Through Time And Space ~ Black & White Sunday

P1060543

This photo was taken at Penmon Priory on the island of Anglesey. It is a mysterious place, on the shore of the Menai Strait. The stone ruins date from the 12th century, built on the site of St. Seriol’s 6th century hermitage.

The window was in a building beside a dovecote, a much later structure, built by the local lord in 1600, long after the monastic period.

The dovecote’s interior was difficult to snap due to window slots in every quarter, but you get the idea. There are 1,000 nest boxes for pigeons, and both the birds and their eggs were harvested. Originally there would have been a long revolving ladder attached to the central plinth.

P1060541 - Copy

*

And since I know you are curious to see the outside too, here it is  seen through entanglements of Old Man’s Beard – the seed heads of wild clematis which adorn Britain’s winter hedgerows and byways:

017

Black & White Sunday: Through  This week Paula has an especially spectacular interpretation of this week’s challenge. Go see!

Honeymoon Destination Anyone?

I was thinking of Jude as I took this photo last Thursday. Now she lives under a Cornish sky, but not so long ago this was her stamping ground, and I’m pretty  sure she knows the path I am standing on as I take this photograph. It skirts the cliff beneath the brooding elevation of Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, the River Teme rushing over the weir below.

The other thought that was running through my head was: what a place for a honeymoon. And yes, I’ve mentioned this before. But even with the walls intact, the great hearths lit, and the tapestries well hung and thickly plied, it would have made a daunting venue for post-nuptial celebrations. The bride and groom I am thinking of were only teenagers, and the year was 1501. Fortunately for them, some consideration was given to their comfort and they were lodged, not inside the castle, but just outside the walls in the Castle Lodge.

By then the castle had already been standing for over 400 years. It was built after the Norman Conquest between 1066 and 1085. Its purpose control and domination; its overriding associations with war not love. It had been built on the borderland between England and Wales to keep the Welsh warrior princes in check, and thereafter figured in three civil wars and numerous uprisings. In the 12th century King Stephen and Empress Matilda fought over it. In the 13th century it featured in the Second Barons’ War. In the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century it was a Yorkist stronghold under Richard Duke of York (later Richard III). In fact anyone who was anyone throughout a thousand years of history either pitched up here in person, or had the place in their sights for some political reason or other.

P1070170

And the teenage newly weds? One was Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, just fifteen years old, and heir to Henry VII. His bride, a few months older, was Catherine of Aragon, betrothed to him since the age of three. They had been married at St. Paul’s in London on 14 November 1501, only ten days after their first  meeting. Arthur informed Catherine’s parents (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) that he meant to be ‘a true and loving husband’. But from the start there were problems of communication. The couple tried speaking to each other in Latin, but were confounded by their differences in pronunciation.

But then what do such things matter when it comes to state expediency? The marriage was a matter of strategic alliance, and the honeymoon at Ludlow was all about Arthur being seen to stake just claim over Wales.  He was  there on royal business to preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches.

The couple were in Ludlow over the winter months, and one wonders how a girl from the sunny warmth of Spain felt to be despatched  to such a union and to such a place. One hopes they found some joy there, although it would have been all too brief. They both fell ill with the highly contagious ‘sweating sickness’ which was sweeping England at this time.  By April 1502 Arthur was dead, and Catherine swiftly rendered a diplomatically inconvenient widow – a pawn in the foreign alliance game.

Apart from anything else, there were serious financial implications for Henry VII. Ferdinand had only paid half of Catherine’s 200,000 ducat dowry. Now Henry was faced with returning it, and/or suing for the unpaid portion. So it was that Catherine became betrothed to Henry’s second son, Henry, Duke of York, whom she finally married in 1509, thus becoming the first wife of Henry VIII. For 24 years all went well, and then Ann Boleyn came along and it was all damn lies, character assassination, cruel confinement  and social ostracism for Catherine. A sad end indeed for a Spanish princess, our long-time English queen, and Europe’s first woman ambassador.

P1070147

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Traces Of The Past ~ And Who Do You Think Lived In This Little House?

P1060173

Well, I’d never seen one of these before.  There it was outside the walled garden at Attingham Park, one of Shropshire’s grandest historic houses.  Closer inspection and the spotting of an information panel inside one of the half-moon ‘windows’ yielded the knowledge that it was in fact the bees knees in accommodation – a grand house commissioned specially for the Second Duke of Berwick’s bees.

The house was originally sited in the Duke’s extensive orchards to encourage the pollination of the fruit trees. Behind each opening there would have been a traditional hive or skep – an upturned, domed basket made from coils of straw. This apian ‘des res’ apparently dates from the early 1800s and is only one of two known Regency examples in the country. The great landscape designer Humphry Repton and architect John Nash were both employed at Attingham around this time, and so either one could be responsible for the design.

The hall and park are in the care of the National Trust, and it is currently one of their most visited properties – over 400,000 visitors last year and growing. Millions have been spent on the house, and the next huge project is the recreation of Lord Berwick’s pleasure grounds. Nor have the bees been forgotten. There are a quarter of a million honey bees in the Park, and the Trust has recently established a large, new apiary in the Deer Park. There is also a National Observation Hive in the orchard where you can watch the bees coming and going. Attingham honey may be going on sale soon. So a big cheer to the National Trust for championing the bee cause, this in the face of determined eradication of the species by the Big Unfriendly Pesticide Giants. We’ll all be very sorry if bees become ‘a thing of the past’.

P1060179

The walled garden in winter: a restoration project in progress. You can just glimpse the orchard beyond the far wall.

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past Now visit Paula for her fine entry.

Basket Case ~ How To Make A Bag From A Baobab

IMG_3922

I could have written about my compost heaps, and repurposing of fallen foliage into leaf mould, but I’ve already done that HERE and written the poem. Instead, I’ve chosen an example of some traditional Africa repurposing – far more interesting and pleasing to look at.

Kenya is famous for its string bags or kiondo. These days they are usually woven from sisal string, the sisal grown on vast plantations. But in the past the twine was much finer and fabricated from baobab and wild fig bark. One of my treasures from our Kenya days then (and as far as the Team Leader is concerned, I have rather too many such treasures) is this more traditional bag made from baobab fibre.  I bought it from a curio seller at the annual Nairobi Agricultural Show in 1997. I think I paid 500 shillings for it, around five pounds at the time.

IMG_3923

Baobab trees may appear impenetrable entities with iron-like skins, but their trunks are deceptively fibrous, and especially so in old age and after elephants have done some determined shredding work on them.  Even so, the twine to make a bag like this would have taken  much preparation. The main process involved chewing the fibre until it could be rolled out to the required thinness. Two strands would be worked one after another, and then twisted together to produce the final cord. This was then dyed using natural pigments, the cords cut to suitable lengths to create the warp threads, and work begun from base of the bag, moving outwards as the weft thread spirals round.

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab

Whether or not the materials have changed, methods of construction  remain much the same. I have seen women striding out along the Mombasa highway, their work in progress flowing from their arms like some giant deconstructed spider’s web. You will see what I mean in the next photo. It was taken in the early 1900s and shows a young Kikuyu woman at work:

withprehistoricp00rout_0187[1]

kiondo

Both images are from what I feel is the inappropriately titled 1910 monograph With A Prehistoric People  by W Scoresby Routledge and Katherine Routledge.

*

And there you have it – a beautiful, but eminently useful bag, painstakingly constructed from baobab parts. I consider it a work of most artful repurposing and, as with many traditionally crafted everyday artefacts, it also strikes  me how  people untouched by western mass-production, daily and routinely  made art out of necessity and utility. There is an intrinsic aesthetic here, which is why I take issue with the term ‘prehistoric’ used in this early twentieth century context. People who work with their hands in this way continuously nurture and exercise  their creative intelligence and powers of discretion and visualization. This also makes me think that one day we technophiles might wake up and regret the loss of such facilities and skills; we might recognize, for instance, that their passing signals a lack of general competency?

