It Seemed Like A Small Treasure

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There it was lying among the chaff and wheat stalks, a small fossil brachiopod, the size of my thumbnail, both shells of the bivalve quite intact, but washed free of its sedimentary matrix, to be found by me as I wandered about in Townsend Meadow after the harvest.  I was out in the field, relishing the new views, seeing the town from fresh angles as I climbed the hill, and much like Monet with his many haystack renditions, as I went, snapping multiple views of the large straw bales. With the morning sun on them they looked like some rustic art installation.

I saw the fossil from the corner of my eye and instantly switched to archaeologist mode, at first hoping it might be a Roman coin. It was a similar size and pewtery dullness to the ones I’d uncovered at nearby Wroxeter Roman City when I was digging there aeons ago. But no. It is a washed up remnant from the Silurian Sea, the 400 million-year shallow ocean, whose bed in more recent eras thrust upwards to form Wenlock Edge.

But that’s not all that is marvellous. Before the upthrusting, back in the oceanic days when this little mollusc was still busy sifting warm currents to find its lunch, the land beneath my feet was lying south of the Equator, somewhere near the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. It takes one’s breath away: Shropshire to the Comoros. Is all too hard to grasp. Too much time, too much planetary expanse for the mind to girdle. I mean how could the world’s parts have done so much monumental shunting about? And we humans with all our technology think ourselves masters of the globe. Silly, silly us.

Anyway, I brought the little fossil home, and it sits on my desk. It feels like a touchstone, an omen, a talisman. What meaning might I take from it? This 400 million-year-old mollusc found by chance among the chaff and sawn-off stalks after the wheat harvest.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

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From The Old Africa Album ~ Zanzibar Sunset

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With this winter that will not end, my thoughts are turning to our Africa days with a longing for some tropical warmth.

After one fine day yesterday (wherein I managed to plant out some onion sets and broad bean plants) the rain returned in the night. And today it has rained and rained and rained. There was also fog over the fields for most of the day. Only as I write this at 7pm (and I’m wondering if  looking at this Zanzibari scene hasn’t worked some magic) is there a hint of watery sunlight over Wenlock Edge. But there is more rain forecast for the rest of the week. If it keeps up like this Shropshire will float away back to where it began 400 million years ago, and pretty much in the location of this photograph – off East Africa in the Silurian Sea.

It’s an amusing thought, floating back to Africa. I can already smell the jasmine and the sea-salted frangipani. And the soft lap of waves. And watching the sun go down over mainland Tanzania.

Daily Post: Rise/Set

Some Favourite Horizons ~ the Silurian Sea Effect And The Changing Seasons

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Here in the small English Midlands town of Much Wenlock,  we live in the lea of an upthrust ancient sea. (I may have mentioned this once or several times before). As I took this photo I was standing on the petrified flanks of Wenlock Edge – the compacted deposits of shallow tropical waters that teemed with giant sea scorpions, sea lilies,  corals, trilobites and all manner of brachiopods in the long ago age before fish, or indeed, before life as we know it.

In fact, as the photo well shows, we sit in a bowl, lodged between several folds in the landscape. It is a place of naturally rising springs, which is probably why St. Milburga’s family of Saxon Mercian princes founded an abbey here in the seventh century: pure water and the presumption of godliness going hand in hand. The town also has several other holy wells besides those associated with Milburga. It seems to have been the equivalent of a calling card. Every saint who visited Much Wenlock left us a well to remember them by. Then in the 1930s the good burghers of Wenlock decided they were a risk to physical well being and had them all capped.

Milburga’s Well, though, had especially enduring powers. As I have also mentioned before, the legends that tell of the life of this Paris-educated abbess, are routinely associated with springs bursting hither and thither. In fact so potent is her association with pure water sources that even in the late nineteenth century, rain collected from the roof of the parish church – a building founded on the remains of Milburga’s abbey, was still considered to be an essential ingredient  for beer brewing (never mind the additional mossy deposits). Likewise, water from the actual well was absolutely expected to cure all manner of eye disorders, as well as reflecting in its glassy surface the identity of husbands-to-be to the lovelorn Wenlock lasses who, come May Day, would rush to look there for signs of their future partners.

