Pursuing The Light In Wenlock Priory

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On Saturday the weather gods handed down sunshine and stillness, and so after lunch I spent an hour wandering round our local ruins, trying to catch the best of the light. We take them for granted, of course, these ruins. They are practically on our doorstep, a few minutes walk past the Linden Field and down the Cutlins where the sheep are presently grazing. Even before you get there you can glimpse the ragged elevations of the 13th century priory church through the Corsican pines, the old sandstone with its strange quality of luminosity, no matter the weather.

The ornate Norman arches you can see in the header photo date from c1145 (I’m standing in what was once the cloister to take the photo) and this is the entrance to the Chapter House, the monks’ meeting room. The building to the immediate right, is now a private house, long known as The Abbey, but once containing the monks’ infirmary and dormitory. You can also glimpse the rooftops of the later and very grand Prior’s Lodgings beyond it (late 1400s). (You can see more about them at Going behind the scenes at Wenlock Abbey.)

The less imposing doorway to the left of the archways leads to the library. This is not the original entrance but was added after the Dissolution when the priory remains were used as farm buildings. Above it soars the remains of the south transept, once part of one of the most imposing monastic edifices in all Europe. It’s hard to imagine the full scale of it now. Not only did Henry VIII’s dissolving crew do a good job in 1540, but the good citizens of Wenlock were quick to repurpose all that well cut stone. Most of the oldest houses in the town doubtless have some monastic stonework in them somewhere.

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This view from St. Michael’s Chapel (the Prior’s private place of worship) shows the southern edge of the church nave. The church originally extended to the far wall just in front of the trees (107 metres/350 feet). The stone stumps are the remains of gigantic columns, a matching arcade to the north side (out of shot). The remains to the right of the columns belong to the south transept. See next photo.

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St. Michael’s Chapel right, south transept centre, north transept left. And still it is hard to grasp the original scale of the place. The roof of the nave would have risen way above the south transept, the church forty years in the building.

But now I’ve lingered too long. The shadows are gathering. My presence here feels like intrusion. Time to head home.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

 

More about the priory’s history in an earlier post HERE. And for an account of Henry James’ visit to The Abbey see When Henry James Came to Wenlock.

 

Lens-Artists: Doorways  This week Tina gives us doors and doorways as the Lens-Artists’ theme. Please pop over to see her ever impressive work, and don’t forget to visit the other Lens-Artists.

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.

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

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Wenlock Priory through the pines ~ an enduring landmark

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How impressive then must the beautiful church have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside and its bells made the stillness sensible.

Henry James on Wenlock Priory Portraits of Places

Much Wenlock has many historic landmarks, but its Priory is the one with the oldest roots, dating back to the seventh century when  the Saxon princess, Abbess Milburga, presided over a dual house of monks and nuns.  In medieval times, under Norman rule, it was expanded to become one of the most imposing (male only) religious houses in Europe.

Then along came Henry VIII with his marriage problems, and in 1540, as part of his Dissolution of the Monasteries campaign, (i.e.the  liberation of monastic wealth), the lead was stripped off the roofs. The Priory has been ruinous ever since. Meanwhile the Corsican pines have grown up along the boundary wall.  I don’t know when they were planted, or by whom, but spiring above the ruins, they somehow give a sense of lost architectural glory.

There is of course much romance in dilapidation as Henry James’ description in the quote above betrays. He was certainly taken with the place, and came here two or three times as guest of the Milnes Gaskells  who lived in the Prior’s House abutting the ruins. The Priory was at that time the Milnes Gaskells’ own private garden feature, and part of the tour for all their many house guests.  I particularly like this next, perhaps unlikely image of a recumbent Henry James gazing up at the remains:

You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment, measure the girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and so elaborate a work of art  should have arisen.

You can read more about Henry James in Wenlock HERE.

Now please visit Paula at Lost In Translation for more Black & White Sunday  landmarks.

5 photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1

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Pauline at Memories are made of this tagged me for this challenge: a photo and a story for five consecutive days. On her blog she took us to some of the world’s most resonant places, including the Taj Mahal, so please do visit her.

I thought I’d stay at home for five days, and reveal some local secrets. In fact in this first photo I want to show you something you cannot see at all. I’ll call it a ghost -more of which in a moment.

The things you can see are the ruins of Wenlock Priory. Before Henry VIII dissolved it in 1540, it was one of the biggest monastic houses in Europe, and a sister house to the abbey of Cluny in France. The monks in Wenlock would thus have all spoken French as well as Latin. I suppose they must have had some resident interpreter to manage all the Shropshire serfs who would have been needed to tend the Prior’s extensive domain.

The Priory itself was a place of great pilgrimage, which in turn caused the small town of Much Wenlock, with its hostelries and traders, to grow up around it. Two of the towns surviving pubs, The George and Dragon and The Talbot  date from these pilgrim days. The big draw was St. Milburga and her healing miracles. She was the Saxon princess who was abbess of the town’s first religious house back in the 7th century. When her four hundred year old bones were conveniently rediscovered in 1101, they were said to glow, and smell sweetly as saints’ bones were wont to do.

Much Wenlock, then, has a long-established pedigree on the odour of sanctity front.

