Friday, 19 January 2018

The Quiet Secret Of The Forest

Not all of England's heritage and history is well-known, well-publicised and commercialised. Some things are quiet, hidden, unobtrusive and largely ignored. Lets  go and search one out.

We're in the Breckland, close to Santon Downham. There's a good wide path along here which co-incides with the route of two modern-day long-distance paths, The Hereward Way and St Edmund's Way. But this site is older than either Hereward the Wake (1035-1072 AD) or St Edmund (841 - 870 AD).

And here it is! Not too impressive I know, but this is the site of a lost church known as St Helen's Oratory. The church has been abandoned since the mid fourteenth century and the stones taken for other buildings. In its day it must have been an impressive sight as the foundations suggest a church measuring 90 ft long by 25 ft wide (27.5 metres x 8 metres) and there was probably a tower at the west end.

Moreover it occupied a commanding site above the river valley in what was then open country. The church only dates from the Norman period but other artefacts were found that suggest continuous occupation through the Bronze Age, Iron Age as well as Roman, Viking and Saxon periods.

Even at the time of the Domesday Book there were not many people around here; it lists only one villager and a plough. That probably means one family owning a farm but even so it seems strange that what was a very impressive church for its time would be built in this remote place.

Now I know I have some readers who have an interest in Celtic mythology and folklore, and perhaps they are already on the scent of the reason why this site had significance for early peoples. The clue is in the dedication of the old church to St Helen.

We need to make our way down into a thickly wooded dell beside the church site. You see, the place had even more ancient significance as the site of a holy well. These pre-Christian sites were supposed to be helpful in curing all kinds of ailments and as a result they were still important well into the Christian era - and still are important to many modern pagans. 

The early Christian church tried to take over these earlier holy sites and the name St Helen may be a nod to Elen, the Celtic water spirit. Many wells across the country are associated with Helen's and Ellen's. One belief is that pieces of rag or cloth should be tied to nearby trees and when these rot away any disease will die too. These are known as "cloutie trees" and can be found near many wells. Here there was a single strip of yellow cloth and a plastic sunflower - even New Age Celts seem to have largely ignored this site.

There are a couple reasons why the well is so forgotten. In summer when most people visit it can become hidden by an impenetrable tangle of briars and bushes. Also the original well was largely destroyed by later flint quarrying which took place to supply flints for flintlock guns for the army, though the waters of the spring still run pure.

Time to climb the steep path, thick with decaying oak leaves, back up to the church site, then make our way through the trees, across the railway line and back to the twenty-first century.

Take care.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Santon Downham

A bright, sunny winter's day, but with a bitingly cold wind: a day for a walk with a bit of shelter from time to time. A day for a walk near Santon Downham, a tiny village alongside the River Little Ouse in the heart of Thetford Forest.

Santon Downham has perhaps the most beautiful car park in England - that's it above - and, though it's more crowded on summer weekends, in January it's very peaceful indeed. What's more there is an extensive network of walking routes leading along the valley and up into the forestry plantations.

The forest is the largest coniferous plantation in lowland England and was established in the 1920s, after WWI had made it clear that the country needed to be self-sufficient in wood. Times change and nowadays recreation is as important as timber production.

Although there are vast areas of unrelieved coniferous plantations there are also many clearings and deciduous woods, especially along the Little Ouse valley.

Looping around we arrive at Santon Downham village itself with its church surrounded, naturally enough, by tall trees.

Time for a wander westwards along the river which forms the boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk - we're actually in Norfolk now.

Near the village the path has had a lot of work carried out to improve the walking surface. The path leads all the way through to Brandon, though in winter it can be muddy or, worse still, flooded while in summer it can become rather overgrown. 

There wasn't much bird life around this morning though it usually turns up a few interesting species.

Back near the car park there's a little settlement known as Santon or St Helen's (the car park is also officially called St Helen's). There's not much here now and there probably never was, but the photo above shows an old moat which probably surrounded a farm house rather than a castle or any sort of fortification.

It does have its own tiny church however.

Birch trees are common around here as is the fungus Birch Polypore. The medicinal properties of the fungus have been known for centuries. In fact when the mummified body, known as Otzi the Iceman was discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991, analysis showed that he was carrying small pieces of polypore in a pouch around his neck, he was also found to be suffering from the parasite Whipworm, which can be cured by acids contained in the fungus. Otzi is believed to have died about 3,300 years BC.

A fallen Silver Birch attracted my attention.

We are now heading towards an ancient site which I'll tell you about next time.

Take care.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Dancing With Bears

Apologies to those of you who've heard some of this information about the origins of Whittlesey's Straw Bear Festival before - you can just enjoy the pictures! And there are a couple of new videos at the end.

Overheard on the street: "Of course, this isn't really that old; it all started up in the 1980s, before that - nothin'".
Overheard in one of the pubs: "It's amazing that these old traditions have survived unchanged for centuries!"

And in a way both have a point.
Back in Medieval times, before there was a Church of England, our churches contained icons of saints and also candles that would be kept burning throughout the year. One of these was known as "the plough-light" and was supposed to protect farm workers and ensure a good harvest. 

There was also a church service on the Sunday before the start of the agricultural year (then regarded as the first Monday after the Twelfth Day of Christmas) to bless the plough - an old plough was kept in at least one Cambridgeshire church within the last century. In order to pay for the candles to be kept alight the ploughboys toured the villages dancing, enacting rough little plays and collecting money on what became known as Plough Monday.

Details of exactly what went on are hard to come by, it varied across the country and probably evolved over time. With the coming of the Reformation the icons and candles were no more but farm workers still danced and collected money which went to the needy, but also paid for beer to wet the throats of the dancers.

In Cambridgeshire one of the dancers dressed from head to foot in straw and was known as the "straw bear". He also danced for money despite his disguise weighing around 30 Kg or 70 lbs. Exactly where the idea of the "bear" came from is not known though similar costumes are also known from Europe, so maybe it originated there - there has long been close contact between East Anglia and mainland Europe. 

During the nineteenth century the custom declined and was almost lost, though a few folklorists collected a handful of dances and odd memories from the older people. The police tried to extinguish what was left by banning it as a form of begging, though in truth it was probably the associated drinking and fighting that they really objected to.

One of the last places where the tradition survived was Whittlesey. In the 1980s, after years of neglect, a few people sought to revive the practice in a small way.

Over the years it has grown beyond all recognition with many kinds of traditional dance being included - Cotswold Morris dancing, Border Morris, North-western Morris and clog dancing, Longsword and Rapper dancing, and even Appalachian dancing from the USA being added to the Molly dancing which was practised in East Anglia. 

The dance styles have evolved too with new dances being invented and many more female dancers. As those of you who saw the video on the last post will have seen, many local primary schools have also become involved. There's also a folk music concert, a barn dance, poets, music and storytelling.

Here's a couple of videos for you:
From the sublime - Appalachian dance from the cleverly named Tap & Sync....

to the err...well, to Tyler's Men...

That's quite enough exercise for now!

Take care.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Only In England

Only in England....

....might a man be dressed from head to toe in straw and led through the streets to entertain the townspeople. Because 'tis an old tradition.

Only in England.... men stuff pheasant feathers into their hats, wear jackets made of tatters and covered in badges, paint their faces red and drink beer in the streets. Because dancing is thirsty work.

Only in England.....

.....would ladies armed with sticks go out during the coldest month of the year to do old dances that most people have forgotten. Because it's good fun.

Only in England.....

....would people risk frozen toes and fingers to play fiddles and squeezeboxes. Because you can't dance without music.

Only in England.... men from London dress up like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and perform dances that were collected in the borderlands of England and Wales. Because what else is there to do in a pub car park in the middle of January?

Only in England.....

....will you find young women waving handkerchiefs leaping high in the air. Because they have the energy to do so.

Only in England.....

....does St George, with something stuffed up his shirt, fight with the devil, get killed then be restored to life by the Doctor. Because that sort of thing has always happened in Mummers plays.

Only in England....

....will you find men from Coventry decorating their hats with flowers and doing dances which originated in the cotton towns of Lancashire. Because they enjoy coming down to the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival too.

Only in England....

....are these traditions patiently passed down to the next generation. Because their day will come.

(in case anyone hasn't a clue what's going on I'd better explain that I spent yesterday at the annual Straw Bear Festival in the Cambridgeshire town of Whittlesey, where traditional dance enthusiasts from across the country gather to dance throughout the town. Some of you will remember this event from when I went there four years ago. For newcomers I'll explain more about it and show you some more photos next post).

In the meantime here's a video of the Procession that takes place before the dancing begins:

Take care.

Monday, 8 January 2018

A Garden In January

The garden in question is the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, which looks pretty fine throughout the year. Two years ago I set myself the task of visiting the Garden each month, but before long real life got in the way of the project, so it was never completed. Now I'm not saying I'll be any more successful in 2018, but here are some photos from January - no theme, just what happened to catch my eye as I wandered around.

After the mud and the mistiness of my recent walks it was nice to be treading gravel paths in the winter sunshine, even if the wind chill gave a "feels like" temperature of minus 2 C.

Take care.