I submitted my thesis a few weeks ago and I miss my daily journeys into the murk and dark corners of the 12th century Welsh Marches. So, on feeling the need to escape for a few hours, away from Covid, Brexit and my woodsman husband’s looming redundancy, myself and Dan saddled up and journeyed over The Hill. It was a clear and sunny morning in late October and we headed north in search of a glimpse of the medieval past. I knew just the place to find it in the tiny village of Holdgate in Shropshire.
Holdgate is from the Old French, loosely meaning ‘the castle of a man called Helgot’. This man called Helgot was originally from Normandy, a sub tenant of Roger of Montgomery (first Earl of Shrewsbury, d. 1094, friend of William the Conqueror ). It is recorded that in 1086 Helgot held local estates for Roger and Holdgate became one of the Earl’s main residences. This whole area was once heavily fortified, in part because there was a fierce resistance to the invading Normans by the Saxons who joined forces with the Welsh against them. This was the time of Eadric Wild and his savage campaign along the Marches of Wales as his lands were seized by the conquerors. Eadric was a local hero and survives in folktales: he married a fairy and sleeps under the Stiperstones, sometimes riding with the Wild Hunt but that is another story.
In 1284, the manor became the property of the Lord Chancellor of England, Bishop Burnell. Robert Burnell had acted as regent when Henry III died in 1272 and was Chancellor for Edward I. By this time Holdgate village, complete with its church, castle and secular college, was of considerable size and significance, not least due to its important strategic position above the broad valley below known as the Corve Dale. This valley was part of an important communications route between the Welsh frontier and the West Midlands running between from Much Wenlock to Stokesay.
I had wanted to visit the 12th century church at Holdgate ever since reading The Errant Hours by Kate Innes. This lively medieval novel is set in the late 13th century and features Holdgate village early in the story. It quickly immerses the reader in the precarious environs and times of medieval Britain and is a beautifully crafted story that lights up this vital period of history, illuminating its legends and folklore as well as the precarious role of women. Do read it! You can find it and Kate’s other work on this link…
Anyway, I digress…Holdgate Church. There has been a church here since at least 1086 when Helgot is first recorded here. The church we see today originated in the 12th century occupying the top of a ridge above the Corve Dale. From here there are glorious views of Brown Clee hill to the south and the wide expanse of the Corve Dale to the north towards Wenlock Edge and the Long Forest.
The church is built in one of two baileys once part of Holdgate Castle. The tower is squat and solid; 13th century stone at the bottom and 17th rebuild at the top, its pinnacles deliciously carved with crosses and knotwork. We found the door open, the inside bright with sunlight streaming through the windows, illuminating the vases of flowers from a recent harvest festival. The church has escaped many modern upgrades remaining a dignified monument to the past: 17th century box pews, 14th century porch and an old pedal organ like my great aunt use to play at the Baptist Chapel. The dusty ‘Cloister Album of Voluntaries’ on the bench had once cost 1/6d and there was a smell of beeswax polish throughout. This was a walk through centuries of other people’s lives and times, an ancient and now gentle place.
There is evidence in the church of alterations and rebuild which leave an interesting legacy for the visitor such as this piscina (for washing holy vessels) made out of a reused head of a lancet (narrow window)….
The doorway is 12th century doorway as is the font which writhes with dragons and foliage (c 1140), both representative of the Herefordshire school (think Kilpeck Church).
Dan was now whining, a sign of boredom and a need to exercise his collie brain. (he has an aversion to churches and bookshops). We wandered into the field at the back of the church, me in search of the castle, Dan in search of a stick, disturbing a buzzard which flew off, up over the Corve Dale. The castle was once of considerable size and status: three royal courts were held here and it was once held by the Knights Templar. In 1255 the barony of Holdgate is recorded as being allowed its own court and gallows, the latter probably at Gallitree Bank down the road.
Nothing stays the same. Over time Holdgate lost its strategic importance becoming just another village, subject to plague, civil war and clearance. The castle is now mostly destroyed but must have once been quite a sight, perched upon the ridge, visible for miles. Today the surviving 13th century tower and the northern wall is incorporated into the 16th century farmhouse and remains impressive. We were able to see it from the field and noted the large worked stone of the barns, presumably from the original castle. I was concerned to see that one of the lancets of the tower was bricked up with modern housing bricks but at least the tower still stands.
Haunting and thought provoking, Holdgate is another example of how much of the past can be found in the landscape, in the shadows of villages, woods and byways. By examining this past in a broad context and with patient and careful research it is possible to bring a place and its people to life, even if just for a little while. Maybe it is easier to imagine the past at this time of year as we approach All Souls Day when we remember those who have gone before us.
It was a glorious afternoon and after a packed lunch we mooched about the graveyard for a while under the watchful eyes of an old sheela na gig on the south wall. She has gazed south towards The Hill and its remnants of a much older past for 900 years since that elusive 12th century!
Eventually we headed off downhill this time towards Ludlow, leaving the past behind although there was a certain uneasy feeling as we drove passed Gallitree Bank and heard the ravens croak and caw….
For further reading:
T Rowley, The Welsh Border, Archeology, History & Landscape (2016), The History Press.
A. Mee, The King’s England, Shropshire, (1939), Hodder & Stoughton. For a gentle glimpse of quieter times.
K. Innes, The Errant Hours (2015), Mindforest Press.