Thursday, 21 September 2017

Ruthin Revisited (Third Time Lucky!)

A couple of years ago I visited Ruthin and found so many interesting historical buildings in just one street that I simply had to blog about it

But as you'll see if you click on the link, the oldest house on the street was closed for the winter. The staff kindly let me in to the garden, but to go inside I would need to come back another day.

A few months later, on my way home from a few days break in Llanarmon  DC, I made a not too large detour via Ruthin, to look round Nantclwyd y Dre. I'd checked beforehand, to make sure of opening times, and was confident that this time I would be successful. Alas, a sign outside the door explained that - no specific reason given - the house would not be open that day.

Undeterred, on a trip back from another short break in the area, I tried again. And this time, I managed to get inside this beautiful old building.

The house dates from the 1430s, a time when the area was known for its weaving, and it's thought that the house belonged to a weaver called Goronwy ap Madog. Each of the rooms is decorated to show the different ages of the house, from medieval

to Jacobean

to the 17th century study

with its ornate plaster ceiling

to its time as a Victorian school

The main hallway shows how the house would have looked in the 1940s

Was it worth the wait to see inside this beautiful building? Yes.

But this is not the only rare preserved building in this area. A few miles away, on the road to Llangollen, I discovered a monastery. With a roof on it. It's not often that one can say such a thing, especially when Henry VIII did such a diligent demolition job on most medieval monastic houses. But at Valle Crucis there is much to see beyond the usual ruins.

 Upstairs in the monks' dormitory, there is a row of medieval grave slabs.

I was particularly interested in one of them, which seemed to belong to someone of significance. Only later did I discover that it was the gravestone of Owain Glyndwr's great grandfather, Madog ap Gruffudd. I'm so glad I had the foresight to take a close-up of it...

Although the monastery was dissolved in 1537 it is only a partial ruin and it was a delight to be able to look at the interior of the building. Note the carving on the fireplace and the upper floor wall panel.

The monastery fishpond also survives - the only remaining one in Wales - and the view across from it to the hillside is stunning.

And it's not just medieval buildings which provide stunning views in this area. Just a few miles away is the famous Pontcysllte aqueduct, built by Thomas Telford.

If you can bear it, walk along the aqueduct 

but if you can't, there is a lovely circular walk from the canal basin which takes you along a path, through some woods, to a clearing where you can see this triumph of engineering in all its glory.

Another - relatively - nearby feat of engineering would be a wondrous sight to behold, had it ever been finished. The Jubilee Tower, designed to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of George III can be seen for some distance as you climb up the hill known as Moel Famau.

It can also be seen from the other side of the valley, as you walk round the park at Loggerheads.

It's quite a landmark, even though it's a ruin, you might be thinking. But it's not a ruin; in fact it was never properly finished, as the people in charge of its construction had an argument over workmanship and, of course, money, so that the eventual structure collapsed less than fifty years later.

In this small corner of North Wales I found a building that has survived since the fifteenth-century, but only through continuous habitation and extension work, a monastery that did not fall to ruin after the dissolution, a monument that fell down because of a squabble, and the longest, highest aqueduct. Thomas Telford and the monks of Valle Crucis might have exchanged wry smiles.

[all photographs taken by and copyright of the author]

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

County Durham - Home of the Prince Bishops

A few years ago I read a novel by Marilyn Durham about Ranulf Flambard, who was a minister of William Rufus and was bishop of Durham. The descriptions of the cathedral were deftly drawn and evocative, and I was delighted to find that during a recent trip away, I was near enough to Durham finally to visit the cathedral.

photo by Annie Whitehead
The building of the cathedral was begun under the supervision of William de St-Calais, bishop of Durham until his death in 1096 and who has been suggested as prime candidate for the driving force behind the Domesday survey. He was succeeded officially by Flambard in 1099. 

photo by Annie Whitehead

photo by Annie Whitehead

An image often associated with the cathedral is the famous door knocker, the Sanctuary Knocker, which those seeking refuge could sound to gain entry, and safety. The original is on display inside the cathedral; this one is a replica.

photo by Annie Whitehead

Sadly, but for good reasons, no photography is allowed inside the cathedral. Graciously, the Durham World Heritage Site allowed me to use photographs from their site. For what would a blog post about Durham be if I could not show you the exquisite Shrine of St Cuthbert and the tomb of St Bede?

Image copyright: Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing
St Cuthbert is probably most associated with Lindisfarne but in fact he spent a relatively short amount of time there, at least while he was alive. He was buried at Lindisfarne, in 687, and remained there until the Viking raids on the Northumberland coast ushered in a new period of English history. In 875 the monks took the Saint's remains, and thus began his travels, via Chester-le-Street and Ripon, and finally to Durham.
My studies and research for my writing have necessitated many readings of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I frequently write on my other blog of moments when characters from history become more 'real' to me - be it through the reading of a primary source document, or visiting a place associated with them. Standing in front of Bede's tomb had a profound effect on me, as I contemplated that here was the resting place of the man whose works, written so many centuries ago, were so familiar to me.
During this, my first visit, I looked round the Open Treasures exhibition in the monks' dormitory, where I was delighted to find Hog's Back gravestones and rare wooden coffins from the Anglo-Saxon era.  Now, a return visit has stirred my emotions: the Treasures of St Cuthbert exhibition is now open.

Passing from the monks' dormitory, still used as a working library, visitors must move through an air lock into an area with regulated temperature control. Until September, the first displays you will see are of the copies of Magna Carta, including the Charter of the Forest

Downstairs in the old kitchens, you will find the original sanctuary door knocker. For a moment, it diverts one's attention and then, you see it - St Cuthbert's coffin. I was surprised just how many fragments remain, and it is simply displayed, with a computer graphic explaining the meaning of all the carvings on the coffin.

Also on display are Cuthbert's comb, his portable altar, and his pectoral cross, shown below. This is my photograph of a postcard purchased from the Cathedral shop, since no photography is allowed. But it is enough to show the exquisite workmanship.

A short drive from Durham takes you to Bishop Auckland, site of Auckland Castle, home to the Prince Bishops of Durham since the 1600s. It is currently closed for remodelling and renovation, and will open again in 2018, with a new visitors' centre, at which time I have been invited to visit, so I will write more in another post.

photo by Annie Whitehead

Meanwhile, before you leave the area, take a short drive to Escomb, where you will find, in the most incongruous of settings, a rare example of a stone-built Anglo-Saxon church. Click on the link below to read more about this wonderful building.

photo by Annie Whitehead

Friday, 21 July 2017

Wartime in Norfolk - Across the Centuries

In May, I blogged about my beloved Norfolk, or poppy country as I call it. I mentioned Great Massingham, which was the first stopping point on my trip collecting photographs for a blog post about Norfolk at the time of the Domesday survey.

In the centre of the village I got chatting to a resident who knew the area well, and pointed out to me a building which used to be a pub, and which had served as a billet for airmen during WWII.

He told me a little about the history of the area and then said how he liked, in the summer evenings, to walk up to the old airfield, and how atmospheric it is there. To stand and listen in the quiet, with only birdsong to break the silence, he said, one can easily imagine the planes taking off and coming in to land. I'd never heard of this airfield, and when he said it was just a short walk away, I set off to find it.

I imagined some old field, where there might be some traces of a long-abandoned site. I wasn't prepared for what I found.

Unmistakeably part of the old runway, the surface has worn away to reveal the tarmac underneath. On this quiet, baking hot July afternoon, with hardly another soul around, I knew what he meant about imagining the planes coming home. And I thought about the ones that didn't.

Some farm buildings to the side of one of the runways showed the distinctive curved roof of what could be a Nissen hut, or similar. 
I wondered if this was indeed a relic from the war. The silence was broken by noise overhead,

and I found a sign, and saw something else which made me realise that this is still used as an airfield.

I removed myself from the runway, and retreated to the safety of the history books. I discovered that RAF Great Massingham was a satellite airfield of RAF West Raynham, a much bigger and now, also disused airfield which closed in 1994. Massingham airfield was closed in 1945 and the control tower was demolished.
Wikipedia has a list of the units which were posted there:
The following units were posted here at some point:

No. 18 Squadron RAF 1940 - 41
No. 90 Squadron RAF 1941
No. 107 Squadron RAF 1941
No. 342 Squadron RAF 1943
No. 169 Squadron RAF 1944 - 45
No. 16 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section
No. 1482 (Bombing) Gunnery Flight

No. 1692 (Bomber Support) Training Unit RAF

The centre of Great Massingham seems barely to have changed for centuries. It was so quiet on the day that I visited that I really could imagine those wartime airmen taking the short walk back to the village on summer evenings. 

The pub in the above photo is the Dabbling Duck, and the only trading pub in the village now. I've not been able to establish how old the building is, so I wonder if it would have been there (in its former guise as The Rose and Crown) when another conflict took place in the area.

I refer to the English Civil War, when the nearby town of King's Lynn was held under siege for over two weeks. Dr Paul Richards was quoted in the Lynn News (Sep 9th 2016) as saying that the screams of women and children could be heard in Wisbech and beyond. That seems unlikely to me, given that Wisbech is 13 miles from Lynn. However, what is not in doubt was that the town was attacked by the Parliamentary army, and a cannonball crashed through the stained glass windows of St Margaret's Church (also known at King's Lynn Minster.)

Photograph by Richard Humphrey

According to Gareth Calway, a writer and entertainer, King's Lynn was the only town to see action in the Civil War. He said that the earl of Manchester and a 'firebrand named Oliver Cromwell' were incensed that a port in the Parliamentarian stronghold of Norfolk had declared itself Royalist.

The town surrendered on September 16th. At dawn the next day the Parliamentarian army entered the town. The governance of Lynn was passed to Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, Colonel Valentine Walton. 

I lived very near Lynn when I was a teenager, and my parents moved close by to Massingham in 1986. Despite this, and my deep love for and study of history over the intervening years, I knew nothing about the airfield, or the siege.

On a calm summer's day, it's hard to imagine either. Although there was little here in the way of fighting, a siege and and an airfield are part of the ingredients that make violent warfare. 

[all photographs unless otherwise attributed taken by, and copyright of, the author]

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Suffolk: Early & Late Medieval Wealth

Last summer I went to Suffolk - a county I'd only visited once before, when I fulfilled a long held ambition to walk round West Stow, the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village near Bury St Edmunds.

I stayed in historic Sudbury, at the sight of the old Watermill, and went from there to two locations, both indicators of the massive wealth that was once amassed in Suffolk, by very different means.

The mill pond at Sudbury
First, I went to Lavenham, expecting to find a sort of open museum, a town full of historic buildings but no modern life. Instead, I found a fully-functioning 21st-century town, which just happens to have an awful lot of gorgeous old buildings.

Modern life goes on ...
The first building to explore must be the Guildhall. The Guildhall of Corpus Christi was built in 1529, and contains many exhibits, giving glimpses of its various uses over the centuries. It has been a jail, a workhouse and almhouse, and between 1939 and 1945 it sheltered evacuees.

The fireplace in the Guildhall

Upstairs, a loom shows how the town made its money:

Little Hall, on the other side of the square from the Guildhall, is a family home dating from the 14th century, which was 'modernised' in the Tudor period. In the 1930s, two brothers bought the house and turned it into a centre for artists.

The variety of design styles as one moves through the house is vast:
From the sitting room,

To the more modern artworks incorporated into the fabric of the building,

To the courtyard.

Elsewhere in Lavenham, the old Grammar School still stands, 
painted in Suffolk Pink:

The artist John Constable was a pupil here.

Walk down any street in Lavenham and you will find these old buildings, some seemingly defying gravity.

But why, I wondered, are they there? Such a concentration of old buildings is a rarity and the reason is a Tudor loss which became a modern-world gain. The town was famous as a cloth town, specialising in a coarse broadcloth dyed with woad. The rich merchants built their grand houses, but when the wool-trade bubble burst, they left. The reason these houses still stand is poverty. Nobody could afford to rebuild, so there are no double-fronted Georgian buildings here. Rich heritage for us, a sign of poverty for late medieval Lavenham.

Wealth of a different kind is on display at Sutton Hoo, where in the 1930s a ship burial was excavated and the treasures of an East Anglian king came to light. 

Having studied and researched this period in depth, I was quite emotional when, finally, I was able to stand by the ancient burial mounds on a quiet summer's morning, and imagine the seventh-century scene as the ship burial took place. Most of the treasure is now in the British Museum, but the site itself and the visitor centre are well worth a visit.

finds from the site
I thought I knew a lot about Sutton Hoo, but I didn't know about the earlier burials - the so-called Sand Burials. These earlier burial sites are scattered around the centre, and this one is between the car park and the visitor centre entrance. Tread carefully.

Recent excavation has been ongoing at Rendlesham, the settlement where it is believed that King Raedwald (if indeed it was he who was laid to rest in that great ship) lived. I spoke to one of the guides in Mrs Pretty's house (Mrs Pretty was the landowner who first invited Basil Brown to begin excavation of the mounds). The guide told me that there are plans to open up a visitors' track from Rendlesham to Sutton Hoo, the better for the public to see how the boat was carried from one site to the other, only going on the river for part of the journey.

The death of the wool trade, the death of kings, and the 'sand bodies' - these are not the only things marked in abundance in this area. Though not specific to this location, the practice of burying cats in buildings seems to have been prolific here. One such was on display at the Mill Hotel, and I found another in Lavenham. It seems that this was not any kind of ritual sacrifice - tests have proven that this was done post mortem.

Suffolk is a beautiful county and one to which I hope to return. It's a county where you can explore 'Constable Country', visit Framlingham and Orford Castles, Melford Hall, and 14th century Leiston Abbey. There is even a working windmill at Thorpeness. As a famous Austrian film star said, I'll be back...

[all photos by and copyright of the author]