse:

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And closer still:

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This is the Houseman’s engine house, part of South Phoenix Mine, now partially restored as the Minions Heritage Centre. It one of many such mines in the locality, their ruins as dramatic in their way as the stone circles and tors.  For fifty years, between the 1840s-1890s, Minions was the centre of a booming copper mining industry. Over 3,000 people were employed here, including women and children.

Hundreds and thousands of tons of copper ore was extracted, and exported down to Liskeard and the coast at Looe by means  of the ‘Cheesewring Railway’ otherwise known as the Liskeard & Caradon Railway. It was opened in 1844, operated initially by gravity and horsepower, and also carried granite and tin. You can just see part of the granite quarry below the Cheesewring tor. Other signs of Minions’ industrial heyday of miners, quarrymen and railway workers are the humps and bumps of abandoned spoil heaps. The nearby settlement of Minions is also evidence of the industry – it grew up around the junction of several branch lines to house the influx of workers. It is the highest village in Cornwall, and today has a rather desolate air.

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And now for another kind of heritage: legend. There are all sorts of stories connected with Bodmin’s man-made and natural features. I mentioned the origin of The Hurlers in the last post. The Cheesewring tor has also inspired all manner of explanations. One story tells how it was created by Giants and Saints at the time in the early Dark Ages when Christianity was spreading through the land.

The Giants, who were used to tramping about their domain, and doing just what they pleased, were fed up with the Christian Saints invading their land, putting up stone crosses, and declaring all the wells holy. They called a council to decide how to rid Cornwall of the nuisance.

And to this council there dared to come the frail St. Tue. He challenged Uther, the strongest of the Giants, to a trial of strength. They would have a rock hurling contest.

Rock hurling was one of the Giants’ favourite pursuits. Also, seeing the slightness of Saint Tue, the Giants were sure they would win.

Saint and Giant thus then took turns to throw six very large quoit shaped rocks across Craddock Moor and onto Stowes Hill, but to Uther’s surprise the little Saint soon proved a formidable opponent. By the time the Giant came to throw his last rock, his strength was failing. To the sounds of much Giantly groaning, his stone tumbled from the pile. Tue then  went to make his final throw. The rock was huge, but just as it seemed that the task was beyond him, an angel appeared and placed the rock on top of the pile. The Giants were so overawed by the sight of angel wings casting their golden glow about the place, they conceded to the Saints, and by this means Cornwall became a Christian land.

Another yarn has it that if you visit the Cheesewring at sunrise, you will see the top stone turn three times. This is more up my street myth-wise, and I truly would like to be there at dawn to see what happens, and also to hear the wind on the stones making them resound and mutter.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post: Heritage

 

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Of Men Turned To Stone And A Cup Of Gold

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We were spending a few days in south-east Cornwall last week and, in between downpours, we managed a trip up to Bodmin Moor to visit The Hurlers. This unique prehistoric site comprises three stone circles set out in a row, and dating from the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. This would make them around 4,000 years old. It is impossible to capture the full complex without aid of  hot air balloon or hang glider, so here are some piecemeal shots. Also the light, as you can see, was pretty poor.

The local explanation for the origin of these stones is that they are petrified men – turned to stone in punishment for playing hurling on a Sunday. (Cornish hurling is an ancient team game played with a silver ball. See the link for more details. And no, I don’t think that is an ancient hurler on the skyline).

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The circles are 33, 42 and 35 metres in diameter (108, 138  and 115 feet respectively), and none have all their stones intact. The central circle is the best preserved with 14 standing stones and 14 marker stones. This circle and the one to the north of it align with the huge Bronze Age Rillaton Barrow, visible on the skyline to the north-east. It was here that one of the British Museum’s most precious treasures, the Rillaton Gold Cup was discovered during excavations in 1837. At that time it was passed as treasure trove to King William IV and so remained in the royal household. It was only a hundred years later, after the death of George V in 1936 that its full historical significance was recognised. HRH had apparently been using it as a receptacle for his shirt and collar studs.

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Photo: Creative Commons      Rillaton Gold Cup circa 1700 BC

 

Thursdays’ Special: Traces of the Past – Please visit Paula to see her dramatic view of San Geremia church in Venice, plus other bloggers’ posts of relics of times past.

A Good Crop All Round ~ Thursday’s Special At Hopton Castle And Brampton Bryan

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This week at Lost in Translation Paula asks us to show her photos that we have cropped to reveal detail or improve the composition. I have to say that I crop most of my photos, and certainly architectural subjects almost always benefit from a trim.

Here are some cropped shots in and around Hopton Castle. This mediaeval ruin stands in a rural and rather remote corner of Shropshire near the Herefordshire border, one of a cluster of castles built either to keep the Welsh neighbours in their place or as a piece of lordly showing off. Today, Hopton is romantically and rustically picturesque, although once it was the site of a bloody Civil War siege.  In one of my earlier Thursday’s Special posts I featured the restoration of the monument.

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Not far from Hopton and just over the border into Herefordshire is the little village of Brampton Bryan. One of its most noteworthy features is the free-form yew hedge that shelters the owners of Brampton Bryan Hall from the gaze of passing hoi polloi  and the inhabitants of the pretty estate village. The light was not good, but I think cropping the images has made them passable – at least for ‘guided tour’ general nosiness purposes:

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The Harley family who own the estate, including the village properties with their blue doors, has been around the place since Domesday. Their present home behind the hedge was built after the Civil War in 1660, and remodelled in the 18th century. I snatched a glimpse over the rear churchyard wall, but though imposing it was not very captivating, at least not compared with this next view of their own personal castle ruin. It is not open to the public so I couldn’t get a better photo.

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I can’t help thinking how very wonderful it would be to have one’s own castle ruin out in the apple orchard, never mind the stately pile.

Thursday’s Special: Section