But now for that ghost – more a spirit of place really.  And it belongs to writer Henry James. In the days when the Priory comprised the personal ruins of the Milnes Gaskells who lived next door in the Prior’s House, Henry James was one of their many eminent house guests. In fact he came three times. There is more about his visit  in an earlier post  When Henry James Came To Wenlock, but first a postcard view of how the ruins might have looked back in his day, in the late 1870s:

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And now you have the setting, both past and present, you can conjure Mr. Henry James from his own words. As I have said elsewhere, during one of his times here he was apparently working on his own ghost story The Turn of the Screw: Here is his description of the Priory, these days in the care of English Heritage:

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

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Related posts:

In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls

When Henry James Came To Wenlock

#5photos5stories

Sun Setting Over Wenlock Edge ~ Or Did The Earth Move?

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From my house I often watch the late-day sun slip behind the Edge. But which of us is moving: me, or the sun? It’s the sort of displacement-activity question I ask myself when I should be doing something more constructive. It also makes me think about the Edge, the fact that something so apparently static is, of itself, an embodiment of movement; a geological exemplar of extreme process and change.

The limestone ridge on whose foothills we Wenlockians dwell, is 425 million years old. It runs for some twenty miles while rising up to three hundred feet above the land.  And so it goes without saying that a structure of this size cannot help but evoke a sense of monumental immobility.

How can it  move?

Yet move it has, and move it does, although these days not on quite the colossal scale of the Silurian Age when it was formed.  Its constituent parts, the sea-creature fossils that have fascinated the world’s geologists enough to earn them their own Wenlock Epoch, clearly indicate that our Edge is neither where it was, nor what it was in the aeons before fish were invented.

In fact during the Silurian era, and some 200 hundred million years before one cosmic hint of a Stegosaurus or Diplodocus was abroad, the strata that would become Wenlock Edge were quietly forming. Layers of dead and decomposing corals, sponges, sea lilies and molluscs were building up beneath a shallow tropical sea, and in a location somewhere off present-day East Africa and well south of the Equator.

Today, however, this former sea bed is an up-tilted escarpment, a steeply wooded ridgeway of ash, birch, hazel and oak trees. It bisects a temperate, rural Shropshire in the middle of England, which as most people know, is and often feels hugely north of the Equator. The power of tectonic shift and uplift is thus truly marvellous.

For the last couple of millennia, though, it has been humans who have been responsible for the Edge’s biggest movement. They have hacked, drilled, and blasted out the limestone with dogged persistence. At first the spoil would have been carried away on packhorses, then on carts, and finally by train and truck to wherever it was needed. Chunks of fossil sea bed hauled off to build grand monastic houses, feudal mansions, churches and cottages; limestone mortar to make them weather-tight; limestone to burn to make quick-lime for fertilizer; crushed limestone to pour into the top of massive blast furnaces, and so draw the impurities from smelting iron.

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One of the many old lime burning kilns on Wenlock Edge

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In such ways did Wenlock’s broadcast and reconstituted Edge come to play its part in Britain’s Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Yet way before this, in the late 600s AD of Saxon times, it probably also gave us our curious sounding name. In those days it was the habit to paint the early Christian religious houses with lime-wash so they glowed luminously white against surrounding terrain.  It was also around this time that Milburga, daughter of a Mercian king, became abbess of a dual monastic house of monks and nuns that stood where the town’s parish church now stands .  Gwen/Wen means white, and Loc/Lock means chapel or religious house. So there you have it – Wenlock – the place of the white church.

In more recent times, aggregates for highway construction have been the Edge-product of choice, and supplies are still outstanding in one of the quarries. At intervals convoys of motorway construction trucks come rattling through the town to fill up – and all this so more and more traffic can rush about the place.

The mopping up of the aggregates marks the end of quarrying,  although the quarries themselves have now been occupied by other industries  – garden fencing  and woodchip fuel producers, paint and packaging companies – all taking advantage of the huge spaces left behind by the evacuated limestone.

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Yet where the old workings and exploded cliff faces have been left to themselves, there are signs that the vegetation is reasserting itself, slowly extending the habitat for the Edge residents: deer, badgers, hares, weasels and mice.

I find the old quarries fascinating in a  morbid, Edgar Allan Poe-ish kind of way. Ravens like to nest there for one thing, which adds to their brooding allure. However, if you turn your back on the quarries, and look the other way, through breaks in the tree cover, you will see broad sweeps of Shropshire’s hills and farmland. And this, for most people, is the main reason why the twenty-mile-long vantage point is one of the county’s great treasures. The National Trust who own a long stretch of the wooded slopes, and manage the woods and paths, want to ensure it remains that way – a valued public resource.

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This  view looks towards the Welsh borders and, in the past, would have been gazed on by writers such as Thomas Hardy and Henry James, and by Africa’s darkest explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, all of whom were, at various times, guests of the Milnes-Gaskells, Much Wenlock’s erstwhile gentry who lived in the Prior’s House at Wenlock Abbey. The Milnes-Gaskells were good hosts and tour guides and made sure that their visitors always took in the best views.

On reflection, though, I’d say that this particular fieldscape would have looked very different a good century ago – smaller fields, many more hedges and trees back then. Much bigger trees too, for all the huge oaks were culled by the late nineteenth century, and those of us alive today have never seen their like other than in old photos, where their magnificence has been felled and stacked up, ready to serve some apparently pressing human purpose.

