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.

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 asperg├Ęs, 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 asperg├Ęs?! 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).