Saturday, March 2, 2024


Aid for the industrious

Wondering along an unfamiliar street in Hereford, I came across this arch, looking like a Jacobean relic stranded in the modern city. A little research soon revealed that it’s neither Jacobean nor stranded. It’s actually Victorian – the Victorians revived virtually every earlier British style of architecture, Jacobean included and they knew that the flattened arch, scrolls, finials, curvaceous gable and pediment would evoke the kind of architecture popular on grand country houses and other buildings from around the year 1600.

The arch makes a grand entrance to a cemetery, and its grandeur is to commemorate a once-famous Hereford man, whose charitable works helped the city’s poor. Rev. John Venn was vicar of a parish in an impoverished part of the city. Working with his sister Emelia, he founded the Society for Aiding the Industrious. Among the Venns’ and the Society’s projects were a soup kitchen to feed the hungry, a dispensary, and allotments enabling people to grow their own food. They founded a school and a children’s home, and their initiatives to provide employment included a corn mill and a model farm.

The arch harks back to a time – the Tudor and Jacobean periods – which the Victorians saw as a period of British greatness. It was the era when British explorers laid the foundation of the empire that brought the Victorians much of their wealth. So much the better that they recognised the work of a couple who focused on helping those who accrued no wealth or power from the empire, bringing education, nourishment, useful work, and better living conditions to people who needed them most.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire


Local industry

Many people visit the Cotswolds, and most of them come to see quaint limestone cottages and medieval churches, and to walk in the hills along the many waymarked footpaths, taking in stunning views of vale and hill as they go. They come for rural beauty and tranquility, but many of them end up in the most popular showcase towns and villages, from Chipping Campden to Lower Slaughter.* They find find what they’re looking for, but also sometimes what they don’t expect, like surviving evidence of past industry, from cloth-weaving to corn milling, for Cotswold sheep produced wool from which cloth was made and Cotswold people needed flour to make bread. The area is crisscrossed by fast-flowing streams that provided water power for some of these industries.

So it was at Lower Slaughter, which is mainly a stone village that also contains this former corn mill, built partly of brick. There was a corn mill here at the time of Domesday Book, drawing water power from the local stream, the River Eye. In the 18th century, the mill was rebuilt partly in brick, and at some point steam power must have taken over from water, hence the chimney. The millstones turned to grind corn into flour until 1958, when it closed, no doubt unable to compete with larger mills elsewhere. From the late 20th century until the very recently, the mill was a tourist attraction, with displays showing the history of the village and its mill and where visitors could still see the round stones that ground the corn and the other mill machinery.

Although according to online sources, corn ceased to be ground in the 1950s, I’m sure I remember visiting the mill in around 1997 or 1998 and buying a bag of flour ground there. Perhaps the flour was ground at another site belonging to the then owners? Maybe one of my readers could enlighten me. There was certainly a shop and tea room on the premises until recently.

However, the mill is now closed to tourists and its future is uncertain. But at least visitors can still see its impressive chimney and water wheel, evidence that for centuries, there was more to the Cotswolds than agriculture and quaintness. I hope the building finds new owners who can find a use for it and preserve it.

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* The name Slaughter has no macabre origins. It comes from an Old English word for ‘wet land’.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Ewelme, Oxfordshire

Take notice

There has been a lot in the news recently about the polluted state of many of Britain’s rivers. The River Wye, for example, is undergoing an ecological crisis due to the levels of phosphates in its waters, a state of affairs that has been attributed to run-off from the many intensive poultry farms near its banks.* Other rivers have enormous amounts of untreated sewage dumped into them, because Britain’s sewerage system cannot cope with the demands placed on it by an increasing population and climate change. This is a situation that needs urgent attention.

I was reminded of this by an old sign I spotted in Ewelme, when my mind was on other things (the church, the almshouses, and so on). Its message: don’t dump things in the local river, and don’t allow anything ‘injurious to health’ to run into the water from your home or business (please click on the picture for improved legibility). I don’t know how old this sign is – I’d go for a vague estimate of something like ‘early-20th century’, though it could be older. It certainly goes back to the era of admirable hand-painted lettering, which is what drew me to it before I even read what it says. Looking at it as a piece of craftsmanship, I like its bold heading and the careful italic script of the main message. I admire the trouble people took with painted signs when there weren’t computerised versions that are easy to produce – although ease of use should not be confused with the ability to come up with a visually pleasing result.

