Monday, 9 January 2017

Digging The Countryside

My last post mysteriously re-publishing itself has set me thinking about other snippets that I've written in the past which might be worth re-visiting. At present I'm taking care of my mother and I'm not able to get out and about as much as usual, so this is also a way to keep putting the occasional post out there for your perusal and, I hope, entertainment and edification. For those who've read some of this before there's a bit more info on coprolites, or "dinosaur dung", at the end of the post.....

A Mound On The Ground

This neat little mound stands beside a footpath just a mile or so from my back door, though I was completely unaware of its existence till I was looking at a map of my local area. It's a burial mound constructed in the Bronze Age, probably for some local chieftain. These things were dotted all over the countryside at one time but many have disappeared beneath the plough. The farmers here have been dutifully ploughing around it for centuries. 

At one time it may have contained grave goods - earthenware pots and such like to help the dead person on their journey into the next world - though most of these mounds were excavated by enthusiastic archaeologists in the nineteenth century. You can find examples in almost any museum in the land.

Just A Ditch?

The Fens of North Cambridgeshire were once a large area of low-lying ground used for wildfowling, fishing and summer grazing. Despite their unpromising appearance they have been important to mankind since earliest times and many important archaeological sites have been discovered there recently - more of them some other time, I hope. 

The channel shown above is right on the edge of the Fens, one of the earliest areas to be drained. Its dead-straight course might make you think that it's a modern construction, but in fact it dates from the time when the Romans were occupying these islands. 

It not only served to drain the land but also acted as a canal allowing boats to bring goods in to the fen-edge villages. In fact pretty much all the drainage channels in the Fens are ruler-straight regardless of their age - you don't need to ask a mathematician or even a Roman engineer the shortest route between two points, any man armed with a shovel seems to know instinctively!

The Fleam Dyke

Stretching across the Cambridgeshire landscape for a distance of 5 Km, just over 3 miles, looking to the casual observer like an abandoned railway cutting is The Fleam Dyke. But it was actually constructed in at least three distinct phases between 330 AD and 620 AD and is a bank and ditch some 7 metres (23 feet) in height - an awful lot of men with shovels needed for that! 

As if that Herculean effort were not enough there are two less substantial linear earthworks to the south west and the even more massive Devil's Dyke stretching for some six miles to the east. All of them are thought to have been defensive lines constructed by the Anglo-Saxons of East Anglia against possible invasion by the Romano-British to the west.

To construct these huge defences must have taken a high degree of co-operation and organisation amongst the inhabitants. 

Hummocks On The Hillside

Just a short bike-ride from home there's the nearest thing we have to a hill around here and on it is a grassy meadow filled with hummocks and shallow trenches. Most people might pass by without comment but it's actually the site of the lost village of Clopton. Back in 1292 this place was large enough to have its own market, but numbers gradually dwindled till the land was sold off and the new owners reckoned sheep would be more profitable than people. The remaining villagers were evicted and the land laid down to pasture. 

An Odd-Looking Pond

In the little village of Harlton there's a large, oblong, shallow pond. In spring and summer it's an attractive, peaceful corner, though in the past it must have been a much busier place. There's a clue in the name of the lane, but just what was washed here?

Here's a description from of a similar task being undertaken in the valley of the River Thames:

"Near this ferry there is a sheep-wash;  the sheep-washing generally takes place about the end of May, before the summer shearing.  It is great fun to look on at this performance;  there are generally two pens above the wash, two divisions in the wash, and a large dripping-pen for the sheep as they come out.  At the wash at Ewelme the men seize the sheep by the wool,  and raising them up in the air, drop them on their backs into the water, where they float at first like huge corks;  very soon, however, nothing but their heads remains above.  They are progged along with sheep-hooks to a narrow place, on each side of which a man seizes them and ransacks their wool;  he then slips their heads underneath a bar, when they are allowed to swim away to the dripping ground.  On their first landing they stagger and fall with the immense weight of water carried in their wool;  but they soon get all right, and dry up beautifully white and clean.  The whole scene, with the dogs and men, is very lively and amusing."  - George Leslie Wallingford.

"Dinosaur Dung" - at last!

In my previous "accidentally published" post there was mention of the Coprolite mining rush of the nineteenth century. I'm not going to publish it for a third time (!) though you can read it here if you missed it.

But I did mention that these rounded phosphatic nodules which were mined from the fields around here were not actually dinosaur dung, as was first assumed, though I failed to say how they were formed for the very good reason that I'm not entirely sure! 

But though coprolites are found in other places which may well be dinosaur dung, our ones are not. Disappointing but true. Our Cambridgeshire ones are thought to have been formed by decaying matter on the floor of ancient oceans which then became embedded in later formations of clay. I've never found a clear account of this process though you can read about it here should you so desire:

Have fun.


Take care.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Some Entertaining Lamp Posts

(I was updating some information on this post and for some reason it's re-published itself with today's date. I've no idea why it did that, or how to change it, so here (with apologies to those who've read it all before) is a rather ancient post for your delight!)

.....the world seems so amusing everywhere that it is hardly worthwhile to travel. When I start out for the ends of the earth, I am stopped on the road by an entertaining lamp post.....
                                                                                                                              G K Chesterton.

That seems to be my problem sometimes. I keep having to stop and investigate something that any normal person would pass by. Here are just a few more things that I have encountered on my travels.

The Clock Tower

A well-known feature of the Cambridgeshire village of Fenstanton. It started off as a Market Hall in the 17th century. Later the building was converted to the parish lock-up, that is a cell where local miscreants could be detained until they could be dealt with by the local magistrates or, where appropriate, until they'd sobered up! Can you imagine that? Being locked up with a big clock ticking above you and chiming every hour - when you've got a hangover! Now that's what I call making the punishment fit the crime. Now of course it's just used for telling the time, not doing time.

Ron's Farm Shop

Quite nearby the clock tower is this establishment selling locally-produced vegetables. No supermarket shelves ever looked this attractive. The doors at first floor level suggest that the building was originally a hayloft.

Digging for Dinosaur Dung??

Well, no, not quite. But that's what the men who dug this hole thought they were doing. In the mid-19th century 'coprolites' were discovered throughout a large part of Cambridgeshire. These were rounded nodules of rock which were high in phosphate and which occurred perhaps 8 to 20 feet below the surface. These rocks could be ground down to make an excellent artificial fertilizer. It was suggested that they must be fossilized dinosaur dung and the word "coprolite" was coined, derived from the Greek for "dung-stone". It was later proved that this was not their origin, but the idea has persisted.

The method of mining was to dig a deep trench, then to dig away at one side of the trench and fill in from behind - much the same as digging the garden but on a much larger scale. Gradually the trench crept across the field and the coprolites were removed. Once they'd reached the other side of the field, of course, nobody could be bothered to fill the trench in, so several water-filled trenches are still to be seen in the landscape today, though very few people know what they are.

The industry formed the basis of the agrochemical industry in this part of the world. But the coprolite mining itself ceased as quickly as it had begun when guano (seabird droppings) began to be imported from the tropics.

An Old Sign

Up on a wall, beside a narrow alley in Cambridge is this sign. It catches the eye of the occasional tourist though most walk straight past. The age of the sign is somewhat debatable; it's been repainted at least once in my memory. But the name of the lane is perhaps more interesting. It recalls the time when the women of Cambridge could earn extra money by doing the laundry for the colleges. Laundress Lane is one place where they worked. Nearby Laundress Green, now a riverside park, was where the washing was hung to dry.

Henry VIII's Wooden Leg

High above the entrance to Trinity College stands this statue of the founder of the college. Look closely - in his hand, instead of a mace, is a wooden chair-leg. It was put there many years ago by students intent on an end of term prank. More recently another group of students climbed up and replaced the chair-leg with a bicycle pump. The authorities took a very dim view of this and arranged for a replacement chair-leg to take its rightful place in the monarch's right hand.

Take care.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A Close-Up Calendar













Take care.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Best Wishes

For all those who read and comment on this blog:

Sorry that there haven't been many posts recently but I've been caring for my mother who needs lots of support at the moment.

Take care.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Churchyards - Matters Of Death And Immortality

We often visit old churches as we trundle about the English countryside on this blog. But, other than the odd picture of a particularly grand or unusual gravestone, I don't seem to have mentioned much about the churchyards in which they stand. So here goes.....

Although almost all our villages date back to way before the Domesday Book, archaeological evidence has shown that many settlements have moved around over the years, so that the modern village may not always be in exactly the same place as its Medieval or Saxon equivalent, and it's quite possible that there'll be a Roman or even prehistoric settlement discovered somewhere else in the neighbouring fields. A village might first form around a spring, but later a road might be built nearby and gradually more and more houses are built near the road to take advantage of passing trade till the original settlement becomes deserted. But it probably still has the same name - and it probably still has the same church. Which is why some churches now stand out in the fields, away from the houses.

Some of the churches we've seen date back 1,000 years, but before that there was probably an earlier church on the same site, and before that quite possibly a pre-Christian gathering place and maybe even some sort of burial mound. In fact we may have been burying our dead in the same plot for well over two millennia. When, as in the two churches I've shown you above, the village is small and the churchyard is large there's been no real problem. But sometimes things get mighty crowded....

Lets think about this: if there are, say, 200 people in the village and if, as throughout most of history, they live on average to the age of about 50......errrrr.....then there'll be about 4 burials every year......errmm....that's about 400 new graves every,000 every thousand years. You begin to get the picture.

So it's not at all unusual to find headstones stacked against the churchyard wall where old graves have been dug up to allow a new burial.

I suppose I could tell you that the graveyard in Grantchester, which is pictured above, has become crowded because everyone in the village has exceedingly long legs, but actually those are normal people walking on ground that has built up over the centuries because of the interment of so many corpses and coffins. (Don't tell them; it'll ruin their afternoon - the strolling couple I mean, not the corpses!). Maintaining that retaining wall costs the village a small fortune.

Around the church you can see where the original foundations of the church were at a lower level.

And as you go inside you'll find a series of steps which lead you down to the level of the church floor. You probably wouldn't notice unless, like I was recently, you were pushing someone in a wheelchair when they becomes a formidable obstacle - though there are some ramps stowed to the left of the door.

In urban areas the overcrowding of graveyards became a real problem as the towns grew in size. Bones were often unearthed by the gravediggers and were stored in boneyards. In Paris whole graveyards were excavated and the bones removed to catacombs because the stench, the pollution of the water supply and resultant health hazard had become intolerable. Many towns created new cemeteries outside the built up areas, though frequently the town spread out and soon enclosed them.

In fact the smell from graveyards was always a problem even in rural locations and is probably why we started to put flowers on graves. A good big stone slab was also a good investment if you didn't want the corpse to be dug up by dogs or foxes. The wealthy paid extra for their loved ones to be buried inside the church and, when that was stopped because of the stink inside the building, they invested in mausoleums in the churchyards.

Enough of death and decay! Lets talk about something as near to immortal as is possible in this world. 

Just about every churchyard you explore has at least one yew tree. Some of these are very old indeed and just a few are reckoned to have been here longer than Christianity. One in St Cynog’s churchyard at Defynnog, near Sennybridge in Wales, has been dated at 5,000 years old! Plenty of people will tell you that the yew is grown in churchyards as a symbol of immortality, either Christian or pagan. And there may be some truth in what they say but.... 

There's another reason why every village had to have a supply of yew wood and that was nothing less than the defence of the nation. For yew was the wood of choice for making longbows. The sapwood springs back from having been stretched, ideal for the outside of the curve of the bow, while the heartwood springs back from being compressed, ideal for the inside of the bow's curve. Bow-makers have known this for a long time and remains of bows from the neolithic show that they were made in this way too.

But why in the churchyard? Well, because yew is also poisonous, so was grown in the only place where farm animals could not browse upon them. 


Take care.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Once More With Feeling

At the end of my recent post about Old Mills I popped in a photograph that was quite a departure for me. I'd added a texture to the picture and, what was very unusual indeed, I found that I liked it. Somebody was rash enough to comment that they liked it too. So now there's no stopping me; I keep pulling out old shots and experimenting with more textures. 

Here's some of the results:

That's probably enough of that for now, though I think we do miss out on something by viewing our photos on screens rather than having them printed on papers that would allow us to touch and feel them beneath our fingers.

As well as these textures which add an impression of tactile roughness, which I hope is appropriate to the chosen images, there are also some completely daft possibilities with the photo-editing programme which I use - like having little numbers, letters or musical notes all over a photo - why would you want to do that?

Musician Lucy Farrell of Emily Portman's Coracle Band fighting gamely through a whirlwind of musical notation!

Take care.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Light Entertainment

This afternoon I took my mother down to the Village Hall for her monthly Mothers' Union meeting. Then I had a couple of hours to kill.

A stroll down to the river beckoned. There was a little fleeting afternoon sun and a tinge of Autumn colour on the trees.

All very pleasant down by The Shallows, looking across to Trumpington Fen.

One of this year's cygnets was admiring his reflection in the water - "Me a swan? Go on!"

The light was just acquiring that late afternoon golden glow. But clouds were gathering.

The wind was in the north-west and dark rainclouds were rolling in, meanwhile the sun was manfully battling through from the south-west.

Then suddenly....

 Time to run for home.

Or to hang around, get wet and enjoy the show.

The rain cleared within a few minutes, leaving moody skies.

The sun settled down slowly in the west at the day's end.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes the entertainment for today.

Take care.