Anyway, I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that there are certainly great disadvantages to living your life in a hollow. It can limit your vistas in every sense. But there are advantages too. In our case it also means that whichever way you strike out of the town, you are always in for a fresh horizon. In every direction we have them; one for every moment of the day. So here are some of my favourites.

In June to the south of the town we had an outbreak of poppies. It was stupendous:

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Then in late summer, standing at the southerly end of the town, among the wheat fields and looking north, I discovered this fine view of the Wrekin. Some trick of the light/perspective/geography has made it seem extraordinarily looming and close:

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When it comes to the other quarters, if walk from the town centre, in an easterly direction, down the Bull Ring and out past the ruins of the 12th century Cluniac Priory, you will find the once monastic parkland where the Prior went hunting before the place was asset-stripped and sold off to Henry VIII’s faithful servants, and thereafter to generations of would-be gentry. This photo was taken a few days ago. A winter’s view then:

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And then looking east from the north end of the town – this time from Windmill Hill:

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Also there are the ever-changing westerly false-horizons as seen from our house that backs on to the foothills of Wenlock Edge:

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Finally, if you leave the town and climb on to Wenlock Edge itself, and if you can find a suitable gap in the trees, you can look west across Shropshire and towards the Welsh borderland:

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And the reason why I’m posting all these views?

Well, this week the WordPress photo challenge invites us to pre-empt the New Year making of resolutions and post a photo impression of what that resolution might be, or if not a resolution, then of some envisaged new horizon; to look ahead beyond life’s present busyness.

This made me consider my own horizon-watching habit, which daily fills me with a sense of wonder.(For one thing I am very lucky to have the time to do it at all – a luxury of luxuries). It is a form of day-dreaming, or watchful meditation and a good way to rest a racing mind. I also enjoy posting views of my homeland landscapes because I believe we cannot love the world too much. But I’m wondering, too, if we don’t do altogether too much ‘looking ahead’, ‘looking for more/the next/the new.’

The fresh horizons we may be seeking are not really OUT THERE. “Look within to the universal self.” Inside each of us, that’s where all the work needs to be done if we want to see real change. I know I can change myself, though I recognise that I might need some assistance. I also know that I definitely cannot change others, much as I might wish to in these times when too many people appear to define their identities through their fear, envy and hatred of others. If anyone ever wants to know where hell is, then it is there.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

New Horizon

Views From The Silurian Sea

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I dare say the farm fields were neither so large nor so orderly when Africa explorer, ‘Livingstone-I-presume’, Henry Morton Stanley  looked out on this Shropshire landscape. For looked at it he would have when he came as a guest to The Abbey home of the Milnes-Gaskells of Much Wenlock. Stanley’s hosts were enthusiastic tour guides and brought all their visitors to Wenlock Edge to admire the view.

Those of you who come here often will know that Wenlock Edge is an 18-mile  limestone ridge that runs across southern Shropshire. It is very much a local landmark, and its geology is of international scientific interest. The Edge as we know it now was formed by the uptilt of fossilized strata that were once the bed of the Silurian Sea.

Some 400 million years ago, this shallow tropical sea, that pre-dated even the advent of fish, and long before terrestrial life had evolved, once lay off East Africa near today’s Comoros Islands. You can find out more about it in an earlier post: Old Stones of Wenlock: Repurposing the Silurian Sea

On Sunday I posted an African landscape. Today is my ‘Out of Africa’ landscape, both of itself (because this chunk of Britain once lay in African waters), and on account of the photographer (that would be me) who has yet to get over leaving that continent.

But it goes to show how landscape intimately affects who we are, both physically and spiritually. It feeds our imagination, and shapes the lives we lead in a multitude of ways. Its resources  may provide the basis for our livelihoods, and will have shaped communities and culture over countless generations before us. If we fail to value it, we will ultimately lose the best of ourselves, our true heritage. In Shropshire we owe great thanks to the National Trust and Shropshire Hills Area Of Outstanding Beauty, organizations that strive to creatively engage and reconnect people with the earth beneath their feet, and the natural beauty around them. More power to their purpose.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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Day 7 of my Nature Photo Challenge shots. Thanks once more to Anna at Una Vista di San Fermo who started me off on this jaunt.

