Did The Earth Move For Me? Not Blooming Likely. More A Case Of DIY

All right I confess. I’m a fraud. I call myself a writer, but in reality I move soil.  Year in and year out I move soil. It has become my lot in life – not only on the home front with The Man In My House  Who Keeps Having Ground Moving Notions, but also on my own time up at the allotment. How did this happen? Was this the plan I had for myself?

This time last year we were busy shifting ten tons of gunky green Silurian clay and the junk of builders past, removing a huge and hideous waist-high flower bed outside our back door. We had lived with it for ten years, but finally it had to go. Ground Moving Man, then became Wall and Steps Building Man – using traditional mortar and the old bricks and limestone lying around to place to build a much neater, narrower raised border, and safer steps to the top of the garden. (Our cottage is built into a  bank).  The effort was as momentous, as it was cunning. The Wall and Step Builder had devised a way of dismantling the old steps in tandem with building the new ones so that we always had access to the upper quarters of our small domain, and thence my path to the allotment. Hats off to you, sir!

Here are views of the work as it proceeded.

A wintery before:

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During the synchronised step demolition and rebuilding (pretty good work for a retired plant pathologist):

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After – a bit heavy on the limestone perhaps, but we had it on site, which is always a bonus when you live on a road where deliveries can be tricky:

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Most of the clay spoil and erstwhile builders’ rubble that had been hidden behind the steps and in the bed was barrowed round the front of the house and tipped into a Hippo Bag. This natty item is sent through the post in return for some loot. You fill it with 1.5 tonnes of stuff, and then a truck comes and cranes it away. Ideal for people who live on a busy main road, and have no room for a big skip. We had several of these handy mega bags.

Meanwhile up at the allotment I was dismantling a forty-year old allotmenteers’ spoil heap the size of Everest, and using the substance, which only vaguely resembled compost, to make new raised beds and terraces on my polytunnel plot.  I shifted probably sixty barrow loads, and all with the aim of creating (ultimately) a NO DIG gardening system. I know this may sound mad.

The year before I had started clearing the plot by slicing off the neglected, weed-choked surface and piling the turves into pallet bins in the hopes that one day they would decompose into something usable. This was in no way compatible with the principles of NO DIG, but was my quick and dirty method of checking the buttercup, couch grass, and dandelion infestation. After learning the error of my ways early last spring, I gave it up for covering the remaining uncleared ground in layers of cardboard, and tipping a good six inches of spoil heap soil on the top. He Who Builds Walls and Steps then knocked up a few raised beds. (Those of you who come here often will know all this.)

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This year I find that ants have been busy in the horrid heap of weedy turves, and the ensuing soil is usable, so am now repatriating it to the areas whence I cleared it two years earlier. So good on the ants, but more earth moving required.

Meanwhile, the notions of NO DIG, also require the seasonal application of deep layers of compost to the surface of all beds. The only problem with this is making enough compost. You need tons and tons. However, last autumn I made an effort and amassed material in bins and heaps all over my two plots – wherever there was space in fact. And now these need digging out, or at least turning.

NO DIG, it seems, does not mean the end of wielding forks and spades – not by a long chalk. So there we have it – ‘my days’ career’ as a young Kenyan farm wife once described to me her life of endlessly hauling things about.

And back on the home front  this year we have already dug up the front lawn and replanted the bank beside the road. And we have dug up the back lawn and moved more soil so He Who Builds can now branch out into shed construction, though we did at least have two strong young men come and lay the paved concrete slab from which said edifice will arise. I am told it will have a curved roof.

The arrival of the shed will next dictate the remodelling of the back garden flower beds. All of which makes  me feel as if my  life is founded on shifting ground; the strata beneath my feet in perpetual motion and always needing to be somewhere else, and in some other shape. Perhaps one day all the earth in my vicinity will be in the places where we actually want it – no more moving required. Then perhaps I can give up the fraudulent writer posture and finish off a book or two; return to mental heaving and lugging, re-shaping and visualising, create the content and structure exactly as I want it – and all this without heft of spade or putting on my wellies. Perhaps…

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Hurlers And Miners ~ 6,000 Years Of Heritage On Bodmin Moor

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In the last post I featured The Hurlers stone circles  near the Cornish village of Minions on Bodmin Moor. Here they are again, if only a small segment. They date from the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, around 2,000 years BCE.

The landscape around is exposed and bleak, itself  a product of the human intervention that began at least 6,000 years ago, when the first Neolithic farmers, equipped only with stone axes, began the systematic clearance of the forested uplands.

It is an arresting thought that, armed only with stone-based technology, we humans were already consciously rearranging the planet’s surface. Early farmers carried out shifting ‘slash and burn’ cultivation, clearing ground, then moving on to virgin territory when the farm plots lost fertility. By such means the earliest farmers cleared great swathes of forest right from one end of Europe to the other. On Bodmin, any chances of forest regeneration were then reduced by stock grazing, which through subsequent millennia finished what Neolithic communities had started, creating the windswept moorland we see today.

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Of course these days  we know that removing tree cover contributes to climate change and environmental degradation, by altering rainfall patterns, and accelerating soil erosion. But in this case global climate change was also a factor.  During Neolithic-Early Bronze Age times it seems the climate was much warmer, with these uplands offering a more benign environment than today. A quick look at an ordnance survey map shows that Bodmin was a very busy place back then. There are numerous hut circles, burial cairns and tumuli, tor enclosures, stone-walled field systems, ceremonial stone circles and standing stones.

The siting of burial monuments, in particular, was very important – often on the skyline to be seen from one monument to another; or else related to a naturally prominent feature such as one of the stone tors. The Cheesewring Tor is a good example. It lies due north of The Hurlers circles. You will soon see why this weathered granitic pile of rocks captured the imagination of the ancestors, just as it captures ours today.

But there may also have been practical considerations too. When it came to the gathering of clans and families for important occasions, the visibility of man-made and natural features in a landscape without highways would have been the prehistoric equivalent of SatNav.

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Looking southwest from the Cheesewring this is what you see on the skyline beyond the quarry: a series of round barrows:

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But sometime around 2000 years BCE, the climate began to deteriorate and humanity moved to settle more low-lying areas. It is an interesting irony that the combination of human action and natural climate change which rendered the abandoned uplands unsuitable for anything other than grazing, thereby led to the survival of so many of the prehistoric remains.

Farming, though, is not the only agency of landscape change in this area. Shunt forward to the mid-nineteenth century and you will spot the evidence for quite a new kind of invasion. There’s a clue in that first photo of The Hurlers. Here’s another glimpse:

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And closer still:

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This is the Houseman’s engine house, part of South Phoenix Mine, now partially restored as the Minions Heritage Centre. It one of many such mines in the locality, their ruins as dramatic in their way as the stone circles and tors.  For fifty years, between the 1840s-1890s, Minions was the centre of a booming copper mining industry. Over 3,000 people were employed here, including women and children.

Hundreds and thousands of tons of copper ore was extracted, and exported down to Liskeard and the coast at Looe by means  of the ‘Cheesewring Railway’ otherwise known as the Liskeard & Caradon Railway. It was opened in 1844, operated initially by gravity and horsepower, and also carried granite and tin. You can just see part of the granite quarry below the Cheesewring tor. Other signs of Minions’ industrial heyday of miners, quarrymen and railway workers are the humps and bumps of abandoned spoil heaps. The nearby settlement of Minions is also evidence of the industry – it grew up around the junction of several branch lines to house the influx of workers. It is the highest village in Cornwall, and today has a rather desolate air.

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And now for another kind of heritage: legend. There are all sorts of stories connected with Bodmin’s man-made and natural features. I mentioned the origin of The Hurlers in the last post. The Cheesewring tor has also inspired all manner of explanations. One story tells how it was created by Giants and Saints at the time in the early Dark Ages when Christianity was spreading through the land.

The Giants, who were used to tramping about their domain, and doing just what they pleased, were fed up with the Christian Saints invading their land, putting up stone crosses, and declaring all the wells holy. They called a council to decide how to rid Cornwall of the nuisance.

And to this council there dared to come the frail St. Tue. He challenged Uther, the strongest of the Giants, to a trial of strength. They would have a rock hurling contest.

Rock hurling was one of the Giants’ favourite pursuits. Also, seeing the slightness of Saint Tue, the Giants were sure they would win.

Saint and Giant thus then took turns to throw six very large quoit shaped rocks across Craddock Moor and onto Stowes Hill, but to Uther’s surprise the little Saint soon proved a formidable opponent. By the time the Giant came to throw his last rock, his strength was failing. To the sounds of much Giantly groaning, his stone tumbled from the pile. Tue then  went to make his final throw. The rock was huge, but just as it seemed that the task was beyond him, an angel appeared and placed the rock on top of the pile. The Giants were so overawed by the sight of angel wings casting their golden glow about the place, they conceded to the Saints, and by this means Cornwall became a Christian land.

Another yarn has it that if you visit the Cheesewring at sunrise, you will see the top stone turn three times. This is more up my street myth-wise, and I truly would like to be there at dawn to see what happens, and also to hear the wind on the stones making them resound and mutter.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post: Heritage

 

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Hafren, Sabrina, Severn ~ Please Meet Our Local Goddess Plus A Tale Of Madcap Daring

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She is most usually known by the Roman version of her name: Sabrina goddess of the River Severn. I told her story in the previous post, but thought this close up view fitted the bill for Paula’s ‘pick a word’ at this week’s Thursday’s Special. The five prompts are: confined, jazzy, patulous, momentous and serene. So I’m going for the first and  last – Sabrina serene but confined to her plinth in a pool in Shrewbury’s Dingle.

It also seems she is confined in other ways too.

The statue was the work of Birmingham sculptor Peter Hollins (1800-1886), and made for Shropshire worthy, the Earl of Bradford in 1846. I thought she was carved from stone, but a little googling reveals that the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association National Recording Project ( who knew of such a body?) thinks she may be cast in some sort of metal and then covered with plaster. They also say she is afflicted with a biological growth – so that has ‘patulous’ covered too, though they don’t say what it is. I’m wondering if it’s responsible for the vaguely luminous areas. Poor nymph.

The scarcely legible quotation underneath her comes  from John Milton’s Comus , a mask in which  Sabrina is one of the main characters. This  work also has Shropshire connections having had its premier showing at Ludlow Castle in 1634, presented before another worthy,  ‘the Earl of Bridgewater, then President of Wales.’

Sabrina fair,
listen where thou art sitting
under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
in twisted braids of lilies knitting
the loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
listen for dear honour’s sake,
goddess of the silver lake,
listen and save.

And if you find these words far too gluey and overwrought, then here’s an edgier Sabrina yarn, though I must warn you – it does not end well. It was the Public Monuments entry that put me on to it. It begins with a church spire – specifically the one atop St Mary’s Church in Shrewsbury and also one of the tallest spires in England.  This church has graced the town’s skyline for over 500 years, although parts of it are far older than this, dating back to Saxon times c AD 960. Also some of its stones were apparently cut by Roman masons, and carted in from the abandoned Roman city of Wroxeter some miles away.

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I think you might call the spire momentous – even before we get to what happens next.  It is over 200 feet tall.

Enter one Robert Cadman, steeplejack and mender of weather cocks. It is the winter of 1739, time of the Great Frost, and Cadman has been employed to put right St. Mary’s weather cock that has been blown askew. He duly does the job, but he has further plans for the church spire. For Robert Cadman is also a stuntman and, for his daring descent from the cupola of London’s St Paul’s cathedral, blowing a trumpet while sliding down a rope,  he has already earned the nickname ‘Icarus of the Rope’.

He has handbills printed and spread about the town:

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The History and Antiquities of Shrewsbury From Its First Foundation to the Present Time, Comprising a Recital of Occurrences and Remarkable Events, for Above Twelve Hundred Years, Volume 1, 1837

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The River Severn is frozen solid, and so the Great Frost becomes an occasion for fun and festivities. An engraving of the time shows  skaters and people playing table tennis out on the frozen river; there are tents; there are sheep being roasted; several of the great Severn trow sailing barges are ice-bound; there’s even a printing press out there too. All in all, then, Sabrina is providing the perfect arena for the spectacle Cadman has planned.

He attaches an 800 foot rope (240 metres) through a window on St. Mary’s spire. The other end is anchored across the river at Gay Meadow – (well out of shot on the right of the next photo). The show begins with Cadman’s walk up the rope towards the spire:

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His usual act is to ascend bare-chested, performing all kinds of stunts as he goes. When he performed in Derby this walk took around an hour. The return descent, or flight as it was termed then (since there was apparently quite a yen for this kind of flying  in the early 18th century), would be swift. For this part of the act our intrepid performer puts on a wooden breastplate which has a groove cut down the middle. He then lies on the rope and hurtles down, headfirst, blowing a trumpet, and accompanied by a stream of smoke as his breastplate burns with the friction of the rope. Whew!

But on this day, when Cadman reaches the spire, he decides the rope is too tight and signals across the river for it to be loosened. There is a misunderstanding. The rope is tightened, and half-way down, the rope snaps – whipping up in horrible coils as Cadman hits the iron-hard ground, his body apparently rebounding several feet in the air. Accounts have it that Cadman’s wife, who has been moving among the crowd of spectators collecting money, runs stricken to his corpse, throwing away the money as she goes.

Robert Cadman was buried at the foot of the spire and the sorry tale is commemorated in a plaque by the main door of St Mary’s church:

Let this small Monument record the name
of Cadman, and to future time proclaim
How by’n attempt to fly from this high spire
across the Sabrine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. ‘Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell,
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Harried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night
Feb.ry 2nd 1739 aged 28

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And now just to restore some sense of serenity, here are some shots of St. Mary’s interior. The church is now redundant, but it does have a very good cafe. It also contains some wonderfully ancient stained glass windows. The final image of the set is the Jesse window above the altar and dates from between 1330 and 1350.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

More Dallying In The Dingle ~ Encounters with Rare Bird, Twitchers, A Goddess And A War Horse ~ And That Was Only for Starters…

Nor was it the kind of day when one might expect any of these things to cross one’s path. Truth was I was in a bit of a stew on Saturday morning. He who dismantles wooden builder’s pallets and shares my house was off to Shrewsbury on a half-day’s book-binding course. I thought this very excellent. It always makes a good change putting things together rather than taking other things apart (otherwise known as pallet scrattling, although I should add that some of the scrattled pallets have been recycled into various sizes of book press and spine stitching frames so, unlikely as it sounds, there is congruence between the two activities).

The reason I was in a bit of a stew was because I had decided that, since he was headed for the big bad town, albeit to the suburbs, he could drop me off somewhere near the centre for a few hours’ shopping. The source of my concern was that scrattling and binding skills do not necessarily add up to a navigational facility. I was thus at pains to devise routes that could be followed in my absence. And no, we do not have Sat Nav. And yes, I think it’s time we did.

Except, if it had not been for my overanxious machinations, which made for a simple non-deviating route for him, and a long walk for me, I would not have opted to be dropped off by the Porthill Bridge, one of the town’s several Victorian suspension bridges (Shrewsbury is on a hill within a loop of the River Severn), and I would not have had all these unexpected encounters in Shrewsbury Quarry, otherwise known as the town park.

Here’s the footbridge. It’s rather fine, apart from the earth-tremor sensation when you reach the middle:

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And here’s the  first glimpse of The Quarry once you’ve recovered from vertigo:

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And another view looking towards the river, complete with Victorian bandstand:

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As you can see the park is mostly swathes of grass crisscrossed by pleasing avenues. The riverside walk is the nicest, and enables you to access one end of the town from the other without meeting a car, though watch out for the bicycles. For two days in August (this year the 11th and 12th), Shrewsbury Flower Show covers the whole park. In fact it is quite a legend –  the world’s longest running flower show. It has its origins in the medieval guildsmen’s annual celebrations – more of which in a moment.

For now please conjure tents, pavilions and marquees, a floral riot of three million blooms, some astonishing displays of vegetables, the bandstand bursting with serial military bands, and each day topped off with a stupendous firework display.

Uphill from the bandstand is one of several gateways into the Dingle as mentioned in the last post. This submerged garden with its small ornamental lake was made from an abandoned stone quarry back in Victorian times, but today’s planting very much celebrates the life and times of Percy Thrower, Britain’s first TV gardener who was Superintendent of Shrewsbury Parks 1946-1974.

I only went in there by chance. I’d walked across the park to take a photograph of the bandstand and, by the time I’d done that, I’d rather forgotten about going shopping. Then I began to notice a gathering of chaps all clad  in dark coloured anoraks. They were down by the Dingle pool and armed with photographic lenses as big as rocket launchers. There was air of enthusiast-expectation – as in train-spotters waiting for the Flying Scotsman to steam by. Twitchers, I thought: they who pursue rare breeds of birds to add to their list of rare birds already spotted. I looked from lenses to ornamental pool and back again. They clearly hadn’t lugged in all that kit to snap the Dingle ducks. They could leave that to me:

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I stared at the island in the pool, the spot on which every lens was trained. All I could see was part of a white-grey undercarriage of what appeared to be a largish bird. It was standing very still, most of it hidden in a rhododendron. My first thought, bizarrely, was ‘penguin’ and for a daft few moments I wondered how a penguin could possibly have arrived in Shropshire. Climate change? Surely not.

Then I began to feel a touch offended on behalf of the putative penguin, and with all the peering that was going on. I decided I would not ask the twitchers what they were waiting to see, but do a circuit around the pool and see if whatever it was would reveal itself on my return. That seemed more fair, less paparazzi-like.  And if it didn’t appear so be it. Poof. Talk about taking moral high ground.

Next it was the tulips that caught my eye, as in the previous post, but you can see them again:

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And then I said hello to Percy Thrower, and wished I had a bucket of soapy water  to give his face a good wash: dirty birds!

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And next I wandered round to the Shoemakers’ Arbour, a place that used to intrigue me as a child. No adult back then seemed able to explain exactly what it was. The plaque on the wall of the structure says that, what looks like a piece of romantically contrived garden architecture,  was in fact the gateway to an arbour built by the Shrewsbury Guild of Shoemakers in 1679. It also tells me that it was originally sited across the river in Kingsland, but moved to the Dingle in 1877. There is no further explanation, though presumably the reason it was rescued was precisely because it made a nice piece of romantically contrived garden architecture.

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On the pediment (see also the header photo) are the remnant images of Crispin and Crispian, the patron saints of shoemakers:

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But what I wanted to know was – what was all this stuff about guilds and arbours, and what did shoemakers do inside them anyway – get well and truly cobbled?

Later, after a little delving, I discovered that celebration and jollification were indeed the purpose, and all part of the annual town celebrations, the very same that gave rise to the present day Shrewsbury Flower Show.

So the story is this.

Across the River Severn from the Quarry is a part of the town called Kingsland (now an enclave of grand Edwardian houses and Shrewsbury School). In the late middle ages it was common land administered by the town corporation. Here the town’s guilds would erect arbours for an annual gathering. In the early days these arbours were wooden framed pavilions, but by the 17th century the guilds were allowed to build permanent single storey structures – much in the style of medieval feasting halls. Each also had a cottage with a court and hedged garden.

On show day – always the second Monday after Trinity Sunday – and after the guilds had processed through the town, all would repair to their various arbours for much merrymaking. Here too each guild would entertain the mayor and his officers, and one imagines that the worthies may well have been legless by the time they had visited all eleven guild arbours.

The Shoemakers’ Arbour thus shared the ground with, among others, the guilds of bakers, tailors, carpenters, glovers, weavers and joiners. You can read more about medieval guilds here, but they were basically trade associations, or cartels formed by skilled artisans with the intention of guaranteeing craft standards and setting wages somewhat like a trade union.

Now that’s all sorted, back to my wander round the Dingle, and just in case you are now imagining a large rambling place, it truly only take five minutes to walk round if you don’t stop to look at things. Which makes it all the more odd that after I’d moved on from the saintly shoemakers I found myself in a part of the garden I did not remember. (How could that be? I spent so much of my youth in this place.) Anyway, I had taken a little off-shoot from the main path, and this brought me to a small pool. And here she was: Sabrina – the River Severn’s very own goddess:

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Sabrina is her Roman name, but the two main stories associated with her are of pre-Roman origin and told by 12th century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Celtic tale tells of three sisters, water nymphs who meet on Plynlimon (Pumlumon in Welsh), the highest point of the Cambrian Mountains in mid-Wales. They each decide to pursue their own route to the sea. One sister wants to reach it as quickly as possible and sets off due west, so forming the Ystwyth River. The second sister prefers the rolling hill country, and wends her leisurely way, so becoming the Wye. And the third, Hafren, takes the longest route of all, 180 miles, and becomes the Severn. She wants to have a good look at all the fine towns and cities and stay close to the haunts of humankind.

Hafren is the Welsh name for the River Severn. A single ‘F’ is pronounced as ‘V’ in Welsh. She is the Welsh goddess of healing.  And the other story about her is rather grim. It is very ancient, and tells of an early English king, Locrinus, who marches to the North England to fight off the invading Huns. Amongst his prisoners is a German girl, Estrildis, with whom he falls in love. But he is pledged to Gwendolen, and a king must keep his promises. Being king though, he also devises a way to keep Estrildis as his mistress, and for seven years hides her away from his queen in a subterranean dwelling. They have a child of course – Habren or Hafren.

And then Locrinus makes a big mistake, and runs off with his beloved. The enraged Gwendolen raises an army and marches against him. He is slaughtered and Estrildis and Hafren are ordered to be drowned in the Severn.  In tribute, however, to the guiltless child, the queen orders that the river be named after her. So there we have her: Hafren, Severn, Sabrina.

The notions of her healing powers may go back to earliest Celtic times, since we know that water played an important part in the Celts’ spiritual thinking. The Romans too honoured watery places and often adopted the deities of the occupied peoples. You will find a more detailed and fascinating discussion of the  myths and legends associated with the River Severn HERE

The statue was carved by Peter Hollins of Birmingham in 1846 and donated to the people of Shrewsbury by the Earl of Bradford in 1879.

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By now I’m back with the twitchers. Can you spot a couple of them? But there is still nothing happening on the penguin front and I am now diverted by a life-sized iron horse, and can’t think how I missed her on the way into the Dingle. There she is amongst the municipal rows of polyanthus, the town’s commemorative tribute to Flanders Field of the Great War, and of course to all the brave horses who served man and country.

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But suddenly things are stirring behind me. The twitchers are all a flutter. Hey-up! I hear. The penguin must be on the move.

I’m disappointed though. I’m only armed with a little Lumix, so these next shots are pretty poor, though good enough to show that the penguin theory was indeed very silly.

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What we have here is Nycticorax nycticorax – a Night Heron, and indeed a most unusual visitor on UK shores. It is more usually found in warm, tropical regions and I think the first and  last one I saw was at Hunter’s Lodge in Kenya. I didn’t wait to see if the penguin it was prepared to reveal itself fully. I decided the clue was in the name. The entry for Night Heron in my Field Guide to Birds of East Africa says: ‘Mainly nocturnal, keeping to dense waterside cover by day.’

But at least the mystery is solved. I cut back across the Dingle, skirting around Percy’s ‘parks & gardens’ flower beds, the tower of St. Chad’s on my horizon:

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And out again in the Quarry, I next find myself joining in with an ‘Anti-Austerity’ – Labour Party Rally outside the Horticultural Society’s park lodge . Here are people who want to stop cuts to state schools that are lowering teaching standards and to protect all that is good about the National Health Service. I look around the assembled crowd. They look like decent people. Their words are sincere, heartfelt. I stick around and do some clapping. Shopping? What shopping?

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

 

 

In Search Of Lost Time In Eyam And An Outbreak Of Plague

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This very unusual wall sundial is to be found above the Priest’s Door on the east side of Eyam parish church in Derbyshire. It dates from 1775, and was designed and made locally. I discovered it when were in the village doing a spot of family history research – not researching in any organised way I might add – more a matter of walking ancestral paths and acquiring a sense of place. Eyam is anyway a village with an awful lot of history, not least the story of how its inhabitants dealt with an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665-1666 by imposing a cordon sanitaire around the village boundary, and for over a year sticking to it so as not to spread the disease to neighbouring communities.

Over the fourteen months that the outbreak persisted, 280 out of the 800 population died. It is thought the infection arrived in a parcel of fabric, sent in late summer from London to the Eyam tailor, Alexander Hadfield. The package was opened by his assistant, George Viccars, and it was he who was the first to fall ill and die. Thereafter, the disease spread rapidly throughout the autumn, slowed over the winter, and returned in full force in the following spring and summer. In the worst month of August 1666 seventy eight villagers died.

Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine was managed by the young village rector, Reverend William Mompesson, and Nonconformist minister Reverend Thomas Stanley. It was agreed that every household would bury their own dead and, in a bid to  maintain morale and give comfort to survivors, church services were held in the open air so people could gather together, but not too closely. Local landowner, the Duke of Devonshire, and others from neighbouring villages saw that supplies of food and other necessities were left at the village boundary.

It is a harrowing episode that demonstrates great human resilience and bravery, not least by the Reverend Mompesson, whose own wife was among the last victims. And today, as you wander around the village, the event continues to be marked by commemorative plaques outside the cottages that were once the homes of the families who were particularly afflicted.

It could seem mawkish, crass even, to make a visitor attraction from this horrific episode, but somehow it isn’t. The village quietly embraces you in a reflection on shared humanity – now and back through time.  In fact the sun dial says it all: Induce animum sapientum –  cultivate an enquiring mind. And then on the two supporting stone corbels, which you can’t quite read in the photo: ut  umbra sic vita – life passes like a shadow.

I especially like the way that when it is noon in Eyam, the sundial shows the relative times in Calicut, Mecca and Panama, to name but a few of the far-flung places inscribed on the dial. It also includes a chart for longitudinal adjustments of local True Sun Time to Greenwich meantime, and throughout the year. Somehow it is uplifting to feel that in this isolated Derbyshire village, and over the centuries, the gaze of its inhabitants has extended to a world beyond its village boundaries.

So far I haven’t mentioned why we were visiting Eyam or explained presumed family links with this locality. Researches into the Fox family of Callow in Hathersage (covered in other posts) suggest that a possibly direct ancestor, one Robert Fox, yeoman farmer and lead miner, was living in the area between 1678 and 1699. I have a copy of his will and household inventory, so I know he owned 13 cushions and several field beds in one or more parlours. There were no Fox plague victims in Eyam, although Robert Fox’s second wife, Margaret Mower, had lost an uncle, Rowland Mower. His will is included in the 1842 book by local historian, William Wood, The History and Antiquities of Eyam ~ with a full and particular account of the Great Plague.

The Fox family connection is all a bit of a yarn, which may never be unravelled. So for now some more views of the village:P1050536

Eyam Parish Church and its 8th century Saxon Cross complete with Celtic influences.

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This is Eyam Hall, very much post-plague, and built between 1671-6 and incorporating a much smaller existing property in the heart of the village. Its builders were newcomers, the land-owning-merchant Wright family, and their arrival signified revival, and an increasing interest in developing the lead mining potential the area. Landowners large and small were keen to exploit this highly valued mineral. And although lead had been mined across Derbyshire since Roman times, there is almost a ‘gold rush’ feel about the exploitative zeal from the late 17th century.

It is possible that post-plague opportunities around Eyam attracted the likes of putative ancestor, Robert Fox. My band of fellow Fox-hunters has not been able to establish if he was an incomer or if there were existing family connections with Eyam. His father was a tenant farmer at The Oaks, near Highlow, a few miles away, and he and Robert’s brothers may also have been involved in the lead business,  possibly smelting.

Robert owned four small parcels of lead-bearing land in Foolow, two of which adjoined Wright land. When he thought he was dying in 1691 and wrote his will, he was very concerned to make it clear he had ownership of them, and that the proceeds of his property should be managed by his brother and brother-in-law for the upbringing and education of his four children – James, William, Mary and Robert. In fact he did not die until 1699, and it is not clear what happened to his family. We think the eldest James became a shoemaker in Eyam, and that Robert was possibly a very successful joiner in Wirksworth, the lead mining capital of Derbyshire. William is the one we have our eye on as the possible ancestor for the Callow Foxes, but his baptismal record has so far proved elusive, which is most annoying when we know that his three siblings were baptised in Eyam church. Ah, well. Such are the fascinations and frustrations of tracking down traces of families long past.

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From: William Wood The History & Antiquities of Eyam 1842

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past

 

JOSEPH SIDDALL

P.S. A number of readers have asked what became of 3 year old Joseph Siddall. The Eyam Museum researches seem to indicate that there were in fact two surviving Siddall children, and they went to live with relatives in Sheffield, not that far from Eyam. There is quite a dynasty of Siddalls in the Eyam-Stoney Middleton area of Derbyshire, so they would not have been left without any family connections.

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

Echo Of Time Past ~ Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko

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I’ve not done an Old Africa post of a while, and this photo is rather the worse for wear. But perhaps that is fitting in all sorts of ways.

I also thought I’d post an excerpt from our 1990’s travels in Kenya – an account written not long after my arrival in 1992. During the eight years we lived there, we had many sojourns at Hunter’s Lodge on the Nairobi – Mombasa highway. Graham was overseeing a research project at the nearby field station and had to make regular visits. The Lodge had been built by great white hunter, John Hunter, around the late ‘50s – early ‘60s – his retirement home after a long career of game control, grand safaris and general  rhino and elephant slaughter.  He saw no irony in choosing a spot that had once been his favourite place for watching elephant at a sunset waterhole on the Kiboko River. He dammed the stream to make an ornamental garden lake for his guests’ pleasure. And instead of elephant, the place attracted a marvellous array of birds. The soundtrack here, then, is endless weaver bird chatter in the papyrus, and the clatter of stork beaks up in the fever trees. Oh yes, and the nonstop whine of crickets…

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Monday 17th February, my two bags packed once more and Graham’s few belongings assembled, we set off for Kiboko. Although it was still early morning, the sun was already beginning to scorch my arm through the open car window; sweat trickled down my spine. But I was pleased to be on the move again; and Graham, who was watching me from the side-lines – to see how I would react to a new land, confined himself to saying that he hoped I would like the lodge where we would be staying for a few days.

I imagine I will, but at that moment it was not my main concern. I was excited at the prospect of my first safari. Too opulent a term for us perhaps, conjuring up an entourage of well-provisioned trucks each manned with a local African guide and tracker, bullish Europeans in khaki shorts, legs the colour of seasoned olive wood above long woollen socks, bush-hatted and safari-jacketed, a powerful rifle to hand to fend off attacks by a raging buffalo. But no, there was none of this; just a couple of bags and a few supplies for the field station in the boot of a modest Peugeot saloon. And anyway, in Swahili safari simply means journey, and so it was the journey itself that I was looking forward to, even if it only involved a few hours’ drive down the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

We left the city by the same route I had come from the airport two days earlier. Now I could take it in with a more focused eye: the newspaper and magazine sellers out in force, and stepping between the traffic with all the ease of those who have taken up walking the plank for a living and survived to tell and retell the tale; the avenues of yellow blossomed acacias; the screens of puce pink bougainvillea; palm trees; throngs of citizens everywhere, waiting, milling, buying, selling, chatting, reading, walking; the welter of city centre multi-storey office blocks in as many styles, from oriental chic to Dallas smoked glass; the air heavy with dust and oily exhaust fumes and the smell of roasting maize cobs.

And as we head south out of Nairobi, through the flatlands of the industrial zone you feel that you could be leaving any city anywhere in the developed world. There is a Slumberworld bed centre, another for well-known names in bathroom and sanitary ware, a detergent factory, a Toyota showroom, a cut-price cash-and-carry warehouse, builders’ yards, air freight offices, the outposts of many a multi-national company, all neat brick buildings flying their corporate banners behind well-tended and irrigated flower beds.

At this point, you can only just glimpse the plains beyond. It is easy to think you are on familiar territory: the industrial estate, a modern major thoroughfare with white lines, UK road signs, traffic police operating speed traps, Esso service stations, driving on the left. The British-born may believe too quickly that they know all the rules, the received codes of behaviour that pertain here. After all, it did used to be “ours”; you would expect some sense of familiarity.

Or would you? The British of old empire days were not overly concerned about establishing decent infrastructure in the countries they colonized (“standards” maybe) beyond building railways to ferry their administrators and export their hard-won commodities, or erecting imposing edifices that represented the institutions of law and taxation used to control indigenous peoples, who though in their own land, found that it was no longer theirs. And so, having built the Uganda Railway across Kenya Colony, the British seem to have fallen short when it came to road building. For much of their sixty-year stay, the road between Nairobi and Mombasa port was three hundred miles of gut-twisting dirt corrugations that, if you were lucky, took a day and more to traverse. It was only on the last lap of occupation in the 1960s that the tarmac was laid, reducing journey time to a mere seven or eight hours.

And so quite quickly I see that we should not set too much store by apparent similarities, and the seeming familiar artefacts. The things that we British recognise now in Kenya are not necessarily the issue of what we left behind. Or, if there are remnants of our abandoned institutions, then it does not follow that they have exactly the same meaning or function for modern Kenyans. Therefore, lest they lead us astray or cause us to make wrong assumptions, we should ignore their supposed messages altogether; think of them as laying a false trail, for this is Africa and, as the locals would often tell us, anything can happen here.

It soon becomes apparent, too, that when the highway itself was being built, every effort was made to ensure that the ‘surface’ went as far as possible. There is only a thin skin, a makeshift causeway to hold the bush at bay. And while some stretches have been recently upgraded, for the most part it is rag-edged and pot-holed and, south of Nairobi, gives way altogether to a several mile detour on dirt road.

And even though it is not a busy road by European standards, it is one of Africa’s major transport routes, the main users being massively laden freight lorries hauling their own weight and the same again in trailers hitched on behind. Bales of iron rods from the Mombasa rolling mills; crates of Tusker beer; petrol in rusty tankers as battered and misshapen as badly squeezed toothpaste tubes; cargoes of maize; transporters filled with new white Japanese cars. That their drivers think they will ever make it to Uganda far to the north, or to Zambia way down south through Tanzania, or even to the next market pull-off twenty miles away often seems to be an act of supreme faith. Many of course do not survive the test, but are pulled off the road, the cabs bowed to the ground like broken-winded beasts, their drivers sprawled out asleep between the wheels to avoid the sun’s glare while waiting for rescue or inspiration.

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Much of the first hour out of Nairobi was thus spent leap-frogging trucks, and it should be said that African lorry drivers are very courteous, using their right indicator if it is not safe for you to overtake, the left when it is. Once past, I would watch them in the wing mirror, grinding along slowly in our wake, their exhausts billowing out evil-smelling clouds that lingered in black fog banks for many yards behind. But we were out in open country now, to the west the pale grasslands of the Athi Plains extending and merging into the distant blue horizon, to the east and south the land falling away into thorn scrub valleys, undulating hills and blazing outcrops of red igneous rock.

There were problems of perception here as well. The landscapes which the road bisects are on too vast a scale to fit a single frame; to absorb. Always too much foreground, so that the mind switches off and dismisses the whole as featureless bush: thorn scrub followed by thorn scrub, stretching as far as the eye can see, across plains that are scarcely interrupted by the scatter of old volcanic peaks – which would be impressive, if only you could find some sense of proportion.

That is one perspective. Another might be to take heart at the sight of so much space, to acknowledge the inherent grandeur of mile after mile of untamed, uncultivated, unbuilt-on land that yields only sporadic evidence of human activity beyond the margins of the road. Yet a third might be to wonder at the apparent absurdity of driving down a main road along with Mercedes, Land Cruisers and BMWs and seeing ostriches loping away beneath the spans of power lines beside the highway, or to pass by a large farm field fenced off against the bush, and to realize that in amongst the well-contained herd of grazing domestic cattle are also Thompson’s Gazelle and hartebeest.

