Saturday, December 29, 2012

Severn Tided Framilode

Right, so I was driving down this meandering lane inside the horseshoe bend of the River Severn looking to check out an ancestral village (I thought all mine came from from Somerset, but I recently found a branch which was rooted right here, in the landscape which flows in my soul, focused somewhere around the parish of Fretherne inside this delineated loop) and I could feel my aura prickling with the heightened energy of the land. It's thought that the Celtic tribes who lived here in the pre-Roman era regarded the horseshoe bend as a sacred place, and the area inside it is really buzzing. I saw a signpost to a place called Framilode and liked the name; couldn't work out why it sounded familiar. So I took a detour through the village (very nice it is too) and down the long cul-de-sac which stops by St Peter's church on the very edge of the Severn.

There was a footpath going through a patch of meadow beside the river so I went for a muddy squelchy stroll. Everywhere is muddy and squelchy this year, but at least the rushes on the riverbank were doing well. It was a most beautiful place. You can't see the whole of the horseshoe bend when you're inside it because it's too big, but you can see the lean of the river in its outward curve before it swings sharp left in the distance. Along the curve is a little beach of peachy gold sand dotted with curious beached objects and washed up tree-stumps, lined with drifts of dark birds. As tempting as the sandy bits along the Severn may look, they will gobble yer legs up given half a chance, so they're more fun to look at than to step on. The Severn here looks much as it always does in its standard (i.e. non-flooding) mode: ice-blue, flat and placid. You can see May Hill from here too, easily recognised even by the most geographically challenged thanks to its little crowning tuft of jubilee trees. And beyond the curve of the horseshoe, on the distant bank, the stodgy wedge of the Forest of Dean.

 Across the Severn to May Hill

As I was walking down the riverside taking my piccies a fellow walker came the other way and stopped to say hello. Then he said, "Do you know Ivor Gurney?" Well, yes. In fact this blog launched with an Ivor Gurney poem. It's not surprising that his work appeals to me because his deep sense of the soul of the Gloucestershire landscape and its almost painful beauty is pretty much what this blog is about. This chap told me that Gurney kept a boat here in Framilode and used to sail up and down this stretch of the Severn, during a time (in 1913) when he was lodging in the house of the village lock-keeper. In honour of this he was doing an "Ivor Gurney walk" which he'd found in a book, and Framilode was mentioned as one of Gurney's special places.

He didn't mention what this book was called, but it didn't take me long to find it: Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire, by Eleanor M. Rawling. And a very interesting read it is, and curious just how many of Gurney's other "special places" I've visited recently without realising the connection. But at least now I knew why the name Framilode had seemed familiar.

When I saw Framilode first she was a blowy
Severn tided place under azure sky.
Able to take care of herself, less girl than boy.
But since that time passed, many times the extreme
Of mystery of beauty and last possibility 
Of colour, sea breathed romance far past any may dream
With Treasure Island, Leaves of Grass and
Shakespeare all there,
Adventure stirring the blood like threat of thunder
With the never forgotten soft beauty of the Frome
One evening when elver-lights made the river like a stall-road to see.
(June 1925)

The little church of St Peter at Upper Framilode, meanwhile, had me fooled to start with. It was built around 1854, but at first glance I thought it was Norman – at least the chunky little nave with its semicircular apse looked that old. It's very compact and timeless, set among fiery red beech trees only yards from the steely glide of the Severn. But when you look closer it's obvious that the design is a pastiche of the Norman style, with a sharp zigzag outlining the memory of dog-tooth chevrons and the corbel table adorned with geometric shapes where faces and beasties would normally be. Quite ahead of its time really. It was designed by a bloke called Francis Niblett and would originally have served the people who were employed on the local landowner's estate. It has a weatherfish on the top instead of a weathercock (if it was me I'd call it Michael).

Its Victorian provenance is not in doubt though once you get inside. It's a lovely peaceful little place but the inside of the little apse is painted in a way that only the Victorians would find bearable to look at for the entire duration of a Sunday service. It's quite magnificent, with stars funnelling up between the rafters and gleaming gold Thou Shalt Nots between floating angels. The full works.

Unusually for a Victorian church, it has some very curious beastie heads serving as label-stops around the west window. It's also blessed with a lovely decorated blue and silver ceiling with stencilled decoration all over it. The amount of work that must have gone into it (with artists getting a crick in their neck and all the blood running out of their arms) is quite mind-boggling. A gentleman I spoke to during my wander round the church told me that originally the walls of the nave were completely covered with a dense fleur de lys pattern. But at some stage in its recent history somebody must have got fed up with the migraines and decided to bring in the Dulux Magnolia. While I do like Victorian church-paintings, I'd be the first to admit that they can be monstrously overwhelming and I can't blame anyone for wanting to tone them down a bit. There's also the issue of how dark churches become when their walls are painted, and no doubt this one is a lot brighter without its fleurs.

The name of Framilode goes back to the 7th century, and denotes the decanting of the River Frome into the Severn (as mentioned in Gurney's poem). Historically there was a ferry across the Severn somewhere near here, and it was also formerly a good place for mills; not just the usual corn mills but also for manufacturing tinplate. This mill complex occupied an island in the middle of the Frome but it's all gone now. In the days when ships used to trek up and down the Severn there was even some ship-building going on in the village. But now it's a place of soft reedy rushes and quiet lapping ripples, and the lush memories of a war poet before the thump of the guns.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Chosen Hill church scratchings

At the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, a pencilled notice was visible above the south door of St Bartholomew's church on Churchdown Hill. Very possibly it still is, obliterated by layers of scribbles, scratchings and daubings. The notice read: "Non scribe Ecclesiae Muris Quia Deus Dominus Tuus In Ecclesia Habitat". Which translates as "Write not on the walls of the church for the Lord thy God abides within". Given the continued rampant defacement, perhaps something more on the lines of "Don't write on the fucking walls" might have got the message across.

  The south doorway, where pencilled signatures of the early 20th century make an odd accompaniment to carved Norman studded chevrons.

I have to confess though that I love church graffiti. Not that I condone the daubing and etching of sacred buildings, but the historical graffiti is fascinating and it's one of the most direct and personal relics our ancestors have left us. It often shows considerable patience and stone-working skill, and beautifully proportioned letterforms – largely lost skills, which show up the casual wall scratchers of today as rank amateurs with no sense of beauty or proportion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the best historic graffiti is found in places where people could scrape unobserved. Isolated churches, where bored people had to hang out for long periods, are a rich source of them, especially when they're not overlooked by any roads or buildings. Perched as it is on the top of a sacred mound at the corner of an iron-age hillfort, high above the surrounding countryside and quite a steep trek even from its adjacent village, St Bartholomew's on Churchdown Hill (or Chosen Hill as it's called locally) has acquired quite a collection of graphical scrapings from every age of its history. They adorn more or less every part of the church, inside and out.

When it comes to unobserved spots, St Bartholomew's church is pretty impressive in its isolation, perched on top of the ancient ramparts of Chosen Hill.

For sheer flagrant cheek, it's hard to beat the contribution of Thomas Badger, who carved his name in crude capitals deep into the stone of the chancel arch, in a way that cannot fail to have led an incensed vicar straight to the culprit – unless perhaps this part of the wall was covered up by furnishings in his day. His vandalism is currently exposed for all to see.

One of the things that intrigues me most though is a symbol which appears over and over again all over this church, but particularly on the north side, and which I will name the Churchdown Sigil. It comprises a lozenge with an arrow through it – invariably pointing upwards, although it has a few variations such as multiple arrows or multiple lozenges. The best example can be found in the north porch, just to the left of the door, where it appears alongside another intriguing pattern based around a quartered cross.

The Churchdown Sigil (right) and the quartered cross

The guidebooks describe it as a mason's mark, and that certainly seems very reasonable. I've seen masons' marks on other churches which look very like it. But masons are skilled stoneworkers and most of the examples of this symbol are a bit amateurish, as if they were carved by somebody who didn't have the right tools or skills. There's also the sheer number of them – sometimes several times on the same block of stone. An obsessive amateur copier of mason's marks? Or something else? If anybody has seen this symbol on any other churches I'd be interested to know.

Alongside this figure of a bird and someone's initials are more examples of the Churchdown Sigil. A small one and the point of a much larger one, plus an incomplete one (far right).

The north porch (pictured at the top of this post) has some of the best of Churchdown's amateur chisellings as well as the highest concentration of sigils. The porch is an unusual two-storey job with a priest's lodging above it, which was added to the church in the 13th century. Some of the graffiti is probably not far off being contemporary with it, and in fact it's possible that some of the carvings pre-date the porch on stones re-used from elsewhere. A good example of this can be seen on the outer walls of the porch where the base and lid of two Crusader coffins, complete with incised cross, have been used as building blocks. (I have a Joe Orton-style mental image of the masons turfing some poor benighted skeleton out of its coffin so they can nab the decorative lid.)

Here's a rather nice fleuron, bunged in for no apparent reason as if someone was practising and got bored half way through the second one.

Much of the graffiti in the porch is highly enigmatic, and the more you stare at it, the more you see different ways of viewing or interpreting it, especially as it's often hard to distinguish the lines of a carved image from natural marks or chips and scrapes in the stone. I think it's always important to look at these things with an open mind and be prepared to come up with your own thoughts about them, rather than taking anyone's view as established fact – even when it's in a respectable guidebook.

Perhaps one of the most curious to interpret is the figure, now extremely faded, on the door jamb of the porch's outer door. William T. Swift's book Some Account of the History of Churchdown, a valuable local history resource published in 1905, includes a description which Swift most likely got from the Rev. Dr. F. Smithe, who was vicar at the time he was researching the book, and who took a tremendous interest in the church's history. In their view it represents "a gaunt figure, or emblem, of Death – having the long hair and breasts of a woman; the fleshless arms are extended; in one hand an hour-glass is held, to denote the brief span of man's life, and in the other hand, to signify the grave, is an aspergès, which was used when the sprinkling of Holy Water upon the corpse (at the grave-side) was enjoined in the rubrics of the Old Uses or Service Books, such as that of Sarum."

Far be it from me to question the judgement of Dr Smithe or W.T. Swift, but to me it looks patently obvious that this is a mermaid. As faded as she is, she clearly has a scaly fish's tail, and underneath her is a symbol which looks very much like an anchor. Whether that could be an hourglass in her hand I couldn't say, but the other thing, an aspergès?! I'm not sure where these gentlemen are coming from in their "female Death" interpretation, but I think they might have got a bit tangled in a Biblical mindset. Last time I saw a priest asperging, he was using what appeared to be a pastry brush.

Given that she seems to be a mermaid, it may be fair to assume that the objects she's holding are a comb and mirror, since the majority of English pre-Reformation mermaids are depicted with them –  though admittedly the comb looks more like a television aerial. 

Another very striking image is what appears to be a face of Christ, with radiating aureole, chiselled into a lump of blue lias. Swift/Smithe reckon this to be pre-Reformation, and may well be right. And yes, all around this Christ-head you can see crude but distinctive Churchdown Sigils, some with multiple arrows.

Not all of St Bartholomew's wall chisellings are illicit; this official one (below) is rather nice too. The original Norman tower of the church fell into a dilapidated condition and was rebuilt in 1601. The rebuilding is commemorated by an engraved stone tablet at the back of the nave, incised with big bold letters and prahper Glahhsterrsh're spelling.

"This Belhows was buyldede in the yeere of our Lode God 1601". Plus additions.

The outside of the church has loads of carved grafitti – some of it quite brazen, other examples more subtle so that you spot different things every time you look. The oldest dated piece of graffiti I've found so far on the outside walls was apparently done in 1624.

Names and initials on the west wall of the tower dating back to 1624, not long after the tower was built. The Badger family have been at it again.

The church guidebook (an exceptionally good one, by the way) mentions a scratch dial on the outside north wall of the chancel, but this is very faded indeed and you need sharp eyes to spot it – all that's really visible is the hole for its long-lost gnomon. Another little enigma of this extraordinary church is why anybody would carve a scratch dial on the north wall, where it would have been as much use as a chocolate teapot. Most likely it was originally on the south wall and the stone block got moved during a past rebuilding: there are numerous re-used carved stones all over the fabric of this church, which point to the likelihood of an earlier building on the site whose stone was recycled. The fact that it's so weathered backs up the idea that it could be very old. Either that or it was etched by somebody with no sense of direction and a very poor grasp of physics.

 The northerly scratch dial. (NB This photo has been tarted up in Photoshop to enhance the outlines, otherwise, honestly, you wouldn't be able to see a damned thing.)

I feel like I've barely started extolling all the delights of St Bartholomew's Church so there will definitely be more to come. It always seems to be omitted from any books about interesting historic churches, but it seems to me to be a very special place and much underrated. Not to mention its position on a pre-Christian sacred hill where the powers still flow, and its magnificent views over the Severn Valley.

Swift, William T., Some Account of the History of Churchdown (1905).
Waters, Gwen, A History and Guide to the Churches of St Bartholomew and St Andrew, Churchdown (church pamphlet, 1989, 2004).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Selsley Toots

The Toots long barrow

The other day I was driving up towards Stroud on the high road across Selsley Common when there was the most extraordinary downpour. I couldn't see where I was going even with the wipers on full pelt, but there was something strangely exhilarating about it too. And it went on and on and on, relentlessly, until the road was running like a stream. I decided to pull off the road on the edge of Selsley Common and wait for it to pass. And once it had eased off a bit I got out of the car with the camera stuffed up my jumper and had a squelch across the common, having intended for some time to visit its subtle but distinctive landmark – a long barrow known as The Toots.

I got completely soaked but I did manage to capture some attractive cloudscapes as the storm passed over.

 Toots on the horizon

Why does a long barrow attract a name like The Toots? It's got nothing to do with either smoking marijuana or farting, though no doubt both those things have been done there at various times over the centuries. Nor is the name a corruption of 'Tits', as is sometimes suggested by those who can't look at a tumulus without thinking of giant goddess boobies. But it's a name you often see associated with burial mounds in high places, and often those with a road or track running close by. Among many examples are barrows called the Fairy Toot and Wimble Toot, both in Somerset, and Toot Hill at Healing in Lincolnshire which has a likely barrow on the top. The name also sometimes occurs in relation to beacon hills and hilltop camps and castles, such as Toot Hill in Macclesfield Forest, Cheshire.

There isn't any definite etymology for the name but it's clear from the sheer number of them that are readily found across the country that 'Toot-hills' meant something significant at one time. Perhaps the most compelling suggestion is that the name comes from the Saxon word "teotan", to look out – a word which evolved into the Middle English "tote", to watch, or to look out. In short, most Toots have a view.

The view west from The Toots long barrow, over the village of King's Stanley, to the sandy silvery expanse of the River Severn and its great horseshoe bend, and the Forest of Dean on the far side.

That's certainly the case with The Toots barrow on Selsley Common. The barrow sits just on the crest of the Cotswold ridge with a magnificent panorama across the west, where the River Severn meanders like a silver serpent through its green valley with the Forest of Dean beyond. You can see the horseshoe bend in the Severn which stands out on every map of the UK, and also the sandy banks to the south west where it turns from a river into a tidal estuary. To the north, green rolling Cotswold tumps delight the eye as far as it can see.

I ought to know a thing or two about Toot-hills, because I was practically born on one. I spent the first years of my life in an old house on the Mythe just north of Tewkesbury, a round hill graced by a tumulus, known as the Mythe Toot. It fulfilled many of the criteria for Toot status: an obvious look-out point, a man-made tump on top of a natural hill with an old road (the A38) running right next to it – and the house was haunted – though not in an unpleasant way. But I have no more idea than anybody else what significance Toot-hills had to our ancestors.

If their purpose was as a lookout point though, that would make some sense. There are many other sacred places and landscape 'points' visible from The Toots, including some on the other side of the Severn where there were temples and shrines, not to mention a huge range of potential beacon hills. It's reasonable to assume that you would also be able to see the nearby Nympsfield Long Barrow and Hetty Pegler's Tump if it weren't for the woodlands that have grown up around them in recent centuries. With The Toots itself visible as a bump on the skyline from all around, it could be seen as a sighting point for a ley-line, as per Alfred Watkins' system of "old straight tracks". When I say ley-lines, I mean the straight-line alignments of physical features in the landscape, rather than earth energy lines (which to me usually appear to be spiralled more often than straight).

The Worcestershire antiquarian Jabez Allies, writing in 1852, was also intrigued by Toot-hills: "Although the Anglo-Saxons may have used such hills as 'lookout stations,' still many of them may have been of ancient British origin and derivation; and the fact that all the above-mentioned hills or places in Worcestershire [i.e. toot-hills] are either close to, or near upon the sides of roads, appears to favour the opinion that they were sacred to the Celtic Teutates, who was the guide over the hills and track-ways. Bryant says, Theuth, Thoth, Taut, Taautes, are the same title diversified, and belong to the chief god of Egypt."

I'm not sure I can quite get with the idea, now popular among new age questors, that the names of British sacred sites are derived from those of Egyptian gods, and/or that Egyptian priests came over here to share their secrets with the ancient Britons. I'm not completely closed-minded to the idea, but it always feels to me as if the British landscape and group-soul has a wondrous enough mystery system of its own, if you care to delve into it, without needing to be bolstered with bolt-on theories from more readily accessible traditions. The god name 'Teutates' sounds a bit classical to me and not very Celtic, though if it's derived from a simpler form such as 'Taut', or the Brythonic 'Dú Taith', then fair enough. But I must admit the idea of these hills being named after a specific god doesn't ring true for me either, for reasons I can't put my finger on. The word Toot seems more directly functional somehow.

Toots long barrow, looking north along Selsley Common. The dip visible across the barrow here is, unfortunately, a scar left by meddling Victorian twerps.

What can I tell you about The Toots long barrow then? Er ... not that much. It's never really been excavated, other than having a few gouges taken out of it by amateur antiquarians of a previous era, who neither recorded their activities nor made good the damage afterwards, stupid buggers.

The barrow gets a one-line mention in L.V. Grinsell's The Ancient Burial-Mounds of England: "This is one of the longest examples on the Cotswolds, being about 210 feet long," he says. That's it. It may be one of the longest long barrows, but thanks to the twerps of yore digging a big slice out of the middle, it actually looks more like two shorter barrows joined end to end. It has a nice atmosphere but not an overwhelmingly 'buzzy' one; it's more of a passive giver and taker of subtle forces, slowly breathing them. It doesn't have an obvious entrance either on inner or outer levels, but invites your consciousness to go spiralling in.

It does exert a certain magnetic pull over people wandering on the common. The place is thrumming with dog walkers even in the vilest weather, and at more clement moments it's a popular place for flying kites and other airborne toys. It's very possible that many of the people who feel compelled to go and stand on top of The Toots don't even realise it's a long barrow, as it has no distinguishing features: no visible stones or chambers. But stand on it they do, as if drawn to it by something unconscious. And perhaps that's as much as you need to know about its power and purpose.

Quarry remnants on Selsley Common, echoing distant hills

Allies, Jabez, On the Ancient British, Roman and Saxon Antiquities and Folk-lore of Worcestershire,  2nd edition, 1852. (Good info on Toot-hills)
Darvill, Timothy, Long Barrows of the Cotswolds (Tempus, 2004)
Drayton, Penny, 'Toot Hills', from Mercian Mysteries No.21, November 1994; available online here.
Grinsell, L.V., The Ancient Burial-Mounds of England (Methuen, 1936)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Lamented Lassington

"John thought sadly of Lassington and its little church. The tower was all that was left of it. For some reason, now forgotten, a Norman church had been demolished and rebuilt in neo-Norman style in 1875. But the foundations had been faulty and the chancel had begun to part company with the nave. The end had come at a Harvest Thanksgiving service in the early 1970s. A sudden downpour in the middle of the service had deluged the visiting preacher in his stall. The church, used only occasionally by that time, had finally been abandoned..."
— Anthony Duncan, Faversham's Dream

What's left, a Grade II* listed stump, perches on a small semicircular tump rising from the farmland within a wider loop of the Leadon. The grass coarse, rough-mown, fends off waiting brambles. St Oswald still has his tower. The church, a ghost, is present only in the long rectangular gap; its delineation faintly seen and dimly imagined.

Almost buried, the steep churchyard steps disappear under grass, ankle-twisting tussocks in the dips and hollows of slipping graves whose stones lurch, defaced, generations flaking from memory, blank bones of stones under frost-sheared scrolls.

Only the lawnmower paces the line of the aisle and bumps over the vanished floor, its vaults mossed over and its chapels a figment in the grass. The skinny, blue-lias tower is silent, a bell-free shell.