Life for ordinary people would have been tough too – with many more labourers working the land, horses pulling ploughs, vistas of scenic rusticity that did not fool Thomas Hardy for one moment. He is said to have been mightily appalled by the impoverished state of Wenlock’s workers.

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And so back to the setting sun/moving earth where this post began. The Edge then, is still in motion, although mostly in ways not much noticed by us. The limestone scarps are degrading. Rock becoming soil and mixing with the leaf mould to create new niches and microclimates, the old lime kilns, moss and ivy coated, weathering into the earth, the quarry scars and debris gradually being colonised by trees and plants.

Then there are the kinds of movement that I observe day after day behind our house: the march of clouds, weather; the change of light, dawn , dusk, the stars, the seasons, the rooks and jackdaws going out, and coming home. Everything shifting, transforming, recycling as the earth rotates around the sun. I find that thought – the revolving planet and the endless motion of its life forms – very joy-making. It is good to stand still and watch, and especially as the sun sets, or the earth moves.

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Rooks and jackdaws coming home

 

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Jennifer Nichole Wells: sun

Motion

First Post Re-visited: By the Silurian Sea

All is peripheral in the place where I live – our house beside the path, beside the field, whose name on the 1847 tithe map, Townsend Meadow, marks the old town boundary of Much Wenlock. The town, itself, is very ancient, and only in recent times has it outgrown the frontier along Sytche Brook. It anyway has a more remarkable periphery than this – the edge of Wenlock Edge under which it lies.

I cannot quite see the Edge from my house, but I see the big sky above it: the dramatic false horizon that the wooded scarp creates, and thus the endless movement of weather along it. Hours can be wasted sky watching: the breezy march of clouds across our roof lights, the flush of hundreds of rooks from Sytche Lane wood, peppering the skyscape at dusk; their raucous cries, their enigmatic feats of aerial choreography.

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That you cannot see the Edge from the town is something of a paradox given that its massive presence has shaped the place in so many ways, and not least in the fabric of its cottages, parish church and ancient priory. To get a proper glimpse you need to leave Wenlock – take the steep hairpin-cutting down to Shrewsbury, or the tree-lined road that strikes across the Edge top to Church Stretton, or else meander along the labyrinth of lanes beneath it. The villages down there have old world names – Church Preen, Hughley, Rushbury, Longville. Above them the wooded ridge bristles like a giant hog’s back – a long, dark spine nearly twenty miles in length. It is all unavoidably mysterious.

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Photo: National Trust

Rushbury beneath Wenlock Edge

Photo: Rushbury Village below the Edge

The limestone flanks have been dug into for centuries, creating vast gaping wounds. As you take the road over the top, there are dizzying glimpses through verge-side trees where the ground shears away. All the quarries are unworked now, but in earlier times, for a millennium and more they were the source of most of the area’s building stone.

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Then there was the burning of limestone to make fertilizer – another important local industry. Lime is an essential additive to unlock the nutrients of the sticky clay soils that lie below the Edge. Today, you can still come upon the remains of many kilns on Much Wenlock’s outskirts. Once their fumes must have hung like an ill-smelling fog above the town.

But perhaps the most important use of Wenlock limestone – at least as far as the history of world technology is concerned – was the crucial part it played in the production of iron at nearby Coalbrookdale. This small Shropshire settlement, just across the River Severn from Wenlock, has been called “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”. It was here, in 1709, that the Quaker brass founder, Abraham Darby I, first smelted cast iron using coke instead of charcoal. Into his blast furnace went iron ore, coke and limestone, the stone to act as a flux and remove impurities that would compromise the quality of the smelted pig iron.

And this was only the start. It was in Coalbrookdale too, in 1779, that Abraham Darby III pulled off a monumental PR stunt to promote the family trade. He built the world’s first cast iron bridge across the River Severn at a place now called Ironbridge, and thereby spurred on huge innovation in construction techniques that spread around the globe – from cast iron garden seats and cannon to iron ships, railways and skyscrapers.

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So it was that Wenlock limestone (from this now sleepy part of Shropshire) played its part in the great march to industrialisation.

In more recent times, only the quarry spoil has been used – crushed to produce aggregates for road building. It has been many years since Much Wenlock’s homes shuddered in a pall of white dust whenever the quarrymen were blasting, or the streets vibrated to the endless rattle of passing stone trucks.

Of course there are other sources of disturbance on our mediaeval thoroughfares – over-sized farm vehicles and garden fencing trucks. They pass by on the other side of my house, which is not so scenic, although interesting in other ways.

For instance when I’m standing in the kitchen eating toast, I might look up to meet the serially startled gazes of a tour bus party as their coach nudges past our windows, brushing hard through our privet hedge in order to wheedle a way past another HGV. It is the only way to do it on a road too narrow for two large vehicles to pass.

We locals amuse ourselves by taking photos of the trucks and buses that several times a day get jammed outside our homes. We send ‘the evidence’ to officers at Shropshire Council who shrug helplessly, quite unable to say what their predecessors were thinking when they upgraded a bottle-neck lane into an ‘A’ road. There’s nothing to be done, they say. It is hard to believe. One day, I tell them, a European mega-truck will drive down from nearby Telford and block the road forever. Then what will you do?

But for all the present day shove and shunt, there is still a sense of romance about the town and Wenlock Edge. Spirits from the past make their presence felt in all sorts of ways. Housman set the Edge in verse; Vaughan Williams rendered it in song; the explorer, Stanley, sat upon it, his dark heart brooding on his time in Africa as he surveyed the more benign Shropshire landscape below. Even Henry James and Thomas Hardy came visiting, James more than once, and it is said he worked on The Turn of the Screw while staying as guest of the Milnes Gaskells in the old Prior’s House. (When Henry James Came to Wenlock).

Then there is the Shropshire writer-poet, Mary Webb who spent her adolescent years living on the Edge at The Grange, and was well known about the town. When in 1949 her novel, Gone to Earth, was turned into a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, some of the scenes were shot locally. In fact my neighbour tells me that one of the film’s extras used to live in our house, and that he was also the town’s projectionist. He would thus have shown Gone to Earth in the little town cinema that is now the museum, thrilled to bits as the scenes flickered on the screen: seeing himself and other townsfolk alongside Hollywood star, Jennifer Jones. (Jennifer Jones Comes to Wenlock).

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But the Edge itself has far older stories than these. Back in the Silurian Age, some 430 million years ago, it was a tropic seabed, and in rare moments when my mind can embrace such vast temporal constructs, I imagine my house on the shore of the Silurian Sea. (A Solaris moment perhaps). Of course back then the ground on which my house stands was not even in the Northern Hemisphere.

No. Back then the earth’s landmasses were still on the move, shifting up the globe from the South Pole. The English Midlands and Welsh borderlands, that I think I know so well, lay 15 degrees south of the Equator in what is now the Indian Ocean. They were part of the micro-continent of Eastern Avalonia that in turn bordered the Iapetus Ocean.

And so while Shropshire lay somewhere off Mozambique, the world warmed and the Ordovician ice caps melted, the low-lying lands filled to become the Silurian Sea. I like to imagine that, after living in East Africa for seven years, returning to settle in Much Wenlock is, in some convoluted sense, a return to the place where I was. It has a feeling of alchemy about it, and time travel, that lessens the loss of Africa.

Our much travelled escarpment is understandably a fossil hunter’s paradise and, as such, is the most famous Silurian site in the world. In its seaside days, warm, shallow waters were home to sea lilies, corals, multi-radiate starfish, trilobites, gastropods, brachiopods and fish. Indeed, somewhere over my garden hedge, there may have been some reef lagoon that hosted ammonites, squid and, horrifically, water scorpions five feet long.

My house is of course composed of these Silurian deposits, dug from those vast quarries along the Edge. I thus inhabit a re-purposed fossil seabed. There are crinoid stems and corals in the chimney-breast, all belonging to an age before the birth of amphibians or dinosaurs, or before there were mammals and birds in the world.

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While I can easily picture my house on a flat, gravelly shore beside a teeming shallow sea, it is hard to conjure the great absence of earth-life. We might easily imagine that the terrestrial world would have been a very quiet, still place, but this, I gather, would be a grave misconception. The land may have been lacking in life forms, but there was instead a perpetual wind. And because the paucity of land life meant there was little with which to bind the earth’s surface, the Silurian seashore would have been a dreadful place of roaring sandstorms and lashing gravel.

Not so now. Today, the farmland that surrounds the town is lush and homely. It has sheep and cattle, arable crops and pasture, woods and thickets, the old quarries and sundry ruins, remnant green lanes and farm cottages. There are deer and rabbits, foxes and rodents and also, as far as the town’s allotment owners are concerned, far too many birds. That said, though, it is good to hoe and dig to the mewing of buzzards, and cawing of rooks.

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Most of the land within the town boundary, and this includes Townsend Meadow behind our house, is still feudally owned and tenanted. It is within these little bounds of landowner imposition that the small market centre has grown up and been continuously lived and worked in for the last thousand years.

It is probable, though, that the first human settlement took place a few millennia earlier than this. Perhaps the first Wenlockians were Bronze Age Celts who, as venerators of water, would have been drawn to the many springs that rise below the limestone escarpment. The Celts were also skilled metal workers, and Wenlock Edge would have provided a natural, upland byway for itinerant smiths and metal traders going to and from the mineral-rich hills of Wales. Certainly Bronze Age hoards have been found in and around the nearby River Severn which, through many ages, was one of the country’s busiest inland trade routes.

There is certainly evidence for Roman settlement in the town – a large villa on the site of the Priory, and one which apparently had its own Romano-Christian chapel.

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Water, and sacred water at that, is another of the themes that runs through Much Wenlock’s settlement history. The town has many holy wells, including ones dedicated to St. Milburga and St. Owain. Milburga was a Saxon princess, who in 680 AD became abbess of a monastery for both monks and nuns, founded here by her father, King Merewald of Mercia. The monastery was built near the site of the Roman villa, perhaps chosen because of its already Christian associations. The invading Saxons established their authority by building chapels and monasteries. Later, the invading Normans did the same, but on a grander scale.

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The Benedictine priory that succeeded the Saxon abbey in 1079  (and whose remains you see here) was part and parcel of the Norman master plan to control all aspects of Saxon life. Much Wenlock’s age-old reputation for holiness guaranteed that the local Norman earl, Roger de Montgomery, would choose the town for a big demonstration of power and piety. He invested heavily in the priory that was to become one of the most imposing religious houses in Europe. To ensure its future prosperity, all that remained was to annexe St.Milburga’s reputation for miracles, in particular her ability to strike holy springs from the ground. A new shrine was built to honour her sanctity, so ensuring a steady influx of  pilgrims and traders throughout the Middle Ages.

Roll forwards a few centuries and the town has another claim to fame, one that has significance to all of us today. In 1850 the town’s physician and apothecary, Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) founded the Wenlock Olympian games that were to become the driving force behind the modern Olympic movement. Brookes fervently believed that exercise brought moral, physical and intellectual  improvement to all who took part in it. He was a campaigner of national standing, and responsible for the introduction of physical education into British schools.

His ideas spread, and in 1890 when Baron Pierre de Coubertin came to see the Wenlock Games for himself, Brookes shared with the young man not only his visions for everyone’s health and welfare, but also his wealth of experience from running the Games. He even designed and had made at his own expense wonderful medals for the winning competitors. Sadly, he did not live to see the first modern international Olympics in Athens in 1896, although De Coubertin did give him due credit as the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games. Tribute was also paid to his home town in the 2012 Olympics when ‘Wenlock’ was the name chosen for one of the mascots. I hasten to say that this strange, one-eyed being bore little resemblance to any living Wenlock resident.

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The Linden Field ,where Brook’s Olympian Games first took place, is now a public park, bequeathed by a former feudal worthy for the pleasure and recreation of the people of Much Wenlock. Every July the Games are still held here, and with competitors from all over the world.

The field is only a step from my house, and I sometimes toy with idea of running down the avenue of lime trees that Dr. Brookes planted there 150 years ago. Musing on his notions that exercise breeds mental and physical improvement, I think the activity might relieve the creative doldrums, spur on the story-telling process, help me escape the peripheries, and finally get some work done.

Of course one of the hazards of being a writer, apart from devising ever new means of diversion and prevarication, is the hoarding of story ideas. Like the Silurian seabed, they go on accreting: stuff and more stuff, piles of notes and scribble and memory sticks slowly compacting on every surface in my office. Hopefully they do  not enfolding anything as alarming as a five foot water scorpion. And now that I’ve conjured this monster, I rather wish I hadn’t, although you never know: there’s maybe a story in it.

© Tish Farrell 2014

 

Afterthought:

I wrote the first version of this blog’s first post as the means of showing what ‘Writer on the Edge’ was about, namely the importance of evoking place (at least in some sense) in all creative writing. It is also a portrait of the place where I live and think; it is the edge on which I reside both physically and metaphysically. For although I lived in Africa for some years, Shropshire is where my roots are. At least I think this is the case. Once you have lived in foreign places for a time, it is often hard to know where home is.

 

*Historical source: Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock, Shropshire Books, 2001

 

Related:

When Henry James Came to Wenlock

Jennifer Jones Comes to Wenlock

Songs from and Inland Sea: “On Wenlock Edge”

Old Stones of Wenlock: Repurposing the Silurian Sea

 

#WenlockEdge #Shropshire #TishFarrellWriter #HenryJames

When Henry James came to Wenlock

“If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don’t for the world fail to go.”

Henry Adams in a letter to Henry James 1877

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This is the house where Henry James stayed  on his visits to Much Wenlock in 1877, 1878 and 1882. At the time it was known as The  Abbey, but  once it was the Abbot’s House, and part of a great medieval Cluniac priory whose ruins stand beside it. Only the house, and the town’s parish church survived Henry VIII’s great monastic dissolving campaign of 1540.

I’ve recently read, too, that the Dissolution did in fact involve actual structural ‘dissolving’. The first thing King Henry’s agents did in their bid to disempower the clergy and seize their estates was to rip the lead off the monastery roofs. The wear and tear of English weather then did the rest. Since Wenlock Priory was once one of the most imposingly large religious houses in all Europe, you can well see how efficiently the elements did their work.

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The adjacent small town of Much Wenlock town dates from at least from Saxon times when St. Milburga, daughter of a Mercian king, founded the first religious house here. She was Abbess of Wenlock  between 675-690 AD. The later priory was the work of the invading Normans, who liked to use looming architecture to cow the natives into submission. The monks were brought in from France, but it wasn’t  until end of the 12th century when Bishop Odo, a former Cluniac monk, published his account of the discovery of St.Milburga’s bones (he describes them as “beautiful and luminous”)  that this great house acquired the kind of saintly cachet that ensured serious pilgrim-appeal, and thus brought much prosperity to the town.

After the Dissolution, however, pragmatism ruled, and much of the fallen priory masonry was used to build or expand the town’s homes and businesses. Thereafter, Much Wenlock’s success was based on providing a small but busy mercantile and manufacturing centre for the local agricultural and quarrying community. It even had two Members of Parliament.

But back to  Henry James (1843-1916). What on earth had brought this widely travelled writer to the little town of Much Wenlock? And not once, but three times.