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post Photo Challenge: repurpose

Meet T’owd Man ~ AKA The Old Man Of Wirksworth

IMG_3500

He is said to be 800 years old, or thereabouts, this mythic little figure of a lead miner with his pick and kibble (basket). He is presently to be found embedded in the wall inside St. Mary’s Church in the Derbyshire Peak District town of Wirksworth. But this was not his original home. He once lived in the nearby village of Bonsall, where he was found during the restoration of the 13th century  parish church of St. James. This was in 1863, and it was then that T’owd Man found his way (along with other pieces of interesting medieval stone work) into the garden of one Churchwarden Coates.

This highhanded commandeering of the local lead miners’ talisman did not please the general populace, who wanted him restored to sacred territory. Somehow in the argy bargy he ended up being firmly mortared into the wall of St. Mary’s Church in Wirksworth instead – where he has remained ever since for his own good and general safekeeping. He has also become the town’s ‘unofficial’ symbol, so you can pay him a visit, AND get the tee shirt.

But this story of general displacement is making me wonder. What  if T’owd Man is a good deal older than is currently thought.  I’m assuming his 13th century date was given him because he was found in a church of 13th century origins. But to my eye he could easily be a Saxon carving. What if the medieval builders of the Bonsall church had also recycled him?  (There are in fact many examples of Saxon carving within St. Mary’s, all re-deployed from an earlier church. See my post Expressions of Power  ~ Secular and Spiritual? for more of the background history).

Lead mining was a key industry in the area from at least Roman times. There is also documentary evidence of its importance in Saxon Wirksworth. In 835 the township was ruled by Abbess Cynewaru, and in a missive of that time she states that she was every year sending a gift of lead valued at 300 shillings to Christ Church, Canterbury. Much later in the Domesday Book of 1086 the entry for Wirksworth includes 3 lead works.

Wirksworth was in fact the centre for the trade. It was a hard and dangerous business. The miners were also a maverick lot. Many were yeoman farmers who combined hill farming with lead working, and some grew extremely rich on the trade, although many died from explosions in the mines, and the general toxicity of working with lead.

All the miners’ activities were subject to a system of rigorous rules and regulations overseen by the Barmaster of the Barmote Court. This court was held in Wirksworth for at least 7 centuries, and had its origins in Saxon Burg Moots (moot is Saxon for gathering or assembly). The last version of the court or Moot Hall still survives. It was built just out of the town centre in 1814 to replace a grander Moot Hall that stood in the Market Place. It seems the noisy behaviour of the miners, and the congestion they caused in the town centre, led to the earlier building being demolished.

IMG_3436

Wirksworth is a fine town for a visit. Its many surviving seventeenth and eighteenth century houses attest to the general prosperity of the place over many decades.  When the lead ran out in the 19th century, limestone quarrying replaced it. Rivers were harnessed to power cotton mills, and so the industrial age kicked in. And if this smacks too much of ‘dark satanic mills’, don’t you believe it. The town sits in glorious countryside, in the heart of England, in fact at ‘its very navel’ as one-time resident D.H. Lawrence put it. Here, then, are some more views from England’s very green and pleasant navel:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Thursday’s Special ~ Traces of the Past Check in here to see what Paula and other bloggers have posted.

Rambling Yesterday On Wenlock Edge ~ “The Holly And The Power Station”?

IMG_3731

We went for a tramp along the Edge Wood at midday yesterday. It’s three fields up from our back garden and quite a haul to reach it. Once there, a breather is definitely called for, and so it’s a good moment to stop and look at the old Ironbridge Power Station cooling towers.

P1060131

Some find them ugly, but I like them. They are true landmarks – geologically and historically speaking. They stand on the banks of the River Severn, England’s longest river, which rises in the Welsh uplands and descends through the Midlands to the Bristol Channel. The towers stand on a piece of landscape – the Severn Gorge – which was only created 15,000 years ago – a mere nano-second past in Earth History Time.

But the thing that most fascinates me is that the River Severn, presently running south past the towers, once flowed north, so meeting the sea on the coast between North Wales and Chester. This remarkable change of direction is all down to the last Ice Age and the fact that the land was glacier-locked as far south as Shrewsbury, our county town. The Severn’s northern outlet thus became blocked by ice, and so the river backed up, forming a great lake (Lapworth) as the water lay trapped between the ice sheet, and the limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge.

