This photo was taken in September, in the field behind the house: a familiar place then, or so it seems. I like the sense of emptiness, or rather, the effect of having been emptied. Viewed in the abstract, the stubble ridges attract me too: a more active idea embodied now, something akin to tracks and of being drawn at speed over the brow of the hill to some bright, unseen future. On the other hand this might easily be a false reading; the large straw bale sitting below the false horizon has a sentinel look. A fortified outpost? The perception is disturbing. I start to ponder on who exactly is running the reality we believe we inhabit and why on earth, and for earth’s sake, do we continue to entrust them with it. Which brings me to the medieval notion wherein people believed they got the kings they deserved. Also a disturbing thought: but disturbing enough to make us now take action and change the picture? I wonder.
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.
Doorway from the south aisle to the now roofless cloister.
For Historic England’s schedule summary of the Priory’s history please go HERE.
When it comes to horticultural bling, the gardens of England’s grand houses take a lot of beating. They were of course designed entirely for the purposes of showing off the fruits of questionable gains, whether acquired through creative accounting practices in the service of the monarch, strategic marriage alliances, political opportunism, slave owning or straight forward pillage.
And so it is that, along with the overbearing edifice large enough to house a small-town population, the surrounding designer parterres, avenues, arbours, grottos, fountains, cascades, Greek temples, and goodly cavalcade of deities and other mythological beings, could be seen to confer legitimacy, privilege and status on arriviste owners and their subsequent offspring.
Here at Chatsworth, home of successive Dukes of Devonshire, the formal garden alone extended to one hundred acres. The earliest version was created in 1555 by Sir William Cavendish (he of creative accounting fame) and Bess of Hardwick. Over the next three centuries the layout became increasingly extravagant in a bid to complement the palatial makeovers effected on the house. In 1836 the 6th Duke appointed Joseph Paxton to re-design what were then termed the ‘Pleasure Grounds’, and it is Paxton’s influence that is most in evidence today.
In particular, he was charged with re-engineering the Emperor Fountain as seen in the photo above. For 160 years it was the tallest gravity-fed fountain in the world, the jet having reached a record height of 295 feet (90 metres). It replaced the earlier Great Fountain, itself a wonder of hydro-engineering, until the 6th Duke thought Tsar Nicholas 1 of Russia was intending to visit, and so had it mind to outdo the Tsar’s Peterhof Palace fountain. To me this seems incredibly rude, hospitality-wise, and in any case the Tsar never turned up, although the fountain continued to be named for the visit that never was.
…the Emperor Fountain is the spirit of novelty, dashing its endless variety to the skies…
6th Duke of Devonshire
On the day we were there it was windy, which meant the fountain was turned down. Even so, it was doing much blowing about, and producing some very pleasing rainbow effects in the autumn sunshine, and in fact rather living up to the 6th Duke’s exuberant description of it. On the other hand, if you didn’t keep an eye on its movements as you wandered the lakeside lawns, it could also give you a surprise dousing.
This week Cee says we can choose our own topic. I don’t think I’ve posted this view of Marloes Sands before, but if I have then its worth a second look with its dreamscape rock formations. It was shot in monochrome.
Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge Open Topic
Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge This week Cee says to show her something small
Our cottage is rather short, the upstairs rooms being contained mostly by open roof space rather than walls. Also, the house itself is set in the side of a steep bank between Townsend Meadow and the main road, which means the best views (our only good ones) are from the bedroom roof-lights. These windows all face west and overlook the field towards Wenlock Edge and the big sky above.
Much time can pass at these windows, studying cloud movements or the wheeling of rooks and jackdaws. Sometimes the odd soul (with or without companionable dog) walks by on the field path just beyond our garden gate, and sometimes on Monday mornings, the town’s entire ‘walk for health’ mob, several dozen strong with high-vis vested leaders and bringers-up of rear, trails by. Now and then, too, the farmer can also be spotted, driving his latest substance-spraying rig back and forth across the crop (this week it was a top-dressing of fertiliser for the wheat which – after the rain – is already shooting up like multiples of Jack’s beanstalk). So given this general lack of activity out back, the appearance of a big digger and very large dump truck on the near horizon was an exciting event.
The work in progress (over the brow of the hill and out of sight in the field’s top corner) is the excavation of an attenuation pond. (There is another larger one to the south of the town). They are basically reservoir basins, but without water – designed to stem the impact of any flash flood off Wenlock Edge. The town sits in a bowl between the Edge and several hills, and has been designated a rapid response flood zone. This sounds alarming, and indeed could well be, but the conditions for flash flooding are very particular: i.e. if a severe storm hits our catchment after prolonged periods of rain when the ground is sodden, or in winter after hard frost. Water that cannot drain into the land flows into adjacent roads which then act like rivers, speedily conducting the run-off into the town centre. This can all happen in the space of 20 minutes.
As far as we know, and despite its shortness and low-lying position, our house has no history of being flooded. In the last big flood of 2007 the water seemed to flow around us. I watched the rain pour off the garden terraces behind the house, flow by the kitchen door in a fast running stream before emptying on to the main road where it doubtless contributed to the flooding of properties downstream of us.
It was unnerving to see, and later we heard that at least 50 houses in the centre of town had their cellars and ground floors deluged. That evening, coming home from work across the Edge, Graham had to abandon the car on the far side of town and take an upland ‘cross-country’ route home.
How well the ponds will serve us is yet to be demonstrated. After 12 years without a flood, it is easy to imagine that it won’t happen again, though last month The Man from the Environment Agency did come specially to town to tell us we must remain vigilant. As many round the world know to their cost, climate change is responsible for an increase in extreme weather events and, in the most extreme scenario, our ponds will only slow the flow, not stop it. There are probably further measures that could be taken: urging (enforcing would be better) landowners to plant more trees, create more flood plains round water courses, stop selling their land for large housing developments whose roofs and access roads accelerate run-off.
For now, though, all thanks are due to the workforce who toiled, excavating and landscaping the ponds, which may one day save our most vulnerable residents the distress of having to spend a year and more drying out a flooded home. In the meantime, I keep watching the sky over Wenlock Edge. At times when the rain closes in, day after day without let up, it’s easy to wonder: is this flooding rain?
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell
December a few years ago, Port Wrinkle, Cornwall
The Allotment Power Line. I take many photos of this particular pole:
Ash Tree in Townsend Meadow and sun setting over Wenlock Edge:
A mysterious item found on my way to the allotment. It might just be a dinosaur egg about to hatch. It has anyway disappeared since I took this photo:
My summer path to the allotment – a throng of Queen Anne’s Lace: