Monday, November 22, 2010

Relics of Ruin

On Thursday I was in Cirencester, an ancient market town of the western Cotswolds, once the second largest city of Roman Britain. The Perpendicular Gothic tower of St John the Baptist, financed from the wool trade, still dominates the scene, though today the mediæval streets and courts offer wholefood cafés and an inexhaustible variety of shops selling posy home furnishings and fabrics. For everything else, there’s Tesco’s.

At the Corinium Museum, recently redeveloped with lottery money, Tim Porter was giving a talk on the theme of ‘Recycling the Monasteries’. For nearly ten centuries they had laid claim to the best of everything. In five years they were all gone. So what happened to all that material wealth? It is a fascinating question, the answer tracked down by meticulous detective work and well presented with slides of re-used choir stalls, pieces of vestments, bits of stained glass, floor tiles and stone. Lots of stone.

Lowland monasteries with easy access to rivers have largely disappeared altogether. Cistercian abbeys in their remote fastnesses survive as roofless ruins, uneconomic to remove from the landscape. Urban abbeys and friaries have had mixed fates, some destroyed, others converted into homes and workshops by the ascendant bourgeoisie. In areas like East Anglia, with only flint to build from locally, recycled monasteries are easiest to spot. Quality stone imported from other regions and built into humble houses and barns is a tell-tale sign, even more so when the mediæval carvings are turned outwards. How much more is turned inwards we may never know, short of demolition.

The purchasers of monastic lands were the new men, those who had made their money through industry and the law. One issue still open to research is how they financed the purchases. To be a rich merchant is one thing but if the money is all tied up in the business then further investment can only be made by borrowing against it. The cloth trade had well established links with the Low Countries and with Italy. The intriguing possibility is there that the Protestant Reformation in England was paid for by the bankers of Catholic Italy, who at this time already had their London branches in Lombard Street. That’s how it goes. Business is business.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Across the Amazon

The M5 and A30 demolish distance. For those up-country, they provide an arrow straight to the heart of Cornwall. Bristol to Bodmin is a journey that takes the same time as Bristol to Bournemouth, despite being nearly twice as far. That is not a plea for more motorways but for careful thought about how the roads and railways of the future are planned, so as to strengthen regional integrity and not erode it. Cornwall is not as remote as it was, and that is as much the work of lobbies in Cornwall as of anyone else. Those who live by tourism can die by it too.

On Saturday it took just over two hours of effortless driving along almost empty highway to reach Bodmin, ancient capital of Cornwall and home to the shrine of St Petroc. The Shire Hall and the Public Rooms dominate Mount Folly, its central open space (left), though administration and justice alike have now gone west. There was much grumbling 20 years ago when the Crown Court, last relic of Bodmin’s days as Cornwall’s assize town, moved to new premises in Truro. The County Hall in Truro has recently been re-designated as ‘Lys Kernow’ (Cornwall Hall) and is firmly the centre of power in the new unitary authority. I am sure that will not have stopped the debate about where Cornwall’s capital lies. Bodmin and Launceston have both had their day and there is a story among nationalists that if the issue were ever to be resolved the capital might well end up being a ship moored in Falmouth Harbour. There must be a lesson for Wessex here.

The reason for being in Bodmin was an event at the Public Rooms, namely the Annual Conference of Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall. MK (‘Sons of Cornwall’) is 60 years old next January and one of the agenda items was to elect Ann Trevenen Jenkin as Honorary Life President. A founder member, both of the party and of a nationalist dynasty of Jenkins, Ann was also a leader of the historic march in 1997 from St Keverne to Blackheath to commemorate the Cornish rebels who passed that way 500 years before. That was the occasion for which I’d had made what is probably the first example of the Wessex Wyvern in its now standard modern form, which had its first public unfurling at Wells Cathedral on the evening of 6th June that year.

The Public Rooms stand on the site of Bodmin’s Franciscan friary, of which the pillar in the picture (below) is a remnant. They are one of several expressions of civic pride in Bodmin, all bristling with very solid Cornish granite. A propeller from a Vickers Vimy bi-plane hangs on the wall: once the property of a local resident who acquired it to make into a hat-stand.

Cornwall’s premier nationalist party has seen good progress over recent years. Leader Dick Cole is one of four MK councillors on the unitary council and now has his own weekly column in the Cornish Guardian, exposing the stitch-ups on-going at Lys Kernow. More could be achieved were it not for the indifference of Cornish folk to the threats now gathering over their identity and the malice of so very many nationalist English towards anything that clips the edges of their evil empire.

The current insistence is that the borders of Scotland and Wales are sacrosanct but that Cornwall must start sharing an MP or two with England. And this is just the latest of many flagrant breaches of international law to afflict the delectable Duchy. Despite it all, the St Piran flags keep on flying, the Cornish language continues its journey back into the light of day, and nowhere in Britain is there firmer evidence that politics can still be a force for good than in the struggle of Mebyon Kernow.

In the words of Lisa Simpson, “Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!” And what could be cooler than that?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Blest is the Eye, twixt Severn and Wye

It’s cold in the Forest of Dean. It was bitter yesterday and usually is, in my memory. When as a child I would visit my grandfather in Cinderford at Christmas, my father would, with weary resignation, announce that we were off to Cinderberia. Bed-sheets were like ice-sheets and I would awake to Jack Frost’s crystal etchings upon the window panes.