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In fact it was only the urging of a friend, Harvard history professor, Henry Brooke Adams, that brought James here at all on that first visit in 1877. He hardly knew his hosts, Charles and Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell. Charles Milnes Gaskell, rich barrister and landowner, was a close friend of Adams, and it was Adams who indirectly secured the invitation for Henry James. He knew that James would love the Abbey. Hence the exhortation: “If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don’t for the world fail to go.”

And so, further enticed by “a gracious note from Lady Catherine Gaskell” and armed with a copy of Murray’s Handbook of Shropshire, Cheshire and Lancashire, Henry James left London for deepest Shropshire, travelling by train to Much Wenlock. The details of how he spent his time on his  five-day visit appear in a travel sketch called Abbeys and Castles, later published as part of Portraits of Places (1883).

Railwayramblers.org.uk

At the station (now private houses) he was met by the Gaskell’s coachman, Crawley, driven into the town, passing in sight of Holy Trinity Church (today without the spire shown in the Frith photo). Here they  turned left into the Bull Ring… 

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passing Priory Cottage on the left…

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…the turning right into the Abbey’s winding drive…

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…with the priory ruins on the left.

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The carriage would then have swung hard  into the open courtyard of the Abbey, and this would have been Henry James’ first view of his destination. Well-travelled as he was, I think he would have been astonished.

Adams’ certainty that his friend would love the place was spot on. In Portraits and Places (p278)  Henry James says:

“It is not too much to say that after spending twenty four hours in a house that is six hundred years old, you seem yourself to have lived in it for six hundred years. You seem to have hollowed the flags with your tread, and to have polished the oak with your touch. You walk along the little stone gallery where the monks used to pace, looking out of the gothic window places at their beautiful church, and you pause at the big round, rugged doorway that now admits you to the drawing room. The massive step by which you ascend to the threshold is a trifle crooked, as it should be; the lintels are cracked and worn by a myriad-fingered years…it seems wonderfully old and queer. Then you turn into the drawing room, where you find modern conversation and late publications and the prospect of dinner. The new life and the old have melted together; there is no dividing-line.”

In letters James admits to being rather  in love with Lady Catherine, whom he describes as a perfect English rose. She was only twenty years old at the time, and expecting her first child. She apparently put garden flowers in his room and made sure he had plenty of writing paper and pens. But when it came to entertainment, this was down to Charles Gaskell. Despite the rainy weather, he and James appear to have yomped all over the district looking at stately homes and other ruins. They also took the train to extend their excursions to Stokesay Castle and Ludlow. Henry James was clearly enchanted. Of Much Wenlock and its setting he says:

“There is a noiseless little railway running through the valley, and there is an ancient little town lying at the abbey-gates – a town, indeed, with no great din of vehicles, but with goodly brick houses, with a dozen ‘publics’, with tidy, whitewashed cottages, and with little girls…bobbing curtsies in the street. But even now, if one had wound one’s way into the valley by the railroad, it would be rather a surprise to find a small ornamental cathedral in a spot on the whole so natural and pastoral. How impressive then must the beautiful church  have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside, and its bells made the stillness sensible.”

Things have changed of course, although we still have a fair few ‘publics’ for so small a town – five in fact. But there are no longer little girls who curtsey to gentleman, and sadly no railway, which means instead we do now have the inevitable din of vehicles..

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*

An interesting aside to the Henry James’ Shropshire travelogue is that he is said to have been working on his disturbing ghost story The Turn of the Screw while staying at the Abbey. He certainly had the supernatural on his mind during that first visit.

“…there is of course a ghost – a gray friar who is seen in the dusky hours at the end of passages. Sometimes the servants see him; they afterwards go surreptitiously to sleep in the village. Then, when you take your chamber-candle and go wandering bedward by a short cut through empty rooms, you are conscious of a peculiar sentiment toward the gray friar which you hardly know whether to interpret as a hope or a reluctance.”  (Portraits of Places)

And this does rather remind me of a passage in The Turn of the Screw  where the governess narrator describes how her young charge, Flora, takes her on a guided tour through the rambling old mansion at Bly:

“Young as she was, I was struck, throughout our little tour, with her confidence and courage with the way, in empty chambers and dull corridors, on crooked staircases that made me pause and even on the summit of an old machicolated square tower that made me dizzy.”

But then Henry James seems to have made a life’s career of ‘staying’ in, or visiting large country houses. All the same, I like the idea of his brewing this grim tale in Wenlock. Certainly from across the old monastery parkland, the Abbey does have a more brooding and sinister air. And now I’ve sown that notion, I’ll leave you with some more views of undissolved monastic relicts: 

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References:

Cynthia Gamble John Ruskin, Henry James and the Shropshire Lads New European Publications Ltd 2008

Vivien Bellamy  A History of Much Wenlock Shropshire Books 2001

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

…of Silurian Shores

Overlooking Townsend Meadow: on the edge of Wenlock Edge

All is peripheral in the place where I live – my house beside the path beside the field whose name on the 1847 tithe map, Townsend Meadow, marks the old town boundary of Much Wenlock. The town, itself, is very ancient and it has long outgrown the town’s-end frontier along the Sytche Brook. It also lies below its own impressive periphery – the long limestone scarp of Wenlock Edge.

