Arguably the most common understatement of the current crisis. I use this expression a lot, to summarise my own sense of unreality at this time of lock down. Of course, there are other expressions…
The coronavirus outbreak has anchored many of us to our home: the place we ‘live’ in, the place where we must stay, for now, and where many of us find new ways to organise our days, ways to mark and pass the time.
For the last few weeks I have been deeply entrenched in the twelfth-century, researching and writing for my MA thesis, specifically the surviving literature of a Welsh Marches cleric, his potential sources and the later impact on folklore from these parts. This is for my MA thesis. I have emerged, for now, gasping for blue skies and spring green. But my wanderings and fieldwork have been scuppered, tailored into a close fit and limited to the ‘Hill’ upon which we live and where I search for other narratives to taste and explore.
Years ago, I started researching my family history. This was before the internet and online access to relevant material. Me and my mum travelled to many places, Scotland, the Black Country, the Welsh Marches and rural Warwickshire, leafing through documents and ledgers, making notes in pencil, chasing dead ends but sometimes rainbows. It opened a door to a very personal past, fuelling an existing interest in social and rural history. Old records, census’s, tithe maps can be very revealing, windows (if sometimes grimy), into past lives. Every place has a story and every life lived is a story ….game keepers, silk weavers, merchants, farm workers, all have once walked the same rooms as I have over the years. Now we live in a cottage where John the shoe maker and his family once lived. I have always felt that every dwelling has a sense of it’s past and through this a sense of ‘place’ in our own personal history, whether we live on a hill, in a flat, city, farm, tower block, squat, tent, caravan. The land, the people, the creatures who strive to survive in our wake, all are part of that story.
Today, I want to tell you about my regular walk with the ever restless Dan who, even as I write, is waiting by the door. It is along an old hollow-way, a good example of a seemingly ordinary, but pretty little walk. It runs straight for the most part, sometimes deeply between old trees and hedges, sometimes upwards and open with views to the east down towards the Severn valley. It is a priceless wildlife corridor in this agricultural landscape and we have seen badger, hare, fox, muntjac and stoat along it’s path on occasion with many birds flying through including buzzards, ravens, kites, yellowhammers, and chiff chaff, blackbird, wood pigeon, crow and thrush. A little digging, amongst local records, books and maps has illuminated some of it’s history which spans hundreds of years.
John Leyland, the sixteenth-century antiquarian, wrote that these hills, where we live, are the ‘most holy in Shropshire’. I have found no particular reason for this statement but there are several Iron Age enclosures (and evidence of earlier Bronze Age barrows) here indicating there has been a long period of occupation in these ‘blue remembered hills’. There is further suggestion that an important settlement once existed here: villages on four sides of our hill have taken their names from a larger hub or ‘tun’, named accordingly as being east, west, south and north of the main enclosure. There is also a piece of land called castle covert. There is no surviving written evidence of a castle on the hill, or reference to one. In 1841 ‘several stone circles’ were recorded but if they existed they are long gone. The hills have been quarried and mined for hundreds of years, destroying much of the enclosures in the removal of coal and stone extraction, leaving a confusion of remains spanning at least two thousand years. There are also stories and legends, some carrying familiar motifs and references found throughout Britain, others more unusual. The people were very superstitious ( one should never pass by a black feather without picking it up….) and had a reputation for having very ‘strange’ ways. My husband was warned as a boy about the people over here! ‘Witches’ were reputed to live in the lonely valleys and the gypsies told of fairies up amongst the oak and ash woods keeping them awake, dancing and playing their fiddles. Giants walked here. The ‘Giant’s Chair’ can still be seen, a huge seat of stone from which he fired an arrow of stone onto our neighbouring hill. It’s shaft (aptly named the Giant’s Shaft) can still be seen in the form of a fallen standing stone on the higher slopes.
The main road has only been there since the 1800’s. Previously, people connected via a number of ancient trackways, some still visible and one thought to be an ancient route connecting the old Iron Age enclosures. ‘Our’ trackway, or hollow-way, seems to have connected our ‘village’ with other settlements. There are great expansive views towards the great Midland Plain, a good vantage point from which to watch for invaders. Here the Saxons built a chain of look outs to watch for Danish invaders coming from the crossing point over the Severn at nearby Bridgnorth as they advanced west. Later came the Normans came, with stone and fire, building abbeys and castles, uniting communities through an ecclesiastical and powerful web. Our settlement was linked to the Cistercian abbey at Buildwas, miles away on the banks of the Severn .
From these shadows our trackway emerges, perhaps from even deeper shades (there is evidence of a Roman station). It certainly seems to have connected the focal points of the medieval village, the churches, eventually leading to the old administrative centre a few miles away. Still designated a public footpath, it is underused, not maintained and sometimes impassible. It requires some ‘creative’ thinking to navigate in places.
Today the sun is glorious. Our route starts very close to an old ruined church. Built in the twelfth-century, the little church use to serve the local community until the nineteenth-century. The roof was removed and it was allowed it to fall into disrepair. Those up at ‘the big house’ were going for the ‘picturesque’ look as was fashionable and built a much bigger, grander church to replace it. The old church is tucked behind an old farmhouse thought to be the original manor and surrounded by a cluster of old cottages and a farm. When I moved here the little church could be seen quite clearly but ivy and general neglect are returning the stones to the hill and a more natural state.
After the cottages the track is inaccessible and we continue into a field and pass an old oak and it’s colony of honey bees. These wild bees have been here for several years now and we like to think they came from a swarm from one of our own hives close by. We are so chuffed that this wild colony had survived after such a mild damp winter this year. Today they are flying in and out like missiles, laded with pollen, likely from oil seed rape. Bees will fly past beautiful dandelion and willow to gather this clumsy bounty (it makes rather heavy honey) As I watch them Dan waits upfield by the gate where there are fine views on a clear day. Sometimes you can see the Cotswold Edge and the Malverns, peeping over the trees. We walk on. Badger, hare and fox all strive to survive in this heavily agricultural landscape, peppered by small and industrial size shoots and hunts. Today the ‘guardians of the countryside’ are burning brash from tree felling. Buzzards are out, yellowhammers, chiff chaffs… The swallow haven’t arrived yet but any day now….
Today we can only go so far due to lockdown, almost to the next settlement, but even this short span can reveal its past, even by close observation: streams straightened due to enclosure; boundaries marked by Saxon Merestones, now parish boundaries; pollarded oak and willow, providing habitat and sanctity; the farm workers skills preserved in the layered branches of the hawthorn hedge. Over the field we can see a recently layered hedge, using similar skills but also machinery. And remember to look down at your feet! Night soil, spread on the fields as fertiliser, often contained other kinds of human waste, pottery, bits of glass. I recently found a piece of clay pipe, seventeenth-century, made within living memory of the Civil War and the Siege of Bridgnorth! But I don’t think this came from night soil: I think the recent floods carried it down from somewhere. There are easy to date as the design is quite specific. Most areas would have had local pipe makers but some became very famous such as Broseley down near Ironbridge in the Severn valley.
As we walk in the hot spring sun it is easy to muse about those who once trampled along here before us, maybe with sheep, ox, horse, wares to sell, sermons to preach. And the shadows of the Marchers lords whisper in the shade. This land was divided amongst the barons, who employed men to use the people to farm and plough and fight. This was Mortimer country, cruel and brutal. Yet life went on. Margery, daughter of Peter the Weaver lived here in 1316, the time when the Welsh revolted against Edward II. Did she carry her father’s cloths along this path? What did she know of the revolt? Also, William Holland, who shone so brightly for Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field in 1485 that he was given land here. Did he ride between villages on business or pleasure?
We will never know but we know they were here. And we turn and walk back the way we came, scanning for swallows, thankful for the primroses and the promise of hares.
Few places are completely void of human occupation and interference in these islands. Peter, Margery and William can all found in local records. I have found much of the above out from books and local referencing but much can be found online. I have added a few links below. But for me I love going to the books. The local library often have really good local history sections and can be really helpful. I hope it will inspire you to find out a little where you live while you are waiting to spread your wings again…I would love to hear what you find out!
There is always the caveat that we come to history with an open mind as those writing it often had their reasons, as do the compilers of websites today…it is to the shadows that we must lean and dream….there we can find the ordinary folk who lived where we do now.