Category Archives: Historic towns of Britain

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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Rochester Castle upon the Medway

Rochester Keep from the North East

The great keep at Rochester - the south-east tower has been repaired since the siege of 1215 removed it.

Travelling south along Watling Street from London towards Canterbury, the seasoned pilgrim cannot avoid the mighty castle at Rochester and nor should he (or she) for this indeed is a castle worthy of the name. Dominated by its keep, tall and proud – I believe the tallest in the kingdom at 117 feet – Rochester is a place to rest and savour the passage of the years and marvel at the ingenuity of earlier times.

And what the years have done to this place! Of course, it is many centuries since last I rode this way in 1216, but looking upon the keep now it is different to how it was when I last saw it – with one of its corners blasted away following a siege by king John.

Oh how sad it looked then! In October and November of the previous year, King John had ordered a mine to be dug under the south east corner of the castle and the building propped on wooden stilts. I was told by a vassal that it took the fat of forty pigs to burn away the props and down the tower tumbled.  

Today of course, it is still a ruin but at least a complete ruin – and one of the most remarkable keeps in all England. That corner of the keep was subsequently rebuilt in the rounded style of a later day and, although it differs but slightly from the original keep erected by William de Corbeil in 1127, the tower stands tall across the land.

Let us go inside for but a few minutes. Ascending the stairway of the forebuilding – now alas without its drawbridge at the top – entry through the old great door reveals the skeleton of what was once a busy and substantial place.

How I remember the grand hall – now only hinted at by the decorated arches high above – and the gallery where lords and ladies gathered for private conversations and where musicians once played! Now bereft of Tharsian tapestry and sendal shifts, the walls are cold but not without power to conjure thoughts of days gone by.

And of course, to my mind one of the most impressive features of that fine palace: the well shaft which ascended a central pillar to bring water to every floor. In all my travels I have not seen such a marvel; I recall how when this tower had floors, the lord’s children used to shout to each other down the shaft and how, if they were unlucky, one of them would receive a bucket of water thrown down on him from above!

Yet all is quiet now. The tower is but an empty shell; its stories, sounds, smells and sentiments there only to dress the mind of an imaginative soul. In the bailey – once vibrant and alive with horses, cooking, tradespeople and castle servants – is but a public park. Even the stone bridge which carried the road across the Medway has long since ceased to echo to the rattling of carts and the shouts of the watchman – being demolished, so I am told, in 1857 and replaced by the current, yet still impressive, iron structure.

Archbishop Stephen Langton – the man who held the place in 1215 and was described by King John as that “notorious and barefaced traitor” – might well have regretted his decision when he “failed to render up our castle of Rochester to us in our so great need”. Yet history shapes all things and architecture – like the English landscape – bears the scars of happenstance in silent obedience to the events of time.

Though kings and traitors,  lords and ladies, vassals and serfs have gone away, Rochester still points to skies and stands with pride upon the river bank. The guardian of the Medway, valiant through the centuries.

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Centuries of silence find their voice at Strethall in Essex

Strethall Church in Essex

Strethall Church, Essex: a lonely survivor on a windswept ridge

In wind-swept uplands, just west of Saffron Walden and north of Wendens Ambo, lies a small village once home to thane and freeman, serf and reeve and now but home to none. Strethall by name, the hall on the street, now sleeps silent as pestilence and plague have played among its stones and worms turn bodies into the dusts of time.

Yet not always was it thus and, as it was told to me so I shall tell to you: the story of a village near the Icknield Way whose proud past has slipped away among the whispering winds of these wasted fields…

The king lay at Camelot on New Year’s Day so I, in search of adventure, took le Gringalet and headed north to the Royston Ridge before passing on that ridgeway past the windmill at Great Chishill and past Chrishall again, home – as it has been related – to John de la Pole, an old friend of mine.

Here, in olden times, the road wended west to Great Chesterford if you will but now, with the passage of time, old Roman roads have long since lost their significance and Strethall is but a backwater in the book of time… You need to look hard to find it today.

But as a young knight, I remember a different place. Once, on this high peak – 400 feet above the datum is high in these parts – Strethall was a vibrant village, vehement and vocal. 

Strethall then was already an ancient settlement, in existence long before my time and serving Roman and local alike. And when I last visited the place, it still supported fields, oxen, pigs in the woodland and more sheep than I could count; notwithstanding a mill upon the ridge. Alas, nothing of this part now remains.

Talking with a friendly local, I was informed that when pestilence and plague blew around the place in the 1340s, the village suffered badly; so much so that not one household lived to tell the tale. Today, just the church – St Mary the Virgin – stands lonely on the bluff with just a few barns and a farmhouse for company.

Yet the church, despite its isolation, is eloquent in its solitude. The tower, simply constructed of flints, is bound by iron to strengthen it against the high winds which blow up in these parts. Apart from the iron straps and some later crenellations, I’d say the place is much as I remember it when William and Alwig – and later Hugh – held the lands for the abbot in 1086.

But when you enter the church, if you can scale away the accretions of the years, old stones still sing. The chancel arch is surely, in its simplicity, one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon interior arches in a small church anywhere on these islands. Primitive in execution yes, but finely worked notwithstanding.

And then there is the wonderful font, unusual and large. I recall this from a visit I made in the 1100s so I can vouch for its age too. The roof however is fairly modern; I would place it, reader, to between 1400 and 1500, trussed with cambered tie-beams and stoutly made from oak. Not perhaps one of the most magnificent of roofs but somehow fitting to this place.

Look elsewhere and you will find a thirteenth century piscina, some delightful Fifteenth Century brass work and some pews dating, I should say, to what you would call the later middle ages.

I am told by our local friend that this church was on the verge of losing its status as an independent parish in recent years but the locals from the nearby village of Catmere End (which would, it seems, be where a new resurgent community built itself after the Black Death) protested and independence was preserved.

So much so, it seems, that just this Christmas this small church, capable of holding 70 in moderate comfort was packed to bursting when nearly 130 worshippers descended on it to give grace to God at Christmas time.

Reader, should you seek solace in small things, look to Strethall for your guidance. Despite the monstrous predations of an uncaring world, people in small places can wield plenty of power.

The original owners of these lands may now have gone away. But in their spirit and in their deeds they still live on today.

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A Viking’s skin nailed to a door?

Hadstock church door today

Hadstock Church door - a dark story or something less sinister?

In my travels across this land, one of the many privileges I enjoy is the ability to dip into local stories and legends – none more so than that of Hadstock in Essex.

For those unaware of North West Essex, it is surely one of the most beautiful areas in the kingdom, where small woodlands give way to delicate views over ancient field systems. Country lanes and roads wind themselves through the landscape like eels in a river and, here and there an ancient village reveals itself. One such place is Hadstock.

Today, to my sorrow, little remains of the village I once travelled through in 1411, but the imprint of it on the landscape is still much as I recall, with the church rising above the homesteads and Essex folk quietly going about their business. Yet the village also plays host to a somewhat macabre local story…

It was here, at this church, that a strange legend has grown up of a Viking who was flayed alive and his skin nailed to the door as a warning against future invasions. Indeed, this very flesh ended up in the museum at Saffron Walden, a nearby market town, where for many years it has resided in the museum there. Local legend lives on through the centuries, its tale to tell, so what is the truth of the matter?

I can now reveal, as news readers are so fond of saying, that on Saint Brice’s Day 1002 – over a thousand years ago in your time, dear reader, if not in mine – King Ethelred , fearful of an attempt to assassinate him, ordered the mass killing of Danes. I can also reveal that the door did indeed have a leather covering. Thirdly, it is also true that this door – if not the church – is the oldest in the county. The evidence certainly appears convincing. However, illogical syllogisms – and the finest local legends – oft comprise unrelated facts and so, in this case, it proves to be.

I do indeed remember this church door well from my first visit and while leather was certainly present, this was not an unusual occurrence; such material occurs on other church doors as far afield as Rochester, Copford and even Westminster Abbey. At no time in my memory did the covering look anything like the flesh of a human.

How could I, a mere knight, know such a thing? Reader, it pains me to say that in my travels through the centuries, I have seen many brutal acts – not least the disgraceful flaying alive of Bertrand de Gurdon (although someone there called him Pierre Basile) at Chalus-Chabrol following the death of Richard Coeur de Lion – and I know a flayed skin when I see one. I can, therefore, confirm that the skin on the door at Hadstock was not, and never has been, human – most likely it was that of an ox or a cow.

Of course, it is always makes good reading when a story contains gruesome details but, as a Knight of the Round Table I am duty bound to put honour and virtue above all things and  I have looked into the matter further. I can tell you that not so long ago, Alan Cooper, a DNA expert from Oxford University,  also looked into the matter further. His analysis showed that the skin was indeed that of a cow.

Sic transit gloria mundi we must say; how sad it is that the magic of such a tale can be destroyed by the cold calculation of pure science. But if only they had asked me, I could have told them anyway!

Hadstock church door interior

The interior of the church door at Hadstock. Notice the gaps which the original leather covering would have covered


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A northern tour to Wensley in Wensleydale

The font at Wensley, Wensleydale

New fangled things - the 17th Century font at Wensley Church, Wensleydale

In late summer when the fields are ripe and swallows with the insects soar, sit calmly on your horse dear friend and let your eyes rise forth…

Ah, late summer, when the harvest’s in, that’s the time to share in the beauties of our land. Should your horse ever take you to Wensleydale, then here too can your spirit rise. If we can ride this vast dale and just take in the land around us then we rise above the commonplace and into the world of angels. We have entered heaven: but, as you know, any Yorkshireman will tell you that…
Wensleydale is a place to go to lose awareness of the troubles of our times: wars, riots, bombs and plots. Here, among the looming hills and ever-changing cloudscapes, you can lose yourself in the sublime beauty of nature.

Of course, in times past – the times I knew well – these lands were far from safe and that is why today you can still see the ruins of the glorious Bolton castle standing proudly on the side of the dale. Not far off is that other fastness: Middleham, a house so strong a thief would need to knock to gain entry.

These lands were strangers to safety then, but no more; today they are the companion to serenity. Breathe this air dear reader and fill your lungs with the bucolic balm of old England – and let me share with you Holy Trinity Church at Wensley, a favourite haunt of mine when resting from my quests.

What can I tell you of this place? Today, it is run by a body called the Churches Conservation Trust – no doubt a sign of our times (or yours). Strangely, since last I was here, there have been new additions. The tower looks new for a start – although I am reliably told it was built in 1719 (new by my standards though). There’s also a striking font bedecked in the puritan style with letters and numbers less complex than in my day. And the Bolton family pew seems a little too modern for my taste.

But looking around I see some older fittings whose place I remember well. Behind the current family pew is a much older and more spectacular fitting, exquisitely carved from oak although sadly, dear reader, a little worse for wear today. I still see the reliquary containing the relics of Saint Agatha where once I bowed and kissed. And on the walls, some remains of the paintings which once filled me with joy and dread at the same time. Our Lord guides us as he frightens us. We are in His hands, but motes of dust on the vision of creation.

But reader, let me tell you more. When I last visited this church over 500 years ago, I remember making acquaintance with some very special friends in the choir and, to my delight, they are still here! Bors the Dragon; Jankyn the Hare; Lancelot the Lion and many more. Oh, what joys! How I used to talk to them in private moments and how they talk to me now, whispering the secrets of the centuries in my ears! They will talk to you too, if you let them.

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What a special place this is! Many years ago, long before your time, a good friend of mine lost a jewel in these lands near Middleham – a very precious golden square jewel bedecked with the names of the saints. I remember him saying to me in tears that he valued his jewel beyond price and even beyond love. Ah, what folly!

I told him then, as I tell you today, that there is greater jewellery in nature than ever could be made by man. Perhaps I was too harsh on the poor soul – today you can judge for yourself: take in the beauties of the dales and go and see a replica of his jewel in the church at Middleham.

It will be the perfect full stop on an exquisite day spent in these most beautiful lands.

Please note: many churches in Britain today are supported by the Churches Conservation Trust. These beautiful buildings are lucky to have such friends in times like these. Should you wish, you can learn more, become a member, and support the Trust here.

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The mediaeval graffiti at Anstey, Hertfordshire

Entrance to Anstey

Through the door: the ancient doorway to an older church at Anstey

Ah reader, when you point an old mare like Le Gringalet at an ancient road of the type which criss-crosses Hertfordshire, you are always sure to find a quiet surprise. And no more so than at the quiet village of Anstey in the north of the county. Well, a village now but in my time…

Sheltering below the great mound of the castle is a quite wonderful church. Here, as my anonymous friend wrote in his beautiful poem Pearl, we find something, “sette sengeley in synglere” (always one for the words, my Staffordshire friend!).  Here at Anstey, we have the silent graffiti of long lost souls.

Of course, I knew him well whose hand turned point to stone – but to inform you who inscribed these scratchings would be telling. I don’t want to get them into trouble with the priest: the last person who was caught ended up losing his hand – hardly a fitting end for a friend talking to the future! And besides, Nicolas de Anstie lost a lot more when he sided against King John so I think it’s best to keep quiet on these matters…

So instead, dear reader, I’d just like to affect an introduction to what I see as some of our scribe’s more exquisite creations… Look around and you see some treasures of my age, perhaps the finest of which are some wonderful jousting helms carved into the pillar near the centre of the church.

While these helms may be unfamiliar to you, I can recall well the merry jousters who once played for sport on the fields outside this church – royally entertained by Sir Nicolas himself.

But these shields are somewhat newer – I would say perhaps around 1300. Look closely and you see no idle scratch but the work of someone who knows what he studies: the breathing holes on the helm face, the continental crest with its horse and reins, the flowing decoration to the rear.

If I’m not mistaken, one crest resembles the ragged staff of the Earls of Warwick but without the bear: I don’t recall the knights in question but perhaps he is one of the Balliol family – a long way from home if he is!

Elsewhere, there are scallops – the sign of pilgrims – and pleas for help from Our Lady.And look further, scattered around are wagons, merchants in padded clothes, a three-legged pot – and a curious inscription near the beautiful font with its mermen. Alas, since last I was this way someone has “restored” the church and painted over this writing – it is difficult to decipher now.

But these changes succeeded in preserving the best. Yes, I know the delightful wall paintings I once knew are long gone save for a few remains, but Anstey is a special place. Reader, should you need some time for quiet reflection, come upon Anstey on a lazy day and share its cool shade. You will be richly rewarded with a mirror onto a distant age.

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A trip to Newport in Essex

Le Gringalet at Newport

Le Gringalet views Newport Church – what beauty lies within!

Le Gringalet took me today on a rural ride into north east Essex to survey our lands there. Beyond Stane Street, the country becomes more rolling and the lanes more secret. The countryside is ancient here, holding the stories of the centuries and telling them in quiet places.

One such place is Newport in Essex, east of the ancient Norman settlement of Clavering and just south of the saffron town of Walden, lying off the high road to Cambridge. When I knew it, it was a market town but these days, with the passing of time, it carries forth its trade in different ways.

For the unititiated, Newport hosts pleasant surprises but, as always, you must seek them – taking time to stop, to think and to absorb. One such place is the Church of St Mary the Virgin.

Since last I was this way in the 1550s, the Church has changed slightly – I feel sure the tower is different to how I remember it – and inside there are few of the decorations that once adorned the walls.

That said, reader, kneel in submission to the Lord and turn your eyes to the sky and there you will be greeted by a host of angels, carved in oak. They are a host in the heavens.

But what pleased me most was the movable altar there – a site I recall from my last visit here centuries ago – although it has been ravaged by time since then. But close study, dear reader, still repays: I believe it was made in the 1200s and though it has lost much decoration it dazzles like a jewel.

The carving on the front and sides is ornate, although it is with sorrow I report that the shields of illustrious knights which once bedecked it have long gone. No more Sir Bors, Sir Kay, Sir Galahad and my fellow knights, just hollow indentations. And yet, in our imaginations dear reader, we can make our own armorial bearings. We can festoon the blanks with colours and hues as bright as any battlefield.

Newport details of Reredos

The exquisite reredos on the portable altar at Newport church

Yet what pleased me most was the painted reredos. Of course, it is many years since I have seen it but the images are as clear now as they were then – dulled with time yes but as exquisite and as beautiful as they day they were first painted.

It is strange that on our journey through life we often miss those things which can enhance our experience beyond the humdrum and everyday.

If you pass through Newport, dear reader, fail not to enter the Church and partake of the joy you will find within its walls. You will not regret your experience.

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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