Little by little, as the Ice Age drew to a close, the river wheedled its way through the northerly end of Wenlock Edge and carved a new course, cutting through, and so exposing the Industrial Revolution-making strata of coal, ironstone, fire clay, and limestone. And as I’ve said in other posts, this part of Shropshire lays claim to being ‘the cradle of the Industrial Revolution’, though crucible might be a better metaphor, given the emphasis on iron production.

However, the 18th century pioneering ironmasters of the Severn Gorge were not the first to take advantage of the local geology. Nearly two millennia earlier the Romans were already exploiting these resources. Their military camp of Viroconium (Wroxeter) lay just to the north of the Gorge and, once the locals were suitably subdued, so the camp transformed into a great city, one of the four largest in Britain. There is evidence of glass making and iron working in the area, and local clays would have served for brick and tile production. In fact one of the brick-built basilica walls still rises impressively above the surrounding farmland, a surprising survival when so much of the city fabric was recycled through succeeding centuries.

Back in the Gorge, and many centuries after the end of Roman rule, the mediaeval  monks of Buildwas Abbey and Much Wenlock Priory were also busy making use of local natural resources on an industrial scale. They had mines, decorative tile works, iron-making forges and bloomeries. They also had a thriving export business along the River Severn. There’s a record from around 1200 that states that the Prior of Buildwas was fined because twelve of his barges were blocking the river downstream at Bridgnorth. Probably not your usual vision of what monastic enterprises got up to.

Given so much entrepreneurial and manufacturing business afoot in the Gorge AND a navigable river with access to the great port of Bristol,  it is not surprising that when the monasteries were dissolved in 1540, and their properties distributed to the king’s friends and favourites, that the place should attract a rash of opportunistic London merchants, lawyers and aristocrats, all out to get rich and exploit the former monastic concerns for themselves. Soap  making, cold tar exploitation, coal mining, iron production, steel-making experiments were being conducted by very unlikely people of the well-heeled sort across south-east Shropshire.

Such industrial fervour was further stoked by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) who offered a prize for anyone who could find a way to smelt decent iron using coal instead of charcoal. The loss of the nation’s great trees, needed for naval purposes and the protection of the realm, was causing the monarch much concern. The prize, however, was to remain unclaimed. It would be a good century later before  Abraham Darby arrived in the Gorge and, after remodelling a former monastic iron works in Coalbrookdale, perfected the much sought-after technique.

His discovery helped shape the world we occupy today. See what geology has to answer for.

And here’s some more of quite another sort: the Wrekin. We have the best view of it on our homeward path back down into Wenlock.

P1060146

The plain to the left of the hill was the location of the glacial Lake Lapworth. The Roman city was in that vicinity too. The Severn Gorge is off-screen to the right of the Wrekin.

I’ve written about the Wrekin’s mythological and geological origins HERE, but I may not have mentioned there that it has an Iron Age hillfort on the top. This was a stronghold of the Celtic Cornovii  i.e. those who  were duly subdued and citified by the invading Romans. Under Roman rule Viroconium became the Cornovii regional capital, which they continued to occupy until the late 600s – 700 C.E. when the site was abandoned.

We were always told at school that Viroconium’s last days were due to Saxons or Vikings marauding up the River Severn, but there is no sign that the exit from the city was anything but peaceful. I remember working on the excavation of the presumed road-of-retreat long ago as an archaeology student. I have to say that at the time I wasn’t altogether convinced by the site director’s interpretation of the remains that we were uncovering. At least it made me consider that much depends on the way you excavate a site. This site was being stripped across a whole field, rather than being investigated through the judicious placing of exploratory trenches. It seemed to me that certain trowelling techniques, as applied by willing and enthusiastic novices, might be responsible for creating features that aren’t actually there at all. An interesting thought on how the past might be re-created and invented.

