The Wellingtonia seat on the Church Green
On Windmill Hill
The Linden Field
The Wellingtonia seat on the Church Green
On Windmill Hill
The Linden Field
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.
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.
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.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
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.
This sheep was having a lot to say for herself as she crossed the Priory parkland. Not a call of distress, more of a bad-mood grumble. Perhaps she was fed up with the snow covering her grass.
Meanwhile on the far side of the field her fellows seemed to have found something more to their liking.
And now here’s a better view of the old parkland behind Wenlock Priory – once the domain of jolly, hunting monks, and believe me, hunting was among the least of their reputed bad habits.
Thursday’s Special In the first challenge of 2018, Paula is definitely giving our little grey cells a post-Christmas shake-up. Algid was a new word for me. So here it is: cold and chilly. Now please visit Paula for the other options and some very fine photos.
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.
The Abbey, Much Wenlock, once the Prior’s Lodging. It boasts a host of windows:
In this week’s Black & White Challenge, Cee is asking us to focus on subjects that are more than fifty years old. I’m pretty confident, then, that my home town of Much Wenlock more than fits the bill. As a settlement, it has been continuously occupied for the last thousand years.
The town windmill (seen above) is not quite that old. I’ve begun with it because it is the oldest structure near my house. It was busy grinding corn from around 1655. Then a lightning bolt struck it in 1850, and it has remained sail-less ever since – either a pity or not, depending on your views on historic conservation.
On the other hand, I perhaps needn’t have gone as far as the windmill. You might say my own house is something of a minor monument age-wise, much like its inhabitants (?). It’s original half dates from the 1830s. In the living room there’s a massive inglenook fireplace complete with bread oven that defies my attempts to photograph it well, so you’ll have to imagine it. Instead I’ll take you on a walk down Sheinton Street to see a few of the other sights.
Heading into town, there are here-and-there signs of the medieval origins of many of the cottages, their timber frames concealed or disguised by brick and stone exteriors that have been added in more recent centuries.
Most of these cottages would have once housed artisans, their workshops opening directly onto the street to catch the eye of potential customers. The living quarters, and gardens would have been behind the workshops. In fact, the layout of long medieval burgage plots behind these Sheinton Street properties, and now pretty gardens, are still visible from the field path.
Today, Much Wenlock is a sleepy sort of place, much gentrified, and up-marketed. But step back a couple of hundred years, and much of it would have been grimy and industrial. Not only was there quarrying and limestone burning going on around the town, but within it were once the smoking kilns of the clay tobacco pipe manufacturers, stinking pits for the curing and tanning of hides for leather working, horses and carts churning up the dirt. Brewing was also a big local trade, as were slaughtering, pewtering, smithing, weaving, and hat and shoe making. The unmade streets were alive with taverns to wet the throats of dusty quarrymen, and the final touch, ambiance-wise, would have been provided by the malodourous effluvia of the Schetbroke, an open sewer of a stream which ran through the town (but now happily culverted).
I don’t know the particular history of this rather grand cottage seen above, but it’s a good example of a later stone frontage added to a much older building. Most of the town’s stonework has in fact been recycled from its medieval priory, dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540.
In amongst the antiquity we can also find more recent buildings. For instance, in the space between medieval neighbours is this little set of picturesque alms houses built in 1810. They are known as Wolmer’s Alms Houses, a charity founded in the town in 1485. They are still operated on a charitable basis for the elderly. I love the brick ogival arches over the doors and windows.
At the end of Sheinton Street is Brookhouse Farm. It is now a residential enclave of smart barn conversions, but until fairly recently was one of the last surviving examples of England’s town farms. I can still remember it in the 1990s as a very rustic farmyard with cattle in the barns. The farmhouse in the foreground was stone-clad in the early 1700s, and is one of several Much Wenlock houses with a medieval hall concealed within it. You might call this the Chinese Box school of architecture.
Then on the opposite corner from the farm is the Bull Ring…
…so named after the unsavoury pursuit of bull-baiting that went on here until the early 1800s. By then the timber-framed building had stood for some 200 years, while Holy Trinity Church, seen behind and in the next photo, stands on the site the Saxon women’s church of St Milburga’s Abbey, founded in c.680 AD as a religious house for both nuns and monks. The oldest part of the present church is the nave which dates from 1150. Other parts were constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries.
During monastic times, Much Wenlock was ruled by the Prior under ecclesiastical law. After the dissolution in 1540 a new civil courthouse had to be built. It stands just across the Church Green, and marks the centre of the town. These days the ground floor is the venue for our various markets, while upstairs houses the original law court (now a gallery) and the council chamber which is still used for all Town Council meetings, and has to be one of the most uncomfortable, if august, venues in the whole town.
And now we’ll double back on ourselves. Please head under the arch (look out for the man with a camera) and cut across the Church Green for our last stop on this tour – a quick look at Much Wenlock Priory.