Yesterday, winter had yet to come to the Wye Valley. The leaves were still on the trees, in all shades of red and brown, yellow and evergreen. The first landmark north of Chepstow is Tintern Abbey, the first of 15 Cistercian houses in Wales. It was the remote and rugged world the Cistercians were seeking and they were what Wales needed at the time. Their austere piety harked back to the world of saintly hermits who had inhabited the post-Roman twilight; their political skills were soon at the disposal of Welsh princes and marcher lords in their struggles against each other and against the Anglo-Norman kings. And they suffered in the process. It was a Cistercian monastery at Aberconwy, burial-place of the princes of Gwynedd, that Edward I removed to build the castle and walled town of Conway (though he did pay for a replacement).

One of those buried at Tintern Abbey was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, the lord of Raglan Castle, beheaded in 1469 for siding the wrong way in the Wars of the Roses. It was his descendant, the 9th Duke of Beaufort, of Badminton in south Gloucestershire, who, to pay death duties, in 1901 sold the Abbey and its lands back to the Crown in the shape of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, today represented by the Forestry Commission.

Crossing into England, one soon reaches St Briavels. The village castle (left) has much older links with the Crown, having been for centuries the administrative and judicial headquarters of the Royal Forest of Dean. The stone hunting horn that sits atop a chimney (below) reminds all who pass by.

In mediæval times, the miners of the Forest served in the Scots wars of Edward I (him again), doing good service in undermining the walls of Berwick-upon-Tweed during a siege. This may have been the occasion for a grant of mining rights in the Forest still maintained today, though it is also claimed that the rights exist “tyme out of mynde”. To be a freeminer it is necessary to be born in the Hundred of St Briavels and to have worked underground there for a year and a day. It is no easy qualification, now that the local maternity unit has been removed to Gloucester, far beyond the hundredal boundary. The freeminers vigorously defend their rights, which have persisted before, during and after nationalisation. The first Chief Executive of the Coal Authority had a rough time of it on visiting the Forest in 1996 when the freeminers protested, strongly but unsuccessfully, against the imposition of new licences and regulations they had managed well without.

The church at St Briavels is dedicated to St Mary. No doubt the Celtic saint was there first, ousted by the Norman abbey of Lire who took over after the Conquest and rebuilt the church in the late 12th century. One of the mouldings over an arched doorway ends in a primitive, snarling dragon’s head. The village pub is the George, its blazing log fire a welcome respite from the weather.

The next place to St Briavels is called Mork. No sign of Mindy though.

North of St Briavels lies Newland. It was new around the 12th century, when land was being assarted out of the primæval woodland. If St Briavels was the secular heart of the mediæval Forest regime, then Newland was its sacred counterpart. The church (below) is known as ‘the cathedral of the Forest’, an apt description for a vast interior that is a heavy burden for a now tiny parish. The mediæval Forest had no churches of its own, being extra-parochial, and it was from Newland that priests would set out into the clearings to minister to mining communities in the form of the ‘Morrow Mass’. All Saints, Newland houses the memorials of the royal officials whose job it was to protect the ‘vert and venison’ from the covetous common folk, whose ancestors no doubt once helped themselves to nature’s bounty without fear of challenge.

The range of unusual monuments to unusual people is the chief charm of All Saints. A forester, a bowman, a miner. Knights and their ladies. Priests in their vestments. Marble plaques, extolling the virtues of later gentry and judges, occupy a chantry chapel founded by Edward I (him yet again). Nearby, hatchments hang on the walls. The churchyard is peppered with the fine stone tombs of yeoman farmers.

A board lists the headmasters of the local grammar school, from 1447 until its closure in 1968. How could one decade, between 1965 and 1975, have witnessed such an orgy of institutional destruction? Ancient schools, ancient boroughs, ancient courts, ancient counties, all swept away with many a plea to retain even the most harmless links with the past rebuffed. This was the cross-party handiwork of a generation born between wars that were fought for an England considered worth defending. This is how they did it and now so many ask where society has gone. The search for novelty seems, bizarrely, a peculiar affliction of secondary education, hallowed ethos regularly sacrificed to zealous reorganisation at the drop of a White Paper.

The school’s first founders were local landowners, the Greyndours. J.K. Rowling, growing up in these parts, perhaps passed this way. Is Greyndour the inspiration for Griffindor? It seems too good to be coincidence.

Opposite the church door stands a row of 17th century almshouses, now empty and undergoing severe renovation. After nearly 400 years, the sole trustee of the charity, the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, put them up for sale, to re-invest the proceeds in another charity they manage in Monmouth. You just can’t trust those City types with anything these days.

Last call of the day was Ross-on-Wye. The town’s grandest buildings are quintessential Herefordshire – pink sandstone, black-and-white half-timber. Its more modest buildings and streets though could be anywhere in the Welsh marches – Chepstow, Abergavenny, Monmouth, and on up to Ludlow and Shrewsbury – little towns little altered since the 18th century.

The A40 leads, through a string of unchanging villages, to Gloucester and the unquestionable modernity of the M5. Despite all the devastation that has befallen the city in recent decades, the cathedral tower of the one-time St Peter’s Abbey still dominates the skyline, as sure a landmark today as for merchants and pilgrims in centuries past. Controlling what was long the land route to south Wales, Gloucester has been a pivotal city since Roman times, its earls and dukes the close advisers and often relatives of kings and queens. It was at Gloucester in 1085 that William the Bastard held court and commissioned the Domesday Book. At such a crossroads of the kingdom it is easy to see why. Conquerors come and go but geography persists and analysing it is the key to success of many kinds.