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Nearly three hours out of Nairobi and we are bowling across the lowland plains, through the large dusty market settlements of Sultan Hamud and Emali. It is much hotter down here and the tarmac, straight and undulating before us, at one moment fragments into a heat haze and in the next, reforms, only to fragment again with each successive horizon. The bush now presses in against the bare dirt verges; it seethes with insect call; a callous thrust of sharp-tempered thorns. Yet not wholly impenetrable for this is Maasai country and, through occasional breaches in the bush, I could see baked terracotta drovers’ trails, worn and smoothed, season to season, by hoof and heel. We begin to see Maasai herders at the roadside too, men draped in their distinctive tartan shuka shawls. Always red.

Lads hare past on bicycles, the shawls now red capes caught up in the breeze and their cattle prods poised in hand as if heart-fired charioteers on the charge. And then there are the women, striding out along the track, tall and self-possessed; handsome heads shaved and dressed with strings of small coloured beads whose blues and greens mean God, and heaven and peace.

But as for us, we were by now hot and wet and dusty; our clothes welded to our backs. As we passed beneath an arch of tall fever trees, the first shade on the road in a hundred miles, we realized the urgent need for coolness; to stop being bounced and shaken and broiled. Only a little further. It was the next stand of fever trees that was to become our landmark over succeeding months. Here the Akamba woodcarvers have their stalls; here is a large petrol station with a cafe that sells bottles of chilled mineral water (the percolated snows of Kilimanjaro, or so the label suggests). This is Kiboko. And this is where we turn off the road for Hunter’s Lodge.

 

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A misty, mysterious Kilimanjaro pushes through the clouds. Its appearances are usually fleeting, caught here from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, where the road descends to the lowland plains of Ukambani.

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The pool at Hunter’s Lodge – a bird-watcher’s paradise; or just plain paradise. I spent hours just watching.

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It became a ritual. So you might call afternoon tea on the bar terrace a libation. We were usually accompanied by the resident peacock who liked to steal the sugar if he got the chance. The tea tasted sulphurous from the local volcanic spring water, and the milk needed sieving because it was delivered daily by the Maasai, and the hotel staff subjected it to heavy boiling before serving. Even so, we always looked forward to it – the interlude before twilight and the firefly fly-past over the pool, and the prelude to supper and a chilled Tusker beer.

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Paula at Thursday’s Special prompted this post with her December ‘pick a word’. So here we have aquatic echoes, an amiable Graham with chai libation, and a misty mountain protrusion. Cheers, Paula! Please visit her for further sources of inspiration.

Rambling Yesterday On Wenlock Edge ~ “The Holly And The Power Station”?

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We went for a tramp along the Edge Wood at midday yesterday. It’s three fields up from our back garden and quite a haul to reach it. Once there, a breather is definitely called for, and so it’s a good moment to stop and look at the old Ironbridge Power Station cooling towers.

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Some find them ugly, but I like them. They are true landmarks – geologically and historically speaking. They stand on the banks of the River Severn, England’s longest river, which rises in the Welsh uplands and descends through the Midlands to the Bristol Channel. The towers stand on a piece of landscape – the Severn Gorge – which was only created 15,000 years ago – a mere nano-second past in Earth History Time.

But the thing that most fascinates me is that the River Severn, presently running south past the towers, once flowed north, so meeting the sea on the coast between North Wales and Chester. This remarkable change of direction is all down to the last Ice Age and the fact that the land was glacier-locked as far south as Shrewsbury, our county town. The Severn’s northern outlet thus became blocked by ice, and so the river backed up, forming a great lake (Lapworth) as the water lay trapped between the ice sheet, and the limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge.

Little by little, as the Ice Age drew to a close, the river wheedled its way through the northerly end of Wenlock Edge and carved a new course, cutting through, and so exposing the Industrial Revolution-making strata of coal, ironstone, fire clay, and limestone. And as I’ve said in other posts, this part of Shropshire lays claim to being ‘the cradle of the Industrial Revolution’, though crucible might be a better metaphor, given the emphasis on iron production.

However, the 18th century pioneering ironmasters of the Severn Gorge were not the first to take advantage of the local geology. Nearly two millennia earlier the Romans were already exploiting these resources. Their military camp of Viroconium (Wroxeter) lay just to the north of the Gorge and, once the locals were suitably subdued, so the camp transformed into a great city, one of the four largest in Britain. There is evidence of glass making and iron working in the area, and local clays would have served for brick and tile production. In fact one of the brick-built basilica walls still rises impressively above the surrounding farmland, a surprising survival when so much of the city fabric was recycled through succeeding centuries.

Back in the Gorge, and many centuries after the end of Roman rule, the mediaeval  monks of Buildwas Abbey and Much Wenlock Priory were also busy making use of local natural resources on an industrial scale. They had mines, decorative tile works, iron-making forges and bloomeries. They also had a thriving export business along the River Severn. There’s a record from around 1200 that states that the Prior of Buildwas was fined because twelve of his barges were blocking the river downstream at Bridgnorth. Probably not your usual vision of what monastic enterprises got up to.

Given so much entrepreneurial and manufacturing business afoot in the Gorge AND a navigable river with access to the great port of Bristol,  it is not surprising that when the monasteries were dissolved in 1540, and their properties distributed to the king’s friends and favourites, that the place should attract a rash of opportunistic London merchants, lawyers and aristocrats, all out to get rich and exploit the former monastic concerns for themselves. Soap  making, cold tar exploitation, coal mining, iron production, steel-making experiments were being conducted by very unlikely people of the well-heeled sort across south-east Shropshire.

Such industrial fervour was further stoked by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) who offered a prize for anyone who could find a way to smelt decent iron using coal instead of charcoal. The loss of the nation’s great trees, needed for naval purposes and the protection of the realm, was causing the monarch much concern. The prize, however, was to remain unclaimed. It would be a good century later before  Abraham Darby arrived in the Gorge and, after remodelling a former monastic iron works in Coalbrookdale, perfected the much sought-after technique.

His discovery helped shape the world we occupy today. See what geology has to answer for.

And here’s some more of quite another sort: the Wrekin. We have the best view of it on our homeward path back down into Wenlock.

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The plain to the left of the hill was the location of the glacial Lake Lapworth. The Roman city was in that vicinity too. The Severn Gorge is off-screen to the right of the Wrekin.

I’ve written about the Wrekin’s mythological and geological origins HERE, but I may not have mentioned there that it has an Iron Age hillfort on the top. This was a stronghold of the Celtic Cornovii  i.e. those who  were duly subdued and citified by the invading Romans. Under Roman rule Viroconium became the Cornovii regional capital, which they continued to occupy until the late 600s – 700 C.E. when the site was abandoned.

We were always told at school that Viroconium’s last days were due to Saxons or Vikings marauding up the River Severn, but there is no sign that the exit from the city was anything but peaceful. I remember working on the excavation of the presumed road-of-retreat long ago as an archaeology student. I have to say that at the time I wasn’t altogether convinced by the site director’s interpretation of the remains that we were uncovering. At least it made me consider that much depends on the way you excavate a site. This site was being stripped across a whole field, rather than being investigated through the judicious placing of exploratory trenches. It seemed to me that certain trowelling techniques, as applied by willing and enthusiastic novices, might be responsible for creating features that aren’t actually there at all. An interesting thought on how the past might be re-created and invented.

