In Which The Farrells Go To Ratlinghope To Visit Shropshire’s Last Sin Eater

Okay. Hands up those of you who know about sin eaters. I certainly had not registered their existence despite having read Mary Webb’s Shropshire novel Precious Bane (1924) which includes a sin-eating scene. It was coming across an article by  environmental scientist, Harriet Carty, (also Shropshire based) that alerted me. She was describing the work of the non-religious charity Caring For God’s Acre which has set itself the task of recording Britain’s churchyard flora. I read it back in March when we were in Pembrokeshire and it prompted me to do a post featuring the fine show of lichen in St. Bride’s graveyard. Helen Carty’s article also mentioned the grave of the last sin eater, one Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 and is buried in St. Margaret’s churchyard, Ratlinghope (pronounced Ratchup), up in the Shropshire hills between the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones.

What could be more curious and curiosity-inducing than the grave of a sin eater. Clearly an expedition was called for. Ratlinghope is only twenty miles or so from Wenlock, and so last Thursday, after doing the shopping in Church Stretton and with the weather set fair, we headed for the hills.

That Ratlinghope is an out-of-the-way place is an understatement. The lane from the busy Shrewsbury-Ludlow highway at Leebotwood is mostly single track, and wends up and over the northerly spur of the Long Mynd. If you stop and look behind you, all of the Shropshire and Cheshire Plains spread out below you. On Thursday, though, it was rather hazy, but you’ll get the general idea.

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Now for sin eaters. The first thing to know is that the sin-eating custom that once featured at funerals appears to be both ancient and confined mostly to the Shropshire, Hereford and Welsh Marches region. In the extract below, Mary Webb, suggests the sin eaters could be wise men, exorcists, or poor people somehow outcast by misfortune. At a burial, the last meal of the corpse – usually bread and ale – would be passed over the coffin for the sin eater to eat. Through this act, he took on the sins of the deceased thereby ensuring that the departing spirit went in peace. In latter times, it is said, the poor took on the role willingly in order to have a decent meal.

But this was not the case for Richard Munslow of Ratlinghope. He came from generations of respectable farming folk and had his own farm at nearby Upper Darnford where he employed at least two labourers. He also enjoyed the sheep grazing rights on the Long Mynd. The style of his memorial certainly indicates a man of substance.  He in fact revived the sin eating custom of his own volition. It is thought that he was inspired to do this through personal loss and an elevated sense of compassion. The gravestone also provides the clue. In 1862 Richard and Ann Munslow lost their first child George aged 11 weeks. Then in the first week of May 1870 they lost all three of their children to scarlet fever. Later, though, there were two daughters who did outlive them. Richard died in 1906 aged 73. Ann lived on until 1913.

The little church itself has its origins some time before 1209 when an Augustinian cell for a prior and seven brethren was established at Ratlinghope. It was an outpost of Wigmore Abbey in north Herefordshire. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued life as the parish church. There are few signs of the original building beyond the foundations, and the church you see to day is the product of successive rounds of renovation. The oak front door, though, has the date 1625 carved on it – a gift of the then church wardens. It is a peaceful place for the last sin eater to take his rest, even if there was no one to perform like offices on his behalf.

Next: sin-eating as described in Precious Bane.

Mary Webb was born at Leighton, near Much Wenlock in 1881, and spent her teen years in the town. She also knew the communities of the South Shropshire Hills and was well versed in their folklore and local vernaculars. It is probable she was familiar with the sin eating of Richard Munslow, hence the passage in Precious Bane, though she gives the performing of the rite her own narrative twist.

I’m posting the whole extract here, not only because it paints a picture of past Shropshire life, but because it includes some fine writing by this often under-valued author. The novel is set in the early 1800s and the narrator is young Prue Sarn, a sensitive and good-hearted farmer’s daughter, who believes no one will ever marry her because of her hare lip. Her older brother, Gideon, is a hard-nosed go-getter who thinks only of making money. At this point in the story Prue’s father has just died.

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It was a still, dewy summer night when we buried Father. In our time there was still a custom round about Sarn to bury people at night. In our family it had been done for hundreds of years. I was busy all day decking the waggon with yew and the white flowering laurel, that has such a heavy, sweet smell. I pulled all the white roses and a tuthree pinks that were in blow, and made up with daisies out of the hay grass. While I pulled them, I thought how angered Father would have been to see me there, trampling it, and I could scarcely help looking round now and again to see if he was coming.

After we’d milked, Gideon went for the beasts, and I put black streamers round their necks, and tied yew boughs to their horns. It had to be done carefully, for they were the Longhorn breed, and if you angered them, they’d hike you to death in a minute. The miller was one bearer, and Mister Callard, of Callard’s Dingle, who farmed all the land between Sarn and Plash, was another. Then there were our two uncles from beyond the mountains. Gideon, being chief mourner, had a tall hat with black streamers and black gloves and a twisted black stick with streamers on it.

They took a long while getting the coffin out, for the doors were very narrow and it was a big, heavy coffin. It had always been the same at all the Sarn funerals, yet nobody ever seemed to think of making the doors bigger. Sexton went first with his hat off and a great torch in his hand. Then came the cart, with Miller’s lad and another to lead the beasts. The waggon was mounded up with leaves and branches, and they all said it was a credit to me. But I could only mind how poor Father was used to tell me to take away all those nasty weeds out of the house. And now we were taking him away, jolting over the stones, from the place where he was maister.

I was all of a puzzle with it. It did seem so unkind, and disrespectful as well, leaving the poor soul all by his lonesome at the other end of the mere. I was glad it was sweet June weather, and not dark. We were bound to go the long way round, the other being only a foot road. When we were come out of the fold-yard, past the mixen, and were in the road, we took our places—Gideon behind the coffin by him- self, then Mother and me in our black poke bonnets and shawls, with Prayer Books and branches of rosemary in our hands. Uncles and Miller and Mister Callard came next, all with torches and boughs of rosemary.

It was a good road, and smoother than most—the road to Lullingford. Parson used to say it was made by folk who lived in the days when the Redeemer lived. Romans, the name was. They could make roads right well, whatever their name was. It went along above the water, close by the lake; and as we walked solemnly onwards, I looked into the water and saw us there. It was a dim picture, for the only light there was came from the waning, clouded moon, and from the torches. But you could see, in the dark water, something stirring, and gleams and flashes, and when the moon came clear we had our shapes, like the shadows of fish gliding in the deep. There was a great heap of black, that was the waggon, and the oxen were like clouds moving far down, and the torches were flung into the water as if we wanted to dout them.

All the time, as we went, we could hear the bells ringing the corpse home. They sounded very strange over the water in the waste of night, and the echoes sounded yet stranger. Once a white owl came by, like a blown feather for lightness and softness. Mother said it was Father’s spirit looking for its body. There was no sound but the bells and the creaking of the wheels, till Parson’s pony, grazing in the glebe, saw the dim shapes of the oxen a long way off, and whinnied, not knowing, I suppose, but what they were ponies too, and being glad to think, in the lonesome- ness of the night, of others like herself nearby.

At last the creaking stopped at the lych-gate. They took out the coffin, resting it on trestles, and in the midst of the heavy breathing of the bearers came the promising words— “I am the resurrection and the life.” They were like quiet rain after drought. Only I began to wonder, how should we come again in the resurrection? Should we come clear, or dim, like in the water? Would Father come in a fit of anger, as he’d died, or as a little boy running to Grandma with a bunch of primmyroses? Would Mother smile the same smile, or would she have found a light in the dark passage? Should I still be fast in a body I’d no mind for, or would they give us leave to weave ourselves bodies to our own liking out of the spinnings of our souls?

The coffin was moved to another trestle, by the graveside, and a white cloth put over it. Our best tablecloth, it was. On the cloth stood the big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine. It was the only thing Mother could provide, and it was by good fortune that she had plenty of it, enough for the funeral feast and all, since there had been such a power of elderberries the year afore. It looked strange in the doubtful moonlight, standing there on the coffin, when we were used to see it on the table, with the colour of the Christmas Brand reflected in it.

Parson came forrard and took it up, saying— “I drink to the peace of him that’s gone.” Then everybody came in turn, and drank good health to Father’s spirit. At the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them. Then Sexton stepped forrard and said— “Be there a Sin Eater?” And Mother cried out— “Alas no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.”

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying—I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the byways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place.

Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.

So Gideon said— “We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?” But Mother cried and moaned all night after. And when the Sexton said “Be there a Sin Eater?” she cried again very pitifully, because Father had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him, and besides, he had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good. So she thought he had great need of a Sin Eater, and she would not be comforted. Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said— “There is a Sin Eater.”

“Who then? I see none,” said Sexton.

“I ool be the Sin Eater.” He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

“Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?” he said.

“No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!”

“What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.”

“No, no! Leave un go free, Gideon! Let un rest, poor soul! You be in life and young, but he’m cold and helpless, in the power of Satan. He went with all his sins upon him, in his boots, poor soul! If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.”

