Category Archives: Touring England

Swinside: Stone Sentinels of Past Centuries


Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria

Travelling, Le Gringalet has called me to Lancashire and Cumberland in my cause;
My horse lifts me high upon heath and mighty on mound
Through lofty lowlands and limp inlets sandy on Furness fallow.
Climbing now with Morcambe bay massive on my left shoulder
I soon rise to fields thrashed by winds, throttling life and thrusting sheep against walls
Where now we reach a circle stoney, standing guard sternly:
Swinside, the sunkenkirk, swept by swarming blasts, many stones sleeping close to the ground.

When I walked here last on the warmest of days under King Richard
These stones still stood circular and knowledge was dim as to their purpose.
And nothing now has changed save the passing of the years from one new one to the next.
Yes, more of this henge no longer hangs but hugs the soil where wind has pushed it
But whether warm to the ground or still windswept and upright
These robust stones remain in their entirety from my day and before.

What celebration have they seen in the years they stood?
What flushed face of youth feebly withstood young love here?
What women grew round and with birth gave the earth?
What men fought fights for far-flung tribal rites?
Did Romans see, stare and set apart?
Did Norman knights ennoble themselves through nuance of connection?
Did woman out of wedlock worry in tears for her child?

These stone sentinels of past centuries have seen it all:
The clasped hands of heaving lovers; the glistening eyes of sorrow;
The last sight of a land once loved by men away to foreign wars;
The coming and going of the seasons, from sweet to sweat;
The growing old of children, as childhood became but yesterday
And men grew weary, weeping for the youth they’d squandered.

Swindside is a site of yesterdays, steward of memories and holding them in its silent grasp:
If we could know its secrets we would without melancholy accept our fate
But yet the passage of time slips through our fingers and from our feeble grasp
And with it we see our lives pass by as particles of sand sieved with fumbling futility.
Swinside with certainty in its silent ways sways us to reflection
On how we lead our lives.

As we journey on our way, take care;
Our errors cause much pain.
But if through all our acts we’re fair
Our honour will remain.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Cumbria, English History, English myths and legends, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Stone Circles, Touring Britain, Touring England

The Cittie beneath the Ocean sits and sleeps


image of sign at Dunwich cliffs

A simple sign reveals the futility of man’s struggle against the seas at Dunwich, Suffolk

Flood flow and fluvium flings the shingle shore sharply in the waves
As here at Dunwich my horse has homed me thus.
But behold the sea! Battering swells have swung the swarming throng
That I knew well when Bigod was bigging and boasting way back then
And cast them to the corners of the earth leaving but the calm of beach and boat!
For where once was town there now be but waves.

Image of JMW Turner's painting of Dunwich

Dunwich as captured by JMW Turner – when this picture was painted, the wreck of Dunwich was still returning 2 MPs to Parliament even though a handful of people lived in the constituency.

Dunwich, greatest of the citties of the East, a Suffolk surety
Against the predations of France and proudly preaching its excellence
At those pretenders Orford, Blythburgh and Walton – sea towns, sea men and sea bound.
If I listen, I can hear the homesteads and high spirits of merchant, monk and merry man!
If I cast my eye it walks down webs of wicker and wattle, warming on women who weave in the yards!
There was power here once – parliament itself was propped by Clerk and Brantham;
Precursors of a poisoned politik portrayed as but rotten by 1832.

What wrought the stones and crushed them to cobbles clacking?
The sea! The German Ocean, the great North Sea! Smooth swell but swarming.
This sea looks brown as is moves in shallow sands murmuring;
Voices cry from its depths, bells toll to unseen ears, unhearing now and unholy.
Storms moved with menace mightily down this coast and men did quake but to behold them!

Defoe knew well how windmills burned in woe as winds whipped sails beyond endurance.
But the mighty winds of Maurus mocked the men before his time
And more blows too did the cheeks of God bustle forth in His anger at our vanity!

Image of old Dunwich

Dunwich collapses into the sea; today nothing remains of this church

He shut off the river and rendered town rudderless;
Churches were cast to the earth in Middle Age and modern time:
Slowly they succumbed: St James; St Peter’s; St Nicholas; All Saints –
And more! Street by street, the sea sucked away the sand and slurped up the people.

Today a monastery in ruins stands upon the cliffs marking time, making friends.
It knows that like its brothers long ago its boldness will be but bluster
When the waves come to call one last time to waft it to the waters.
Look closely at those cliffs and clear you’ll see the bones of cloistermen
Long gone from Greyfriars, growing from the soil, groaning in lament
Of a time when land loyally lapped their lair, a haven high.

Yet for years all was not lost! Young was its spirit as it clung to old privilege!
In arrogance, this undersea urchin still with unction sent its London members
Till with Great Reform even this last vestige of its vain power was vanquished
In the name of democracy. And duped thus Dunwich died – a footnote to a finer time.
Now, a few houses on a street end sit, stumps of a place once superior now silent
As an English village supping beer in sleepy Suffolk while, just beyond, the old cittie sings
Among the fish, the flounder and the foaming horse.

When we with vanity talk of power
And at our mirrors crow
Just simply think of Dunwich tower
And know which way you’ll go.

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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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In Devon banks down darkest lanes, bench ends beguiling


Bench end showing Death at Abbotsham Church

Death waits at Abbotsham – a reminder to all who sit in churches and elsewhere that their time will come

In different counties different downs roll deep their view to unravel, and so it was in Devonshire I rode on good Le Gringalet in search of things distinctive to pass away my hours.

Here is a most green of counties, a shire of verdant vibrancy in normal times yet cast brown by our long winter, spent as it was indoors before flame and fire avoiding of the freeze without. Never had I seen this county thus before yet clear it was before me now – and cold.

No ruby red, no cream upon the scone nor cheese crusty set upon my trencher. So into darker fields Le Gringalet led me towards two old parishes I thought I knew me well, named Abbotsham and High Bickington. What changes here since last I rode with Arthur in warmer days, wafting through lands and away on our hunting!

Abbotsham now by Appledore is closer, accreted such by dwellings that its once famed views of Torridge’s effluxion have now but eased below the eaves of roof tops many. Yet that church still it stands though starkly, so afflicted as it is by the varied violations of Victorian scrapers. But inside, what wares to while away the surface of your eyes!

This church, most charmless and cheap from outside yet once within giveth of its gifts with generosity unbounded: a bevy of bench-ends becoming and becalming at one and the same time. Look here at Death, his scythe he settles on we see. And there a workman wrapped forever in a woven bracket carved from wood. On another, Our Lord laughed at by later vandals is defaced upon the cross while too another bench blows mischief at some bounder riding backwards on his bay.

Bench ends are here distinctive while high above old faces beam, fragile survivors of all the worst of favours that those in Victoria’s reign could through upon their fame…

So let us move inland now to Old Devon where country folk, changed though they have, speak calmly as in all centuries they have and as, with God’s grace, they shall in future do. Let us ride out to High Bickington, remote and blowy on its rising ground bold standing in its grip of green damp grasping.

Here is a church much as I remembered it! A church charming and cheery despite the cheese of green decay which now impregnates its stones. In this church silent you can sit and hear the wind, a-feared as God Himself intended by the howling of the wind which did in centuries past cast down the spire of Norwich on St Maurus day.

In this damp room of sanctuary sleepy let settle your eyes in the gloom and touch those things my fingers brushed in centuries gone by. A sad remnant of a decorated carving – a rood screen perhaps long gone? Glass glistening and gold in places growing older and more faint by the years as Godless and unholy men predate the world without.

Yet more bench ends beckon and these beguile as well they should. Chanting singers sweetly sound in silence, four in a row; on another a Landsckecht, loosely ribboned loiters ready to work for whosoever wafts coin his way. Headless creatures hunted by the horrid in puritan times are hacked to faceless now, their forms only faring better through lack of subsequent protrusion. And finally, chance a man from China? No – this praying penitent points palms upwards as pigtail pony-like points back; a headdress of more humble times harks in the silence of the stones and tiles.

Let us leave these places now to sleep some more and centuries see out. It saddens me to think them sentinels of a silent age but still they stand and stoutly too, carrying their message to newer people long after I have left these lands and am but dust upon the earth.

In fields which still to me are there

from times when last I walked

I visited them once again to stare

And still to me they talked

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Bench end Abbotsham

At Abbotsham, one of a number of such designs in other churches in Devon – a man bent double for all time

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of the font at Abbotsham

Wonderfully carved fluted font at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of Death on a bench end at Abbotsham

Death at Abbotsham – the scythe had long since gone although parts of it remain if you look carefully

Image of Death on bench end at Abbotsham church

Here you can see the fuller bench end at Abbotsham, showing the design above Death.

Image of bench end at Abbotsham church showing instruments of the Passion

This image shows craftsmens’ tools carved into a bench end at Abbotsham. These may be connected to the Passion

Image of a bench end at Abbotsham church

Interesting curved forms on a bench end at Abbotsham

Image showing Norman door at High Bickington

The ancient Norman doorway at High Bickington Church, Devon

Image of early bench end at High Bickington Church

This bench end appears to have been cut into pieces – there are two other portions elsewhere in the church

Image of defaced bench end at High Bickington

A damaged bench end, probably defaced in the Puritan period at High Bickington

Image of Another animal bench end at High Bickington

Another damaged animal, headless.

Singers on a bench end at High Bickington

This image shows four singers. The “feathers” emerging from their mouths represent singing.

image of Landscknecht bench end at High Bickington

An image of a renaissance German mercenary or landsknecht. It is interesting that the person who carved this must have travelled abroad.

image of mediaeval carving at High Bickington

This fragment is all that remains of a much larger earlier piece. Nothing else remains at the church

image of The font, High Bickington

This wonderful font has an attractive ropework base and classic early mediaeval decoration.

image of man in pigtail on bench end at High Bickington

This image is said to represent someone from China but in fact the headdress is late mediaeval.

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Lord Bardolph of Agincourt at Dennington


Image of Dennington Church, Suffolk

Dennington Church, Suffolk. The interior will astonish the visitor

Suffolk, the sandlings and sky. Here Le Gringalet guides me through the greenswards of England along the old road to Southwold and the coast of the German Ocean. Flat land, a fair wind and a festival of flowers dot the roadside as here at Dennington I find myself.

As with so much in my quest, the world has turned and wended a way beyond my comprehension. Yet this old church, charming still stands and chides those who choose to turn their heads to the gods of greed and avarice. And well have the centuries like sentinels kept this saintly place!

Square the tower stands as the squires had seen it built, squatting by stonemasons. The nave, when new, nestled here at the junction of quiet lanes and the glass glistered to all who glimpsed upon its luxury. Let us press inside and see what my eyes had seen in the silence of past sights…

Disappointment is not a word which deigns to dirty the glory herewithin. Light cascades as a carapace of calm onto dark figures dancing before the Greatest Deity. Poppy-headed pews portray people, poets and priests. And monsters, mystical figures and even a mermaid sit silently as you in prayer solemnly contemplate order, place and your own insignificance. 

Science and scepticism stop here now to see the Sciapod. Unusual in these islands, our one-footed friend falls in slumber on sunny days beneath the shadow of his single sole. Here he has lain, forever entombed by the bench-end since the day he was carved in oak by a carpenter skilled. Few who come here know of him yet those who find him scarce forget their fortune in such discovery.

More, too, looms here in this noble nave nestling. An old clock whose clicking has long since ceased to clatter and tell the passing of the days. Oaken chests which once chimed with the chink of tithe moneys given. And now, a great prize indeed: the tomb of Lord Bardolph, maligned in ignorance by the great bard of later years but who, in beauty now, belies a legacy undeserved.

Here in his chapel Lord Bardolph chatters in eternity to his cheery wife, holding hands in heaven as here on earth their visage still remains. Study now his armour, beaten on the field of Agincourt by blows French – but yet he stood. The arrows flew, the horses shied, and Frenchmen were flung to the field and drowned in the mud and crush of that October day long ago.

In the horror of that foreign furrowed field did this man found his glory. Here was a man who knew well the wounds of Henry, his cheek chiselled by a charmless bodkin at Shrewsbury in 1403. This man knew in dysentery disembowelled the distress of archers daunted by the chivalry of France. And blessed he was by the baton-beating command of Erpingham: Nestroque! Now Strike!

In one day at Agincourt the flower of France wilted in those furrows and brave men on both sides took belting blows. There is no fame in the fear that frets a man at the moment his life is soon lifeless to become. Yet those who stay behind stall not with their words when stating that they who died on Crispin’s day will be remembered well by Englishmen for all time.

So Bardolph sleeps in  bier ornate

His memory spanning time

In his survival fortunate

In life he saw his prime

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At the home of the joggled lintel: Conisborough Castle revisited


Conisborough Castle - Joggled lintel above the main door

What is it about travelling, reader, that makes of the mind to float like the Orford Merman, lost among the brown and briney waves? In my quest to find the quoins of the door to my escape I query at times why ceaseless disappointment never dissuades me from my search. Each castle I find, casts new barbs at my calm: each church and chancel disturbs me as I try to chart my true way home. And here, so, I am brought to Conisborough where once I dined on coney meat and now just the carping of the pigeons serves to capture past times…

Lurk long in the land of Yorkshire and soon you come to Conisborough. It’s keep is like a beacon brightly burning above the hillside and yet… When last I lingered here such sport was to be found in several parks that a lord could stay all year and never tire of the hunting. Not now though, for all around are dwellings and dowdy views I dare not describe in depth for fear of offence.

But let me tell you how it once was to me as in the household of the de Warennes I did discover the delights of that great place. Ascent to the great bailey was by a barbican tall and bold: a narrow defile among high walls, a death-trap for the dim-witted. And those high walls were bright as snowberries being built of York stone to shine for miles, lighting the way for the weary traveller…

Inside, I will take you, the inner ward wakens the soul, awash with sounds of the denizens within. In the bailey the kitchen staff cook in cauldrons round while stablemen stoutly stand to groom the lord’s horses. And here you too could wait while through the long day the wallowing shadow of the Donjon turns round the realm like a rouncey on slow parade.

Ghosts all now, of course, those gentlemen and guards have gone the way of history. But let us not leave here, alighting instead the steps to the stone sentinel, this great keep, one of the most remarkable in the kingdom. These stairs are new, I perceive, pitched differently to the practice when I last walked here but nevertheless, and notwithstanding, they nudge you upwards to the great door.

In standing there, before entering, eye if you will the excellent masonry: a joggled lintel jiggling jauntily above your head – moving but static; moving and ecstatic. These stones stir the soul, perched perilously in position as they have done these last seven centuries since. And thence inside, an empty chamber now but one which once chanced to cheer you as the Lord John de Warenne chuckled with his friends a welcome. At least that was so when I last saddled up this way in a distant summer in 1340…

This astounding stone stump is as complex as it is comforting. Buttressed all about by bold bastions six, it dazzles the dozy dreamer, being visible for miles.You are impressed at first sight, your innocent imagination imbued with visions of the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: the castle as culture, a carapace of kings. But back inside to be becalmed by the beauty of it: that welcoming chamber again makes you ghasp with its gawping fireplace with joggled lintels more.

Then, fellow traveller, ascend to the Lord’s room above to listen as I once did to his lilting voice. His private chamber charms you with its chapel, a wash-basin to water as you will, and views over hunting hills and high banks. That chapel is indeed cheering with its fine vaulting, piscina and cupboard for the chalice. This small room is where our Mighty Lord, He that lives above us, loiters in your spirit, glowing like a spark above dark waters…

And then you climb further, by invitation, inclining inside the walls as the steps lead you to the light, like a lamp at the end of a tunnel. Athwart that tower take time to be entranced by vistas vast and velvety if, by chance, you can imagine what was once to be seen beyond what’s there now… Yet there is one more treat for the traveller of turrets bold: a pigeon coop fashioned in a buttress for the private predeliction of the Lord Warenne, now long gone

It is said that mighty kings earn wealth by grace

and keep it with a hand of stone.

But I know too that here’s the case:

Such work cannot be done alone.

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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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