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.