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]

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Poppy Country - Beautiful North Norfolk

The county of Norfolk is not easy to get to. It's a part of England which does not have a motorway, and the main trunk roads into it are, in the main, single-carriageway and slow.

But be patient, for you shall be rewarded. Go in the summer and there's every reason to expect hot, dry, sunny days, sandy beaches, quaint villages, and pubs. Lots of pubs. People? Not so many.

Here's what the beach looked like in July 2016:

I was there because I spent part of my teenage years living in the area, and I still have family and friends who live there. But this particular visit was a mission, too, as I was taking photos to go with a blog post on Norfolk in Little Domesday, a smaller part of the Domesday Survey of 1086.

My first stop was the village of Great Massingham, with its five village ponds, one of which used to be a clay pit, according to one of the local residents. The several ponds (I was told there are seven in total) belonged originally to the Augustinian priory.

Most of the buildings are dotted around the edges of this large pond, and they include a former pub where airmen used to drink when they were billeted in the village during WWII (more on this in a future post) 

and the remains of the medieval abbey incorporated into a more modern building.

In a nearby village, a nod to the Domesday survey can still be found. In 1086, Snettisham was recorded as having seven mills. Nowadays, the mill house sits tucked away from the main streets.

Just a short distance from Snettisham (where Iron Age gold torcs were unearthed) lie the coastal resorts of Heacham (where John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas was born) and Hunstanton, which, along with its famous striped cliffs,

boasts an older part of town, Old Hunstanton, where this fourteenth-century church can be found:

For later grandeur, go back inland to Houghton Hall, built in the Palladian style for Robert Walpole, de facto first Prime Minister.
The house was built between 1722 and 1735

and is home to a herd of white deer (spot the interloper!)

Holt is a bustling town, which nevertheless betrays its origins, which also go back to the time of the Domesday survey. The picture below shows the only remaining trace of the market place:

(picture below is a close up of the building on the left of the above)

But Holt still boasts many buildings of architectural interest, including Gresham's School, founded in 1555 as a Grammar school for poor boys.

The origins of the town are shown on this sign:

Further along the coast are the 'Burnhams' - Burnham Market, Burnham Thorpe, Burnham Overy Staithe (below)

which are closely associated with Admiral Lord Nelson, who was born in Burnham Thorpe in 1758 and whose mother was a great-niece of Robert Walpole.

I visited only one small corner of the county, the north west, but there is plenty of history here, from grand stately homes, to ruined churches. Bawsey, below, is all that remains of an abandoned medieval village.

And for sheer period charm, there is the windmill at Great Bircham, open to the public, but seen here from a country lane:

The town of King's Lynn is worthy of a separate blog post, which is exactly what I will be giving it, at a later date.

But wait, didn't I say this was poppy country? It certainly is:

Meanwhile, if you wish to know more about the Little Domesday survey, and why Norfolk was not included in the main Domesday Book, go to the EHFA Blog

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

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