Category Archives: English Landscape

Brentor on Dartmoor by foot and on high


Church of St Michael of the Rock, Brentor

Church of St Michael of the Rock, Brentor, Dartmoor, Devonshire

Up out of Tavistock,      along the straight road,

We come now to Brentor      bold like a stark thumb

As it stands above Dartmoor      alone dark and brooding;

A church there for years,     challenging and cheerless.

Yet climb with me stranger     with stout legs and striding,

Let your boots bound on boulders     till you get to the top,

And there you’ll find solace     with blowing winds blasting

Against the tight granite     which grips God’s home here.

Push that door smartly     for it scrapes the flat stones

Of the entrance to this place     which is dark inside;

Fear not the cold gloom     or your eyesight in gloaming

For warm welcome breath     sweet blows on your face

Of the grace and the glory     of those gone before

Who made this place special     to prick at your soul!

Glass of Saint Michael,     great granite font,

Monuments left      to those lost long ago;

Plain yet so precious     these simple-formed things

Hold you in their grasp     almost weeping in pain

As they tell of their stories     of lives long since spent

And once lived in the cold     before you were alive.

I Pray now in penitence     for sport I have made

In blissful unknowing     of blood shed and blown

In the tors of old Dartmoor     tight-lipped and unspoken

But placed on these walls     that speak now to me and

Don’t hide.

Brentor upon its rock

Is for miles like a guide

Helping travellers to unlock

That wind-blown countryside.


The church of St Michael of the Rock (St Michael de Rupe) at Brentor, Devonshire, stands 1100 feet above sea level on an extinct volcanic cone, the prominence of which has long attracted people to the site. The base of the main rock is surrounded by the remains of an Iron Age hill fort.

The church itself, diminutive by any standard and most likely some form of chantry chapel, was established by Robert Giffard in the 12th Century although much of this has long since disappeared, being enlarged and rebuilt over the centuries. Much of what we see today dates from the 13th and 15th centuries although with considerable restoration in the nineteenth century which has obscured a great deal of the early work at the site.

Elements of the original building survive in the form of the font, of plain type, which dates from the fifteenth century and the tower. The exterior also includes an unusual sun dial on the southern face of the tower; curiously the church, despite its diminutive size, retains a door on its northern and southern sides.

For more details, please see the Historic England listing here

Coming soon by the Author:

Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – different to those which will appear in the bookshops – please click here

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Filed under Devonshire, English Counties, English Landscape, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Touring Britain

Into the lands of Mortimer at Wigmore


Image of Wigmore castle.

Looking up towards the shattered towers of Wigmore castle in the county of Hereford

When this land was once separate from all those in Wales,

And that dyke built by Offa to demark the fields,

Some semblance of peace came for a short while

As princes and kings came to enjoy the calm.

But peace did not reign long in these border pastures

So there were the Marches which men made their own

To keep for the king lest they came to be captured

And curtail the powers of great English lords.

So was the case of the men they called Mortimer

Who with warlike power did marshal these lands;

With great iron grip and gritty resolve

They conquered with castles which they came to build.

And here we are now at the one they called Wigmore;

A bastion of boulders brazen above

The small town below which cowers beneath it.

A short climb through brambles to crumbling walls

Rewards now the traveller with towering turrets:

A shell keep, some baileys and stretching views

Over fields and lands and with wildlife free roaming

Which in the past were not safe to walk through.

But for all of their powers that Mortimer family

Came in the end to fall far from grace:

Killers of Edward and crowning a kingdom

They were by his son deposed of their powers.

That first Earl of March grew far too big

and grand.

Roger was disliked

He overplayed his hand;

At Tyburn was he spiked;

And the king then took command.


Wigmore castle in the county of Hereford is a castle of the marcher lords. These lords, in managing difficult border lands, possessed many unique privileges which enabled them to govern almost as semi-independent lords with distinct powers to fight, hold court and to collect certain taxes. The castle dates back to the 11th Century although much of what survives today dates from the early 13th Century and later. Much of the current building reflects the work of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (1287–1330), although some of the masonry is later. 

Roger Mortimer became de facto ruler of all England after he and Isabella, the estranged queen of Edward II arranged for the king’s deposition and murder in 1327. Despite enjoying some influence at the beginning of the reign of Edward III, the king had him arrested in 1330 and executed for treason.  Wigmore was returned to the Mortimers in the later 14th century, although its heyday was by then over. Roger’s heir,  also called Roger  (1328–60), went on to become a founder member of the Knights of the Garter. 

The castle today is managed by English Heritage. When I first visited the place in the 1980s it was overgrown with brambles and almost inaccessible. Today, while some of this wildness has been preserved, the visitor is able to walk around by way of demarked pathways which did not exist until the 1990s.

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Castles, Castles of England, English History, English Landscape

Sir Gawain and Sir Walter atte Lea


Image of tomb of Sir Walter Atte Lea in Albury

The much damaged remains of the tomb of Sir Walter Atte Lea, who helped in calming the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

And so we went riding through dark woods and groves,

Gringolet and myself going slow down wind-ways,

Till we came unto Albury set high on its hill

With eyes over Hertfordshire at sweet summer tide

Where Walter atte Lea lies asleep in repose

In a bier by a window beside a bright light

That shines upon him and his wife lying there.

What now he whispers I wish I could hear

But all of his voice has gone blown with the barley

Along with the words that he spoke long ago

To Richard the boy king who ruled with weak reason

When peasants in Essex and Suffolk and Kent

Did rise up against those grasping greedy for tax!

Walter wanted to walk with his own peasants there

To tackle them himself and not to allow

Central courts to oppress them and cause much contempt

When he had to live there and treat with his men

And help rule his lands without disloyal folk.

Repression he argued had gone way too far

And if it did not stop well then doom must swift follow

For sure.

He talked with his men there

Who knew his local law

Walter saw what was right fair

In talking with the rural poor.


The Church of St Mary at Albury in Hertfordshire contains a variety of monuments and brasses to attract the casual visitor. The tomb of Sir Walter atte Lea, referred to in this post, is now sadly much defaced and has also been moved at some time in the past. Sir Walter atte Lea (also known as Sir Walter atte Lee) himself played a key role during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, attempting to deal with complaints locally rather than to impose harsher penalties from a distant monarchy. He appears to have handled the matter incompetently although this did not stop his further advancement under Richard II, as this link reveals. The location of the church, atop a hill surveying much of the surrounding countryside, means it commands attractive views over the east Hertfordshire uplands.

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here


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Filed under British History, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire, Historic towns of Britain, Poetry

Sir Gawain and Gringolet go to St Neot in Cornwall


Image showing detail of mediaeval glass at St Anietus Church, St Neot Cornwall

Gruesome hanging shown in mediaeval window, St Anietus Church, St Neot Cornwall. Notice the counterweight.

In travelling all across the land I say

There are few gems more jewelled than just this place:

St Neot sitting in soft vales beside the Bodmin moor

Has much to marvel at, and more to see

Than in any place I know or I have seen these several years!

When I first wound with Gringolet in this world

In every church choice lights in chancels you would you see

But now our land has been levelled of such luxury

And empty now are many of the colours they once cast.

Not so St Neot calm above the winding road

For in its walls are wonders which bewitch

The eye, the soul, the senses and much more:

Glass from my own time, magnificent still methinks!

Look here, see Noah sailing in his ark

And there sweet ladies pray in soft calm thoughts;

Biblical stories beautiful in glass abound

In each and every light that lifts the soul.

Donors who once gave to this rich place

Are also shown, their arms as if caparisons

On this most holy church like cloth of gold in glass!

Fellow traveller, do not come this way without

a turn:

All who see St Neot sweet

Will gasp at what they learn.

They’ll never such another meet

Nor rich beauty will discern.

 

The church of St Anietus at St Neot has ancient origins stretching back to Saxon times. Since its rebuilding in the fifteenth century, the church has become famous for its remarkable collection of original mediaeval stained glass. These astonishing survivals include windows show the Creation, the story of Noah and of St Neot; each window is a joy to behold and well repays the journey to see. The interior also includes a wealth of monuments from different periods, in addition to a fabulous fifteenth century waggon roof. Even the churchyard contains much of interest, in particular a collection of ancient mediaeval wayside crosses. For more details of the church, please refer to this listing.

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here

 

 

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Filed under Cornwall, English Counties, English Landscape, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet

Sir Gawain goes to Bygrave, an ancient settlement in aged fields


Image of St Margaret of Antioch, Bygrave, Hertfordshire

The delightful church of St Margaret of Antioch, Bygrave, Hertfordshire, which has Saxon origins.

The rains relented overnight revealing sun to bless the day

And so on Gringolet I ride the rolling road below the ridge

Where ancient men lie buried still in mounds majestic overhead;

And on to this shire’s soft edge I go and down to see Bygrave below.

This place has history as betrayed by boundaries of its bold fields

Which have the centuries survived as Saxon relics still and true

When others all around did under evil threat so ease to be enclosed;

A market place it once was but now more music do we hear

From roaming red kites high above than any padding in this street.

Yet Margaret of Antioch is here mild among this springtime bliss –

She presides in such a place as will most sweetly calm

The troubled minds of those who mingle mid the graves

And by the marshy moats which men once dug upon this mound

When few but brave men felt compelled to make their fortunes here

And those that did played nine men’s morris meekly by the church.

A simple place, blanched white in sun and shining like

A beacon in lands dark, remote, or bleak or bad

And which now are but a less-viewed vestige of a vanished age.

Let ancient Bygrave calm you too and capture in your troubled head

and thoughts

A time when folk did wander free

And played at idle sports

Below the shadow of some tree

In harvest time cohorts.

 

Bygrave in the county of Hertford is an ancient settlement which today sleeps atop rolling countryside just below the Royston Ridge. The church, St Margaret of Antioch, contains much of interest, including wall paintings, a fifteenth century font and the remains of a mediaeval rood screen. Parts of the building are Saxon in origin. The field system surrounding the village are of particular note; research shows that it was never enclosed. This landscape sensitivity report does give some cause for alarm, given that this ancient landscape has survived for so long. This particular survival is miraculous and it is Sir Gawain’s view that all must be done to protect it for future generations so they can know and understand how our ancestors lived.

 

 

 

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Filed under British Landscape, British Society, English Counties, English Landscape, Hertfordshire, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Uncategorized

King Arthur’s Hall; all roofless and wind-blown


Image of King Arthur's Hall, Cornwall

The remains of King Arthur’s Hall on Bodmin Moor. The “Hall” is thought to be a Bronze Age ceremonial centre for cremation although some argue that it was a pound for animals.

Into Cornwall I climb seeking comfort from winds

Among lower levels of that lofty moor Bodmin;

Through fields richly-flanked by leaves of fair green

I come up to Blisland by blowing moor’s edge.

In that soft church I sit to regain of my senses

With its vault above me which arches twice vast

And shouts of Agincourt when its arcs were stretched

On shield-bearing angels, their wings wafting high

And sailing in joy over scenes from the centuries.

Rested, I rise onto Gringolet’s saddle

Who carries me slow up ascents to the moor

And there in the blowing wind blasting my body

And sharp-shafting showers that strike to the soul

I see that square building which bold sits in bog-land;

King Arthur’s Hall it is known in Kernow.

Yet no knight knows that place, not to my knowing,

The years have long passed that parsed of its purpose

And my uncle Arthur never nursed in that place

Ideas of adventure to alter his aims

For the season, or Christmas, or sweet holidays.

It is but a pound to pen but some sheep or maybe a place to bury

The dead.

Surrounded by gorse and granite stones

That Hall it must be said

Just now sits square in moors alone,

Its story long unread.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Cornwall, English Counties, English Landscape, English myths and legends, French Battlefields, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Touring Britain, Uncategorized

Iconography at Ickleton illuminates the passing of the hours


Image of Ickleton church

Ickleton Church, Cambridgeshire showing cantilevered arm on spire holding bell

And so with summer comes Zephyrus soothing warm
from the west as I on Gringolet to Ickleton go
In Cambridgeshire, calming as I carve my way
through Essex easily on my errand searching.
A singular spire with suspended bell sounds
And later windows let light within
On earlier ecstasy lost till that empty day
Forty years ago when fire freed paintings
From a plastered prison put there by puritans
To save the soul and salvage it from popery.
But truth will trick out of any tainted cage
And here on walls full thick are wonders for the wayfarer:
The last supper seating saints on bounteous board,
The betrayal where brutally He was brought down;
Andrew sainted on a saltire steady, the martyrdom
of Peter depicted perfectly and St Laurence too;
Our Lord in flagellation not fearing for his fate
and then with cross our Christ cries in crucifixion.

Image of the doom painting, Ickleton church, Cambridgeshrie

The astonishing doom painting at Ickleton Church, Cambridgeshire. Most of the painting has long since disappeared but a particular feature of this image is a bare-breasted Mary (left) – a sign of supplication.

But raise your eyes now to that Chancel rich and rare:
A doom painting dominates but delights
For here is Mary bare-breasted in blatant supplication –
Find this in other church, a challenge to chasten
All but the most patient of travellers in our land;

A church here do not miss –
Walls and features grand.
There are few here such as this
That really come to hand.

 

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Filed under Cambridgeshire, English Landscape, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England, Uncategorized