And now just to prove how cold it was on our ramble, and not just gloriously, and so unexpectedly sunny: next some ICE, a phenomenon not witnessed in these parts for several seasons. Which brings me back to the start of this yarn, but hopefully not to the start of a new Ice Age as long predicted by certain climatologists. There have been enough tangents along our path already.

P1060148

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

Jo’s Monday Walk  Please take a turn in this quarter for another fabulous ramble with Jo in the Algarve.

Who Sells The Pasts-That-Never-Were ~ Are We Seeing The Danger Signals?

100_7809

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

L P Hartley The Go-Between

I’ve cropped and re-cropped this image in hopes you can put yourself right there on this path amid the fallen leaves. I’m hoping, too, your eye will be drawn further down the trail, that you will be wondering what lies beyond: where is this path taking us?

The ash trees and goat willows arching overhead make the path tunnel-like; mysterious, but not threatening. Slashes of light fall in from the right. They relieve the gloom of the overgrown embankment on the left.

Other impressions might occur. That this is a peaceful place: a perfect resort from the technologized maelstrom we have created for ourselves.  That it must be especially lovely in summer: birdsong and windrush through the greenery. Love-sick souls might wander here; those seeking solace from other cares; writers who have lost their plots; small boys intent on secluded thickets for a new den; dog walkers; girls on ponies: all seeking, consciously or not, the perceived restorative, imagining powers of wilderness.

As you take in the scene I might tell you that where you are standing is an ancient green lane, a once busy rustic thoroughfare used for centuries by the lay workers of Much Wenlock Priory. You can imagine them hauling carts of grain to the mill for grinding, or mule trains bringing in bales of wool from a shearing of the Prior’s flocks. I could throw in tales of St. Milburga, the seventh century abbess, who was renowned for striking springs of pure water from bare rock, or tell you that this path was one of the haunts of resistance fighter Wild Edric, the local Saxon lord who challenged Norman rule.

But no. That’s not it at all. Nothing in that last paragraph happened here as far as I know. What a shame. It had all the makings of a good yarn. We were beginning to identify with the characters. We were starting to confer on them certain notions/images/memories, conjuring a past we think we recognize.

Wait though. Here’s another version.

Into this tranquil scene comes what? A TRAIN?  Turn around and you will see what all the din is about. A large locomotive is rumbling out of the railway siding. It is hauling many wagons loaded with limestone from Wenlock’s vast Shadwell Quarry, which lies out of your sight behind the path embankment. The limestone is destined for the furnaces of South Wales and the West Midlands Black Country, used as a flux in the smelting of iron. This scene belongs to the 1860s when the United Kingdom was still a world leader in heavy industry, the monster-offspring of the 18th century Quaker Ironmasters who pioneered iron-making techniques just a mile or two away in Coalbrookdale.

Other scenes can be added: weekly earth-shattering blasts from the quarry; the land, lanes, town in a grey-dust pall; air filled with fumes from lime-burning kilns; a man burned one day in a kiln collapse; Wenlock’s Town Council of the late 1940s complaining that the blasting was shaking stones from the Wenlock Priory ruins; 1981 and rocks from a quarry blasting landing on the neighbouring secondary school, injuring three pupils.

Here then are a few clips from Much Wenlock’s many ‘pasts’; ones that actually happened. The path you are standing on is the track bed of the former Severn Valley Railway branch line. It once linked Much Wenlock to the rest of the world in a way that the River Severn had done in times past. This railway once served the nation’s industrial heartlands. And most of us have forgotten this now. Or never knew it. Looking at it now, it is anyway hard to believe.

In this particular case our forgetfulness or ignorance or disbelief is probably of little consequence. We have a lovely place to walk, and doubtless most of us will protest should anyone try to turn it into a car park or a housing development.

And yet?

I still have a niggling query. Should we not all be a good deal more knowledgeable about own histories, the actual lives of parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Should we not all be well versed in our nation’s last hundred years, including understanding our responsibilities as citizens, and knowing precisely how our land and its people make a living?