And now just to prove how cold it was on our ramble, and not just gloriously, and so unexpectedly sunny: next some ICE, a phenomenon not witnessed in these parts for several seasons. Which brings me back to the start of this yarn, but hopefully not to the start of a new Ice Age as long predicted by certain climatologists. There have been enough tangents along our path already.

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

Jo’s Monday Walk  Please take a turn in this quarter for another fabulous ramble with Jo in the Algarve.

Who Sells The Pasts-That-Never-Were ~ Are We Seeing The Danger Signals?

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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

L P Hartley The Go-Between

I’ve cropped and re-cropped this image in hopes you can put yourself right there on this path amid the fallen leaves. I’m hoping, too, your eye will be drawn further down the trail, that you will be wondering what lies beyond: where is this path taking us?

The ash trees and goat willows arching overhead make the path tunnel-like; mysterious, but not threatening. Slashes of light fall in from the right. They relieve the gloom of the overgrown embankment on the left.

Other impressions might occur. That this is a peaceful place: a perfect resort from the technologized maelstrom we have created for ourselves.  That it must be especially lovely in summer: birdsong and windrush through the greenery. Love-sick souls might wander here; those seeking solace from other cares; writers who have lost their plots; small boys intent on secluded thickets for a new den; dog walkers; girls on ponies: all seeking, consciously or not, the perceived restorative, imagining powers of wilderness.

As you take in the scene I might tell you that where you are standing is an ancient green lane, a once busy rustic thoroughfare used for centuries by the lay workers of Much Wenlock Priory. You can imagine them hauling carts of grain to the mill for grinding, or mule trains bringing in bales of wool from a shearing of the Prior’s flocks. I could throw in tales of St. Milburga, the seventh century abbess, who was renowned for striking springs of pure water from bare rock, or tell you that this path was one of the haunts of resistance fighter Wild Edric, the local Saxon lord who challenged Norman rule.

But no. That’s not it at all. Nothing in that last paragraph happened here as far as I know. What a shame. It had all the makings of a good yarn. We were beginning to identify with the characters. We were starting to confer on them certain notions/images/memories, conjuring a past we think we recognize.

Wait though. Here’s another version.

Into this tranquil scene comes what? A TRAIN?  Turn around and you will see what all the din is about. A large locomotive is rumbling out of the railway siding. It is hauling many wagons loaded with limestone from Wenlock’s vast Shadwell Quarry, which lies out of your sight behind the path embankment. The limestone is destined for the furnaces of South Wales and the West Midlands Black Country, used as a flux in the smelting of iron. This scene belongs to the 1860s when the United Kingdom was still a world leader in heavy industry, the monster-offspring of the 18th century Quaker Ironmasters who pioneered iron-making techniques just a mile or two away in Coalbrookdale.

Other scenes can be added: weekly earth-shattering blasts from the quarry; the land, lanes, town in a grey-dust pall; air filled with fumes from lime-burning kilns; a man burned one day in a kiln collapse; Wenlock’s Town Council of the late 1940s complaining that the blasting was shaking stones from the Wenlock Priory ruins; 1981 and rocks from a quarry blasting landing on the neighbouring secondary school, injuring three pupils.

Here then are a few clips from Much Wenlock’s many ‘pasts’; ones that actually happened. The path you are standing on is the track bed of the former Severn Valley Railway branch line. It once linked Much Wenlock to the rest of the world in a way that the River Severn had done in times past. This railway once served the nation’s industrial heartlands. And most of us have forgotten this now. Or never knew it. Looking at it now, it is anyway hard to believe.

In this particular case our forgetfulness or ignorance or disbelief is probably of little consequence. We have a lovely place to walk, and doubtless most of us will protest should anyone try to turn it into a car park or a housing development.

And yet?

I still have a niggling query. Should we not all be a good deal more knowledgeable about own histories, the actual lives of parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Should we not all be well versed in our nation’s last hundred years, including understanding our responsibilities as citizens, and knowing precisely how our land and its people make a living?

I’ll leave these questions with you, because I want to talk about the quotation. It has haunted me for decades, and is the opening line of L P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. But it was not in the novel where I first read these words. My first encounter was in the title of quite another book. It was 1985 or 1986, and the book in question had not long been published. At the time I was employed as the seemingly grand, if poorly paid Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. (This being the sprawling Shropshire heritage enterprise that lays claim to protecting and interpreting the ‘birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ aka the aforementioned Coalbrookdale – a location which thus has a very great deal to answer for).

In those days, the IGMT had recently set up an Institute of Heritage Management offering postgraduate diplomas to professionals in the heritage business. It was at one of the Institute seminars that I encountered David Lowenthal, American historian and geographer, and Professor of Geography at University College London. (He is at UCL still, Emeritus Professor at the age of 93.)

Lowenthal’s book The Past Is A Foreign Country is regarded as one of the classic works of cultural history. It was described by one erudite reviewer at the time as ‘a meditation on misuses of the past in contemporary culture’.

I will repeat that phrase in bold:

‘a meditation on the misuses of the past in contemporary culture’

In the light of recent events – the outcome of the US election and Britain’s Brexit vote wherein proponents’ projection of a perfect national past formed a key part of the ‘sales’ pitch – it seems to me that this is a phenomenon that should worry us all.

The past that was being sold was not an old past either, but one deemed to be within someone’s living memory – you know, that happy land just over the brow of the hill where everyone resides in the rosy glow of unchallenged prosperity and inviolable national sovereignty and with no incomers.

When did that place have its heyday? Can anyone tell me. I’ve been alive quite a long time, and I can’t pinpoint it. When I grew up in the 50s there was still post war rationing. Kids were getting polio. Pregnant unmarried girls were considered the scum of the earth, and hustled into homes. Racist language was the norm. Homosexual acts were criminal offences. There was the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Kenya Emergency, the Malayan Emergency, the Cuba Missile Crisis. The Cold War threat of nuclear missile strikes hung over us for decades – fear still lingering until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. All local authorities had their nuclear bunkers in place. Some are still extant.

So the golden age must have been earlier then – ‘40s, ‘30s, ‘20s? Surely not. Ah silly me. It was obviously the ‘80s when Thatcher and Reagan let all the bankers off the leash to start wreaking unmitigated financial mayhem across the globe…

Anyway, you get the picture.

It is doubtless a common human affliction to wish to turn back the clock whenever things go badly wrong. It also a well held fallacy that there is some perfect place from which humanity has been excluded – a sort of expulsion-from-Eden syndrome – and that maybe we can get back there?

Lowenthal points up our maladjusted relationship with the past  when he says:

…we also preserve, I suggest, because we are no longer intimate enough with that legacy to rework it creatively. We admire its relics, but they do not inspire our own acts and works.

He suggests too that “the past conjured up is…largely an artefact of the present”, “shaped by today’s predilections, its strangeness domesticated by our preservation of its vestiges.”

The past has become commoditized as escapism, a state endlessly replicated in the kind of costume dramas that lure us into thinking that people back then thought just as we do. It is an on-going process of re-invention that becomes ever more ‘real’ and so I think predisposes many us towards a hankering for a past that contains none of the things that so upset us now. It was so much better then.

