Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Dowsing the mound on Chosen Hill

I keep coming back to the little known and much underrated Chosen Hill (shown on maps as Churchdown Hill) between Gloucester and Cheltenham. It's one of my special places in my local area. And every time I come here I feel the same thing. An urge to do some dowsing!

The reason I've not done so before is that I didn't really know where to start. I don't have the time or resources to do a detailed survey, but there didn't seem much point in doing a half-hearted effort either. Besides which, Chosen Hill is a very popular place for dogwalkers and ramblers, and whenever anybody sees me swinging around a bent coathanger they invariably come and ask "whatcha doin'?" which is almost impossible to explain without sounding like a nutter.

But this week I went up there and gave it a go. I would love to hear from any other dowsers who have done any work up here, and whether they get results which are similar to or different from mine.

The church on top of its green mound.

That's some location for an old church.

First of all I should explain why this site is special, though the photos probably say all that needs to be said. The hill itself is an outlier to the Cotswolds and sits on its own – a 500ft high steep-sided lump sat in the middle of the Severn Vale. Perched on the north-eastern corner of the hilltop (which is not, incidentally, the highest point of the hill but it's pretty close) is the isolated medieval church of St Bartholomew, which was originally the parish church for the village of Churchdown, and a punishing trek up a steep slope for former parishioners. There is a newer church in the village now, but St Bartholomew's is still used for a handful of services and it's a remarkable place, full of historic curiosities, re-used carved stones from an earlier church, and images of dragons. It's also quite a landmark, visible from all around the local area, looking like a faery castle when the sun catches it in early evening.

The church is built on top of a steep-sided mound in the churchyard, which is a very striking feature, and suggests the place was sacred before the church (and its Saxon predecessor) was built. The mound has curious ridges or terraces around it, in a style which reminds me of Glastonbury Tor, albeit on a smaller scale. Some of these are visible in the churchyard, while others can be seen continuing some distance down the northern and eastern side of the hill, interrupted by field boundaries and clumps of trees but still visible if you make the effort to look. These lower ridges are on private property so it isn't possible to explore them close up, but they have intrigued me for a long time.

There is uncertainty as to whether the topographical features of the hill are natural or man-made, or both. Older maps show the whole hilltop as an Iron-Age camp; modern maps don't. I think it probably is an ancient camp because it has that sort of vibe and there have been finds of pottery fragments from that time period. Unfortunately the majority of the original enclosure has been destroyed by the construction of a set of covered reservoirs in the 20th century, but there are still some surviving earthen banks around the hilltop which look very much like ramparts.

It's the small green mound immediately underneath the church, however, which draws my attention the most.

Ridged pathways around the mound in the north-western corner of the churchyard, with a pedestrian gate at the bottom leading down towards the village.

The western end of the mound.

The southern side with old box tombs set into the slope of the mound.

The entrance on the northern side. I got a water reaction with my dowsing rods in the gateway instead of the usual 'entrance' response.

One of the things that intrigues me about the mound is that it has a direction of spin. I don't much like using the New Agey term 'earth energy', but I don't have another name for it and can't really explain what it is either, so I can only say that there is some kind of telluric flow which goes around the mound in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction on different occasions. I feel this so strongly that I don't need dowsing rods to pick it up. Every time I visit the churchyard I immediately feel which direction the energy is spinning and feel obligated to walk around the churchyard in the direction of flow. It seems to switch over on some periodic cycle but I don't go up there often enough to know how often it changes. I can only say that it was flowing in a clockwise direction during my dowsing trip on the afternoon of 1st December, but on my previous visit two weeks earlier, on 17th November, it was going anticlockwise.

So even if I couldn't do a proper survey, I wanted to dowse the area of the churchyard and get a sense of what is there, hopefully to follow up any interesting discoveries later. My dowsing tool of choice is a V-rod, which is a metal or plastic version of the traditional forked stick divining rod. I also used angle rods to check my results afterwards and for those tasks which the V-rod doesn't excel at, such as directional pointers. To record the places where the rods reacted I used a handheld GPS to mark them as waypoints. This isn't perfect: the limitation of the technology is that it's only accurate to within a few feet, but for a job like this it's a lot better than faffing about with maps and measuring tapes. It was very cold and frosty on the hilltop on 1st December (most of the photos you see here were taken during previous visits when the weather was nicer) so I was hoping there wouldn't be too many people up there. A bit of a vain hope, and I got interrupted a few times. But over the space of about two hours I collected 70 dowsing response points, which were a mixture of water (negative) and earth energy (positive) reactions. When I say positive and negative, I only mean that the V-rod dips downward over water and upward for any kind of telluric stuff. I also get an upward response for boundaries and entrances, which are distinguishable from the telluric reactions only in that they feel subtly different. More static I guess, rather than flowing.

I got one of these 'boundary' responses while walking up the path towards the church, in an open area with no sign of any boundary. But when I looked around I could see a few clues, such as a change in direction in a nearby wall, suggesting that this was once a perimeter and that the line I was picking up was the original boundary of the churchyard before it got extended. When I got home I dug out some old OS maps and found exactly that – in 1924 and earlier, the churchyard boundary was on that very line. This is one of the things that draws me to dowsing, its uncanny ability to pick up the 'ghost' of things which aren't there any more. Not the ghosts of people (though it can do that as well), but of walls, doorways, paths and hedges.

A tomb with a view.

Water lines in the churchyard
The first thing I did was search for water lines – a bit of old-fashioned water divining. Water is the easiest thing to dowse for, and gives nice decisive responses. I found two parallel water lines crossing the path just inside the churchyard but had the feeling they were modern pipes. Then when I got to the mound itself I started picking up lots of underground water. The first one was a few feet in front of the church door and when I looked down I saw there was a cluster of small iron stop-tap hatches set into the ground. Well that explains that then! But actually it's really nice when you get that corroboration, that there really is underground water in the place where the rod decided to dip. It makes you feel like a bit less of a loony prancing about with a metal stick.

Oh well, that explains the water response here then.

But I soon found more. In fact the stuff seemed to be everywhere. Some of it with very strong reactions, where the rod felt like it was tugging itself out of my hands. And then I realised the little hatches were everywhere too. Some stop-taps, some monitoring hatches, dotted around in odd clusters all around the church foundations on every side. Elsewhere in the churchyard I spotted two much larger inspection hatches which gave me minimal reactions ... one caused the rod a slight twitch, the other nothing. But most of the small hatches on top of the mound were close to points where I got a really strong water reaction. Surely an old church doesn't need this much plumbing? I can only assume that there are a load of springs on the mound, and that they are being actively managed to prevent soggy soil from undermining the church building. It's so precariously perched it's easy to imagine it sliding off down the hill towards Badgeworth after a heavy rainstorm.

As well as the drainage arrangements, I found water lines in a few more interesting places. There was a water line coming out from under the church at each of its four corners (at chancel and tower). This is quite a common thing that most dowsers find at old churches, though don't ask me the reason for it. But in this case, the water line in the north-west corner on the tower was very slightly off alignment. The other three were bang on. I don't know why that one corner should be off, but the tower was rebuilt in 1601 so it's not inconceivable that the water line may be aligned with the original tower; who knows.

It would've been interesting to dowse for water lines inside the church to see where the corner lines go and see if I could find the 'blind spring' which is almost always to be found somewhere near the altar of such an old church. But the church was locked as usual, so I had to limit myself to the outside.

The eastern side of the churchyard has a retaining wall which cuts off the slope of the mound. You can still just see two sculpted ridges in the mound on the right hand side of the photo. The wooden fence follows the line of another, wider ridge lower down. 

Telluric lines
This is where things get a bit more nebulous. The term 'earth energy' is often bandied about without defining what it actually means, and I admit I don't know either. In 30 years of doing this I'm no closer to understanding what it is I'm picking up and I only know that I'm picking up something. Whatever it may be, there are consistencies and patterns in where it appears and how it behaves, and that's good enough for me to want to dowse for it. It dowses positive (i.e. it flips the V-rod upward) but is sometimes more difficult to pin down than water, and more liable to change. It usually has a clear direction of flow but feels like it has less of a defined spatial position ... unlike water it may or may not be underground.