“And you’ll give me the farm, Mother?” “

Yes, yes, my dear! What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.” Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up. Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said—

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud. But when Gideon said, “Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,” I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser. Now it was time to throw the rosemary into the grave. Then they lowered the coffin in, and all threw their burning torches down upon it, and douted them.

The full Hathi Trust novel text is HERE

 

 

July’s Changing Seasons ~ To Shropshire’s Mysterious Stiperstones

It is a wild and brooding place, one of the strangest in South Shropshire’s hill country. For one thing the Devil has his chair there, and when the mist comes down, this is where he sits – brimming with pent-up malevolence but unseen by us mortals.

We did not encounter mist on Saturday when we ventured there so we assumed the Devil was out. But there were lowering skies, a near absence of light and the threat of rain. Oh yes, and wind, that somehow caused a discontinuity of function between brain and feet, so making the trek over moorland paths strewn with quartzite cobbles somewhat hazardous.

The Stiperstones ridge extends 5 miles (8 km), and at its highest point on Manstone Rock is 1700 feet (536 metres) above sea level.  Standing on the top you can look west across the great expanse of Wales, and on clear days see Snowdon and Cader Idris mountains. Turn east, and you can scan across the Long Mynd to north east Shropshire and far, far beyond.

The ridge has ancient origins and half the world away, some 60 degrees south of the equator. It probably began existence as a quartz sand beach laid down by a shallow sea during the Ordovician, some 495-443 million years ago. Thereafter the landmass moved one inch a year for the next 450 million years to reach its present location 50 degrees north of the equator. A slow, slow journey, then, of 7,500 miles.

You might think, as you look at succeeding images, that it doesn’t look much like a beach these days. In fact it has suffered much folding, sending the beach skywards, and tilting it at angles of 80 degrees in places. Along its length are a series of  quartzite tors described by the eminent Victorian geologist, Murchison, as ‘rugged Cyclopean ruins’ (The Silurian System 1854). Besides the Devil’s Chair and Manstone Rocks there are also Diamond Rock, Cranberry Rock, Nipstone Rock and several other eye-catching outcrops.

The place is also described as ‘relict landscape’, one that is undergoing continuous weathering. What we see today was mostly shaped during the last Ice Age when the quartzite was locked in permafrost. Moisture seeped into the cracks, and as it froze, expanded, causing the rock to fissure and fragment.

The moors below the ridge-top are rich in whinberries and cowberries, and so provided food and grazing for human populations from at least the Bronze Age. These people from prehistory left us their burial monuments – stone cairns along the hill’s spine. Then around 100 CE the Romans arrived, avidly searching of silver, but mostly mining lead, and smelting it in hillside boles to provide material to line their plunge pools, make water pipes, cover roofs, construct their coffins, and for the craftsmen of Wroxeter Roman City to use in the production of pewter.

Down succeeding centuries lead mining expanded dramatically. The flanks of the Stiperstones are littered with adits and the mine shafts that featured so dramatically in Mary Webb’s Gone To Earth.  One of the biggest concerns, Snailbeach Mine, started at the foot of the hill in 1783, employed 500 workers at its height. For a century and more, then, the wild countryside was also a filthy industrial zone of delving, massive spoil heaps, steam-pumping engines and hard-worked men and boys.

Yet somehow this phase too has somehow welded itself into the mythic fabric of the landscape, an impression heightened by the strange visual effect of Stiperstones quartzite – that it somehow looks black against the light, when in fact it is grey and speckled with ice white crystals.

And on that note I’ll leave you with the words of Much Wenlock’s Mary Webb, whose writerly landscape this very much was – and in all senses. This quote is from The Golden Arrow:

The whole countryside was acquiring in his eyes something portentous, apocalyptic. For the personality of a man reacting upon the spirit of a place produces something which is neither the man nor the  place, but fiercer or more beautiful than either. This third entity, born of the union,  becomes a  power and a haunting presence – non-human, non-material.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Changing Seasons – Please visit Max for this month’s jaw-dropping vistas from his trekking trip to the Romsdalseggen: not for the faint-hearted.

The Man from Much Wenlock: Meet Ken Milner

It is a privilege to know Ken Milner, a gentle creative man with deep rooted sensibilities for the past in and around Much Wenlock. He is a treasure house of information on country lore, on the families who have lived for generations below Wenlock Edge, and on the novels of Shropshire writer Mary Webb which, incidentally, he only learned to read at the age of thirty five. He built the house you can see in the video, and he created this beautiful garden which brings joy to all who see it. Graham passes it twice a day, driving to and from work. It is a floral threshold between the town and Wenlock Edge.

Ken also paints, makes sculptures, and is a poet and storyteller. Here, though, is his living creation – his garden. The video content was created by Ken and Wenlock poet, Paul Francis, and the whole filmed by  Silva Productions, a Midlands production company. You are in for a treat.

 

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23lgFSQzvTw

 

#WenlockEdge

Flickr Comments: M words

Jennifer Jones comes to Wenlock

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It’s hard to imagine, but in 1949 Hollywood descended on my little home town of Much Wenlock. Both its locations and inhabitants featured in David O. Selznick’s screen version of Mary Webb’s 1917 novel, Gone to Earth. The film’s star, Oscar-winner Jennifer Jones, certainly looks the part, and in this respect she well conjures the book’s central character, the untamed but doomed spirit that is Shropshire lass, Hazel Woodus.

As an American, Jones of course had to receive specialist drilling in the Shropshire dialect, a form of speech which these days is scarcely heard, but would have been the norm during Webb’s childhood. She writes it very clearly in the book’s dialogue, and Jones makes a good stab at it, but it perhaps sounds overdone to modern ears. People in England do not speak like this any more.

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Mary Webb herself spent her adolescence in Much Wenlock, and for the rest of her too-short life lived in various parts of rural Shropshire. She knew country ways intimately. Her writing is rooted always in the landscapes of her own growing up – the upland wilds and rugged long-gone lead-mining and peasant farming communities, the small market towns. But although she observes the hardship and poverty with a keen eye, she has tended to be dismissed as a writer of the romantic and rustic, her work parodied in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.

In her day, though, she had some very well known literary admirers  including Rebecca West  and John Buchan (Thirty-Nine Steps). I think her novels deserve a rediscovery. Her themes are still relevant today: male attitudes to women being one of them; human cruelty and wilful destructiveness for another.

In Gone to Earth, the central character, Hazel Woodus, is eighteen, motherless, and living in an isolated cottage with her coffin-making, bee-keeping father, Abel. Her only companion is a tame fox, Foxy, and her only guidance in life is dubiously received from her dead mother’s book of gypsy spells.

Two men want her: the Baptist Minister who marries her and tries to protect what he sees as her innocent spirit, and the fox-hunting landowner who wants only bodily possession. Hazel herself is torn between respectable conformity and her growing sexual awareness. And if I tell you that the term ‘gone to earth’ is the huntsman’s cry when a fox goes underground to escape the hounds, you will know that the story does not end well.

In other senses the book’s plot may be purely allegorical. Above all, it is about the pointless destruction of natural beauty and freedom. Webb was writing it at a time when three of her younger brothers were fighting in the World War 1 trenches.

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Much Wenlock 1949 in outside and inside the medieval Guildhall: scenes from Gone to Earth, director Michael Powell

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The making of the film did not run altogether smoothly, and there are perhaps some parallels between Hazel as an object of male possession and control , and the position of the film’s star, Jennifer Jones. She had had an affair with the executive producer, David O. Selznik, and by 1949 they were married. He wanted Gone to Earth to be solely a showcase for her, and he did not think the film’s makers, the fabulous storytelling team of director Michael Powell, and screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger, (The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) had done her justice. He even took them to court for not producing what was in the script. He lost the case, but he still had the right to make an alternative version.

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The upshot was that for the 1952 American release, renamed The Wild Heart , he chopped all the scenes that did not make the most of Jones, had new scenes shot, and to make sense of the makeover added a commentary by Joseph Cotton. The film was not well received, and so did not serve his purpose.  Only recently has the original Powell and Pressburger version been fully restored.

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In the film clip below you will see, not Much Wenlock, but a location some miles across Wenlock Edge. Here are the beautiful hills of South Shropshire, in particular the Stiperstones with its bleak outcrop known as the Devil’s Chair. This is where Hazel goes at night in expectation of guidance from one of her mother’s superstitious rites. This silly, girlish act, and mistaken reading of events will have tragic consequences.

 

Hazel goes to the Devil’s Chair

 

For more on Mary Webb:

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“This year’s discovery has been Mary Webb, author of Gone to Earth. She is a genius, and I shouldn’t mind wagering that she is going to be the most distinguished writer of our generation.”

— Rebecca West, review of Gone to Earth in the Times Literary Supplement, August 30, 1917

 

Mary Webb: neglected genius for the synopsis of Gone to Earth and also for details of her other works.

 

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…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