23 July 2017

An ancient holloway

I mentioned in a recent post on my nature blog, earthstar, that, when out square-bashing for biological records with my friend Hilary, we found an ancient green lane, and this is it.

A local man whom we asked for directions when our maps weren’t quite precise enough told us this was part of a Roman road but that didn’t seem likely so I did some digging. I found a document online that maps out the Roman roads in southeast Wales and this lane is not included. Also, Roman roads are known to have a certain physical structure, to have a humped profile for better drainage, and generally to have been well formed, and this green lane was nothing like that.

Though probably not Roman, I was still convinced this path was an old one. 

Tracing the line on a map, you can easily see that the people who lived in the settlement of Llanmartin might have used the path to access what was once the old Llandevaud corn mill. The mill was marked as disused on the 1882-83 OS map, which implies that both the structure and the lane leading to it would date to the early 19th century, if not earlier.

But I had a feeling that this path was even older. 

I knew about ancient pathways called holloways from Robert Macfarlane’s excellent book The Old Ways: A journey on foot (Penguin, London, 2012), in which Macfarlane explains that holloway ‘comes from the Anglo-Saxon hol weg, and refers to a sunken path that has been grooved into the earth over centuries by the passage of feet, wheels and weather.’

I dug deeper and found references to an article that had been published about the path we had found: ‘An ancient green lane between Court Farm, Llanmartin, and Main Road at Llanbeder, Gwent via Mill Lane’ by Dr Mark Lewis, Senior Curator: Roman Archaeology at National Museum Wales, in the journal The Monmouthshire Antiquary (vol. XXXIII, 2017, pp.43-50). 

Luckily, Cardiff city library had a copy of the journal.

Lewis’s research into the green lane was, as you might expect, very thorough. He notes that the depth of this particular holloway ‘evidences the combined action of traffic and water over a very significant period of time’ and that the holloway ‘predates historic adjacent field boundaries’. 

He also notes that the lane traces part of a line between the early medieval sites of Llanbeder and Bishton, both of which were ‘ecclesiastical, episcopal holdings, held by the bishops of Llandaff before the Norman Conquest’, and he further speculates that the lane could have formed part of a network of lanes allowing access between ports on the Severn estuary and the ‘major historic and ancient east-west communication routes (the modern-day A48 and the Wentwood ridgeway)’. Lewis concludes by saying: ‘A medieval or early-medieval origin is very likely. Roman or pre-historic origins are possible’.

Though its exact age can never be known, the holloway was certainly a magical place to walk. I had a very real sense that we had been transported back in time, that we were walking in the footsteps of the ancients.

04 June 2017

Lullington: the smallest church in Britain

When I visited my friend Jill back in October 2014, she took me to see one of the loveliest churches I had ever seen, St Michaels and All Angels in Berwick. During my visit a few weeks ago, Jill took me to see another, just as lovely, and this one has the distinction of being the littlest church in the nation.

To reach it we walked from the picturesque town of Alfriston, along a public footpath, across the River Cuckmere, alongside fields of crops, and up a hill, with glorious views back towards Alfriston and across the Cuckmere Valley.

Veering off the fields, we passed through a small wooded area and then up a short path to a clearing and there it stood, the Church of the Good Shepherd ... or, at least, what’s left of it. The reason it’s the smallest church in Britain is because the church is really just the chancel of a much larger building that was destroyed by fire many centuries ago. You can see some of the stonework that marks the extent of the original church in my photo.

Measuring just 16 feet (5 metres) square, the church now seats around 20 people. Though it has no electricity for light or heating, regular services are still held there during the summer months. And, when extra people turn up, as frequently happens for the Harvest Festival, the congregation sits in the churchyard.

According to the British Listed buildings website, the church was probably built in the late 12th or early 13th century, of flint with a tiled roof. 

Initially, its isolated location made the church the perfect retreat for the monks of Alciston, but control was later handed over to the monastery at Battle Abbey. 

Later still, in 1251, the church was transferred to the Bishop of Chichester.

Nowadays, there are only a couple of houses near the church; they are all that remains of the village of Lullington, whose population was apparently much affected by the Black Death in the early 1330s.

Legend has it that the church, apart from the chancel, was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in the 1650s but there are no historical records to confirm that tale.

The Church of the Good Shepherd sits in a wonderfully tranquil setting and it’s a lovely walk to and from Alfriston, so I’d definitely recommend the stroll if you’re in the area. 

30 May 2017

It’s a sign: Lewes, 1

Judging by the number of signs on its buildings, I think it’s fair to say that the small East Sussex town of Lewes must have had more famous people per capita living within its boundaries over the centuries than any other town in Britain. And what an interesting assortment of people they have been.

First off, Albion Russell (1821-1888), who opened a boot and shoe shop in Lewes in 1861. He was joined by George Bromley in 1873 after Bromley married Russell’s daughter Elizabeth, and, if you know your shoe brands, then you’ll know the rest. Together they formed the now-famous and still highly successful high-end footwear-manufacturing partnership of Russell and Bromley.

Portrait of Richard Russell by Benjamin Wilson, in public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Next, there’s Dr Richard Russell F.R.S. (1687-1759) (I wonder if he was related to the bootmaker). In 1750, he was the author of a dissertation that prescribed the drinking of sea water as a cure for diseases of the lymphatic glands, and he further recommended that people should try the waters near Brighton, both for drinking and for bathing. The popularity of his ideas contributed to Brighton becoming a fashionable bathing resort, and there is also a plaque for him in Brighton.

Here’s another famous Lewes-born doctor, Gideon A. Mantell F.R.S. (1790-1852). 

The son of a shoemaker, Mantell was apprenticed to a local doctor in 1805 and was later awarded his diploma as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. 

In his spare time, Mantell was a keen amateur geologist and he and his wife Mary would take long walks collecting fossils. 

It was on one of these walks that Mantell discovered the fossilised bones of a prehistoric reptile he later named the Iguanodon (though rumour has it that Mary made the actual discovery!).

[Image of Mantell's Maidstone fossil Iguanodon, 1840, via Wikimedia Commons]

Thomas Matthew was a generous man. A Presbyterian and a woollen draper, in his will of 21 December 1688 he bequeathed his house, St Michael’s Court on Keere Hill, for the use and benefit of the poor (chiefly poor widows) of the parish of St Michael-in-Lewes. The local County Court later ordered that the building ‘should be used as a residence for six deserving poor widows or poor single women not less than fifty years of age’, and it continued to function as an almshouse until 1960. Nowadays, this early 18th-century flint building contains two substantial and rather expensive private houses.

At 12 Keere Street, there once lived an author called Eve Garnett (1900-1991). She wrote The Family from One End Street, thought to be based in Lewes, which won the Carnegie Medal for Best Children’s Book in 1938 (beating Tolkein’s The Hobbit) and is still considered a classic. Garnett was also an accomplished artist, illustrating many children’s books, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and exhibiting at The Tate and the Lefevre Gallery. One of her paintings, ‘Lewes Gasworks from South Street’, is in the collections at the Barbican.

And last but most certainly not least – in fact, this last was a man of international fame, the man who wrote Common Sense and The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, the man who has been hailed as the intellectual inspiration behind the American war of independence, the great Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Just to be clear, Paine wasn’t born in Lewes but he did live in a house here, now called Bull House, from 1768 to 1774, at which time he was a plain old tobacconist and exciseman. Paine married Elizabeth Olive, the daughter of the owners of Bull House, in 1771 but then he left her in 1774, moved initially to London and subsequently to America to stir up revolution.