So having got that caveat out of the way, here's what I found. The energy goes around the mound in concentric rings. (It's possible it could be a spiral, but I think it's concentric rings.) These are elliptical and follow the shape of the mound. Nearer the top of the mound the rings are fairly narrow and close together, but as you descend the hill they get progressively broader and and more widely spaced. Dowsing the south side I counted nine rings in total, from the old churchyard boundary up to the church door. They might continue inside for all I know, but I didn't have access. Nor did I have access to the northern or southern sides of the mound, which are on private property. But I did dowse the terraced ridges inside the churchyard and found the energy rings corresponded to them closely, with some additional rings in between them as well.

I also picked up a broad energy line passing through the west wall of the tower, almost dead centre. A corresponding line comes out of (or into) the east wall, but this one seemed to be off centre. As I didn't go in the church, I can't be sure whether it's all the same line, and whether it's straight or not. I picked up another broad line going south-north through the church, but ran out of time to plot any details of it.

The elliptical shape of the hill on the north-eastern side, looking from the churchyard towards the Cotswold hills. You can't see the ridges and terraces very well in this photo, but they are there! The village of Churchdown can be seen on the left, down in the valley, with Cheltenham in the middle distance.

There were a couple of buttresses which seemed to have become active nodes for energy lines. One was on the north side at the edge of the tower. The other was on the south side (almost opposite in fact) on the outside of the south transept. This is not the oldest part of the church by any means, but it seems it's been there long enough to accumulate some telluric welly.

The buttress just to the left of the drainpipe has quite a zap to it. As does the one just visible to the right of the tower.

A small area just to the west of the north porch gave me a very odd reaction with the V-rod, as if something was pulling or jerking the tip of the rod to the right (towards the church). The same spot when dowsed with angle rods was not quite as strong, but the rods did ‘range’ and swing about.

Another oddity was that I got a decisive water response in the pedestrian gateway at the north-west end of the churchyard. I usually get a positive ‘entrance’ or ‘boundary’ response over a gate but the water response was far stronger. I tried dowsing over the hedge to the side of the gate and got the expected boundary responses.

The north porch is unusual in that it has two storeys – the upper floor being a priest's room which once would have served as basic living quarters.

This photo was taken on the public footpath down towards the village, on the north side of the church. My dowsing rod picked this up as an old track-line, running around the base of the mound and crossing the current footpath at right angles.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

May Hill

Wherever you go in north Gloucestershire or anywhere else round and about, there it is. Even if you don't know what it's called, you can probably see it. The silhouette of May Hill on the skyline is unmistakable, with its little clump of trees on the summit, standing out among all the other hills.

The trees are mostly Corsican pines, planted in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and supplemented with another cluster (Scots pines this time) planted in 1977 for Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and a few other clumps marking other occasions. Unfortunately some are now infected with red band needle blight, a defoliating disease to which Corsican pines are especially susceptible, and which will eventually kill off many of the trees. In any event, the tree-clump crown on May Hill goes back way further than 1887. There are references to it going back to 1643 when Prince Rupert and his men are said to have taken refuge up there, and a painting of the hill done in 1780 shows it with much the same arboreal tuft that it sports today.

Amid the clump (above) is a much older Scots pine which, although somewhat worse for wear these days with only one remaining limb, is a survivor from the previous generation of trees which occupied the hilltop before the grand 1887 planting. At the time the hill was enclosed in 1873 there was a reference to some 100-year-old Scots pines on the summit, which are also marked on Isaac Taylor's Gloucestershire map of 1777. This antique chap could be one of those.

It's breezy round that therr trig point.

At around 970 feet, May Hill stands as quite a landmark with fantastic views towards other landmarks. The top bit is in the care of the National Trust but the circular enclosure at the summit is owned by the nearby village of Longhope and is their 'village green'. It has a breathtaking vista over Gloucestershire and Herefordshire and into Wales, with a particularly good view along the length of the meandering River Severn. In the days when the Severn was full of sailing ships, May Hill's distinctive tree clump (evergreen and visible all year round) was an important navigational aid. One legend has it that the trees were originally planted for that very purpose by one Admiral May, hence the name. It's not very likely though, as the only admiral of that name was born a long time after the hill was named. And while the trees could've been planted as a landmark for mariners, it's more likely that they were planted by drovers who grazed their animals on the hill while passing through the area. Drovers had a tradition of planting distinctive clumps of pine trees to mark good grazing land.

South-west view towards Wales and the Forest of Dean.