I cannot quite see the Edge from my house, but I see the big sky above it, the dramatic false horizon that the Edge creates and thus the endless movement of weather along it. Hours can be wasted sky watching: the breezy march of clouds across the roof lights, the flush of hundreds of rooks from Sytche Lane wood at dawn and at dusk, peppering the skyscape.

Sky over Wenlock Edge

In fact most inhabitants of the town cannot quite see the Edge. This is something of a paradox given that its massive limestone presence has shaped Much Wenlock in so many ways, and not only in the fabric of its many stone cottages. You need to be outside the town to get a proper glimpse of it and, even then, it is hard to get the full measure of it. Nevertheless, as landmarks go, it will not fail to make an impression however you come at it: whether wending up the hairpin bends from Shrewsbury; or taking the road over the top from Wenlock to Church Stretton and the Shropshire Hills beyond, or yet meandering down below it along the narrow lanes through Kenley, Hughley, Church Preen and Longville. From the lowland, the Edge’s steep north-west slopes look so heavily wooded that they bristle up like a giant hog’s back. For some fifteen miles this dark spine stretches, bearing down on the scattered hamlets and farm fields. It is unavoidably mysterious.

Driving along the Edge on Christmas Day

The south-east slopes, by contrast, have a more domesticated feel, and something of an industrial air, having been dug into for centuries. The road that cuts along the top passes beside vast quarries (now mostly hidden by hedges and woodland and visible only to walkers). These quarries yielded limestone for building and for the iron works of Coalbrookdale where it was used as a flux in smelting, and for burning in lime-kilns to make fertiliser. In more recent times most of the stone went for road building. But now quarrying has stopped and Much Wenlock’s houses no longer shudder in a pall of white dust as they once did whenever the quarrymen were blasting; nor do the streets vibrate with the endless rattle of passing stone trucks.

There are other sources of disturbance of course – over-sized farm vehicles and garden fencing lorries. They pass by on the other side of my house, which sitting as it does on the A4169 is not so scenic, although it is interesting in other ways. For instance when I’m standing in the kitchen eating toast, I might look up to meet the serially startled gazes of a tour bus party as their coach nudges them past our windows, brushing hard through our privet hedge in order to wheedle a way past another HGV. It is the only way to do it on a road too narrow for two large vehicles to pass. We locals amuse ourselves by taking photos of the trucks and buses that several times a day get jammed outside our homes while officers at Shropshire Council shrug helplessly, quite unable to say what their predecessors were thinking of when they upgraded a bottle-neck lane into an ‘A’ road. There’s nothing to be done, they say. One day a European mega-truck will drive down from nearby Telford and block the road forever.

Coaches getting stuck on Much Wenlock’s narrow streets

But for all the present day shove and shunt, there is still a sense of romance about the town and Wenlock Edge. Spirits from the past make their presence felt in all sorts of ways. Housman set the Edge in verse; Vaughan Williams rendered it in song; the explorer, Stanley, sat upon it, his dark heart brooding on his time in Africa as he surveyed the more benign Shropshire landscape below. Even Henry James and Thomas Hardy came visiting, (James several times and said to have worked on Turn of the Screw while staying in the old Prior’s House that adjoins the Priory ruins).

Last but certainly not least, Shropshire writer-poet, Mary Webb spent her adolescent years living upon the Edge at The Grange and was well known about the town. When, in the 1950s, her novel, Gone to Earth, was turned into a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, some of the scenes were shot in and around Much Wenlock. In fact I’m told by my neighbour that one of the film’s extras used to live in our house and was also the town’s projectionist. Perhaps he even showed Gone to Earth in the little cinema that is now the museum, thrilled to bits as the scenes flickered on the screen: seeing himself and other townspeople alongside Hollywood’s Jennifer Jones.

Wenlock Edge, of course, has much older stories than this to tell. Back in the Silurian Age, some 430 million years ago, it was a tropic seabed, and in rare moments when my mind can even begin to consider such vast temporal constructs, I imagine my house on the shore of the Silurian Sea. (A Solaris moment perhaps). Of course back then the ground on which my house stands was not even in the Northern Hemisphere. Back then the earth’s landmasses were still on the move, shifting up the globe from the South Pole. The English Midlands and Welsh borderlands that I think I know so well thus lay south of the Equator; 15 degrees south in what is now the Indian Ocean, where they were part of the micro-continent of Eastern Avalonia that in turn bordered the Iapetus Ocean. And so while Shropshire lay somewhere off Mozambique, the world warmed and the Ordovician ice caps melted and the low-lying lands filled to become the Silurian Sea. I also like to imagine, that after living in East Africa for seven years, returning to settle in Much Wenlock is like coming back to the place where I was; for I miss Africa very much. Also it gives a new connotation on the phrase ‘world travel.’

Wenlock Edge, then, is a fossil hunter’s treasure place and, as such, is the most famous Silurian site in the world. In its seaside days, warm, shallow waters were home to sea lilies, corals, multi-radiate starfish, trilobites, gastropods, brachiopods and fish. Indeed, somewhere over my garden hedge, there may have been some reef lagoon that hosted ammonites, squid and, horrifically, water scorpions five feet long. In fact, my house is composed of these Silurian deposits, dug from those vast quarries along the Edge. I thus inhabit a re-shaped fossil seabed. There are crinoid stems and corals in the chimney-breast, and all belonging to an age before the birth of amphibians or dinosaurs, or before there were mammals and birds in the world.

