And Another Odd Capture

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It’s hard to know how to follow yesterday’s yarn about my recent small-hours radio ‘haunting’, but since Shropshire landscapes cropped up in it, I thought I’d have a ‘rummage’ through that particular photo file. And so I found this one of me, courtesy of he-who-builds-sheds-and-greenhouses in the days before he did such things.

It must have been taken in the second winter after we left our life in Kenya. We had settled in Rochester, Kent. For the eight years we’d been living in Africa, Graham had been employed by the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), once the scientific arm of British Government overseas aid, but now part of the University of Greenwich. Its offices were based in the old Chatham dockyard, just up the road from Rochester. (Odd factoid: both locations have strong Charles Dickens connections). And so Graham was returning to base, though he had never had a desk there. It was a strange situation.

Neither of us wanted to be there. For one thing we were overwhelmed by the hemmed-in urban congestion of the Medway five towns: Strood, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham massing together so closely so that once in their midst, you could not see out or move for traffic. The one source of local relief was the River Medway that wound between them. We had bought a house there – in one of the new riverside developments that were sprouting up along its banks.

A little oddly too, our particular townhouse enclave was on the site of the old Short Brothers Empire flying boat factory, the craft that had served Imperial Airways during their 1930s pioneering of air travel to Africa, India and beyond. Later Imperial morphed into BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), and I remembered that some of the first flights to Kenya used to land on Lake Naivasha and, while the crew put-up in the cottages of the Naivasha Country Club (where we ourselves had once stayed), travellers to Nairobi would have to complete the last sixty miles by dirt road.

The connection was a small ‘haunting.’ Added to when one of our first house guests, an expat friend from Nairobi (actually an Englishman who had settled in Australia)  told us that his father had been a steward with Imperial Airways. (This was the same person who, on another visit from Australia, came to stay with us in Much Wenlock, and on arrival told us he had a cousin living up the road).

Imperial Airways flying boat 1937 public domain

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But back to the header photo. One of my adjustment strategies to UK life was to go to T’ai chi classes. This then explains the pose. I think I am in the throes of grasping the sparrow’s tail.

But what of the location?

One reason we didn’t want to be living in Kent was because family and friends were mostly faraway in the West Midlands: Shropshire and Staffordshire – and between them and us was the evil M25 London orbital car park motorway. We could access it in either direction from Rochester. It never made any difference. The jams seemed to last for days.

But then the photo shows we must have broken out. Here we are in Shropshire in late December 2001. It is one of the county’s most mysterious locations: Mitchell’s Fold, a Bronze Age stone circle, sitting on the borderland with Wales. I don’t remember now why we chose to be driving round the Shropshire hills in such wintery weather, but there’s more about that visit and the circle’s folk lore associations with wicked witch Mitchell here: Witch Catching In The Shropshire Hills

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Copyright 2022 Tish Farrell

The Square Odds #3

Of Monumental Mysteries

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”   L P Hartley The Go-Between      

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So what’s the mystery here? No, not that strange woman in a Welsh felted hat doing tai chi. (Actually,  I think I may be in the process of ‘grasping the sparrow’s tail’ Yang-style long form. I’ve rather forgotten).  I remember, though, the icy winter’s day, and the absolute stillness, and the hazy blue views of Wales over the border from my Shropshire homeland, and the feeling that this circle of ancient stones was a special place; that it stirred in me the sense that doing tai chi here would be a good thing.

I have written before about Mitchell’s Fold Bronze Age stone circle,  and you can find the witchy legend associated with it  HERE.  Historically speaking, little is known about the stones  beyond the fact that they were raised some 4,000 years ago. The surviving fifteen stones form a rough circle, although there may have once been as many as thirty. The tallest survivor is said to have originally been one of a pair, and so formed some kind of gateway or threshold at the circle’s edge.

These henges are, on the whole, unfathomable. There is no knowing how the people, who toiled to build them, made use of them, or what their precise significance was in their daily lives. The elevated location of Mitchell’s Fold, with its sweeping vistas, suggests to us a sacred function. There are also possibilities that the stones’ particular alignment served as some kind of calendar, marking solar and lunar events. And, for more prosaic purposes, in a world without maps and SatNav, prominently sited megaliths may also have provided travellers with landmarks to keep them on course through the upland wilds. The Bronze Age was, after all, a time of intinerant smiths and artisans who covered great distances to trade their goods and services.

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This is borne out by the fact that not far from Mitchell’s Fold, just over the Welsh border in Powys,  is the Cwm Mawr Bronze Age axe factory. The distinctive looking axe-hammers that were made here have been found across Wales and England, their discovery demonstrating an extensive trading network. Nor is this henge an isolated monument in the immediate landscape. There are numerous cairns and two further stone circles nearby. This seemingly remote place, then, was very busy some four millennia ago.

As a Prehistory undergraduate, also in times long past, I spent three years in Sheffield University lecture theatres looking at images of barrows, chambered tombs, henges, hillforts, cist burials, urn cremations and other ancestral relics. This being the era of slide projection, the photographs were often shown upside down and back to front; it became a standing (or otherwise) joke, looking at remains from an inverted position. The fact is though, however you looked at them, their intrinsic meaning  could  not be divined. All that might be said is that these mysterious constructions were of immense importance to our forebears. We know this because of the great effort involved in their making; these were people who, by our standards, had very limited technology.

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And so here is another example of megalithic mystery. This is the late Stone Age (Neolithic) Lligwy burial chamber on Anglesey in Wales. Excavation in 1908-9 uncovered the remains of 15-30 people, along with pottery that provided the dating evidence. It is estimated that the capstone weights 25 tonnes. This is truly mind-boggling. How did people without cranes lift this monstrosity onto the supporting stones? How  many people did it take? Wasn’t the population in prehistory supposed to be small?

Of course experimental archaeology has demonstrated that much may be achieved with the cunning use of tree trunk rollers and various simple pulley devices combined with muscle power. But even so,  the Lligwy burial chamber is surely  a triumph of human will  over an absence of hydraulic lifting gear. In this era people had only stone tools.

So yes, the past is a foreign country, and people did do things differently there, and in ways we cannot possibly know. And if I learned anything from three years of studying Prehistory and Archaeology it was not to judge people by their limited toolkit. These people were as intelligent as we are, maybe more so, since there was a greater need to apply it at all times.

Our current understanding of these  monuments may be fragmentary, wrong-headed even, but shouldn’t this be all the more reason to keep these ancient places safe? At this present time in England our heritage is daily under threat from a government that wishes to build its way out of  recession.  Worse still, current laws allow developers to take local authorities to judicial review  if their  planning applications are refused.

To avoid  incurring huge costs to the public in legal representation, local authorities are now being pushed to grant planning permission in close proximity to unique monuments.  At present, in Shropshire, the setting of  2 major sites  is under threat: Old Oswestry Iron Age hillfort, and the post-Roman Offa’s Dyke. Why this is happening is of course absolutely no mystery at all.  The past has cachet. It is a highly sellable ‘commodity’. Let’s sell it off, why don’t we?

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

Valuing the Past: How  much for Old Oswestry Hillfort?

Open to Offa’s: yet another piece of Shropshire’s heritage at risk  in The Heritage Journal  along with many other excellent articles

 

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