And view 2 in the Daily Post weekly photo challenge: Landscape

The Old Quarry ~ Thursday’s Special

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I’ve always found quarries disturbing places – the wholesale delving into the earth, the ravaged landscapes left behind. And yes, I know we need the resources. (Our own house is built of this fossilized Silurian Sea, although actually I’d be just as happy with brick or timber).

Shadwell Quarry behind Much Wenlock’s Windmill Hill is only one of the many old limestone quarries along Wenlock Edge. These days they are no longer worked but host various business enterprises that simply need a large amount of storage space. Quarry owners are supposed to do some restoration after the blasting has stopped, but I’ve not noticed much of this actually happening.

These photos show how slowly recolonization of quarried land takes place. (For an aerial view go HERE.) It has been twenty years since Shadwell was decommissioned.

The water in the quarry bottom is also a strange blue, almost turquoise at times, coloured by the limestone deposits. At over seventy feet deep, it lures tipsy young men to prove their manliness by diving in from one of the man-made cliffs while their mates film the act and post the videos on You Tube. Last summer I spotted gangs of school leavers heading off behind Windmill Hill. They were armed with ghetto blasters and towels and I overheard them saying they were ‘going to the beach’.

It’s interesting how people’s perceptions of places differ. One sees ‘exciting resort’; another oppressive dereliction – albeit with strains of desolate grandeur.

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I’ve written more about the history of Wenlock’s limestone quarrying  at Hidden Wenlock #4

This week at Lost in Translation Paula’s theme is ‘forbidding’. Please call in there if you want to take part in the challenge. She suggests many possibilities for interpretation.

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

Winterscapes on Wenlock Edge: Thursday’s Special

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I have said elsewhere (In the old stones of Wenlock) how our cottage in Much Wenlock is built from a recycled fossil sea bed – the stony remnants of the 400 million year old Silurian Sea that once lay in the tropics off East Africa. If you want to know more of this extraordinary geological phenomenon, please follow the link.

Here in the midst of northern hemisphere weather, a warm sea in Shropshire is a hard concept to grasp, but then Shropshire was south of the equator back then. All the same, I would give much at this moment to soak myself in clear tropical waters – as long as giant Silurian water scorpions are not included.

Anyway, this is the rear view from our cottage window. At the front we look at oversized passing heavy goods vehicles. In some ways I like the ambiguity of our position, poised between the rush and rumble of commercial imperative, and the monumental  immanence of Wenlock Edge – between the speeding trucks and a hard, quiet place. The Edge of course  is mostly made of limestone – the compressed remains dead sea creatures. At some point the sea bed was shunted upwards to make the long escarpment that is now a striking landmark across the south east of the county.

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From our house we look towards the back of the Edge. Some undulating ‘foothills’ obscure an actual view of it, but we see the big sky above the  escarpment, and have a sense of weather always moving behind the horizon. The cottage, then, is not only on the Edge and of the Edge, the Edge is the reason why it is here at all.

So far our researches have been rather patchy, but we think the house was built around 1830. It was probably a squatter cottage, meaning that  it was built on the local landowner’s property, and a rent or fine was paid to him by the inhabitants. The first occupants appear to have been lime burners, working at nearby limekilns. The limestone was burned to make quick lime that was used for fertilizer, for building mortar, and for lime wash for walls inside and out . It was an immensely important commodity.

It is hard to imagine, though, what the atmosphere of Much Wenlock would have been like in lime burning days. The town sits in a hollow, a frost pocket. On cold winter’s days one imagines a fog of fumes from roasted limestone shrouding the rooftops. Doubtless it would have been corrosive on the lungs too.

