Sunday 30 November 2014

The Green Children

Not far from Stowmarket in Suffolk is the busy little village of Woolpit. Today we're going to have a quick look around the village and, as we do so, I'll tell you the tale about the Green Children of Woolpit.

But first you'll be wanting to know how the village got its peculiar name. Although wool was important hereabouts in the fifteenth century, the name pre-dates the wool trade. The usual explanation is that it comes from Wulf pytt meaning "wolf pit" and that it is the site of the trap where the last wolf in these parts was killed. A nice explanation though surely there would have had to be lots of wolf pits to exterminate the wolves which once roamed the land, but there's only one place in all England called Woolpit (or anything like it). The local history society in the village believes that it gets its name from Ulfketel, a famous local warrior and counsellor at the court of Ethelred the Unready in the tenth century.

Now, about those green children....
Back in the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), or perhaps King Henry II (1154-1189), so the story goes, the men of Woolpit were busy gathering in the harvest when they came across two strange children, a boy and a girl. They wore odd-looking clothes, spoke an unintelligible language and, most remarkably, their skin was green.

The men tried to feed the children but they would eat nothing. The children were taken to the manor of Sir Richard de Calne who was equally baffled by these peculiar children. After several attempts to get them to eat, it was discovered that they would eat beans but nothing else.

The girl gradually became more healthy and began to eat other foods and slowly her green skin took on a more normal hue. The boy, on the other hand, became sick and died. In time the girl learned to speak English and told how she and her brother came from a land of constant twilight where everyone was of a green colour. One day the children were following their flocks when they came to a cavern which they entered. Inside there was the sound of bells which they followed until they came out into a blinding light. They were terrified but could not find their way back into the cavern and so they were caught by the reapers as they gathered their harvest.

The girl grew into a beautiful woman, "though rather loose and wanton in her conduct", and married a man from Kings Lynn. She went under the name of Agnes Barre and some say that her husband was an ambassador in the court of Henry II. There are also said to be people in Woolpit to this day who are her descendants, but nobody will admit who they are.

The tale turns up in the writings of Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh, who both wrote within a hundred years of these unlikely occurrences, so it seems the story was widespread. But could there be an element of truth in it?

The green skin colouration might be due to chlorosis, a form of anaemia which was quite common amongst undernourished and overworked children as recently as the nineteenth century. It certainly could affect someone who lived on a diet of nothing but beans. As their diet improved the colouration would have faded.

The strange language which the children spoke could mean that they were Flemish, as Flemish mercenaries were active in the area at that time, but equally it could just be a reflection of the wide variety of local dialects which flourished at that time.

Many people over the years have come up with all kinds of outlandish explanations for the story, involving the bells of Bury St Edmunds abbey, the flint mines at Grimes Graves, Thetford  Forest, the Babes in the Wood story (which took place miles away in Norfolk) and more recently parallel universes and space travel. My own explanation is just that they were two poor children who were either lost or abandoned. Take your pick....

....and take care!

Friday 28 November 2014

A Holy Trinity

Churches are sometimes like people. Even those that are not famous, handsome, wealthy or remarkable can be equally charming in their quiet, self-effacing way. Here are three that hide away modestly in the deep Suffolk countryside, much loved no doubt by those that know them, but doing little to advertise themselves to the wider public.


Onehouse, as its name would suggest, is not a large settlement and its church lurks surreptitiously among trees on the edge of agricultural land. Externally it is rather pretty and timeless. Despite looking so inviting the door is firmly locked so I can't tell you what goes on in its heart. Lets move on.


A short way down the road, or along some rather wet field-paths if you travel with me, stands the church of St Augustine at Harleston. If anything it's even harder to find than Onehouse, even my detailed map doesn't mark it very clearly.

But here it is, a quaint little building with a neatly thatched roof standing amongst Scots pines. At first glance the door appears to be barred....

...but actually that's a handrail fixed to outside of the door, so that when the door opens inwards you can hold it to descend the few steps down into the church.

Inside everything is as rustic and simple as you would expect - and to my mind utterly enchanting. There's a nice little bit of wood carving in the chancel too.

Back outside again on this glorious morning the sun was streaming down through the pines and all seemed well with the world.

How sad then to come across this row of rusting iron grave markers....

They commemorate the brief lives of the five Armstrong children: Percy (14), Spencer (12),
Beatrice (8), Nelson (6) and Frank (6 months) all of whom died within a few weeks of each other in 1891. According to an internet source the children died of diphtheria, but only mentions three graves. Another source mentions four. Now there are five; I suspect that the other crosses have been found recently, perhaps with metal detectors.