But I’ll resist getting dewy-eyed about the past. At least since the industrial revolution, people have been large-scale polluters, and there need to be both exacting laws and proper enforcement to prevent damage to the environment. The people of Ewelme, clearly, tried hard to protect their brook. Perhaps the sign was enough to make a few local malefactors think before taking the easy way with waste material. Now we need a more national, and more hard-hitting, effort to deal with our rivers and with those who pollute them. And this needs to happen soon.

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* See for example this newspaper report.

† See this, from Surfers Against Sewage.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Ewelme, Oxfordshire


God’s House

Alice de la Pole (1404–75), granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and Countess of Salisbury then Duchess of Suffolk, was a member of England’s rich and powerful upper class, who had several homes. Her favourite was at Ewelme, in Oxfordshire. Her house has gone, but the church, school, and almshouse she built remain, standing in a tight cluster above the river valley where the village grew up. The almshouse is one of the most beautiful medieval domestic buildings, consisting of dwellings for 13 residents (originally all men), who, in return for their accommodation, were tasked with praying for the souls of Alice and her family, thereby easing their benefactors’ passage through Purgatory into Heaven. In other words, this foundation was a chantry. Henry VIII abolished chantries, but in this case, although the prayers for Alice’s soul ceased, the almshouses themselves remained.

The dwellings are arranged around a quadrangle, which can be entered through several doors, one close to the church, others giving access to the gardens. My first photograph shows a magnificent brick doorway, complete with stepped gable, gothic cusped arch, and buttresses. Its a grand piece of architecture, reminding one of the building’s importance to Alice de la Pole and evoking its serious purpose as a chantry, but the houses themselves, visible to the left, are architecturally quite modest.

This combination of modesty and elaboration is also seen in the quadrangle (below). Here the structure of the building is revealed as a timber framework with brick infill, with access to the individual doors via a lean-to covered cloister onto which the nearby church tower looks down. In the middle of each range is an opening leading to the central cobbled courtyard, and lovely carved wooden Gothic arches top each of these openings, an appealing bit of decoration and visual punctuation. The resulting combination of the domestic and the holy is summed up in the name of the building: God’s House. It’s worth a pilgrimage.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Wissington, Suffolk

Emerging from the mere

Almost the first thing you see when entering the church of St Mary at Wissington* is a large wall painting of a dragon, high on the north wall. It’s dated to the 14th century and may relate to an account in a chronicle of 1405 by the monk Henry de Blaneford of St Albans Abbey. Henry tells how a dragon appeared from a mere or marshy area near Bures. It was a creature with a long body and tail, a crested head, and saw-like teeth. It was said to have killed a herd of sheep near Bures and its hard skin repelled the arrows of those who gathered to try and kill it. The chronicler goes on:

The servants of Sir Richard Waldegrave who owns the land haunted by the dragon came forth to shoot it with arrows which sprang back from its ribs as if they were metal of [or?] hard stone and from the spines of its back with a jangling as if they were hitting bronze plates, and flew far away because its skin was impenetrable. Almost the whole county was summoned to slaughter it but when it saw that it was to be shot at again, it fled into the marsh, hid in the reeds and was seen no more.

Some say that the village of Wormingford near Bures may have taken its name from the dragon or worm (the latter being an old word for a serpent or dragon).† It’s certainly true that the association of the beast with the local area has not gone away. In 2012, the Jubilee year of Queen Elizabeth II, the figure of a large dragon was cut into a hillside near Bures.

The dragon in medieval Christianity is a symbol of destructive evil, particularly the evil associated with paganism. He also represents Satan. You often find the dragon represented with St George, as part of the story in which the saint kills the evil creature. St Margaret of Antioch is another saint associated with a dragon – she escaped after being swallowed by the creature. St Michael is another dragon-slaying saint. Sometimes the dragon is seen alone as a warning against evil. The position of the creature in this painting, high up and quite near the roof, made me doubt at first that he was originally accompanied by one of the dragon-slaying saints. There is no obvious evidence of a figure near the beast, and the background of the image is confused because it seems to have been painted over an early picture. Given the legend about the Bures dragon, however, the painting carries a strong local, as well as a more general Christian, resonance.