Wanting to turn back the clock to a time-that-never-was suggests feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; of depression, hardship and broken spirit. Hanging on to such a notion is obviously not going to help solve any of the problems that face us.  In the short term it leaves us vulnerable to those who would sell fake pasts for our future salvation (and politicians have always manipulated history to confound us – some on a megalomaniac scale). In the longer term, when the lie is exposed, it will bring only further incapacitating disillusionment. It might bring worse too.

And how did we get into this position – we, the rich nations of the northern hemisphere? How did all our great assets reduce us to such impoverished and desperate ways of thinking? Why do we not know enough about ourselves and our nations to see off the self-serving opportunists who feed us fantasies and divisive hate-stories?

These are questions that surely have very many answers, and for now I’m leaving them with you too.

Interestingly, David Lowenthal decided to do a re-write of his book. It came out last year.The Past Is A Foreign Country – Revisited. It earned him the 2016 British Academy Medal, and here’s a nice review by Robert Tombs. The reason he apparently chose to do a new book was because the past he had addressed in 1985 had, over three decades, been so transformed as to be an entirely new realm. Well, who’d have thought it!

I have this mad, optimistic hope that one day we might get some slight grip on reality – before it gets a grip on us. And now it’s clearly time I took a walk. Back up the old railway line then. It is far more peaceful there.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Postscript:

This post was written as a result of recent ‘conversations’ with poet Robyn at Jambo Robyn and scientist Swarn Gill at Cloak Unfurled. Many thanks both for the thought-provoking exchanges.

Derbyshire’s Arbor Low ~ They Call It The Stonehenge Of The North

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Unlike Stonehenge a visit to Arbor Low does not include accompanying hosts of fellow enthusiasts, tacky gifts and bad coffee, nor the parting with large sums of money to go in (adult ticket £16.50). In consequence there are absolutely no facilities, no opening or closing times, and thus no need to pre-book to avoid the rush.

There is, however, an honesty box by the farm gate, and a requested fee of £1 per person. This is fine by me. The monument, though scheduled, is on private land. The farmer has to put up with the repeated nuisance of standing stones devotees, although on the September afternoon of our visit, takings suggested that scarcely a couple of dozen others had preceded us that day, and as we set off from the car there were only three people ahead of us on the track.

The only problem with Arbor Low is that once you’ve trekked through the farmyard and across the field to visit Derbyshire’s most important Neolithic henge (one’s head inevitably full of Stonehenge images, and lots of anticipation) it all looks decidedly flat when you get there, and so quite lacking in the upstanding drama of its more famous southern analogue. And while Arbor Low surely has considerable edge when it comes to setting (a thousand feet up on a limestone crest of the White Peak)  one wonders why the comparison has been implied at all. Isn’t Arbor Low its own special place?

I suppose, then, that mentioning the two sites in the same breath is really more about emphasising their prehistoric importance than suggesting any correspondence in physical scale or appearance. Arbor Low is anyway a much smaller circle. But it does have its own unique features, apart from the recumbent stones that is. These include a very impressive encircling ditch and an outer rampart with the added extra of a later Bronze Age round barrow built across its southerly bank. You can see it on the right of the next photograph.

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So now that I’ve raised the vision of Stonehenge with its great sarsen lintels, I want you to forget it, and think about digging. The time is some four and half thousand years ago. I am the foreman, and I am handing you an antler pick, and maybe a cattle bone shoulder-blade to use as a shovel. We have marked out a circle some 70 metres across, and now you have to start digging 3 metres down into the limestone bedrock, while shovelling up your spoil to create the outer bank.

After many, many, many man-, woman-, and child-hours you can step back and regard the massive earthwork thus created. The freshly dug limestone of the rampart will doubtless have an unearthly white-grey glow. It will be visible from miles around, despite a more wooded landscape than today. At sunrise and sunset it will look spectacular against the skyline, the bank much taller and with a sharper profile that the present remains. In other words, it cannot be mistaken for anything other than a highly prestigious, and momentous man-made structure – the visual shock equivalent of coming upon a designer high-rise in the middle of a wilderness. Or maybe Starship Enterprise.

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After all the digging you are left with a central oval platform around 50 metres across. Perhaps the limestone slabs are already located there, set up on end, and bedded, after much hefting and shunting, in the rocky ground. They could have been worked during the making of the ditch, or sourced from somewhere nearby. In any event, they would have involved considerable effort given your limited toolkit of stone, wood and bone.

From outside the earthwork – and because of the height of the outer bank, you cannot see either the stone circle, or to observe anything that is going on within. Stepping through the entrance to view the newly built monument is thus perhaps a deliberately contrived catch-your-breath moment: the scene before you covert, unnerving, awe-inspiring, drama-filled. If some ceremony is in progress – a narrative declaimed or sung, the outer bank will amplify the sounds in mysterious ways – echoing, resonant, other-worldly; it may be a place of loud whispers.

There will perhaps be no grass cover, just an exposed limestone arena. Around the oval platform you will see some forty standing stones.

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In the centre there is also some kind of sanctuary, a rectangular configuration of more standing stones. The barrow on the southern bank is not yet there. It will be another thousand years before this spot is used as a burial site – perhaps by strangers, perhaps by the distant descendants of  you henge builders. These newcomers have also built another barrow, Gib Hill, just across the field from Arbor Low. Here they raised their own tomb atop the long barrow built by your forebears, a monument that possibly long preceded the stone circle. And so although you can no longer remember the rites and customs of these ancestors, you do know that, like the great mediaeval cathedrals of Europe with their roots in Roman and Saxon times, this place was considered ‘sacred space’ for a millennium and more…

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And so back to reality and the flattened circle we see today. No one knows when the stones were laid low or why. There are other so-called recumbent stone circles in Britain. Sometimes some of the stones have also been buried. Superstitious dread could have much to do with it: an attempt to neutralise the stones’ power perhaps. There is also archaeological evidence in other contexts that suggests that the prehistoric occupants themselves have ritually ‘closed’ particular sites, perhaps prior to moving to a new centre of operations. There are other more practical reasons too: later farmers came along and simply re-used or moved the stones because they were ‘in the way’.

I also seem to remember from my student field-trip days to Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire that one of the stones had been buried in mediaeval times to cover up a murder. When the stone was being restored to its upright position, beneath it was found the grisly remains of a surgeon-barber, identifiable by the tools of his trade that were still with him. More fanciful interpretations of this find could of course suggest the presumed continuing practice in pagan sacrificial offerings, i.e. the kind of activity that we modern folk so very much like to associate with all ancient stones.

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I suppose one of the most surprising things I discovered about Arbor Low is that there has been no archaeological exploration of this site since early Victorian times when the local antiquarian Thomas Bateman of Lomerdale Hall, and serial excavator of prehistoric barrows, tackled the place. It was he who discovered a human burial in the stone circle barrow and, during his Gib Hill excavation, uncovered a stone cist (a slab built tomb) in which the cremated human remains were placed along with an urn and offerings of meat and flint tools. And this, it seems, is all that is known.

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So many mysteries then, and no likely answers. Instead I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Bateman and his description of Arbor Low from his Vestiges of the Antiquities of Derbyshire 1848:

…the solitude of the place and the boundless view of uncultivated country are such as to carry the observer back through a multitude of centuries, and make him believe that he sees the same view and the same state of things as existed in the days of the architects of this once holy fane.

 

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell