Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Ruination of Wycoller



In a hidden valley, about three miles from Colne in Lancashire, lies the village of Wycoller. It was abandoned in the late 20th century, but the story of its decline began many centuries earlier.

In order to visit the village, you have to leave your car in the car park and walk down a steep path. Even before you arrive in the village, there are clues to its history and the reason for its former prosperity.


These vaccary stones can be found in fields all around the village and are reminders of when the village of Wycoller was one of five local vaccaries, specialising in cattle rearing. In the early 14th century most of the village was involved in some capacity, including the building of cattle folds and felling timber for alterations to shippons, and there are records to show that the payment for building a house for heifers was 2s 6d.

The Tudor aisled barn
The Tudor age saw the village grow richer still from the textile trade, as sheep began to replace cattle. The inhabitants combined farming with the preparation of wool, spinning, weaving, and the manufacture of clothing. A field above the village still bears the name Tenter Field, a reference to the practice of stretching cloth out on tenterhooks while it dried.

The population increased, because of the weaving work. At one point in the late 18th century, 78% of the heads of households were weavers. Such was the success of the village that there were three hatters resident in Wycoller.


Above: the medieval pack-horse bridge with, below, the signs of centuries of traffic.



But the boom could not last; handloom weavers were no match for the mills in nearby Trawden, Winewall, and Colne. Between 1820 and 1871 the population fell from around 350 to 107, and those who remained were mostly farmers.

Then, in 1890, the Colne Water Corporation announced plans to flood the village to make a reservoir. The buildings were not under threat, but nearly 200 acres of prime farmland were bought up by the Corporation. Underground water reserves were discovered and the work never went ahead, but it was too late. Wycoller became but a ghostly shadow in the valley, with buildings becoming derelict.

The main attraction in the village is the ruin of Wycoller Hall. This building seems to serve as a symbol of the history of the village. Where once it was a splendid 16th century manor house, with a magnificent fireplace, it is now a ruin, open to the elements since the late 19th century when the roof was taken off and sold.


Originally owned by the Hartley family, the hall was extended in the late 18th century by its last owner, Squire Cunliffe.


The fireplace, with an illustration suggesting how it was used
A keen gambler, Cunliffe also borrowed money against Wycoller Hall to fund the building work. He died - heavily in debt - in 1818. The property passed to his nephew Charles Cunliffe Owen, but Charles could not afford to pay off the debts and the estate was divided up among the creditors. The hall passed to a distant relative, and then to the Rev. John Roberts Oldham. The latter arranged for large parts of the stonework to be sold off to build the cotton mill at Trawden.

Wycoller is situated between Pendle and Haworth. Links with the latter are well-documented: Wycoller Hall was frequently visited by Charlotte Bronte and it was the inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre.


No such established link exists between Wycoller and Pendle, but as my companion remarked on the day we visited, it is not hard to imagine that many pedlars passed through, in the times of prosperity. Is it possible that this one passed through Wycoller at some point?


From the confession of 'Pendle Witch' Alison Device, 30th March 1612 (as recorded by Thomas Potts in Discovery of Witches, 1613): 'At which time she met with a peddler on the high-way, called Colne-field, near unto Colne: and she demanded of the said peddler to buy some pins of him; but the said peddler sturdily answered that he would not loose his pack; and so she parting with him: presently there appeared to her the black dog, which appeared unto her as before: which black dog spoke unto her in English, saying "what wouldst you have me to do unto yonder man?" Alice asked the dog what it could do and it told her it could lame the man, who, before he was gone 'forty roodes (300 yards) further, he fell down lame.'


The clapper bridge, above, has various names, which sum up the history of Wycoller: hints of a much earlier age are contained in the name Druids' Bridge, it was also known as the Hall Bridge, because it is the nearest of Wycoller's seven bridges to the hall, and it has been referred to as the Weavers' Bridge, because of the generations of handloom weavers who used it to cross the river. 

There is one, final, poignant note about this once thriving village. Just like the pack-horse bridge, the clapper bridge had a deep groove where the stone had been worn down by the journeys back and forth of the clog-wearing weavers. But in 1910 the groove was chiselled smooth by a local farmer, after his daughter had a fatal accident on the bridge.

Wycoller repays a visit. The tiny, peaceful hamlet contains within it many visual hints of a rich and varied history. Inhabited once more, nevertheless it retains a silence that respects its past and allows the visitor to sit, contemplate, and listen for the ghosts of a once lively hub of industry and trade.

For a look 'behind the scenes' click HERE  

[all photos taken by and copyright of the author]

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Harddwych Gogledd Cymru - The Beauty of North Wales Part III

In the first two parts of this tour around North Wales, we looked at Castles, Palaces and Churches. But there are many domestic dwellings of less majestic proportions to be seen, that have neither crenelation nor spire.

Close to Pwllheli, and down a track which looks like it's the ultimate road to nowhere, is the medieval house known as Penarth Fawr. A fifteenth century hall-house, it is beautifully preserved and maintained by CADW, if sparsely presented. I've been twice, and both times there was not another soul around. There is no information about who lived here, but one can get a sense of how they lived. CADW's approach to such buildings is to maintain and preserve them, without much fanfare or adornment. No furniture has been added to this property, but its emptiness and the silence of the setting triggers the imagination, even so.

Penarth Fawr - CADW

Maintained by another organisation, this time the National Trust, Ty Mawr Wybrnant is a sixteenth century stone-built farmhouse and is famous for having been the birthplace of Bishop William Morgan, who first translated the Bible into Welsh. 


Photo - Wiki commons attribution Nancy - author

Some houses of the early modern age are much grander. Gwydir Castle near Llanrwst was the home of the prosperous Wynn family, whose fortunes were at their zenith in the Tudor and Stuart era. The castle was rebuilt following the Wars of the Roses by Meredith ap Ieuan ap Robert, founder of the Wynn dynasty and a supporter of Henry VII. Gwydir claims links with the Babington Plot of 1586, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Charles I, and the aforementioned Bishop Morgan. We were lucky enough to visit after the current owners had bought back and refitted the wood panelling in the dining room which had been stripped in the 1920s and purchased by William Randolph Hearst. 


Photo by Dara Jasumani CCBY-SA 2.0

Gwydir is reputedly haunted, as is Plas yn Rhiw, on the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. The tourism literature focuses on the restoration work of the Sisters Keating, who moved there in 1939. But the house dates back to the seventeenth century. (For a while it was leased to the owners of Sizergh Castle just down the road from where I live in the Lake District.) It is suggested that Rhodri Mawr (the Great) who ruled in the 9th century, built a house near this site, and it is not unusual to find Tudor and Jacobean buildings on the sites of previous houses. Here though, no trace remains of earlier occupancy, and visitors are drawn to the gardens, and the ruined watermill therein, and the woodlands surrounding the property.


Plas Mawr - CADW
In Conwy, there are two examples of domestic dwellings. The first is Quay House, known as the smallest house in Britain, and which dates from the sixteenth century, while the second is Plas Mawr (Mawr meaning 'large' or 'great'). This was also owned by the Wynn family of Gwydir. Take a tour of the interior, which is furnished according to an inventory of 1665. Herbs hanging in the kitchen and the ornate plasterwork give a real 'feel' for how the place would have been in its heyday.

Conwy is also famous for its castle, but alongside that is the feat of Telford's engineering, the Conwy Suspension Bridge. Modern day visitors to this area wishing to traverse the Menai Strait have a choice of bridge: The Menai Bridge was also built by Thomas Telford, while the Britannia Bridge was built by Robert Stephenson, son of George.



And so we move to the Industrial era. Grand 'castles' were built by industrialists, who grew rich from the proceeds of Jamaican sugar and local Slate (Penrhyn - pictured below left) and lead mining (Bodelwyddan)


Sadly the Clogau gold mine in Bontddu near Barmouth is no longer accessible, but it is possible to visit the Inigo Jones slate works near Caernarfon which gives a full history of the slate industry and a chance to try slate carving for yourself (harder than it looks!) Take a trip to Blaenau Ffestiniog (you can go by train from Caernarfon) and witness the legacy of slate mining in the area. Or visit Parys Mountain near Amlwch on the northern coast of Anglesey to discover the history of copper mining (my own photo, below.)



A reminder of gentler industry takes the form of Melin Llynon which is a restored and fully working windmill in the centre of Anglesey (my photo, below.)


Before we leave the island at the end of this three-part tour round the area, mention should be made of Plas Newydd, a slightly grander building than the homes we began this section with.

My own photo of the house, garden and Menai Strait
It was the home of the first Marquess of Anglesey, who famously lost a leg at Waterloo. Inside there are photographs of the original family home at Beaudesert in Staffordshire, destroyed by fire. Last time I visited, the current Marquess had recently died, and had never visited Beaudesert, which the family still call home, because it would have 'broken his heart', yet the staff all go on an annual trip there, paid for by the family.

Trips and days out remain popular and the Victorians liked them too. On this tour we've already been to Trefiw, favourite of Llewelyn Fawr in the thirteenth century, but it became popular in the nineteenth, too, when the famous spa was excavated and the benefits of drinking the iron-rich water brought health-seeking gentlefolk to the area.

I apologise for any omissions; over three posts I've barely strayed beyond the confines of this map, and yet the places mentioned do not constitute an exhaustive list.

I've not had time to look at Iron Age hill forts or Roman remains, but whichever period of history you are interested in, North Wales will have something for you. Do go, if you can.

Links to Parts I & II

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Harddwych Gogledd Cymru - The Beauty of North Wales Part II

The first thing you might notice about Wales, and North Wales in particular, is that there are rather a lot of castles. They are usually lumped together as "Welsh Castles" but some are Welsh, and some are 'English'. On our first trip in 2004, we visited as many as we could. From the dark and brooding Dolwyddelan, Criccieth, Dolbardarn (all Welsh,) to the castles which formed the Iron Ring of Edward I's campaign of subjugation - Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris... But I'd like to begin this second leg of our tour of North Wales not with the castles, but with some of the places associated with the Princes of Gwynedd.


Author's own photo
Those who've read Sharon Penman's Welsh novels will be familiar with the story of Llewelyn Fawr (the Great) and his English wife, Joan (Joanna) who was the natural daughter of King John. In the church of Saint Grwst in Llanrwst lies the stone coffin, reputed to be that of Llewelyn, who died on April 11th AD1240. Over on Anglesey in the town of Beaumaris, the parish church porch houses Joan's coffin.

Like all medieval princes, Llewelyn was fairly peripatetic and one of his favourite places was his hunting lodge at Trefriw. The story goes that Joan took exception to walking up to the little chapel above Trefiw. But I can recommend that the climb rewards the effort. Services are still held in this 11th century church, and there is evidence that there has been a church here since the 6th century.

The medieval chapel at Llanrhychwyn -  author's photo
A new church was built in Trefiw in around 1230 on the site where St Mary's now stands, where stained glass windows devoted to the royal couple can be seen.
So we can visit these people in death, and see where they prayed, but can we visit where they lived? Well, yes, up to a point. The royal palace at Aberffraw is buried under a housing estate, and there is an ongoing debate as to the exact location of the palace at Abergwyngregyn. In the village there is a raised mound, which has been suggested as some kind of motte, but there is also an old manor house, Pen y Bryn,  dating back to the 17th century which, it is claimed by some, was built on the site of the former palace.

The priory at Llanfaes, where Joan was sent by Llewelyn after an indiscretion, has also long since gone. But in Newborough, the royal 'Llys' has been partially excavated. Drive round the corner too quickly and you'll miss it, in the field above the road, but it's there. Here, at Llys Rhosyr, it is possible to see the footings of the original buildings as well as the views across to the mainland.

author's own photo - Snowdonia in background
I've been to this site two or three times over the last decade and it seems to me that there has been sporadic investigation in the intervening periods, with information boards now erected, and directional stones inscribed with information about the layout of the site. (Readers of Part I of this journey through the area will remember that further along this road is the beach, which leads to Llanddwyn Island.)


Here is my photograph of one of those information boards, showing how the site might have looked. But of course, much of life was spent not in houses, but castles - the construction for which North Wales is famed.

Many of these castles belonged to the Welsh Princes, and it's believed that Llewelyn Fawr was born in an earlier building on the site of Dolwyddelan Castle, which he had built. It offers commanding views of the surrounding landscape, and part of it is still intact. For atmosphere and a feel of the past, it's hard to beat.
Dolwyddelan Castle - my father's photo, and the header for this blog
Other 'native' castles include Criccieth on the Llyn Peninsula. When I visited there in 2004 there was an informative exhibition dedicated to Gerald of Wales, the 12th century chronicler. Standing like a sentinel high above Llanberis and overlooking the lake called Llyn Padarn is the ruin of Dolbadarn Castle, where Llewelyn's grandson, also called Llewelyn, imprisoned his brother, Owain ap Gruffudd. (Brotherly love was generally in short supply in that particular family.)

Like Criccieth, some native castles were taken over by Edward I and extended. At Rhuddlan, Edward went further still and altered the course of the river Clwyd when he built the castle there. Rhuddlan is not as well known, perhaps, as the major Edwardian castles which make up the 'Iron Ring'. Llewelyn Fawr's grandson poignantly became known to history as Llewelyn the Last, defeated by Edward in 1282. Edward began a massive programme of building, using the 'concentric' design of a castle within a castle. He was determined that the Welsh would remain subjugated and at Conwy Castle, he used stones from Aberconwy Abbey which had been the resting place of several Welsh princes. It was a powerful symbol of conquest.

This picture of Caernarfon Castle shows how impenetrable and formidable these structures appeared to be. And yet Caernarfon was breached, in an uprising of 1294 led by Madog ap Llewelyn and was besieged again during the uprising of Owain Glyndwr (AD1400-1415).

In this, Caernarfon has something in common with Harlech Castle, which was occupied by Owain's forces between 1404 and 1409.


But Caernarfon also shares a secret with Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey, in that it was never actually finished. Wander round Caernarfon and you might not realise, since most castles these days are at least partially ruined. But step inside Beaumaris and you will see that only the outer walls were completed and the castle was never fully inhabited.


The unfinished north gatehouse - Jeff Buck
In over a decade of at least twice-yearly trips, I still haven't visited the sites of all the Welsh castles. All of these sites are well worth a visit; some have a castle or a church to display. Some have much more to show off. Please join me in Part III of this tour when we will go back to Trefriw to visit a haunted Tudor castle and taste the iron water which drew the Victorians to the area. Back in Conwy we will visit two Tudor houses and a suspension bridge built by Telford. And after taking in a couple more Tudor buildings, we'll further explore the changes wrought by the Victorians on the landscape of this beautiful corner of Wales.


Thursday, 19 January 2017

Harddwch Gogledd Cymru - The Beauty of North Wales Part I

A friend recently described her homeland (Canada) as having history, but not many historical sites. Wales, and North Wales in particular, has both. When I began making notes for this blog piece, they ran into three pages of place names, of sites to visit, of towns where every other building has a plaque on it. So I thought it best to categorise and this must be, of necessity, a whistle-stop tour. (And I apologise for omissions - of which there will be many.)

I'm not going to take you anywhere that I haven't been myself, but some of those visits were pre-digital camera and of a time when my kids featured in every shot, so not all the pictures are mine. But let's start with some very early history and travel across the Menai Strait to Penmon Priory,  originally a 10th century establishment but rebuilt in the 12th. 

Two crosses survive from the 10th century - also known as St Sereiol's, the church was attacked by Vikings in 971 - and the smaller of these two crosses looks as if it bears testament to this attack, but in fact its arm was broken off and used as a lintel for the refectory windows.

Photo by Bencherlite

Back on the mainland in a little village called Clynnog Fawr, where I've holidayed many times, stands the church of St Bueno. He was an abbott in the 7th century, and this church (a monastery then) was a stopping off point for pilgrims on their way to Bardsey Island, (more of which later.) St Beuno's has an ancient wooden chest used to contain alms donated by pilgrims, and outside there is a sundial which dates from somewhere between the 10th and 12th centuries. Clynnog Fawr itself is the site of several battles: Aelfhere of Mercia is recorded as having been there in 978 when Vikings attacked the monastery, the Battle of Bron yr Erw was fought in 1075, and in 1255 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd defeated his brothers to become undisputed prince of Gwynedd.

Author's own photo

The subject of royalty leads us back out onto the island of Anglesey, where the church at Llangadwaladr is reputed to be an ancient royal burial ground. There is an inscribed stone which names a 7th century king, Catamanus, and Charles Thomas has published a fascinating little book about his detective work, deciphering the real meaning and possible true 'author' of the words on the inscription. 



Still in the 7th century, if we move a little further along the coast, we can walk out from Aberffraw to the church of St Cwyfan, although the building here dates only from the 12th century. St Cwyfan was a disciple of Beuno and he built a Christian missionary here. He is also associated with Glendalough in Co. Wicklow in Eire, although over there he is referred to as St Kevin. When I visited Glendalough in 2010 it took me a while to  'join up the dots'.

Glendalough - Authors own photo

Talking of early saints, we can go further back in time and walk along the beautiful sands at Newborough beach and onto Llanddwyn Island (actually a peninsular except at all but the highest tides) and learn about St Dwynwyn, who died around AD460. Her father was King Brychan Brycheiniog and stories vary but essentially she was unlucky in love until prayers rescued her and she devoted her life to God, healing, and prayer, and built her church on the island which now bears her name. She is the Welsh patron saint of lovers and her Saint's day is celebrated on January 25th, the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine's Day.


On another island, this time off the tip of the Llyn peninsular at Aberdaron, is Bardsey. Out here there are the remains of neolithic huts, but the island is mainly known for its Christian associations. In around AD516, Saint Cadfan (a Breton) founded the abbey of St Mary's which became a place of pilgrimage. Those who had rested at St Beuno's at Clynnog Fawr were making their way to Bardsey; three pilgrimages here were worth one to Rome. (Some sources say it was only two.) As with so many early medieval buildings, the original monastery has gone, and only the ruins of the 13th century tower remain.

Bardesy Island - David Medcalf
Also on Bardsey island there is an apple tree, which was reputed to have been the only survivor of the monks' orchard. Tests in 1998 conducted by the experts at the National Fruit Collection confirmed that this tree did indeed produce a previously unrecorded variety of apple.

The church at Aberdaron is associated with a story about Gruffudd ap Cynan, who sought sanctuary there in AD1094 before fleeing in a boat to Ireland. Y Gegin Fawr [the big kitchen] is a 13th century building, now a tearoom, where pilgrims could eat before their final journey over to Bardsey.

Photo - Noel Walley
Neolithic reminders are evident over on the limestone headland jutting out from Llandudno - the promontory known as the Great Orme, where Bronze Age copper mines have been excavated to reveal that the Romans re-opened the mines first worked before 600BC.  Guided tours of the mines are available and after a helter-skelter drive from the car park at the top of the Orme you can call in to the church of St Tudno, (12th century,) and at the 'bottom' of the Orme the 13th century remains of the palace of the bishops of Bangor are fenced off but still visible. The name 'Orme' is most likely a Norse reference to the shape of the headland, and derived from the ON word 'urm' meaning 'sea serpent'.

Parys Mountain at Amlwych on the northern coast of Anglesey was also mined for copper ore during the Bronze Age, but I will revisit Parys Mountain in a later instalment of this tour when we move into the industrial age.  But before we get there, we still have to visit the houses, churches and castles associated with the Princes of Gwynedd and Edward I, walk in the footsteps of Owain Glyndwr, discover Tudor buildings, and the marks left on the landscape by the industrial age. (Join me for Part II of this tour on February 16th.)

Image public domain
I recently wrote a piece for this blog about the incredible history of just one street in Ruthin, where every other house has a plaque on the wall testifying to its historical significance. 

I don't know if it's true that this area has more history than the rest of Britain, or whether the Welsh just like to flag it up, point it out, show it off. But whatever the truth, I know that after 10 years of visiting the area at least once a year, and sometimes 3, I can say that I still haven't run out of places to discover. If you haven't been, go. Whatever your interest in history, you will not be disappointed. And the first Welsh word you'll see is the sign that says Croeso (Welcome) - and they mean it.


Sunday, 18 December 2016

From Romans to Witches - Grimeshaw Lane


It is fair to say that, at the moment, the outskirts of Lancaster do not look very pretty. The hillsides have fresh scars slashed across them as construction work continues on the M6-Heysham link road.

But, just a very short distance from there, I met a friend, who took me along one of her favourite walks.


Sometimes, history is not visible. Castles, stately homes, archaeological remains - all give us a link to the past which we can see, and hope to understand. At other times, we can only get a sense of what has gone before, and interpret as best we can what is left in our modern world. This makes such places much harder to protect, but it is no less important that we attempt to do so.


A determined group of people just outside Lancaster are trying, at the moment, to do just that, and to save Grimeshaw Lane and Denny Beck Lane from development.* The future of Denny Beck Lane, is I suspect, more secure, given that it was victim to atrocious flooding last winter. But what of Grimeshaw? And how can we assess its historical significance?

It is believed that there might be a 'plague stone' on the lane - could this be it?
I began by trying to decipher the name itself:

Shaw (sceaga) - copse, small wood
Grim/e - devil
So Grimeshaw = Devil's wood?

This seemed a bit simplistic, so I delved deeper.

Margaret Gelling, in her book Signposts to the Past, says:  "It has been established that Grim meaning the masked one is a nickname for Woden, alluding to the god’s habit of going about in disguise; and the numerous earthworks called Grims Ditch, Grimsdyke, in many parts of the country are believed to contain this nickname, either because they were believed to be the work of the god, or as a vague expression of superstitious awe concerning their origin.


The use of disguise by Woden is inferred from the many instances in which the corresponding Old Norse god Othin behaved in this way. We do not have narratives concerning the Old English gods of the sort which have survived for the ON deities, and there are many dangers in transferring ON information of a much later date to our own relatively brief pagan period. But a major characteristic like this one seems likely to belong to both traditions.

Not all English place names in Grims- are of this origin. Grimr was a common ON personal name and in the areas of England where Danes and Norwegians settled in the 9th and 10th centuries there are such names as Grimsby, Grimethorpe and Grimscoat, which contain this personal name and are of no special archaeological significance. Even in the Danelaw, however, a Grims- name referring to an earthwork is likely to allude to the god."

From the top of the ridge, the proximity to the M6 is visible
A quick internet search told me (grimshaworigin.org) that "The Grimshaw surname originated in Lancashire in the northern part of England, apparently around 1000 A.D. There appear to be few records of Grimshaw family lines for the first 200 to 250 years. However, it is highly probable that the family’s roots are connected to the town of Grimsargh, which is a short distance northeast of Preston. The earliest recorded Grimshaw was Gilbert, father of William Grimshaw, who held the Manor of Grimsargh in thenage in 1242."

I looked for more information on the placename Grimsargh but could only find this, in Wikipedia: "The name Grimsargh is said to derive from an Old Norse name Grímr. One reference lists it as coming from the Domesday Book's Grimesarge, "at the temple of Grímr (a name for Odin.)" I had come full circle.

So what of the place itself? In Ancient Roads and Trackways in Quernmore/Lancaster Phil Hudson says: "There seems no doubt that in the pre-Conquest period there were some well used trackways which would have been part of the communications network for the many small, often defended circular ring-dyke farmsteads found in the area. Butler (l921)** makes reference to a "ridgeway" that passed through Quernmore on a north-south line, following the high scarp via Grimshaw Lane and across the River Lune ford to Halton.


An extension of this ran through Quernmore from Castle O'Trim up to High Cross Moor. This was probably the route, parts of which are still in use, taken by the Earlsgate, recorded in the medieval period. This route, which could be prehistoric in origin, was possibly the basis for the one which was in place during the Roman period when, it is assumed, there was a main road system in the north west created and maintained by the Romans. It is also assumed that the Romans had a network of minor roads or trackways to give access to their industrial sites and potteries on the eastern side of the valley."


From the top of the ridge, one can walk into Lancaster, and I was told the the witches of Pendle walked this way from the prison to their place of execution. From this high ridgeway, they would have known that they were walking in the direction of home, but never to return.

Although it is possible to 'name-check' these witches, overall this is a new facet to historical investigation for me. We do not know who else walked this route, where they lived, where they were going. I am used to having names as a starting point, even if they are only mentioned once or twice in primary sources. I research people, not places. To walk along that track, following the footsteps of countless  unnamed people, was a new experience. This place is most definitely historical, but it is not going to give up its secrets any time soon.


*If you would like to know more about the campaign, visit their Facebook Page
**Butler, M.E. A Survey of the Geographical Factors that have Controlled the History of Lonsdale. Unpublished M.A. University or Liverpool 1921, 3O-4O.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Mrs Gaskell's Tower - Historical Trails & Serendipity

I'm fortunate to live in a part of the world which gives me easy access to many areas of outstanding natural beauty. And I tend to veer away from the obvious spots in the English Lake District to see what else is on my doorstep.

On the northern edge of Morecambe Bay lies a little place called Silverdale, and it was here, at Lindeth Tower, that Elizabeth Gaskell, novelist and biographer of Charlotte Bronte, used to come for her holidays.



As an historian and an author, I love to go wandering along a trail, be it metaphorical or geographical. Mrs Gaskell's Tower had given me a starting point, but she is a literary, rather than historical figure. Little did I know that what started as a 'Victorian' day, would become a day when I got tantalisingly close to the Anglo-Saxons ... 


A pleasant walk down a lane strewn with autumn colours took me down to Jenny Brown's point, where a chimney stands as a reminder of this area's industrial past: 

Photo: Tom Richardson under CC licence
Walking back from the point, I found an old lime kiln which has been reconstructed, fenced off, and given a little placard explaining the history and uses of lime-burning. I also discovered that there was a shipwreck in the area in 1894, when a pleasure yacht, The Matchless, foundered off Jenny Brown's point with the loss of 25 souls.

The English poet Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948) lived in the village and was visited often by his friend, the artist Paul Nash.

Silverdale is noted for its wells, which used to serve the village, and Woodwell is situated, as one might guess, in an area of peaceful woodland.


Photo: Zephyrine Barbarachild
It was a wonderful walk, despite the typical northern weather that day, but I left feeling that I hadn't uncovered everything that Silverdale knew ...

And then I remembered that a while ago I'd read in the local paper about the Silverdale Hoard. Now, I'm an Anglo-Saxon-ist, rather than a Viking-ist, so the Silverdale Hoard didn't initially get my pulse racing in the way that the Staffordshire Hoard is apt to do. And yet, and yet ... something drew me to investigate.

2oo pieces of Viking silver were found by a detectorist in 2011 and have been dated to around the year 900. Of the 27 coins, some are coins of Alfred the Great and some of the Danish king of Northumbria. As with the Staffordshire Hoard, it is assumed that whoever buried this stash was unable, due to the turbulent nature of the times and probably due to loss of limb, or life, or both, to come back and retrieve their retirement fund.

Photo under Wikipedia Commons licence
It's no thing of beauty compared with the ornate goldwork of the other afore-mentioned hoard, but this cache contained a silver bracelet with an unusual combination of Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian style decoration. Other pieces of jewellery were found as fragments, having been cut up to be used as 'hacksilver', an alternative form of coinage.

One coin in particular was considered note-worthy, inscribed as it was with the name AIRDECONUT, which has been translated as Harthacnut. Since the coin also bears the inscriptions DNS and REX, it has been suggested that this might identify a hitherto unnamed Danish king of Northumbria. The historian in me was interested.

Another coin, a silver penny, was inscribed  ALVVADVS, translated as Aethelwold. The author in me was excited ...

Aethelwold was the son of Alfred the Great's elder brother, King Aethelred. When Alfred died in 899 Aethelwold made a bid for the throne, taking a nun hostage (why? Don't ask me) and holing up in Wimborne, Dorset, where his father was buried, as if to establish that he, and not Alfred's son Edward, had the stronger link to the West-Saxon line of kings. From Wimborne he went to ally himself with the Northumbrian Danes, who acknowledged his claim to the kingship of Wessex. Confident of eventual victory, he must have proceeded to order coins minted in his name. He eventually met his cousin Edward in a remote part of of East-Anglia in 902, at the Battle of the Holme. The rarity of the coin bearing Aethelwold's name perhaps tells you what you need to know about the outcome.

So, from a tower favoured by a Victorian writer, via industry and shipwreck, and an interesting but not initially fascinating buried treasure, I had come, unplanned and unconsciously, to a person whom I feel I 'know' rather well. For you see, a year before this hoard was discovered, I had written a story. It's called To Be a Queen, and it features Alfred the Great, his daughter, her brother, Edward, and their cousin, one Aethelwold, or as I call him, Thelwold.

Those among you who write, and have a penchant for digging, either literally or figuratively, will understand how satisfying it was for me to find out about that tiny little silver penny.

The Aethelwold Silver Penny - image Pubic Domain via Wikipedia


Monday, 28 November 2016

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