Sunday, July 9, 2017

Dowsing at Thorn Hill crop circle, East Kennett

Crop circle visit on 3rd July 2017
The Thorn Hill formation in green wheat was one week old when I went there with my friend Marvin Naylor who has been visiting crop circles for a long time. It was all a much newer experience for me. I didn't know what to take with me and it was only really on a whim that I chucked a dowsing rod into my camera bag on the way out the door. I thought that dowsing a crop circle might be complicated by the fact that you don't necessarily know what responses are related to the formation itself and what was already there in the landscape before it was formed. But in practice, I found it was relatively easy to tell. Both the crop circles we visited today had their own localised energy spots which related to specific features of their design, and these spots produced a more decisive response from the dowsing rod than I'd normally get if I was dowsing randomly about the countryside. Telluric energies which belong to the landscape tend to have some flow or movement, often changing direction on some kind of cycle. The 'energies' (or whatever they were) in the crop circles seemed to be a bit more static. Or at least I got no obvious sense of movement from them. What happens to them after the crop circles are harvested is a question I can't answer for the moment! But there was enough dowsable stuff going on in them to make it well worth the experiment.

We walked to Thorn Hill straight from the nearby Boreham Wood formation, as the two are very close together – at least as the crow flies. If you're not a crow and you have to walk there along roads and paths then it's a more considerable distance, but still perfectly walkable. Despite their physical proximity, I didn't get any sense of the two formations being connected (just my own impression, and I make no claims beyond that). They had very different vibes. At Boreham Wood I was seized by a giddy euphoria and was so delighted to be there that I found it very hard to leave. Thorn Hill was also friendly, but not in the same way – it felt more serious and sedate, and seemed to command respect rather than generating any emotions. It occurred to me that they might feel different simply because the Thorn Hill one has been there for longer, but there is only a few days' difference between them.

One thing about the Thorn Hill formation is its lovely location. It sits in the hollow of a small valley formed by a long ridge on either side. When you're in it, there's a sense of being enclosed within a gently scooped out curved landscape (something which doesn't come across easily when viewing aerial photos, where the field looks flat). The high ground on either side means that whichever side you approach from you get a lovely view of the formation and can see its overall shape fairly well. It's not, however, visible within the wider landscape – you have to be on one of the ridges immediately next to it in order to see it.

This was demonstrated to us very clearly because a series of bizarre irrational thought processes (mostly on my part) meant that we managed to go completely the wrong way along the wrong track and for a while we had no idea where the formation was, until we came to the edge of the ridge and suddenly saw it down below. Although it was quite a trek, it is a beautiful way to stumble across a crop circle, so I've no complaints. Walking along the top of the ridge we were surrounded by butterflies everywhere – meadow browns and marbled whites – with the air full of the sound of skylarks. Plus a view of Silbury Hill which helped to put the whole landscape in context.

The only thing that interrupted the rural idyll was a drone which turned up while we were sitting in the middle of the formation. It came rushing in with a whining lawnmower noise and spent some time hovering directly over our heads. Now that is a weird experience, being out in the fields with nobody else around and suddenly finding yourself being photographed from above by a remote-controlled camera – not knowing who is watching you or where they are. So now I'm looking at all the drone footage I can find of the Thorn Hill formation, trying to see if any pictures have got us in them!

Our first view of the crop circle from the west side after the ... er ... slight detour.

And from the opposite side, the Ridgeway path on the east side. Those glowing green blobs are lens flare, before anyone asks. Though they do look quite evocative.

The formation consists of three circles along a central bar, with the circle at either end half enclosed by a curved outline, like a mudguard around a bicycle wheel. The middle circle is smaller than the other two and has a dot in the centre. This dot (formed by a small standing clump of wheat) feels like it's the primary focal point of the formation. There's some kind of polarity thing going on with the two larger circles at either end but it's not a simplistic case of one being masculine and one feminine or whatever – it's more subtle than that. Both poles can be taken interchangeably, as long as they're in balance. This was brought home to me partly by the way the formation is placed in the landscape, where you can view it from either side and it doesn't look much different either way, neither side being more 'the right way up' than the other. And when I was taking photographs in a circle at one end or the other I would often look up and find that Marvin was in the other circle down the opposite end. It happened a few times, though we weren't doing it consciously.

Even if the formation has an 'either way up' kind of vibe to it, that's not to say that the two main circles are the same, either in their design or their energy. They're not. The circle at the southern end, nearest the trees, comprises three concentric rings, all made from flattened crop but laid in different directions to make a distinctive pattern of its own. The outer ring is swirled clockwise. The next one is laid radially, with the heads of wheat facing outwards and just touching the edge of the outer ring. And the inner ring is clockwise again, with a flat rosette in the very centre. From the air this gives a beautiful two-tone effect so it almost looks as if the three rings are embroidered onto the landscape. At ground level you're more struck by how beautifully tidy the outlines are, and how the evenly flattened crop has been laid in different directions with such precision.

My attempt to draw the Thorn Hill design.

This southern circle was the first part of the formation we entered when we arrived and it immediately made me feel a bit light-headed and disorientated – though not in an unpleasant way. There were a few occasions when I struggled to keep my balance while walking about in this circle, and at one point, walking along a tramline, I almost fell over as if somebody had given me a sideways push. Every dowser is familiar with that "shoved sideways" experience, which is a weird sensation when it happens but is quite common when dowsing ancient monuments. I didn't actually have a dowsing rod in my hand when it happened, but it was very much the same phenomenon.

When we did dowse this circle there was no response over any of the concentric rings but we did get a strong upward ('positive') response in the very centre, over the swirled rosette.

The central swirl in the southern circle. The small patch of bare earth in the middle was the one place where we got a dowsing reaction.

The other circle at the northern end of the formation is the same size but a different design. It has a single wide ring of flattened crop, exquisitely laid in a clockwise direction, plus a central ring where the crop has been left standing (intersected by a pair of tramlines). Dowsing over the centre area is a bit more of a challenge here because the standing crop is in the way, so I'm mostly left with just my own impressions. I had none of the disorientation here which I felt in the southern circle, and not much impression of anything else in particular, except perhaps for a sense of movement around the circle – almost a desire to run around it, which would not actually be possible because the linear bar along the axis of the formation blocks the way and prevents you from going full circle. In fact the access to the curved outer semicircle is also blocked at this end of the formation, so you have to walk the long way round to get to it, unlike the other end where you can walk into it freely – a subtle difference between the two halves of the design which I only really noticed after I got home.

The circle at the northern end, looking southwards, with the circle of standing corn in the middle.

This picture shows how the linear axis of the formation forms a continuous line which joins up to the central circle of standing wheat.

And this view from slightly further back shows the outline of the semicircle which curves around the outside of the circle. The two halves of the semicircle are separated by an unbroken line of standing crop, so in order to get from one side to the other you have to walk all the way round the inside of the circle. That's not the case at the other end of the formation, where the other semicircle has a continuous path and can be walked around freely.

Then there's the smaller circle in the centre of the formation. Unlike the two circles at either end, the crop here is laid in an anticlockwise direction, and fully flattened apart from a single clump in the centre which appears as a dot in aerial photos. Dowsing over the central tuft gave a 'positive', upwards response with the dowsing rod, and I could feel it twitching and tugging as I approached it, even from several feet away.

The central clump is looking a bit windswept now but you can see the swirled ring of flattened stalks wrapped closely around the base of it.

The outer edge of the central circle.

It's worth saying something about the alignment with the landscape. First there's the curvature of the surface of the field, which is like this:

I do find it amazing that the pattern looks so crisp and perfect in aerial photos when the field is not actually flat. The formation lies along the bottom of a valley with a very gentle slope. The field only has a slight curve but it's enough to curve the lines of the formation, as the photo shows.

The other thing the photo shows is the efficiency with which they've made use of the tramlines. The linear section which makes the axis of the design is formed very simply by the standing crop between two tramlines – giving it two ready-made straight edges. That's the essential structure, and everything else has been lined up around it. So then you realise that the alignment is not quite perfectly placed at the lowest point of the valley, it's actually lined up on the nearest tramlines. As a result the whole formation has a very slight tilt towards the east.

Super-efficient use of tramlines as a design feature

As I said, I didn't specifically set out to do a dowsing survey here today so it was just a spontaneous experiment, and we ended up making an impromptu video. Here you can see me dowsing the centre of the southern circle and then finding various responses along one of the tramlines, corresponding with gaps and other features in the formation. Most of the responses are upward but when I got to the northern circle I started getting downward reactions instead. I'm using a V-rod or spring rod made from two bendy plastic rods bound together at one end – an adaptation of the traditional 'forked twig' divining rod. The idea is to bend it outwards into a V-shape so that it's held in a state of unstable tension, and then find a neutral position where it's balanced in a horizontal position but can very easily spring in either direction (up or down). Very often I feel it tugging or twitching just before it reacts, but some of the reactions here are more sudden and localised.

So what is it I'm picking up here? I'm not entirely sure at the moment. But one of the things I often find while dowsing is the presence of entrances and gateways. For example if I'm dowsing on a site where there was formerly a building I can usually pick up the location of a doorway or boundary even though there's nothing visible there on the surface. These reactions felt very similar to that – so my working hypothesis is that the Thorn Hill formation is full of energy spots which act as entrances or gateways in some way. Which doesn't seem unreasonable. What is a crop circle if it's not a gateway?

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.