Saturday, October 1, 2016

Ancient Stones, Ancient Hill: Avebury and Silbury

I have wondered what the suffix "bury" means on a place name, since we seemed to see so many of them. So I looked it up on my return and learned that it means a fortified enclosure. There is a great website that explains many of the recurring prefixes and suffixes found on place names, so have a look here if you are also curious.

Our goal for our second day in England was to find two prehistoric sites, Avebury with its stone circles (similar to Stonehenge) and Silbury Hill, a large manmade earthen mound.

Through the window so odd reflections. I was so excited to finally be there!

There is nothing like driving through the English countryside. The greens are indescribable, the roads almost all edged with trimmed hedges, fields of sheep and cattle. I have never seen so many sheep in my lifetime, I swear. Even though there are about 53 million people in the country, there is still much open land and very active farming. I think this is because of their long-entrenched custom of living in villages and towns, in smaller homes than we Americans are used to. Many of the homes are what we would call townhouses or row houses. Villages have most of the essential services. There is no real need for a large plot of land to call your own because the country is crisscrossed with public footpaths so people are free to almost wander at will across farms and private land. It goes back, I suppose to the early days when almost all travel was by foot or by horse, and those old paths have remained in place for centuries. Today they are very much in use both for pleasure and just getting about. I wish the US had such a system of trails. We're getting more every year, but we have a lot of catching up to do on this one--because here, of course, we did not have centuries to develop the network before the advent of the automobile which quickly became our main mode of transport.

We found Silbury first. It wasn't hard to find for sure, since it dominates the landscape around it. A bus full of Italian tourists were at the site when we arrived, apparently on a spiritual rather than a historic tour. They stood for a long time very quietly, most with their hands stretched toward the hill. We were quiet too, so as not to disturb whatever experience they were striving for.

No one knows who built Silbury or why. There have been some excavations over the years to determine if it was a burial mound and some of these caused some serious damage to the limestone structure of the hill. Fortunately those efforts have stopped and repairs were done to stop the effects of the digging. Silbury is the largest manmade mound in Europe at almost 100 feet high. The mound was built around 2500-2000 BC and may have been used for defensive purposes. The odd thing is that there were several other intriguing structures, such as the Avebury henge (stone circle) built in the area at about the same time.

In West Virginia we have the Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, which is almost as big as Silbury, at 62 feet tall. Grave Creek was definitely a burial mound, as excavations in the 1800's discovered, and was built about 1000 BC. It does make one wonder, doesn't it, if that British mound-building culture somehow traveled to the Americas? What cultural beliefs inspired the building of such labor-intensive, time-consuming structures?

It was time for lunch so we stopped at a pub along the way. Good soup, bread, tea and coffee in front of this pretty window was just right.

 We moved on to Avebury and its stone circles. I've not been to Stonehenge but many people assured me that Avebury was far better, because it was less crowded, you could walk freely about the stones, and it was a larger site with several stone circles within the area. We did try to get to Stonehenge on our last day in England, but the place was jam-packed with people and that was not the kind of experience I wanted or needed. But Avebury--yes, that place was just amazing.

There were people at Avebury, but the nice thing was that it wasn't crowded, there was no guide to control how long we could stay at any given place, and we could take our time. Which we did! The Italian tour was here, too, touching and leaning on the stones with their eyes closed. I hope they found what they were seeking.

Some photos of what we saw here:

It was difficult to get a photo that really shows the massiveness of the stones and the site. Aerial photo needed! 

This is actually one of the smaller stones in the circle. Old man added for size comparison ;)

Odd little things embedded in the stones, like this, which looks like a seashell.

All around, green rolling fields.

 Old farm buildings gave us an interesting look at thatch.

 A fairy tree stood on a small hill. We saw several of these in our travels. The roots on this one, which I believe was a beech, were beautiful patterns.

Looks like mossy rows in a field, doesn't it? But actually, 

it's the mossy roof of an old building.

The church on the grounds was beautiful too. That is one thing I grew accustomed to--lovely old churches are everywhere in England. This one is Saxon, about 1000 years old. Difficult to comprehend in America, isn't it, that such old buildings could exist?

The oak parish chest dated 1634, which would contain all church records--baptisms, deaths, marriages, etc.

The round font is also old, and full of history. From the church website: "The tub font is possibly of Saxon origin but has detailed carving of the first quarter of the 12th century. It was apparently done by a local stonemason and probably shows Christ trampling on two dragons, representing evil and sin. However the figure holds a crosier and so has also been held to represent a bishop, although Professor George Zarnecki believes that the rustic sculptor misunderstood the picture that he was copying and added the crosier."

We ended our visit with a cream tea at the cafe onsite, where we had a lovely chat with an elderly couple who had returned because they had left some purchases behind the day before. Someone had turned the bag in and they were quite happy about it. It was a nice way to end the day's exploration.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Friday, September 30, 2016

One Small Church, Three Stories

Our stay with Tim Sheppard was a perfect end to our first day in England.

We met his lady, Diane, and spent a delightful evening in their garden, hearing about thebadgers, birds and other wildlife that visited even so close to the city, and just talking and catching up. I think the last time I saw Tim was at least 10 years ago at a storytelling conference here in the states. Thank goodness for the internet that allows us to keep in touch with friends in faraway places.

Before we left the next morning, Tim showed us the church on his lane. This is St. Luke's, and it contains a few interesting stories.

First, see those little figures in the tower? Tim told us that it is believed that these represented two members of the De La Warr family, One of this family, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, became the governor-for-life of the new colony of Virginia. It was he who took three ships, outfitted at his own expense, to the new colony of Jamestown and arrived just in time at Grapevine Point on the James River to convince the colonists to stay. Surprisingly, I once stood on Grapevine Point--my son was stationed at an Army base in Virginia which now encompasses the site. I have a thick, twisted piece of vine on my porch that came from that place. Strange how our lives can twist and touch, isn't it?

The De La Warr name became the name of the Delaware River, the state, and the Anglo name for the natives who lived in the valley of the river. 

Another odd little tidbit I picked up from my cousin John who writes the blog By Stargoose and Hanglands: you will see many English churches at below ground level, like this one, with the drainage around them. This is because over the centuries bodies were added to the graves, raising the ground level around the church. Indeed, according to some accounts, there was sometimes only enough soil and space to barely cover the corpse! The custom of putting flowers on a grave might have more to do with killing the stench than anything else. Somewhere recently I read or heard that at one church the minister stopped mid-service because the smell of rotting corpses was so overwhelming. Hard to imagine, isn't it? I wish I could remember where I got that bit of information.

This is the market cross, also referred to on the church's website as a preaching cross, It denoted the place where people could gather to sell their goods. Based on the structure of this one, I think Tim's identification is correct as this does not appear to have ever have had a crossbeam as a cross would have had, although I suppose it could have been a symbol to call people to worship. Over the years it also became a favorite place to take group photos. If I remember rightly, Tim said it was moved to its present site many years ago.

And the last intriguing mystery in this churchyard: the grave of Thomas Newman, aged 153 years at the time of his death. The inscription reads: 

Thomas Newman 
Aged 153 
This stone was new-faced in the Year 1771, to perpetuate the great age of the Deceased

Was Thomas Newman really 153 years old? Or is this an old, old joke? 

Paul Townsend posted this about the stone on Flickr: " In Brislington church cemetery there is a grave which states that a Thomas Newman was 153 years old when he died. TWO mysteries surround the grave of Thomas Newman. Firstly, the inscription states that he was 153 years old when he died in 1542, but the record for the oldest person we know of is 120.

So did a local wag, or even the stonemason, add the figure one to the 53 way back in the 16th century and nobody noticed, or did Thomas really live to that great age?  

Secondly, the gravestone in St Luke's states: 'This stone was new faced in the year 1771 to perpetuate the great age of the deceased.' ut the greater mystery is that there is another grave of another Thomas Newman, also aged 153, in Bridlington, Yorkshire, with almost the same inscription. So, is the Brislington stone the one that disappeared from Bridlington hundreds of years ago? Or was a headstone put in each space because nobody was sure where Thomas lived?

But would people living in 16th-century England know that there was both a Brislington and Bridlington hundreds of miles apart? Could there have been two Thomas Newmans who both lived to 153? I doubt if the truth will ever be known.

The celebrated farmer Thomas Parr, who was buried in Westminster Abbey in the 17th century, claimed to be 152! - When the average life span for a male was only 30?" 

A mystery indeed! 

According to the book The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset by John Collinson, it was all a hoax. According to the author, someone carved in the number 1 in front of 53, to make this man older than another reputed to have died at 152. Truth, or not? Who is to know today? I suppose scientists could dig him up and do tests that might determine his actual age, but then there would be nothing left to wonder about, would there?

So many stories in one small church, and I know that this is only the tip of the iceberg, for any place that has seen human activity for over 1000 years will surely have more stories than we will ever learn. 

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

And So We Began in Bristol

Our trip began in Bristol, where our flight landed. And our first culture shock was almost immediate: getting the rental car and learning to drive on the right hand side of the car on the left hand side of the road. That was Larry's job, and after the long overnight flight he was not really ready for it. But there was nowhere to do a little practice, so with prayers and crossed fingers off we went.

And it was fine. I've had such a fear of attempting to drive in Britain but after 1200 or so miles, I am here to tell you it's doable. Not that I was ever behind the wheel! I was navigator and Larry drove because the insurance for both of us to drive was too expensive. So my job was to remind him to stay on the left, to help navigate the hundreds of roundabouts, get the GPS (or SatNav as they call it over there) set up with our next destinations, and generally  keep Larry on track.

We didn't have a GPS for the first leg of the trip but we did have a good, new road atlas which got us around fairly well except for in Bristol. We'd hoped to meet storyteller Tim Sheppard for lunch but we never were able to find the place and after many laps around the city--so many that people began to think we were casing the place, I think--we gave up and headed to Bath for a late lunch. Bath proved to be far too busy and crowded a place for travel-weary us, so after lunch we left, and drove to the small town of Saltford where we discovered a lovely old church, and our first pub of the trip.

We needed this quiet break.

I could not believe the size of this tree, a yew I believe.

This is St. Mary's Anglican Church, which is over 1000 years old. It is believed to have been built by the Normans, and the tower is believed to be Saxon, although it has been added to, as you can see in the photo. There is a Norman baptismal font inside that was once used as a cattle trough, but was found and returned to the church.

Soft country views were balm to our souls after a hectic 48 hours.

Looking through one window to another.

We followed the narrow lane past the church and found ourselves beside the River Avon. (A different river, as my cousin corrected below, than that of Shakespearean fame.) This is the view from the Jolly Sailor pub, where we stopped for tea for me, and Guinness for Larry.

The long boats barely visible in this photo are canal boats (click to see better images of them) and some of them had their laundry hanging on their roofs! There was a simple locks on the river here that the canal boats let themselves through as they traveled. Wish I had a photo of that, but I was fairly brain dead by this time.

We left Saltford and drove into Keynsham to my friend Tim's home. And from that visit came stories. More about that tomorrow.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.
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