Another quiet retiring church reached by the narrowest of country lanes. It's in an exquisite location but seems rather a drab little building and one tries the door without any expectation of finding anything remarkable within.

What a surprise then to find an elegant interior painted in pastel shades with matching light wood box-pews and pulpit. What we have here is decoration from the Georgian period which has somehow largely escaped the attention of Victorian restorers. I'm certain those staunch upholders of standards would not have approved of these bright red beams!

There's also a barrel-organ which apparently plays 36 different hymn tunes and is the only one in Suffolk - and there can't be many elsewhere. As if this little church wasn't eccentric and daring enough there is also its dedication, which is to King Charles the Martyr, bestowed upon it by its builder, the local landowner Thomas Cropley, in 1646 - a dangerous thing to do during the Civil War. Sometimes it's just as well to be hidden away in the Suffolk countryside!

I also visited two much grander churches on my little walking tour and I'll be showing you those in a few days, though next time I've a tale to tell you from one of the villages that I passed through.

Take care.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Quiet Footsteps

On Monday we had one of those perfect Autumn days so I headed down to Suffolk to visit a little visited bit of country. There's a cluster of interesting country churches in the area which I'll share with you by and by. But first lets enjoy the autumn footpaths, by-ways and quiet roads that I walked along, all of which were resplendent in their autumnal finery. And, as we go, I'll tell you a bit about these paths which are one of Britain's often overlooked glories.

Someone, with a lot more time on their hands than I've ever had, once calculated that there are 140,000 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales. I have no idea how they worked it out but you get the impression - plenty of scope for those of us with permanently itchy feet.

Through woodland, alongside fields, across meadows, up mountains, beside the sea, over  moors......even through gardens and underneath people's washing lines! And every mile mapped with fanatical accuracy by the Ordnance Survey, which was only set up because Britain feared an invasion - which never came!

I'm not talking here about national trails leading for miles, but little tracks pottering from one village to the next. Though of course there's such a dense network of these paths that anyone with a good map and a little imagination can link them together to make a walk of whatever length is desired.

But how did we come by this marvellous network? 

From medieval times up until the mid eighteenth century Britain was mostly farming country. In southern England each village had two or three huge "open fields" which were subdivided into small strips. Each farmer would have many strips dotted around in various parts of the parish. This meant that there had to be paths from the village, where the farms stood, to the outlying fields. 

There would also be tracks to neighbouring villages and market towns. Nobody ever did much to maintain any of these tracks and, as most folk travelled on foot, it didn't really matter too much. And, anyway, if one track became impassable you simply used another.

Of course a few people did travel longer distances either on horseback or by stagecoach and those who left an account of their journeys had a great deal to say about the state of the roads.

But things were about to change. The Enclosure Acts consolidated the old strips of land into farms as we know them today. Farmhouses were built outside the villages, if that's where the landholdings happened to be. The multiplicity of old trackways was simplified to create a more modern efficient system of roads. Turnpike trusts were set up to create toll roads; the tolls paying for the upkeep of the roads.

However, England being England, the law upheld the rights of citizens to wander where they had wandered since time immemorial, even if it be over the newly created farmlands. Thus "rights of way" came into being.

And that's all a public footpath is today - a right to pass along a line on the map. There doesn't need to be any actual line on the ground to follow. But no one can block or obstruct a right of way. Stiles and gates mark where the route crosses field boundaries but in between there is often just a faint trod to follow or, if the route is rarely walked, nothing at all on the ground.

Of course sometimes the way will be blocked no matter what the law says. Broken stiles, impassable bramble thickets and bulls in fields can all add to the adventure. But things are improving, at least in this part of the country, as more and more people don their boots of a weekend.

It was this web of ancient trails then that I was making use of to traverse the Suffolk countryside on this fine autumn day. To link it all together you will see that I sometimes had to take to the narrow winding lanes that count as roads in this rural setting. In the next post I'll share with you some of the delightful little churches that lie hidden in the depths of this bucolic maze.

Take care.

Friday 21 November 2014

Grave Stones and Bird Stones

Yesterday I took a stroll through a cemetery, though my main purpose was not to look at or photograph the graves or even the autumn foliage. Looking at the photos you might think I was in some sequestered country churchyard tucked away amongst narrow lanes and woodland. But no, this is just off of Mill Road, the most densely built-up part of Cambridge, where every street is crowded with endless Victorian terraced housing, almost all of them standing right beside the road with no front gardens or street-side trees.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the town's churchyards were full and the various parishes got together to look for land for a new cemetery. They eventually found land outside the town on Mill Road, which was then in open country. Within forty years it was completely surrounded by housing as the town expanded as a result of the coming of the railway to Cambridge. Half a century later the burial ground was full and the only burials that took place were in family plots which were already in existence.

What to do with a disused cemetery? Although some graves are well cared for there are others that have been neglected. This has made the place ideal for wildlife; a little oasis amongst all the brick and tarmac. It's also a public space for people to wander - with dogs, with baby-buggies and, yes, with cameras.

It's also recently become a place for public artwork to be exhibited in the intriguing form of sculptures created by Gordon Young, an internationally-known artist. His seven "Bird Stones" celebrate the species that occur regularly on the site - Blackbird, Song Thrush, House Sparrow, Goldfinch, Crow, Robin and Collared Dove. These stones (one of which is made of wood, as you can see above) are inscribed with poetry, Biblical quotations and attempts to convey the birds' songs phonetically. And it was these artworks that lured me into the cemetery this week.

Rather than detract from the beauty of the gravestones they seem to re-direct the eye to the earlier carvings.

Some of the stones are heavy with Victorian symbolism and sentimentality, though many are in need of a little love and care. I was pleased to see that quite a lot of restoration work has been taking place around the site and three women, a dog and a wheelbarrow were busily engaged in planting spring bulbs.

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark 
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

R S Thomas

The cemetery once had a rather grand chapel in the Gothic style designed by George Gilbert Scott, one of the leading church architects of his day. However good an architect he may have been the building began to fall down before it was 100 years old and it was decided that demolishing it was the only option.

Recently the site of the chapel was investigated and it was found that the foundations are still in place and in good condition. There is talk of excavating them so they can become a feature of the central area of the cemetery, which at present is a rather blank space.

The cemetery is used as an educational resource by local schools and there are several trails exploring war graves, wildlife and other aspects of the site.

One moment they perch to crane and peer
Then like children in a game they spur
Each other into flight, bouncing
Like raindrops, chinking like beads,
Weightless as wind-blown leaves.

They never seem to feed but to exist
On air in air, translucent,
Ubiquitous as dreams, sparks
In perpetual motion without origin
Or aim.

The atmosphere records
Their passage as a flash
Of jewels then
Like spirits they move on.

by Damaris West

I was very taken with this memorial standing in an isolated and wooded corner, unseen by all but the most inquisitive visitor. But clouds were gathering and the light was dimming, so I made my way back out into the hustle and bustle of Mill Road and the evening rush hour.

Take care.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

The Autumn Witch

I woke up this morning with a smug feeling. I had the morning off work.
The low-angled sun shone golden upon the bedroom window, showing clearly that windows needed cleaning. Clothes needed washing and my desk was sagging under the weight of papers that really should be filed away.

Nothing else for it. Pull on my boots and go out for a walk!

I'm not lazy, you understand. A lazy person would still be in bed. No, it's Autumn bewitching me once more. She comes every year to cast her spell but this year she sidled in so slowly and apologetically that I wondered if she'd appear at all.

But, as I crossed the little bridge that leads into the wood, I could feel the squish of fallen leaves beneath my feet and see a few golden leaves scudding along our tiny river, scarcely more than a stream or brook.

The wood is cared for by the community so that every villager has a place to wander. Some come to walk the dog, some come to sit on the bench in summer, some to watch birds and some to build campfires. But today, my ears told me, something different was taking place. 

Our wood is seldom silent; quite apart from birdsong and the wind in the branches, it is easily penetrated by the sounds of road traffic and the frequent trains between Cambridge and London. But this was something altogether more raucous.

"One, Two, Three, you can't catch me!" Aha! The class from the primary school are out on one of their nature walks.

I've often considered that the sound of children playing is rather like the music of the Highland bagpipes - wonderful to hear in the distance though rather overpowering in a confined space! At first I thought, like the woodland birds, I would flee to somewhere more tranquil. But this is, after all, a community wood so who could not be elated by the sound of the youngest generation of that community enjoying the environment in their own way?

When they had departed, and the robin had recommenced singing from the top of the hawthorn bush, I found that they left me an unexpected and rather wonderful gift....

The Autumn Witch!

Take care.