This is the view from the lane, where the site’s perimeter is shaded by soaring Corsican Pines. We’ll need more time to make it worthwhile buying a ticket to go inside, so I’ll leave you with a photo from one of my earlier visits: a close-up of the monks’ lavabo where they used to wash before entering the refectory to take their meals.
The carved panel dates from c.1180, which is odd, actually. I could swear one of the saints is on his cell phone. Not so much religious texts, as a direct call to the Almighty?
In Part 2 I’ll take you on a black and white stroll up the High Street.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
I came upon this wild orchid last week: a single small spike, flowering in the un-mown margins of Wenlock Priory. The Priory is my hometown ancient ruin. In fact the town of Much Wenlock both grew up around, and then later out of the monastery. This latter occurrence was due to some opportunistic recycling on the part of the local populace. After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1540 (this in a bid to take control of the English church, marry Anne Boleyn and free up some much needed monastic capital), the lead was ripped from the roofs, and over the years, the stones from the ensuing ruins used to build many of the town’s houses.
The orchid is Anacamptis pyramidalis, a pyramidal orchid, and fairly common in Shropshire. This particular specimen was only a hand’s span in height, but the plant will grow taller. I did not get down to sniff it, and am sorry now, because I have since read that the flowers have a vanilla scent by day to attract pollinating butterflies. But then at night, when wet with dew, they give off a goaty smell that offends moths, or indeed anyone rash enough to get down on their knees for a quick nocturnal whiff. Their roots have medicinal properties when dried and ground into a sweet, nutritious powder called salep. It was once used to soothe upset stomachs. Perhaps the monks in the priory’s infirmary used it too, but please do not try this at home.
Incidentally, it was Charles Darwin who discovered that the structure of orchid flowers was designed specifically to be pollinated by either butterflies or moths with their long probosces. He wrote about it in Fertilisation of Orchids. Darwin also has a local connection. He was a Shropshire lad, born in the nearby county town of Shrewsbury in 1809. Shropshire has a lot to answer for, and indeed be proud of.
It is also interesting to think of Darwin within these Priory confines. Just as his book On the Origin Species shook the foundations of Christian orthodoxy, so these ruins mark England’s break from the Church in Rome and a complete shake-up in religious belief that rebounded down the centuries. For years, Darwin put off publishing his theory of natural selection – “like confessing a murder”. Even his wife was concerned about the state of his soul. Only the realization that out in the Malay Archipelago, one Alfred Russel Wallace was arriving at similar conclusions to his own, prompted him to finish his book. In the first public airing that described Darwin’s work, Wallace was also given credit.
But back to the orchid. I found it growing not far from the place where the Priory’s high altar would have stood, beneath the great east window. Behind that altar was said to be the shrine of St. Milburga. She was a Saxon princess famous for all manner of miracles, and who long after her death, became a big draw on the medieval pilgrim circuit.
For thirty years she had been abbess of the first monastic house in Much Wenlock. This predates the existing 12th – 15th century monastic remains by hundreds of years, and was founded as a mixed house for both monks and nuns in 680 AD by her father King Merewahl of Mercia. Her grandfather had been the great King Penda, who, it is said, personally abhorred Christianity, while nonetheless tolerating those with Christian beliefs.
All three of Merewahl’s daughters, and also his queen (after she forsook the marriage) headed religious houses. And I gather it was common in Saxon times both to have mixed-sex religious houses, although with separate places of worship and accommodation, and for them to be ruled by women. Milburga had been well educated at Chelles in Paris before she took up her office. She also controlled extensive estates, which later became part of the Cluniac monastery of Norman times, and yielded large revenues in agricultural produce. It is clear that in Saxon times, princesses were deemed to have both political and spiritual power to wield. There was apparently no incentive for kings to marry them off in useful dynastic marriages.
The re-discovery of Milburga’s remains in 1101 during the rebuilding of her, by then, ruinous church greatly added to the Priory’s revenue and prosperity as pilgrims flocked to the newly established shrine. The opulence of the Prior’s lodging, expanded in 1425 , gives an indication of the wealth and power enjoyed by its then Prior, Richard Singer.
There are many historical accounts of grim goings on in Wenlock Priory – everything from monks counterfeiting coinage to plotting to murder their prior. But these will have to wait for another post. For now more views of the priory ruins and its other plants – wild and cultivated.
Foxglove in the cloister garden. Digitalis purpurea was used by monastic herbalists from the early Middle Ages to cure dropsy (oedema or swelling caused by fluid). It has also long been used for heart conditions, although an overdose can prove fatal. Something else not to try at home.
More mauve than purple – the lavender border (and topiary) in the cloister. Lavender has many soothing medicinal uses – for headaches in particular. I have no idea why the topiary hedges are there – a much more recent non-monastic addition it seems.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
For more shades of purple go to Ailsa’s Travel Challenge HERE
For more ‘C’ stories go to Flickr Comments HERE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
* for many historical details I am indebted to Vivien Bellamy. See her book A History of Much Wenlock, Shropshire Books, 2001