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* Also known as Wiston

† It was originally Widermund’s or Withermund’s ford, but it’s possible that the change to Wormingford may have been due, in whole or in part, to the legend of the dragon. Ronald Blythe, who lived near Wormingford, was one advocate of the derivation from the dragon – see the excellent selection of his writings, Next to Nature (2022).

Saturday, January 27, 2024



Magic flutes

A few weeks ago I found myself talking to another author about the demise of second hand bookshops (victims of internet sales and the now-common shops that sell used books for charity) and the similar disappearance of music shops. Since we were near Oxford at the time, we spoke of a couple of music shops in the city that had disappeared. As I’d forgotten their names, my interlocutor put me right. ‘There was Taphouse’s in Magdalen street, and Russell Acott in the High Street,’ he reminded me. ‘And even a stall selling second hand records in the covered market,’ I added.

Later, I remembered that I’d actually taken some photographs of the shop front of Russell Acott’s in the High Street, because of its charming carved decoration.* How could one not taken a second, or third, look at carved musical putti blowing flutes† and playing other instruments such as the horn or the lyre? Especially when some of them are accompanied by tiny scrolls inscribed with the date of the frontage: 1912. And when they are surrounded by crisply carved foliage. And when the carver has made the putti more animated and distinctive by giving them a strong three-dimensional quality – look how the knees are set forward, the hands stick out from the surface of the carving, and the feet break out of the space between the arches.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll get the impression that I really like this kind of thing. I particularly admire the quality of the craftsmanship, the way in which the carvings fit the kind of business, the fact that this sort of thing is strictly unnecessary but the shop owner wanted their facade to be especially elegant, and the way in which the carving combines advertising with a kind of generosity – the public street was enhanced by this bit of whimsy. In my opinion, it still is.

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* This shopfront was created by Acott’s, who merged with another music business, Russell’s, in 1950. The company traded from this shop until 1998, when they moved to an out-of-town location. Russell Acott finally ceased trading in 2011, competition from online sellers meaning that when the owners retired, the business closed for good.

† Or are they piccolos?

Monday, January 22, 2024

Lavenham, Suffolk

In plain sight

Back in 2015 I read Matthew Champion’s fascinating book Medieval Graffiti and was alerted to the interesting array of ‘unofficial’ marks and inscriptions in English churches. This has inspired at least two posts on this bog – one on overlapping Vs, said to refer to the Virgin Mary (‘Virgo Virginum’, Virgin of virgns), another illustrating the outline of a human hand and some initials within a shield. A further common motif used in church graffiti is what is now widely known as the daisywheel, a series of arcs drawn within a circle, which combine to create an image resembling a six-petalled flower. When staying in Lavenham, Suffolk, just before Christmas, I was intrigued to come across such a daisywheel not in a church but on a wooden beam above a fireplace at Lavenham Guildhall.

The usual interpretation. of such marks is that they provide protection from evil spirits. In churches they are often placed near doorways or arches, suggesting that they prevent or discourage evil spirits form entering the building. Drawing a ritual protection mark above a fireplace suggests that it stops such spirits entering the building down the chimney.

Fireplaces are of course important places in a building – they’re the source of heat for comfort and cooking, of course, but in addition are focal points and symbols of the house and home, and of the people who live in the building or use it. For these reasons as well as the fact that the chimney offers a potential way in for evil forces, they’re a place to look out for protection marks in secular buildings. The famous ‘witch marks’ I have seen in a Worcestershire pub are also located in fireplaces – in this case on the hearth itself.

While the pub’s ‘witch marks’ consist of white circles made with chalk, daisywheels are usually incised into the wood or plaster. Matthew Champion suggests that they were made using the points of shears, a tool much used in the late Middle Ages when it’s thought many of these marks were made. He has tried making them with shears himself, with successful results. For centuries these marks were unregarded because they are easy to miss when one is not looking for them. Now scholars such as Champion have alerted us to their presence, more and more are being rediscovered, hiding as it were in plain sight.