Views From the Morville Lych Gate


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

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


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

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

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

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


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



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



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

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

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

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


Thursday’s Special: Traces of the Past

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

A Long Road from Makindu


This long dirt road leads from Kenya’s Nairobi-Mombasa Highway to the National Range Research Station at Kiboko, about 100 miles south of Nairobi. The Range Station is a colonial relic, which (if I remember correctly) took over the land of a failed white settler sisal plantation. In more recent times, Kenyan scientists, both at the Range Station and the nearby Kenya Agricultural Research Institute field station, have been continuing the work begun there by British agricultural officers in the early 20th century. The emphasis, as then, has been on trialling crop varieties and developing livestock husbandry techniques to improve the lot of the people who live in this drought-prone region  – the Maasai pastoralists to the west, and the Akamba agro-pastoralists to the east and north.

The Range Station has been monitoring rainfall patterns for over 90 years. When it does rain, it occurs in two seasons – the long rains from March to May, and the short rains from October to December. But the fact is Kenya’s climate is  becoming drier, and it is  marginal regions such as these that are hardest hit. In the ‘90s when we were living in Kenya and Graham was regularly working in this area, it hardly seemed to rain at all. One Christmas I remember driving past roadside stands of maize that were blowing away to dust.

In pre-colonial times, and for several hundred years before the British arrived in East Africa, the indigenous peoples had their own methods of dealing with disaster: they simply moved somewhere else. This was usually to other quarters in their large clan territories, or to places where they extended kinship ties. They would then stay with better off relatives until the hazard had passed. Those who had been ‘taken in’ would be expected to reciprocate should the need arise. This was how things worked. It was pragmatic, and flexible. The migrants would then return to their own homes when they could.

The colonising British,  indoctrinated as they were with feudal-capitalist notions of land ownership, could not cope with such fluid community practices. Once the colonial administration had begun to encourage large-scale farming by European settlers, they felt obliged to establish fixed boundaries around tribal territories so that native land could not be sold to, or settled by the European incomers. It was seen as protecting “native interests.” The only problem was these officially designated boundaries did not take into account local emergency refuge strategies, or indeed many other traditional coping measures that involved moving somewhere else.

Today, and this is perhaps surprising to many outsiders, much of Kenya’s rural population still lives on ancestral land within these former tribal reserves. With little hope of acquiring new land, people’s clan and family holdings have been sub-divided, fathers to sons, down the generations,  often leaving the ground depleted, eroded, and/or wholly insufficient to support family needs.

This in turn has created a situation of migrant labour, where village men travel to the city to work. They rent a room in one of the slums, and live away from home for most of the year while their wives remain in their homeland, cultivating the farm plot as best they can, and rearing the children. The social issues that arise from this kind of fragmented family living do not need to be spelled out.

Now, on top of everything else, there are the effects of climate change to deal with, both globally and locally created. Competition for fertile land and water sources is critical in many places. In this context, then, the British system of land ownership remains one of the toxic legacies of colonialism.  At independence Crown Land became State Land, and so nothing much changed in the title deed/ownership department, apart from much grabbing of state-owned land by officials. It is hard to know how to unpick it all. We have all heard about Robert Mugabe’s attempts to do so in Zimbabwe.

As for the ordinary small holder farmer, they might not be physically confined to their reserves as they were under British rule, but if their land there can no longer support their families, then there is little choice but to trek up the highway to Nairobi and join the swelling millions of slum dwellers who eke out a living there.

However you look at it, this is a long, hard road .


The Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, Makindu District, in the 1990s, looking north towards Nairobi. It has been much improved since our day, but plans to turn this  major trans-African route into a dual carriageway appear to have stalled.

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell


You can read more about what we were doing in Kenya here:

Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms


For more long and winding roads travel over to Ed’s place at Sunday Stills.