I've lamented many times the misguided Victorians in their zeal for church "restoration" which usually involved destroying centuries of priceless heritage. Wall paintings scrubbed away or chiselled off, medieval pews chucked out and ancient atmosphere sterilised. But the restoration of Lassington church by Medland & Son in 1875 was so catastrophic it can only echo Michael Caine's immortal words, "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"

I haven't been able to find any evidence either to confirm or deny Anthony Duncan's description of events, taken from a fictionalised account, above. But as well as being a writer with a deep interest in, and love for, historic churches, he was rector of the adjoining parish of Highnam (into which Lassington had been absorbed) in the early 1970s and was pastorally responsible for Lassington church around the time of its demise. It's very possible therefore that he was present at the service where the preacher got drenched.

What is certain is that the church was abandoned in 1972, and as it was dilapidated and structurally unsafe, demolished in 1975. Leaving only the tower.

I'm seeing this in so many churchyards at the moment: recent harsh winters have stripped the inscriptions from old graves, in this case what looks like an early 18th century Forest of Dean cherub headstone.

There is an aching sadness about Lassington churchyard even on a summer's day. It's not much visited anyway, being stranded at the end of a long, pot-holed lane. One minute you're driving down a nice smooth road towards a well-appointed housing estate and then ker-thunk, watch you don't scrape your exhaust pipe. There is no village at Lassington apart from a few individual houses strung out along the lane, a rather nice old Court, and the roofless ivy-smothered shell of a derelict building opposite the church. Being the hub of such a small community, Lassington church endured neglect and underinvestment for centuries.

Originally built under the patronage of St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester, hence its dedication to St Oswald, for most of its history it was served only sporadically by a succession of curates and absentee rectors with a roster of eccentric names. One 19th century curate went by the name of Powell Colchester Guise. Going back to the 1640s, the incumbent was Ezra Graile, who had taken over from the exquisitely named Elias Wrench. Not so eccentrically named was the 16th century rector Henry Smith, booted out in 1518 following a charge of sexual incontinence.

In the west wall of the tower – ancient window, modern glass

The Victoria County History records that in the 16th and 17th centuries the church was "in a poor state of repair, lacking paving, glazing and tiling." Though in those days it wasn't that unusual for rural parish churches to have to make do with a bare earth floor. It had a little surge of better fortune in the 19th century when the village population grew and the church was better appreciated, culminating in the money being raised for its drastic and ultimately disastrous rebuilding. Some of the original Norman stonework was retained in the rebuilding, and it had a magnificent chevroned chancel arch (now lost). By the mid 20th century the church was slipping into terminal decline. Which is really sad, as its remaining stump is close to 1000 years old.

The surviving tower was built in the 11th century and may well even be Saxon. The first two storeys are the oldest part, and have the little round-headed lancet windows which are typical of the Saxon and early Norman period. These windows are deeply splayed, which means the openings on the inside are much bigger: large round-headed arches narrowing to a tiny little slit for the actual window (unfortunately the tower is kept locked so it's not easy to get inside and see this). The one in the west wall contains a blue guilloche glazing which is very pretty even if not very old. The window on the south side has a stone jutting out above it which may originally have been carved, but it's too weathered to tell for sure. It certainly looks very like the Anglo-Saxon window-head carvings, similarly weathered, on the nearby Saxon church of St Mary at Deerhurst.

The top chunk of the tower was added in the 14th century, and has the wider ogee-topped windows belonging to that time period. It also includes a few salvaged Roman red bricks in its fabric (one just visible in the photo above, to the top left of the upper window). There were apparently traces of Roman buildings in Lassington visible as recently as Victorian times, in the area south-east of the church where the medieval village used to be – all of which is now just lumps and bumps in a field. It's worth having a look at the aerial view of Lassington on Google Maps (you can find it quickly using the Reference Map tab above). The outline of a large square moat is clearly visible to the south-east of the church, which probably belonged to the manor house destroyed in the Civil War. You can also see the remains of strip lynchets and old roads from the vanished village.

Lassington's pagan connections are possibly thriving more actively. Long beloved by Druids and a gathering place for gypsies, the Lassington Oak was a significant landmark in nearby Lassington Wood, thought to have been getting on for 700 years old at the time of its demise. It had a girth of 29ft and had to be propped up by a complicated assortment of wooden struts. In 1960 it was blown over in a gale, and now only its recumbent trunk survives, although a ring of 12 oak saplings was planted around it in 1921 by a Druid Order. Its spirit also lives on in the Lassington Oak Morris Men who continue the age old traditions of mummers' plays and morris dances in the area.

Writing in 1938, when the church was still extant and in use, Arthur Mee mentions a giant elm tree at the churchyard gate with a girth of over 20ft, and another in the churchyard standing over an ancient coffin. All gone now.

There is now a visitor information board beside the tower which includes some heartbreaking photos of the interior of the church during its last days, derelict and crumbling.

This doorway in the east wall dates back no further than 1976, constructed as part of a necessary shoring up of the wall following the destruction of the body of the church. The wooden door itself is Victorian and was originally fitted during the rebuilding scheme in 1875, while the ironwork on it is known to have been salvaged from the church's original south door and is much older. This ironwork closely resembles that on the west door of Rudford church, a mile or so up the road.

Lassington church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, a charity which has saved many historic churches from destruction, doing a great job despite facing a 20% cut in its funding.

Victoria County History: Gloucestershire vol. VIII (draft version, 2010)
Mee, Arthur, The King's England: Gloucestershire (Hodder & Stoughton, 1938)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Well in the Wildwood: the Mussel Well, Churchdown

Churchdown Hill, locally called Chosen Hill, solitary bump in the vale, marshy under the weight of its springs. Only one spring is named. In fact it has three names. The Ordnance Survey map tantalisingly marks the Mussel Well in the woods on the NW slope on or near the ramparts of an Iron Age camp, but without making entirely clear exactly where it is. Older maps show it as the Muzzel Well, with similar lack of precision. Other local sources refer to it, rightly or wrongly, as the Roman Well.

Never mind the maps; how difficult can it be to find a well?

Er ... moderately, in my experience. One of the problems is that you don't know what you're looking for, unless you've seen a picture of it previously. A "well" might turn out to be anything from an elaborate system of stone-built channels and chambers to a simple puddle on the ground. If the Ordnance Survey marks it as a "well" rather than a "spring" then that usually means there's some kind of visible man-made structure in place. Usually, but not always.

Well hidden: the slopes of Churchdown Hill are smothered with ancient woodland.

The first time I tried to discover the Mussel Well I didn't find it. Pitching into the faery-haunted woods below St Bartholomew's church, the magical church-on-a-tump which reminds me a little bit of Glastonbury Tor (only a bit flatter), I soon found myself hopelessly disorientated among the shady tangle of oak, ash and thorn. I squidged my way along endless stretches of boot sucking quagmire – abundant springs just under the surface ensure the paths remain perpetually muddy for most of the year – but realised I didn't have a clue where to look. I tried following my intuition, which led me towards a slight clearing in the trees on a steep slope (the whole hilltop is an Iron Age hillfort), but I was inadequately shod to make my way across an expanse of perilously sloping slop, studded with dog turds, to get to it, and so I reluctantly gave up. Not that I'm a cissy about falling on my arse in the mud, but I prefer not to do it with an expensive camera dangling round my neck. My frustration was increased when I got home and referred back to the maps because I realised that I'd been going the right way and must only have been a matter of yards away from finding it.

So I went back another day with a renewed resolve and a robust pair of boots. This time I got through the mud obstacles with ease, sending iridescent flies spinning from chunks of canine crap in the sunlight, but still no well. I trekked down the path one way, then trekked back up it the other way, all to no avail, and thought I was going to have to give up again. And then a distinctly smug voice in my head said "it's not so hard to find, you know." Meaning that oh yes it is hard to find, but my inner senses could lead me to it if only I'd let them. A moment later I noticed a narrow, informal path running up the rampart slope between the trees, and up it I went. Still no sign of a well, but half way up the earthworks my eye was drawn to a very imposing tree. An old hollow ash with whirls of ivy draped over it and a tall, triangular opening at the base.

Now, holey trees like this are a magnetic draw to my pagan soul, so I went over to get a closer look at it. There was something so powerful about its aura though that I was afraid to go too close; this was a tree Not-To-Be-Messed-With. I've rarely seen ash trees as big and old as this, and it appeared to be part of a row of mature ashes standing in a line; even within the wood with other trees all around, they stood out as venerable sentinels. And when I looked at the next one along, another tangle of ancient boughs, I saw that snuggled under its roots was a stone trough. Aha!

The Mussel Well – and I assume this is the Mussel Well, although there's no sign to say so – is an unprepossessing rectangular trough of indeterminate age, repaired or rebuilt multiple times by the look of it, obscured by dirt and moss and encroached by brambles. The water emerges from a metal pipe in a concrete block embedded into the hillside and falls into the trough, which is only a few inches deep and partially filled with well-rotted crud. The water then flows out through a second pipe at the front end. But maybe flows isn't the right word, because it's really somewhere between a trickle and a drip. So slight, in fact, that there's no drainage as such. The water drips into what appears to be a fairly primitive soakaway and barely even wets the ground. Intriguingly though, the ground below the well has a gulley cut through it as if there were formerly a stream running down the slope, although it's now dry and filled with brambles. There are also a few bits of stone lying about, half buried, which may have been part of it at some point.

Because of the slowness of the flow, the water in the trough is stagnant. I have a little self-anointing ritual I normally do when I encounter a well or spring, but the deep green depths of this pool revealed unappetising corpses of flies and worms and a host of unsavoury insect larva thingies wiggling about in it under a filmy sheen of gluck on the surface, and I really didn't feel inclined to dip my fingers in it. So I compromised by dipping my fingers in the drip of water coming out of the pipe, which was of course just as dirty and disgusting as the trough, but didn't look as horrible.

I'm not painting a very romantic view of this site am I? I have to say though, despite the state of the physical attributes, this felt like a spot with a bit of sacred whoomph behind it. Much of this was coming from the great gnarled and twisted ivy-mantled ash tree which stands guard beside it, a tree with a very active faery presence which takes its guardianship role very seriously, thank you very much. It's no good telling the tree spirit that the well is dirty and polluted; it presides over an older and deeper presence which goes beyond physical conditions.

The guardian of the well

Aside from the ambiance of the place, what can I tell you about the well? Available information is negligible. Most guides to Churchdown Hill make mention of the Mussel Well (frequently misspelt "Mussell") but none seem to offer any enlightenment. The local authority tourist information singles it out as one of the significant historical sites on the hill, and then says simply: "its history is obscure." Right, OK then. There doesn't seem to be any clue as to why it's called the Mussel Well, which I assume doesn't have anything to do with molluscs because the name appears to have evolved from an earlier form spelled "Muzzel". And there aren't any molluscs around here anyway, except fossilised ones. Perhaps the answer lies in an obscure land deed or reference library somewhere.

The Woodland Trust, who own and manage the woods, don't have a lot of historical information either, but they do mention in their leaflet that the Mussel Well provides a water supply to nearby Green Farm via a hidden pipe. If that's the case, then it explains why the current flow of the well is so depleted, and why it has the appearance of having been more gushing in the past. It's hard to guess at the age of the trough, as it looks to have been patched up several times; it has some white ceramic-lined bricks which look to be about a century old, and the lower stonework appears older. The alternative name, the Roman Well, implies that the site, if not the trough, dates back to Roman times – but such names can be misleading. There's no doubt that Churchdown Hill was a site of interest and activity for the Romans, and there's a set of steps credited to them on a nearby slope. But the bank in which the well is set is part of the Iron Age earthwork, long predating the Roman occupation. The well must surely have been known by the Dobunni people who lived here in pre-Christian times, although whether it was simply a water supply or had a religious significance I don't know (though I know what my intuition tells me).

One of the only references I've found in any of my books is in Stephen Yeates' A Dreaming for the Witches (which, interestingly enough, has an aerial photo of Churchdown Hill on the cover). He cites an earlier history of Churchdown by W.T. Swift, published 1905, which reports sightings of a faery funeral procession coming through the entrance of the Iron Age ramparts and disappearing into the hillside at an ash tree by the Mussel Well. There are of course many folk traditions about faeries seen or encountered at a well in the woods: the Mabinogion, the legend of the Faery Melusine, the folk song Tam Lin, and many medieval literary sources. As bonkers as these things may seem to modern readers, I have to say that having felt the aura of awe around that opening in the ash tree, not to mention the intensely solicitous green guardian of the ash tree beside the well, the idea of this place being a long established portal into faery doesn't seem very surprising to me!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hartpury green man

On May Hill, half way between Gloucester and Ross-on-Wye, a hungry faery took a chomp at a pear he found growing on a tree. The small, hard fruit was disgustingly bitter and he spat it out with such force that the pips flew out across the surrounding countryside, where they landed in the soil and grew into new trees.

That, if you want to believe local legend, is why Gloucestershire and its neighbouring counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire are the heartland of perry pears, native semi-wild pears which are too hard and astringent for eating but can be milled and fermented into the most exquisite perry (or what is known commercially as pear cider). It explains in particular the other local saying that good perry pears can only be grown within sight of May Hill.

Exactly which varieties can be traced to the seeds the faery spat is a matter of conjecture, but one of the places a pip is supposed to have landed is Hartpury, a place where the tradition of perry-making goes back centuries. This Gloucestershire village even takes its name from the perry pear – "Hartpury" evolving from its early name of "Hardepirige" which translates as "hard pear". There is also a pear named after the village: the antique and venerable Hartpury Green.

 Hartpury Green perry pears growing in Hartpury churchyard.

Writing his Vinetum Britannicum in 1691, John Worlidge notes that "Pears that are esteemed for their Vinous Juice in Worcestershire and those adjacent Parts, are the Red and Green Squash-pears, the John-pear, the Green Harpary, the Drake-pear, the Mary-pear, the Lullam-pear, but above all the rest are esteemed the Bosbury and the Bareland pears and the White and Red Horse pears." Of these, around half have since been lost – and of those that survive, some are designated "critically rare", including the Hartpury Green (Green Harpary). Fortunately Gloucestershire Orchard Group have been working hard to identify and propagate all the surviving local pear varieties to ensure they're conserved for the future; their website is full of fascinating information about local apples, pears, plums and nuts. And a number of perry pear trees have been planted in Hartpury churchyard.

The charmingly named Butt

Perry pears are a bit smaller and a lot harder than dessert pears, and most of them are too bitter to eat raw (assuming you can get your teeth into them) as they contain a lot of tannin. They don't always look like pears either – you could be forgiven for mistaking the Hartpury Green for an apple, as it's round rather than pear-shaped. Traditionally, perry was home-made on farms and consumed locally. The process is similar to that of cider-making: the fresh pears are crushed in a mill and left to ferment using the naturally occurring yeasts already present in the pressed fruit. Good quality perry is still made in the area (and is quite distinct from commercial pear ciders which are generally made from concentrate). Among the varieties recorded in Gloucestershire, surviving or otherwise, can be found such delights as Ram's Cods (also known as Stitter Balls), Clipper Dick, Dead Boy, Jug Rumblers, Late Treacle, Sack, Piddle Pear, Bloody Bastard, Chaxhill Rough and Yellow Huffcap.

Not a bad legacy from the May Hill peary faery.

Blakeney Red, probably the most widely grown perry pear

It has been speculated, though I'm not sure if there's anything more than speculation, that it's the pip-spitting fae of May Hill who is depicted in an intriguing carving in Hartpury parish church. This figure is one of two which perches high in the rafters, inserted into slots cut in the tie beam across the middle of the church. The figure is male and human-looking, but is covered with scales, which may be leaves or feathers – who knows. To some people it appears to be chainmail or fool's motley, though if you look closely the 'leaves' are distinctly separate and overlap one another. He has a Celtic-looking face with bulbous eyes and his hands are lightly pressed together over his midriff. There is a suggestion that this is our immortal friend clutching his aching tummy after feasting on the bitter pear! On the other hand, he may be a form of woodwose, or a jack-in-the-green.

There's no denying the fruit theme though for the other figure on the opposite side. This one is a more straightforward green man. He looks a bit fierce in this picture but from other angles he appears to be laughing – a mood changing green man. He has leaf-shaped ears and his body is composed entirely of a grapevine, twirling abundantly with leaves and bunches of grapes. Grapevines may not be a common sight in the English climate, but as it happens there was a vineyard just a few yards away from the church during medieval times. The Abbot of Gloucester built his luxurious mansion house in the adjacent field, and grapes were among the many things the monks cultivated there. The green man is a symbol of abundance.

These two figures are something of a mystery, because they don't belong to the period of the church's original building, but have been put there at some later date. They are, however, very old – perhaps dating to the church's expansion in the 14th century. They're carved from oak and may have originated as bench ends or pew ends. But why they were set into the central beam of the roof – high up where it's difficult to see them – is anyone's guess. Perhaps, like gargoyles on towers, they have a protective role.

One possible explanation is that a fire took hold of the church at some time in its history. The evidence for this is the pink tint on the stonework in parts of the church. It's a characteristic of Cotswold stone that it indelibly turns pink when it's heated, which is a useful way of spotting the scenes of past fires in old churches (Tewkesbury Abbey has a pink line along the sanctuary wall where the monks set fire to a bookshelf). It's just possible that these two carved panels may have been salvaged after the fire and symbolically incorporated into their current display positions.

The church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury was built around 1100, or possibly earlier, and has some distinctive Saxon herringbone stonework in a few places in the walls. Whether that means it was built before 1066 or whether it's a case of the Saxon building styles lingering for a while after the Normans arrived, it's certainly a very antique place. The current chancel and tower were added in the 14th century but when you're inside the church there's no question about which part is the original, ancient bit. The atmosphere is incredible ... a tangle of tingles. The whole church has an extraordinary ambience but it's noticeably more intense within the nave.

The walls were originally plastered and painted with decorations (coats of arms are known to have been featured at Hartpury), but the dunderheaded Victorian twerps chipped it all off thinking they were "restoring" the church to some authentic bare-walled ideal. Some older features have stood the test of time though. A fear of witchcraft led to the practice of locking away holy water, usually within the font, as was done at Hartpury. The usefulness of holy water for magical practices made it a sought-after commodity for anointing places, charms and healing, DIY exorcisms, and the banishing of conjured spirits which got out of hand.

 As in many churches, the font at Hartpury is fitted with a sturdy lockable lid to prevent holy water from being stolen and used for nefarious purposes. This 17th century lid is thought to be a replacement for the original.

It's sometimes questioned why such an obviously pagan figure as the green man should show up so often in churches. The reality is that this most pagan of symbols is entrenched in Christian tradition, and they aren't found in any pre-Christian context. The idea that it's either a symbol of the church's dominance over primitive nature spirits (if you're a Christian) or a cheeky re-emergence of the old gods asserting themselves against an oppressive new religion (if you're a pagan) tends to miss the point, I think. The green man is an archetype which just is. He doesn't need to be polarised by anyone's religious preferences, however firmly they may be held. He's as universal and irrepressible as the springing buds and swelling fruits in the land all around.

It also shouldn't be assumed that in times past everyone was simplistically pious and compliant. The parish church was the heart of a village community, with a social and protective role beyond its function for religious services, and everybody went there – yes, including witches! It takes all sorts to make up a community and some people are naturally non-theistic and don't feel or sense anything, while others are intuitively drawn to the natural magic inherent in the land and the seasons, and feel most spiritually alive when they're outdoors in wild places. This was surely as true in the past as it is today. Freed from the polarised viewpoints of our very modern prejudices, the green man is as much at home in a church as he is in a grove in the woods.

Church or greenwood?

Hartpury church is in a quiet spot, some way out of the main village. The Abbot's big house was demolished in Victorian times, the only trace now being its moat undulating through the grass in the field beside the church. The present Hartpury Court is built from its stone. What does survive remarkably unspoiled though, as a reminder of the power and wealth of the medieval church, is the vast tithe barn on the other side of the road – another atmospheric delight of a place. It would have been used by Gloucester Abbey to stash the spoils of local taxation, which was paid to them in the form of agricultural produce.

14th century tithe barn opposite Hartpury church. A legacy of the Abbot of Gloucester living here.

Psst ... if you're visiting Hartpury church, you may find the green man and his friend are not readily visible in normal daylight. On the organ case just inside the door is a row of light-switches, and the one on the far left puts a spotlight on the carved figures. Please remember to switch it off before you go and leave a little something in the collection box to thank them for their electricity.

St Mary the Virgin, Hartpury, church guide (Hartpury Historic Land & Building Trust, 2005).
Martell, Charles, Pears of Gloucestershire, free PDF download available here and well worth a read.