I’ll leave these questions with you, because I want to talk about the quotation. It has haunted me for decades, and is the opening line of L P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. But it was not in the novel where I first read these words. My first encounter was in the title of quite another book. It was 1985 or 1986, and the book in question had not long been published. At the time I was employed as the seemingly grand, if poorly paid Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. (This being the sprawling Shropshire heritage enterprise that lays claim to protecting and interpreting the ‘birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ aka the aforementioned Coalbrookdale – a location which thus has a very great deal to answer for).

In those days, the IGMT had recently set up an Institute of Heritage Management offering postgraduate diplomas to professionals in the heritage business. It was at one of the Institute seminars that I encountered David Lowenthal, American historian and geographer, and Professor of Geography at University College London. (He is at UCL still, Emeritus Professor at the age of 93.)

Lowenthal’s book The Past Is A Foreign Country is regarded as one of the classic works of cultural history. It was described by one erudite reviewer at the time as ‘a meditation on misuses of the past in contemporary culture’.

I will repeat that phrase in bold:

‘a meditation on the misuses of the past in contemporary culture’

In the light of recent events – the outcome of the US election and Britain’s Brexit vote wherein proponents’ projection of a perfect national past formed a key part of the ‘sales’ pitch – it seems to me that this is a phenomenon that should worry us all.

The past that was being sold was not an old past either, but one deemed to be within someone’s living memory – you know, that happy land just over the brow of the hill where everyone resides in the rosy glow of unchallenged prosperity and inviolable national sovereignty and with no incomers.

When did that place have its heyday? Can anyone tell me. I’ve been alive quite a long time, and I can’t pinpoint it. When I grew up in the 50s there was still post war rationing. Kids were getting polio. Pregnant unmarried girls were considered the scum of the earth, and hustled into homes. Racist language was the norm. Homosexual acts were criminal offences. There was the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Kenya Emergency, the Malayan Emergency, the Cuba Missile Crisis. The Cold War threat of nuclear missile strikes hung over us for decades – fear still lingering until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. All local authorities had their nuclear bunkers in place. Some are still extant.

So the golden age must have been earlier then – ‘40s, ‘30s, ‘20s? Surely not. Ah silly me. It was obviously the ‘80s when Thatcher and Reagan let all the bankers off the leash to start wreaking unmitigated financial mayhem across the globe…

Anyway, you get the picture.

It is doubtless a common human affliction to wish to turn back the clock whenever things go badly wrong. It also a well held fallacy that there is some perfect place from which humanity has been excluded – a sort of expulsion-from-Eden syndrome – and that maybe we can get back there?

Lowenthal points up our maladjusted relationship with the past  when he says:

…we also preserve, I suggest, because we are no longer intimate enough with that legacy to rework it creatively. We admire its relics, but they do not inspire our own acts and works.

He suggests too that “the past conjured up is…largely an artefact of the present”, “shaped by today’s predilections, its strangeness domesticated by our preservation of its vestiges.”

The past has become commoditized as escapism, a state endlessly replicated in the kind of costume dramas that lure us into thinking that people back then thought just as we do. It is an on-going process of re-invention that becomes ever more ‘real’ and so I think predisposes many us towards a hankering for a past that contains none of the things that so upset us now. It was so much better then.

Wanting to turn back the clock to a time-that-never-was suggests feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; of depression, hardship and broken spirit. Hanging on to such a notion is obviously not going to help solve any of the problems that face us.  In the short term it leaves us vulnerable to those who would sell fake pasts for our future salvation (and politicians have always manipulated history to confound us – some on a megalomaniac scale). In the longer term, when the lie is exposed, it will bring only further incapacitating disillusionment. It might bring worse too.

And how did we get into this position – we, the rich nations of the northern hemisphere? How did all our great assets reduce us to such impoverished and desperate ways of thinking? Why do we not know enough about ourselves and our nations to see off the self-serving opportunists who feed us fantasies and divisive hate-stories?

These are questions that surely have very many answers, and for now I’m leaving them with you too.

Interestingly, David Lowenthal decided to do a re-write of his book. It came out last year.The Past Is A Foreign Country – Revisited. It earned him the 2016 British Academy Medal, and here’s a nice review by Robert Tombs. The reason he apparently chose to do a new book was because the past he had addressed in 1985 had, over three decades, been so transformed as to be an entirely new realm. Well, who’d have thought it!

I have this mad, optimistic hope that one day we might get some slight grip on reality – before it gets a grip on us. And now it’s clearly time I took a walk. Back up the old railway line then. It is far more peaceful there.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Postscript:

This post was written as a result of recent ‘conversations’ with poet Robyn at Jambo Robyn and scientist Swarn Gill at Cloak Unfurled. Many thanks both for the thought-provoking exchanges.

For The Love Of Steam ~ Trains And Tracks At The Severn Valley Railway

IMG_1835 - Copy

100_6811

IMG_1857

IMG_1858 - Copy

It was a gloomy, low-lit winter’s day when we went for a wander around Bridgnorth’s Severn Valley Railway. The reason for this visit is described elsewhere (Connected On And Off The Rails), so I will confine myself to mentioning that it had something to do with rivets and Graham’s model-making enterprise.

All these photos were originally colour shots which did not convert too well to straight black and white due to the aforementioned poor light. So I’ve added the blue-ish haze for interest’s sake. I think it suits the coal-burning, hard iron,  cold steel, railway yard feel of steam locomotion.

For more trains and tracks please clickety clack over to Cee’s B & W Thursday.

IMG_1840 - Copy

Two Being Nosy On The High Street ~ As Caught By Nosy Writer ~ (That Would Be Me)

100_6264

I do it myself of course when I’m walking along Much Wenlock High Street. The windows of Raynald’s Mansion are just too tempting for those disposed to be nosy. There are always interesting artifacts and pieces of unusual antique furniture inside. The place appears to be some kind of shop, but it is never open. The extraordinary timbered facade, built in 1682, was apparently a later addition to a fifteenth century hall. The Victoria County History for Shropshire rather sniffily suggests that this kind of construction was both crude and ‘old hat’ for a time when everyone who had money was going in for smart townhouse frontages in brick and stone. But  never mind the architectural snobbery. It is still one of the town’s most picturesque buildings. There are also said to be ghostly apparitions at these windows. Just the job for Halloween. I must look out for them the next time I’m out and about on the High Street.

 copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Black & White Sunday: Couple(s)

Derbyshire’s Arbor Low ~ They Call It The Stonehenge Of The North

IMG_3357

Unlike Stonehenge a visit to Arbor Low does not include accompanying hosts of fellow enthusiasts, tacky gifts and bad coffee, nor the parting with large sums of money to go in (adult ticket £16.50). In consequence there are absolutely no facilities, no opening or closing times, and thus no need to pre-book to avoid the rush.

There is, however, an honesty box by the farm gate, and a requested fee of £1 per person. This is fine by me. The monument, though scheduled, is on private land. The farmer has to put up with the repeated nuisance of standing stones devotees, although on the September afternoon of our visit, takings suggested that scarcely a couple of dozen others had preceded us that day, and as we set off from the car there were only three people ahead of us on the track.

The only problem with Arbor Low is that once you’ve trekked through the farmyard and across the field to visit Derbyshire’s most important Neolithic henge (one’s head inevitably full of Stonehenge images, and lots of anticipation) it all looks decidedly flat when you get there, and so quite lacking in the upstanding drama of its more famous southern analogue. And while Arbor Low surely has considerable edge when it comes to setting (a thousand feet up on a limestone crest of the White Peak)  one wonders why the comparison has been implied at all. Isn’t Arbor Low its own special place?

I suppose, then, that mentioning the two sites in the same breath is really more about emphasising their prehistoric importance than suggesting any correspondence in physical scale or appearance. Arbor Low is anyway a much smaller circle. But it does have its own unique features, apart from the recumbent stones that is. These include a very impressive encircling ditch and an outer rampart with the added extra of a later Bronze Age round barrow built across its southerly bank. You can see it on the right of the next photograph.

IMG_3358

So now that I’ve raised the vision of Stonehenge with its great sarsen lintels, I want you to forget it, and think about digging. The time is some four and half thousand years ago. I am the foreman, and I am handing you an antler pick, and maybe a cattle bone shoulder-blade to use as a shovel. We have marked out a circle some 70 metres across, and now you have to start digging 3 metres down into the limestone bedrock, while shovelling up your spoil to create the outer bank.

After many, many, many man-, woman-, and child-hours you can step back and regard the massive earthwork thus created. The freshly dug limestone of the rampart will doubtless have an unearthly white-grey glow. It will be visible from miles around, despite a more wooded landscape than today. At sunrise and sunset it will look spectacular against the skyline, the bank much taller and with a sharper profile that the present remains. In other words, it cannot be mistaken for anything other than a highly prestigious, and momentous man-made structure – the visual shock equivalent of coming upon a designer high-rise in the middle of a wilderness. Or maybe Starship Enterprise.

IMG_3354

After all the digging you are left with a central oval platform around 50 metres across. Perhaps the limestone slabs are already located there, set up on end, and bedded, after much hefting and shunting, in the rocky ground. They could have been worked during the making of the ditch, or sourced from somewhere nearby. In any event, they would have involved considerable effort given your limited toolkit of stone, wood and bone.

From outside the earthwork – and because of the height of the outer bank, you cannot see either the stone circle, or to observe anything that is going on within. Stepping through the entrance to view the newly built monument is thus perhaps a deliberately contrived catch-your-breath moment: the scene before you covert, unnerving, awe-inspiring, drama-filled. If some ceremony is in progress – a narrative declaimed or sung, the outer bank will amplify the sounds in mysterious ways – echoing, resonant, other-worldly; it may be a place of loud whispers.

There will perhaps be no grass cover, just an exposed limestone arena. Around the oval platform you will see some forty standing stones.

IMG_3347

In the centre there is also some kind of sanctuary, a rectangular configuration of more standing stones. The barrow on the southern bank is not yet there. It will be another thousand years before this spot is used as a burial site – perhaps by strangers, perhaps by the distant descendants of  you henge builders. These newcomers have also built another barrow, Gib Hill, just across the field from Arbor Low. Here they raised their own tomb atop the long barrow built by your forebears, a monument that possibly long preceded the stone circle. And so although you can no longer remember the rites and customs of these ancestors, you do know that, like the great mediaeval cathedrals of Europe with their roots in Roman and Saxon times, this place was considered ‘sacred space’ for a millennium and more…

*

And so back to reality and the flattened circle we see today. No one knows when the stones were laid low or why. There are other so-called recumbent stone circles in Britain. Sometimes some of the stones have also been buried. Superstitious dread could have much to do with it: an attempt to neutralise the stones’ power perhaps. There is also archaeological evidence in other contexts that suggests that the prehistoric occupants themselves have ritually ‘closed’ particular sites, perhaps prior to moving to a new centre of operations. There are other more practical reasons too: later farmers came along and simply re-used or moved the stones because they were ‘in the way’.

I also seem to remember from my student field-trip days to Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire that one of the stones had been buried in mediaeval times to cover up a murder. When the stone was being restored to its upright position, beneath it was found the grisly remains of a surgeon-barber, identifiable by the tools of his trade that were still with him. More fanciful interpretations of this find could of course suggest the presumed continuing practice in pagan sacrificial offerings, i.e. the kind of activity that we modern folk so very much like to associate with all ancient stones.

IMG_3353

I suppose one of the most surprising things I discovered about Arbor Low is that there has been no archaeological exploration of this site since early Victorian times when the local antiquarian Thomas Bateman of Lomerdale Hall, and serial excavator of prehistoric barrows, tackled the place. It was he who discovered a human burial in the stone circle barrow and, during his Gib Hill excavation, uncovered a stone cist (a slab built tomb) in which the cremated human remains were placed along with an urn and offerings of meat and flint tools. And this, it seems, is all that is known.

IMG_3364

So many mysteries then, and no likely answers. Instead I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Bateman and his description of Arbor Low from his Vestiges of the Antiquities of Derbyshire 1848:

…the solitude of the place and the boundless view of uncultivated country are such as to carry the observer back through a multitude of centuries, and make him believe that he sees the same view and the same state of things as existed in the days of the architects of this once holy fane.

 

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell