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 ( 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