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This last shot was taken in January from the top of Wenlock Edge. Here we have the cooling towers of Ironbridge coal-fired Power Station (its days are numbered), and the Ironbridge Gorge beyond. Limestone once played a crucial role in that locality too, used as a flux in the iron masters’ blast furnaces in Coalbrookdale. Along the River Severn just south of these steaming towers, the Industrial Revolution began with the first casting of iron using coke as a fuel. It is hard to picture I know, much like a fossil tropical ocean in Shropshire, but the technological breakthroughs made in this English backwater spurred on the world’s drive to industrialisation.

It would seem that the Silurian Sea and its petrified molluscs and sea lilies have much to answer for.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Inspired by Paula’s Thursday’s Special: cold

“Wheat…fields of wheat…” Musings on the path to the allotment

 

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Okay, who knows which film this quote comes from? As an extra clue I give you the line in ‘full’: “Wheat… lots of wheat… fields of wheat… a tremendous amount of wheat…”

For some reason I cannot explain, this particular exhortation is rather popular in the Farrell household.  The Team Leader is wont to deliver it at unexpected  intervals and with some vigour. This habit even predates the time when we actually came to live beside  a field that often has wheat growing in it. So here is it. The field behind our house. And while I admit it might overstep the bounds of propriety to share my washing with the world, here is another view of the wheat field from our garden. I also think the flower shadows on the sheet rather fine: housework turned artwork?

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I have written in earlier posts how our house lies on the edge of Wenlock Edge, a twenty-mile scarp formed from the upthrust bed of a tropical sea – the Silurian Sea in fact. This geological formation is a breath-taking 400  million years old – a place once inhabited by trilobites, and molluscs, and sponges and corals, although it should be made clear that when these creatures lived, the shallow sea in question was not in the northern hemisphere.  No indeed. In its tropical heyday Shropshire lay off equatorial East Africa. We are thus, for all our rustic appearance, a well-travelled county. We also have lots of geology of international importance, but  which I cannot begin to describe because the terminology and chronological expanses confound even me, a prehistorian. The Shropshire Geological Society have  a good site HERE should you wish to know more.

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The reason I’m showing you the wheat field is because my path to the allotment runs along the edge of it. I walk back and forth at least once a day. And so when I’m not writing blog posts or fiddling with my novel, this is one of the places where I’m likely to be. There is always something that catches my eye – thistles, the light, clouds, buzzards, the rooks and jackdaws, a neighbour’s three white ducks that regularly escape from their pen to eat slugs along the path, cats on the prowl, pretending I can’t see them.

Even the wheat is quite interesting. It amazes me how it manages to force its way up through a cloddy layer of grey clay that bakes to concrete after a few days with no rain. This soil, too, is a product of a geological event – a deluge of  volcanic ash from aeons ago and that has now broken down into bentonite clay.  It is the same soil in the allotment. Soft fruits seem to thrive on it. Everything else is a challenge. Wheat, though, has apparently been grown along the slopes above the town for generations, hence the name The Wheatlands for some of our now built-upon areas.

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And talking of building, a couple of years ago when the Local Authority called for landowners to put forward development land, our local landowner proposed  this and most of the fields on the Edge side of the town, including the allotments too, gardens  that have been there since the 1940s.  Development on this scale is something that most town residents fervently  hope will not happen. We have already been threatened with up to 500 houses over the next 11 years. This in a town with antiquated drainage, severe traffic congestion, few jobs, poor public transport, and inflated house prices, and one that has seen several new developments of upmarket houses in the last few years.  More crucially, the town sits in a bowl below the Edge and has recently been designated a rapid response flood risk area by the Environment Agency.

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More tarmac, roofs and roads that speed up run off from the hills above our homes are the last thing we need.  Some of the newest developments in the town are themselves subject to flooding.

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All right, I admit it. The landscape behind our house is perhaps not particularly noteworthy of itself, but the light and sky above it are. The uptilted scarp of Wenlock Edge forms a false horizon, so there is always much weather to watch. It changes every second. One day we saw a fire rainbow which we gather is quite rare.

Ironically, it it perhaps because this view from our house is ever under threat, that makes us look at it and appreciate it all the more. But it makes me angry too. I am not opposed to development, but it should be well planned, and enhance the locality, not cause problems for other people’s homes. There appears to be no mechanism in English planning that can ensure the provision of good quality housing at prices people can afford. Density seems to be the only planning criterion, not  homes with green spaces around them, and places for community orchards and gardens, footpaths and cycle tracks and areas where people of all ages can play. All things that boost wellbeing. You would wonder why it is so hard to do.

It is true that  Much Wenlock people have recently voted to have the Local Authority  accept their Neighbourhood Plan, a community compiled document that reflects our aspirations and plans for the foreseeable future. Our Conservative Party MP, Philip Dunne, tells us the Plan will deliver localism to our door, that is, we will have a say in the kind and scale of development that is proposed for our town and parish, development that will protect landscapes, open spaces and heritage while improving the quality of life for everyone. Whether it will, or not remains to be seen, particularly under a government whose recently sacked Secretary for the Environment apparently allowed for the destruction of ancient woodland as long as developers replanted elsewhere.  Bio-diversity anyone?

Which I suppose brings me back to the quote; “Wheat…fields of wheat…” You can’t get more of a monoculture than that. Hey ho. So many things to unpick. Think I’ll trundle up the path to the allotment and pick raspberries.

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

…of Silurian Shores

Old Stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea

In Much Wenlock an Inspector Calls

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P.S. The quote is from Woody Allen’s Love and Death

 

Old Stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea

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I like the idea that I, like many in and around Much Wenlock, live inside blocks of repurposed, and well-travelled seafloor – the compressed and decomposing shells, sponges, bony fish, sea scorpions, trilobites and corals of  the Silurian Sea. It is also intriguing to know that some 400 million years ago, this shallow tropical ocean was part of a land mass that lay off East Africa, somewhere near the Comoros Islands. We even have our own geological epoch – The Wenlock that lasted from 428 to 423 million years ago. And yes, I know, it is hard to fathom – this mind-boggling vastness of geological time, the tectonic shunt and shift across the globe to create the continents we all now recognise.

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My own view of the world, I find, is firmly fixed, and distinctly two-dimensional, being the usual flat configuration found in an atlas. And of course, when I consult the world map I can surely see that Much Wenlock is definitely in the northern hemisphere, in England’s Midlands to be exact, nudging towards Wales. Yet the proof that this was not always so, is all around me – in the stones of church, priory, and the many barns and cottages, even in my chimney breast – this place, this ground beneath the wooded ridgeback of Wenlock Edge, where the stone was quarried, WAS ONCE IN THE TROPICS. And since I once lived in the tropics myself, I like to think that returning to Shropshire has brought me back to the place where I was in Africa, but in a different time zone – a bit like a Time Lord, a Doctor Who without a Tardis.

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The Farrell Silurian fireplace built c 1830

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But back to the stones. The circular sections you can see in the first photo  are the remains of crinoids or sea lilies. These were animals, echinoderms, not plants, and looked something like this:

From McGraw-Hill Science and Technology Encyclopedia; Articulata

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Bony fish also made their first appearance during the Silurian:

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Artist’s impression of Silurian Fish (creative commons copyright expired) from  Nebula to Man by Joseph Smit 1905

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And the landscape may have looked like this, although was apparently entirely inhospitable above water, with roaring winds and hot flying dust, and no signs of life.

Silurian Sea reconstruction by Richard Bizley: http://www.bizleyart.com/

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And here is bed of the Silurian Sea today, the upthrust levels that form the fifteen-mile wooded ridge of Wenlock Edge. Its geology is of international importance. (For more on Wenlock Edge, see its Facebook page here.)

The Edge has been quarried for centuries, but the quarries lie mostly empty now, waiting to be repurposed themselves. In the town our earliest surviving stone buildings date from monastic times. (In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls.) But old buildings have always been recycled into new buildings, and you can see signs of this as you walk along the streets nearest the priory ruins.

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And finally  (below) is the Farrell establishment – a blend of old and new construction. Hopefully the inhabitants are not yet as fossilized as their surrounding walls, although clearly it is only a matter of time.

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Travel theme: stone

© 2013 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