While I can easily picture my house on a flat, gravelly shore and a teeming shallow sea beyond, it is hard to conjure the great absence of earth-life. We might easily begin to think that the terrestrial world would be a painfully quiet and very still place, although this, I gather, would be a grave misconception. The land may have been lacking in life forms but there was instead a perpetual wind. And because the paucity of land life meant there was little with which to bind the earth’s surface, the Silurian seashore would have been a dreadful place of roaring sandstorms and lashing gravel.

Today, the farmland that surrounds the town is lush and homely. It has sheep and cattle, arable crops and pasture, woods and thickets, the old quarries and sundry ruins, remnant green lanes and farm cottages. There are deer and rabbits, foxes and rodents and also, as far as the town’s allotment owners are concerned, far too many birds. That said, though, it is good to hoe and dig to the mewing of buzzards.

Bird-scaring bunting at the allotment

Most of the land within the town boundary, and this includes Townsend Meadow, is still feudally owned and tenanted and, within these little bounds of landowner imposition has grown a small market centre that has been continuously lived and worked in for the last thousand years.

But then that is only the historical record.* Archaeological investigations show that humans settled this valley by the Edge from at least the Bronze Age. These first Wenlockians were probably early Celts, and as venerators of water, were doubtless attracted to the many springs that rise below the limestone escarpment. The Celts were also skilled metal workers and Wenlock Edge would have provided a natural, upland byway for itinerant smiths and metal traders going to and from the mineral-rich hills of Wales. Certainly Bronze Age hoards have been found in and around the nearby River Severn which, through many ages, was one of the country’s busiest inland trade routes.

After the Celts came Roman and Saxon settlers, Viking and Norman invaders, and the town not only still has substantial ruins of an eleventh century Benedictine Priory, but many of the present houses and cottages are built from stone plundered from the monastery after its dissolution in 1540. The medieval Prior’s House, however, largely survived this recycling. It adjoins the Priory ruins, from where it may be glimpsed, and has been restored as a breathtakingly beautiful private house.

The common theme, then, that runs throughout Much Wenlock’s settlement history is the belief in sacred water. The town has many holy wells. Excavations of the Priory that sits beside a brook that runs off the Edge yielded not only the carving of a Celtic deity but also a substantial Romano-British residence that seems to have its own Christian chapel. In Saxon times, around 670 A D, Merewald, King of Mercia, founded an abbey there, and his daughter, Milburga, after training at Chelles, near Paris, became the foundation’s second abbess. She is also our saint and the heroine of a local legend that tells how she escaped an assault on her honour by a rapacious suitor. She is known, too, for striking holy springs from the ground and for her miracles of healing. The water from her well near Barrow Street was reputed to cure eye diseases.

Much Wenlock Priory ruins

The Benedictine Priory that succeeded the Saxon Abbey in 1079 was part and parcel of the Norman master plan to control all aspects of Saxon life. Much Wenlock’s age-old reputation for holiness guaranteed that the Norman earl, Roger de Montgomery, would choose the town for a big demonstration of power and piety. It was he who invested so heavily in the priory that was to become one of the most imposing religious houses in Europe. And to ensure the new priory’s prosperity as a lucrative place for pilgrimage, St.Milburga’s reputation for miracles was duly annexed to the cause and a new shrine to her established.

Today, most of the pilgrims to Much Wenlock are tourists, stopping off briefly en route for Wales. But this coming year we are expecting many more visitors, as news of Much Wenlock’s further claim to fame spreads around the world. For it was here in 1850 that the town’s physician and apothecary, Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) founded the Wenlock Olympian games that were to become the inspirational force behind the modern Olympic movement. It was he who in 1890 (six years before the 1896 Athens modern Olympics) passed on to a young Baron Pierre de Coubertin not only a wealth of experience gained from running the town’s annual games, but also his passionate belief that exercise wrought moral, physical and intellectual improvements in all who took part.

The Linden Field, Much Wenlock: birthplace of the modern Olympic Games

The Linden Field where the Wenlock Olympian Games were held amid crowds of up to 10,000 spectators is still there and is now a public park, bequeathed by a former feudal worthy for the pleasure and recreation of the people of Much Wenlock. Since it is only a step from my house, I sometimes toy with idea of running down the avenue of lime trees that Dr. Brookes planted there one hundred and fifty years ago. Perhaps such active activity would improve my mind. Perhaps it would spur on the story-telling process. Perhaps I would escape the peripheries and finally get some work done…finish a new edition of my one-time award winning African novella, Jessicah the Mountain Slayer, finally create some new tales from my backed-up story-making stock. Or perhaps, like the Silurian seabed, I will simply go on accreting: stuff and more stuff, piles of notes and scribble and memory sticks slowly compacting, although hopefully not enfolding anything as alarming as a fossilised giant water scorpion. That is a worrying thought.

© Tish Farrell 2011

www.tishfarrell.co.uk

* for many historical details I am indebted to Vivien Bellamy. See her book A History of Much Wenlock, Shropshire Books, 2001