Admiral May notwithstanding, May Hill was formerly called Yartleton Hill, and that's how it appears on early maps. The May Hill name first appears in 1703, and could well have been a local name which stuck (a bit like Churchdown Hill a few miles away, which is resolutely known to locals as Chosen Hill, despite not being called that on the map). The May Hill name most likely derives from the Beltane knees-up which has taken place up there since time immemorial, and still does. Morris dancers still faithfully troop up there every May Day at dawn to welcome the sunrise, and in the past there was also a tradition of staging a symbolic fight between summer and winter.

May Hill also has a faery legend, which I covered in my post about Hartpury. A faery man is said to have plucked a fruit from a pear tree on May Hill, which turned out to be so bitter he spat the pips out over three surrounding counties, where they germinated and grew into new trees. This supposedly accounts for the unique quality of perry pears to be found in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire (the astringent, semi-wild pears used to make perry, or pear cider).

A faery connection is also apparent in legends of an underground cavern, making May Hill a mythical "hollow hill". Lots of hills have such legends of hollow cores or subterranean chambers, but the May Hill one has some historical basis. There are several early references to a chamber called Crockett's Hole on the east side of the hill, though finding any trace of it today is a bit of a challenge. It was very possibly used as a hidey-hole for those escaping the persecutions of Queen Mary, which may also be the source of a legend (popular in the 17th century) that there was treasure stashed in it. Needless to say all those who have gone looking for it over the last few centuries have come away empty handed. I'm more inclined to believe in faeries than in buried treasure, but there you go.

The antiquarian delights of May Hill don't ever appear to have been investigated, as far as I can see. The top of the hill sports a circular ditch around 100 metres in diameter which could be an Iron Age enclosure, but nobody really knows. It has numerous curious pits and bumps inside it which have never been excavated. Also within this enclosure is a lumpy hump which could be a round barrow, or maybe not. Yes it's all a bit vague, and there's no evidence one way or the other, so we're left to follow our inner senses. And mine tell me that this enclosure has been a special place for a very long time. It has an extraordinary atmosphere which is quite unlike any of the other Gloucestershire hilltops I've stood on. I can only describe it as a feeling of pure euphoria.

Three pictures of the central ring ditch.

In fact the atmosphere on May Hill is euphoric all over, not just in the central ring. Walking up there on a breezy day earlier this year, I was seized by an urge to spread my arms out and run along shouting "wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" The north-west side of the hilltop, which is very open and serves as a kind of processional route to the summit, is also a place of inexplicable joy. It's as if the land emanates a sense of delight, laughter, euphoria and benevolence. It's just a "wheeeeeeee!" kind of place.

Whether that has anything to do with the long held May Day traditions of celebration and fun, or whether it's something deeply inherent in the energies of the land, I can't say. But May Hill is an absolutely joyous place to be.

The nearest confirmed antiquities are to be found on the neighbouring Castle Hill, which has an ancient earthwork on the top, but even this doesn't have a confirmed date of origin. Intriguing place-names abound, such as the village of Glasshouse between May Hill and Castle Hill. All readers of Celtic mythology will get a tingle from the association of glass houses and hilltop castles – echoes of Caer Wydyr, the glass castle – though the Glasshouse name has a more mundane origin in the 16th century glass-making industry in the area. The north-west side of the hill also features a house called Glastonbury!

 May Hill pony (with blue eyes).

Geologically, May Hill is a spin-off from the Malverns rather than the Cotswolds, but its geology is made complex by a number of faultlines. It has its own "May Hill sandstone" which is much older than the limestone of the Cotswolds. In my experience the underlying rock can have a significant effect on the atmosphere of a place, and May Hill certainly has a different feel from any of its neighbours.

Faery presences? Definitely. And also an assortment of resident animals. You may see a herd of Belted Galloway cattle grazing on the hill (dark-coloured cows with a white band round the middle), and also a group of free-roaming ponies. Not quite wild, but living a fairly feral lifestyle. When I met them they were having a great time scratching themselves against the trunks of silver birch trees. Five or six ponies all blissfully scratching in unison, while another had a good roll about in the mud with all its legs in the air. But then the hill has that kind of effect on me too.

Much of the info for this post came from the excellent Longhope Village and Notable Trees websites.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Shurdington Green Man

Sometimes it's good to research a place before you visit it, to ensure you don't miss anything. But then you do lose out on the element of surprise. I had no idea there was a green man in Shurdington church, despite living about 3 miles from it for much of my life. I even managed to visit the church once before without noticing it, but as I didn't have my camera with me I decided to go back and photograph a few bits on another occasion. I just looked up at the ceiling to admire the red and gold roof bosses, and YOOOWWWW! There he was.

Because he blends in with the wood of the beam in the shadowy rafters high above the nave, but is several feet lower than the decorative fleurons on the ribs of the vaulted ceiling, you can look right past him without seeing him until he suddenly snaps into focus and gives you a jolt. Very possibly this optical illusion was deliberate on the part of the medieval craftsmen who stuck him there.

Then again, you can see traces of red paint around his nose and mouth, and at some point he may have been painted all over, so it's not clear whether he's meant to be this subtle.

The Shurdington green man in context, looking down into the nave from the middle of a crossbeam.

I've mentioned in a previous post that the symbol of the green man is more complicated – and more simple – than modern perception gives him credit for. Usually seen as an incongruous pagan interloper in a Christian setting, either as a symbol of the church's dominance over old superstitions (if you're a Christian) or of the enduring survival of natural religion (if you're a pagan), he is really a universal figure who doesn't need to be polarised in this way. Reducing him to a "fertility" figure is also doing him a bit of a disservice, as he's more than just the face of Beltane bonking. He's the impulse for growth which courses through every green and living thing. He may look unChristian to our modern eyes, but to the earlier inhabitants of an agricultural community, as Shurdington was in days of yore, he would not seem out of place in their church at all.

The Hatherley aisle in Shurdington church, built for the inhabitants of Hatherley when they didn't have a church of their own. Strangely, it appears to have a Norman doorway on the left, which must have been moved from somewhere else because this aisle wasn't added until the 14th century. The outside of this door has what appears to be Victorian pseudo-Norman decoration around it.

Shurdington church is worth a visit anyway, for various antique delights it offers. It's tucked away down a side street with loads of parking space, and a footpath out the back of the churchyard leads to a lovely trek over the fields. The church itself is Norman in origin, and although it only has a handful of surviving Norman features, and fairly plain ones at that, the atmosphere is quite something. In my experience of going round old churches I find huge differences in the feel of them; some are "alive", while others are practically dead, and seem to have minimal spiritual buzz even if they are well kept and regularly used. I don't know why this is, but I notice it a lot. And Shurdington church is very much alive, thrumming with a sense of something very sacred. A trait which it shares with its neighbouring church of Badgeworth, a similarly compelling place.

The church has a 13th century pointy chancel arch, and I rather like the way it's offset so that the view down to the east window is lopsided. The chancel has been mucked about by the Victorians, but they haven't spoilt its atmosphere or character too much, other than sticking a load of angels in it, as was their wont. In the nave there is a nice old font carved with quatrefoils and leaves.

The font is 14th century, as is the top ring of its pedestal, as both are carved from a single block of stone. But the lower section is older – thought to be 13th century. The mason who made the font bowl must have copied the design of the earlier pedestal and extended it to two tiers. It appears to be a good match at first, until you look at the detail of the carved columns and see the difference in style.

The most dramatic feature on the outside of the church is unquestionably its broach spire, which is incredibly tall and slender and dates from the 14th century. You can see it poking up quite distinctively as you're driving around the Shurdington area or walking in the Cotswolds. It has two dates carved into it: 1797 and 1894. Both of which are the dates of major repairs. A spire of this size, not surprisingly, has been zapped by lightning more than once.

On the south (well, obviously) wall is a rather nice sundial, set at a slight angle because the orientation of the church is a bit "off" the cardinal points. It bears the name of Rich[ard] Gwinneth, and the date 1655. The Gwinneths or Gwinnets were a prominent local family at that time and owned Badgeworth Manor. Sundials are more precise than most clocks when they're set up properly, as they work from the movement of the planet – and this one recorded the time of my visit pretty accurately, except for the fact that it does GMT all year round, so it's an hour slow in the current BST period. It is similar in style to the sundial at Badgeworth (dated 1645), which has lost its gnomon and is now kept inside the church, and which has the indignity of a crudely corrected spelling mistake where the stonemason got the donor's name wrong.

Shurdington: Church, School and Village (parish guidebook, no date)
A.C. Fryer, 'Gloucestershire Fonts, Part 8', Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1916, Vol. 39.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chad Well, Twyning

Twyning (pronounced Twinning) is derived from the Saxon 'tweoneum' and 'ingas', which roughly translates as "between place". And that's exactly what it is, a "between place" formed by two conjoining major rivers, the Severn and the Avon, which flow together (often with copious flooding) a couple of miles further south at Tewkesbury.

There are several River Avons in the UK but this one is the 'Warwickshire Avon' which flows through Shakespeare's home town. I find it somewhat softer and greener and more friendly than the Severn.

The River Avon, close to the site of the Chad Well.

Twyning is a pretty place and is a large parish in two parts, with its church forming the centre for a kind of sub-village (called Church End) a mile or so south of the main village of Twyning Green. It also has a holy well, not in either of the two villagey bits but in a quite isolated location on the bank of the River Avon. This well is an unassuming and even somewhat neglected feature, about which very little is really known, although it's old enough to get its name in blackletter script on the Ordnance Survey map. There are no signposts to it but it's easily found if you take a walk southwards along the river bank from the Fleet pub in Twyning village, and is recognisable by the square section of post-and-rails fencing around it. Unfortunately it isn't possible to access it any closer than this fence, but you can see the logic in keeping it enclosed, otherwise somebody would certainly get an accidental dunking. It's flush with the surface of the field and quite well camouflaged with grasses.

The Chad Well is inside the square fenced-off area (top right) and flows out into the River Avon from a pipe underneath this log.

Generally called Chad Well, it's also known as St. Chad's Well and is clearly named after the 7th century missionary St. Chad of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of York and of Lichfield whose name (a British-Celtic name rather than a Saxon one) is attached to a great number of healing wells. Indeed he has become something of a patron saint for holy wells. The well is circular and about 2ft in diameter and 1ft deep, rimmed with stone. It comprises a capped spring, with the stone basin collecting the water which is then piped underground to the bank of the Avon.

The well, looking rather unsaintly with algae, nettles and a plastic bottle.

 Detail of the rim which is built from stone blocks. I don't know how old this stonework is.

During the 20th century the Chad Well became very neglected and by the mid 1980s it appeared to be nothing more than a patch of wet mud with a few barbed wire entanglements (see here for photos). Around 1987 it was cleared out and restored. These days it has become a bit overgrown with weeds and as you can see, has had some litter chucked in it. But it does still have a flow of water through it and underneath the layers of gunk it is still very bright and clear. Its outflow sploshes out a few yards to the east, through a pipe, and straight into the River Avon. The outflow is one place where you can access the water directly, though I can't vouch for how clean it is these days. I have a little self-anointing ritual I do with wells and springs but it doesn't involve taking the waters internally. Beware also of ferocious boot-sucking mud around the outflow site.

The outflow

Unsubstantiated local legends claim that St. Chad personally blessed the well as he was passing through on his way to Bristol. It may possibly be true, as he had a monastic cell at Pershore, which is not all that far away, and holy wells were often set up as points for baptism around and about the area. But dedications of wells to St. Chad are very common all over the country, and not necessarily an indication that he had anything to do with them. Chad apparently had a penchant for meditating while immersed naked in a freezing cold well in Lichfield (don't knock it till you've tried it) and as such he has become strongly associated with wells in a very general way. It's particularly common for healing wells to be named in his honour. Dr Bruce Osborne suggests that Chad Well may simply be a corruption of 'cealdwiella', meaning 'cold well'. But he also puts forward the idea that Chad's patronage of sacred wells is a Christianisation of the Celtic/Norse deity Ceadda, a god or goddess (gender is uncertain) of wells and springs. This I do find intriguing, because the name is strikingly similar to Cuda, a local Celtic goddess of Cotswold rivers and springs.

Either way, the bottom line is that the dedication to Chad may not indicate anything very much, other than that the waters had medicinal properties. Chad Well at Twyning was considered to be effective for eye disorders in particular, and also for skin complaints, with leprosy included on the list of conditions it was recommended for!

Church of St Mary Magdalene, Twyning 

The reasons for this healing holy well being established where it is, an isolated spot some distance from Church End, the oldest part of Twyning parish, are lost in the mists of time. But Twyning is a place which has been settled from earliest times, showing evidence of continuous human activity from the Neolithic period through the Bronze and Iron Ages, Roman and Saxon times. Its location between two big rivers was a good natural defence, and the confluence of rivers had a spiritual significance to the pre-Roman Britons, although there's no surviving evidence of a Celtic temple here. There was, however, a church of some kind as far back as the 7th century, i.e. St. Chad's time, and it had become established as a fairly important minster by the 8th century. The present church of St. Mary Magdalene was built in the late 11th century, though with a lot of subsequent alterations and rebuildings. The Victorians stamped their meddling misguided zeal on it, but nevertheless there are still parts of it which are original and the north wall features some reused Norman decorated stonework. It's likely that the church was built directly on the site of the former Saxon minster.

The main village, Twyning Green, with a road leading down to the river (and Chad Well)

Armstrong, B.E., A Short History and Guide to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Twyning, Gloucestershire (church guide, 2002 edition).
Holy Wells and Water Lore forum, which includes some interesting photos taken in 1986-7.
Twyning Parish Council website has some info about St. Chad.
Online paper by Dr Bruce Osborne on St Chad: Patron Saint of Medicinal Springs.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


When William Capel inherited a fine historic Jacobean manor house on the wooded rolling slopes of the Stroud Valley in 1842, he did what any rich, assertive young Victorian squire would have done. He demolished it and had it rebuilt in a fashionable neo-Gothic style.

He was an extremely wealthy landowner and landlord of many houses and cottages all around the Painswick and Stroud area. He was a powerful Tory and a County Magistrate, one time High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, and he built the imposing and dominant house not just as his residence but as a fitting emblem of his status. What he didn't know, as he sat in his luxurious living room quaffing his port and peering through the mullioned windows at the expanse of his copious estate, was that the door-frames and skirting boards all around him were filled with secret messages.

It's impossible to know exactly how the site, now run as Hawkwood College, would have looked through the ages. At the time William Capel inherited it – just one of a family line who lived in the house for centuries – it was known as The Grove and occupied its beautiful position as part of a substantial estate. During the 17th century the house was owned by a family called Mayo, and when their surviving heir was a girl, Hester, who married one Samuel Capel in 1700 and bought out her sisters' shares in the estate, the family name changed but the genetic line continued. It's unclear who built the Jacobean manor house but traces of medieval stonework have turned up which indicate an earlier origin for the site. I'd always understood that there was a monastery (or more likely, a small religious cell) there at one time, but so far no evidence has been found to support this. Other than the occasional psychic impressions of visitors, who have been known to 'see' cowled figures mooching about the grounds, even when they didn't have any previous knowledge of the monastery story.

I'd go a step further and say that the Hawkwood College site has the feel of having been a sacred place throughout time. It has the most extraordinary atmosphere, and is quite unlike any other place I've known. It has a focused and contained kind of energy, as if its sanctity is insulated from the outside world, and when you're inside it you feel as though anything is possible.

The building, which feels as magically charged as the land it sits on, is perched on a ledge in the landscape underneath a slope covered by woodland. It has a magnificent view to the south over the meadows to the town of Stroud and beyond (the clod-hopping white bulk of the new SGS College campus notwithstanding – how did they get planning permission for that?) and the adjacent Cotswold scarp, and if you go and stand on the top of the Toots long barrow on Selsley Common you can clearly see Hawkwood across the valley with its distinctive Gothic gables. On the lawn beside the house there rises a spring, whose cool bright chalybeate loveliness flows steadily throughout the year (when I was younger I used to take it home in bottles and make wine with it – it's wonderful stuff – makes a lovely cup of tea too).

Immediately beside the spring is a mammoth, venerable sycamore tree. This tree has its own spring welling up underneath it, and the thick roots of the sycamore form a basin in which a little pool of water stands, lightly strewn with leaves. It's a scene straight from the legend of Gereint and Enid in the Mabinogion, where a sycamore stands beside a spring in an enchanted garden. I wouldn't like to speculate how old the tree is (at least 300 years, I'm told, and probably older, which is unusual for a sycamore), or whether the spring was ever considered a holy well, but standing beside it the whirly churning feeling in your stomach tells you that this is a very special place indeed. The Hawkwood double spring has a very special active-passive energy, one spring gushing out over the land and the other gently enclosed by a naturally formed well.

William Capel is shown in the 1841 census in his early 30s and living with his mum in what must then have been the Jacobean manor house. He was still unmarried at the time and in fact didn't marry until later life. He's described in the following census as a Magistrate and Proprietor of Land, Farming 500 Acres. Among his domestic staff, in 1871, can be found a young man called William Gurney, who lived in the house as a domestic servant. He came from Maisemore and was in fact Ivor Gurney's uncle!

Presumably it was when William Capel's mum passed away that he decided to knock down the ancestral home. A few bits of stonework from the older house still survive, but the rebuilding was substantial, and he also had some new cellars added. The Gothic design of the building is very much the style of the classic Cotswold manor house and built from beautiful honey-coloured local ashlar. There are some beautiful decorative details, like this foliate head – which may be a green man but probably more likely a lion or similar beastie.

Among the skilled craftsmen employed to work on the rebuilding of the house was a carpenter and joiner named William Clifton. He was born in Chipping Norton on or around 24th January 1816, and after serving an apprenticeship in Witney, spent the rest of his life in Tetbury, where he married the daughter of another carpenter. In 1843, at the age of 27, he was working at The Grove (Hawkwood) where he was responsible for much of the decorative woodwork around door frames and skirting boards. We know this because he signed and dated many of the fixtures before fitting them in place.

A number of intriguing pieces of wood with pencil scribbles on the back have been coming to light over the last 40 years or so in the course of repairs and alterations. But the extent and detail of it only became clear a couple of years ago, when a burst mains water pipe in the upper part of the house caused a devastating flood in the downstairs sitting room. In the course of clearing up the damage, the skirting boards were taken off and revealed the prevalence of William Clifton's literary endeavours – and his political views.

"Down with Kings and Queens and the Aristocracy and all Tyrants". One of William Clifton's secret messages, written on the back of a chunk of wood which lay hidden within the house for 168 years.

 This piece is signed "Wm Clifton Chipping Norton" (his birthplace, although he lived in Tetbury) and is dated 1843. The two slogans read "Down with Kings and Queens" and "Universal Suffrage for ever".

Like many working class people in the 1840s, William Clifton was a Chartist. Some of his slogans include direct references to the Chartist movement, others refer more generally to its principles. One of them was signed "He who has no voice in the making of Laws by which he is governed is a Slave. William Clifton".  I don't know how he felt about his employer William Capel and whether he had him in mind when he condemned the ruling classes – Capel was a respected man in society, but what kind of person he was and how he treated his staff is much harder to know – but Clifton was performing a powerful act of talismanic magic in hiding such fiery sentiments under the boards of a country squire's house.

And in its way, his magic worked, even if it took its time. The last of the Capel dynasty died in 1932, and the house and its somewhat diminished estate was sold to a bloke called Colonel Murray. Murray was a bit of a military history fanatic, and it was he who rechristened the house Hawkwood – named after his hero, the 14th century mercenary Sir John Hawkwood. A few years later it was sold to Roland and Lily Whincop, who founded an adult education college there based around the principles of Rudolf Steiner.

William Clifton didn't live long enough to encounter the work of Steiner; he died in Tetbury in March 1872 at the age of 56. But he would probably have been pleased with what the house has turned into: a socially and environmentally responsible college which anybody can attend for education or spiritual refreshment – with the landed proprietor and the class system of unbalanced social power long gone. He also didn't live to see the introduction of universal suffrage, the cause in which he believed so passionately, although one of the succession of "Reform Acts" in the Victorian era may possibly have granted him a right to vote in 1867 when suffrage was extended to include skilled working class men (prior to that, you had to be an owner of property to have the vote). But universal suffrage didn't find its way into British statute until 1918.

Hawkwood remains an incredibly special place. As well as its education programme it provides a venue for all kinds of creative and spiritual groups, and was the scene of Gareth Knight's legendary ritual workshops during the 1980s. The Gareth Knight Group was founded in its dining room in 1973, and still meets at Hawkwood today. And if you're among those who encounter one of the strange presences that are occasionally seen or heard in the upper rooms and corridors of the house, don't be alarmed, just remember that it's a place where the walls are full of magic.

With special thanks to Dave James, Head of Maintenance at Hawkwood College, who provided much of the historical information and kindly allowed me to photograph his collection of door jambs.