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.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Old Mills In Autumn

Old Mills is the old name for Byron's Pool, a local nature reserve just outside Cambridge. It takes Byron's name from the story that the poet used to swim here during his student days at Cambridge. Well, so did many other people and, other than a few quickly fading ripples on the surface of the river, he left no mark here, not even a mention in his poetry.

Earthworks and pits associated with the watermill which once stood here, on the other hand, can still be traced on the ground and the place was also mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It seems a shame that the name Old Mills is virtually unknown these days.

Autumn has come to some trees here while others still green, taking advantage of what little protection is afforded by the river valley, which is barely a blemish on this flat landscape. 

The turbulent little stream, which has been created to allow fish to pass up-river beyond the weir, is always a favourite haunt of mine. I can't resist slowing down the shutter speed to see what shows up in the rushing waters.

The green weed-covered pond, bejewelled with yellow leaves, was once a fish-pond associated with the mill. Fish that were caught in the millstream were placed in the ponds to provide a source of food during the long winter months.

Even this single twig is uncertain about whether it's time for Autumn yet.

This may be the first time I've ever used the little built-in flash in my camera. And I'm not really sure what inspired me to take a few shots with it on this particular day. Anyway I quite like the end result - though all the other shots I took with it were quickly deleted.

The somnolent River Cam loiters reflectively above the weir, wondering whether or not to take the plunge.

A solitary red leaf on a carpet of yellows and browns. The wind is becoming chill, the rooks are flying to roost, my bicycle is waiting locked up to the fence and I must make my way home.

Take care.

Friday 4 November 2016

A Good Old-Fashioned Bonfire Night

I mentioned recently that when I was younger, way back in the 1950s, we'd barely heard of Halloween. A reader commented that down in darkest Devon they had been in the habit of carving out large turnips to make jack-o-lanterns and I remember reading that in Somerset they celebrated Punky Night at this time of year which involved going from door to door demanding sweets and doing something very akin to trick-or treating. But in East Anglia - nothing.

Even if there had been a celebration of Halloween, recorded on calendars and mentioned on the radio, we'd have been too busy to join in. From the last week or so of October we had other things on our minds.

Fireworks were appearing in the village shop. These were not the super-duper pyrotechnical whizz-bangs of today but modest little cardboard tubes with innocent names like Golden Rain, Roman Candle, Catherine Wheels and Jumping Jacks. Then there were rockets, which simply fizzed up into the air and died quietly in a shower of sparks, penny Bangers and of course Sparklers. These could all be bought for modest amounts of pocket-money and didn't require a second mortgage like some of the display fireworks sold today.

You weren't supposed to buy them when you were six of course and had to persuade parents to get them for you. Some boys at school though used to go and visit old Mr Gundlestone, a shop-keeper blissfully unaware of rules and regulations, health and safety, or even food-hygiene come to that.

Then there was the business of building a bonfire. Small boys scoured the gardens and sheds to find anything which might be remotely considered flammable - wet branches, still green hedge cuttings, soggy cardboard boxes - and pile them up in a corner of the garden, till father came home from work and pointed out that it would probably set fire to next-door's pig sties if you left it there, so it would all have to be moved next morning.

More constructive endeavour was required to make the Guy. Here's how you do it:
  • Collect together as many of Dad's worn out work clothes as possible. 
  • Tie up the ends of the legs and arms with baler twine. 
  • Stuff with newspaper or straw. 
  • Try to join up the legs and the torso. 
  • Fail. 
  • Get Dad to do it when he comes home. 
  • Make a head from an old feed-sack. 
  • Ask Dad if he'd got any old wellington boots for the feet. He always had - I think he must have put them aside specially.

The end result, due to the provenance of its attire, always bore a striking resemblance to my father but we called it "the Guy" nevertheless. We occasionally had a go at collecting "a penny for the Guy" and sometimes got a few pence from a visiting uncle, but I never remember us making a nuisance of ourselves out on the street.

Then came the big day. Morning school would be spent learning about who Guy Fawkes was and hearing the story of the attempted gunpowder plot. Then in the afternoon we would usually make a painting of fireworks or bonfires. Sometimes we would dry our paintings in front of the iron pot-bellied stove in the corner of the classroom, often the evening's events would be anticipated by someone "accidentally" setting fire to their work of art. Then we all had to go and sit down till the end of school.

In the evening everyone had a bonfire and fireworks in their garden. We'd often be joined by young men who worked with Dad on the farm. They'd usually contribute a box of fireworks, often more expensive ones than my parents could afford, and sometimes brought a few bottles of beer with them as well. There was always laughter around these lads, Mick, Francis and Graham, they'd tease us and make jokes till we couldn't stop giggling.

The fireworks would be lit, one by one, by my father while we all stood at a safe distance, Oo-ing and Ah-ing at the modest display. Rockets were fired from milk bottles and Catherine wheels were pinned to the post that held the clothes-line. All too soon the firework box was empty. Then Mick would say, "I'll see if I can find any more" and would return within seconds bearing the biggest rocket of the night!

As the fire was dying down my mother would produce "Taters-in-their-jackets" and we all ate hungrily, butter dripping down our chins, before us children were put to bed, tired but happy.

Next morning we sought to wring the last vestiges of excitement out of the celebration by kicking around in the still warm ashes of the bonfire to see if we could find anything which had survived the blaze, usually an old bolt or a handful of bent nails. Then we made a thorough search of the area to see if we could find the scorched wooden sticks from spent rockets - all that was left till next year. 

Take care.

                                                                                 (images borrowed from the internet)