The Garden Cemetery – Elysian Fields

I am always in awe of our garden cemeteries and the ways the Victorians sold the concept of Elysian Fields. Filling the demands of a promise that after death, they would remain to live a blessed and happy afterlife and indulge in whatever enjoyment they had enjoyed in life.

These garden cemeteries were of course a commercial activity that actively utilised every square inch of ground to make money from death, where even the poorest in society (there was a hell of a lot of poverty in Victorian England), had to pay one guinea for a line of text in a grave of up to 80 other burials. There were no paupers’ graves in Key Hill or Warstone, poverty is a best kept secret in an unequal society.

The intention of the garden cemetery was, once full, to turn the site into a garden park. Unfortunately, bankruptcy saved the day. The cemetery companies quickly disappeared to count the cash, leaving the local councils to pick up the maintenance costs. It was by the efforts of local people that these two cemeteries have seen a new lease of life. Teams of volunteers have maintained these sites that for years have been uncared for and for years unloved.

It was a volunteer open day today, so was able to grab a quick look around the catacombs.

These two cemeteries are slowly but surely becoming places of beauty as time and entropy changes the value of the landscape, allowing nature to slowly return and do its thing.

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Sudbury Gasworks, Derbyshire

Sudbury Gasworks, Derbyshire is a very rare example of a small scale village gasworks.

Built c1874 by George Devey, an architect known for his work on English country houses, it produced gas for Sudbury Hall and many houses in the village. The Gasworks was dismantled in the 1930s and quickly fell into disrepair.

It was used by a local farrier and then a potter but had soon fallen into a state of disrepair. It is a Grade II listed building and was included on the heritage at risk register.

In 2014 a group of local people formed Sudbury Gasworks Restoration Trust who by sheer hard work manage to secure a £1.6m grant funding by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Restoration work start just under a year ago and the results are stunning. This is now a building and facility that will serve a very wide section of the community, not just a handful of specialist interest individuals.

This is a true conservation project that has preserved and conserved the essence of the buildings past history and lovingly combined it with its new use. It is so refreshing to see areas where there was no restoration work undertaken to restore objects or heritage asset back to their original state. The blacksmiths files sticking in the roof trusses are a testament to it past use. Looking around, you can see that some items have not been painted. Thus, preserving the patina of age, the craftsmanship, the archaeological interest and the plain sense of connection with the past through the age of the materials.

The carful and professional conservation work allows the building to tell its story of its own past, allowing the visitor to explore and look back in time.

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St Nicholas Church, Henley In Arden

If this church had been built in recent times, there would have been an uproar of complaints. Screams of “Utter chaos”, “botch job”, and in my own words “a job that Barry Bucknell would be proud of”. I actually love the place.

Work started in the 12th century, with alterations and additions continuing into the 15th. It’s likely that there was a major rebuild sometime between 16th and 17th century. Than as always, the Victorians did their bit. The trouble is, the Victorians could never do just a bit, they had to do a lot. The were always happy to sweep away 700 years of past history to put their signature on everything and anything public.

It is now an eclectic mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Vernacular, Victorian architecture at its finest where nothing lines up or seems to fit but has been made to do so somehow. The essence of what it originally was, has somehow hung on in there. The whole thing tells a story where successive builders have aggrandized the church, so its sheer history has become more beautiful as time progressed. It is a place to enjoy.

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Belper Weir

I really just fancied a spin up to the peak District today, but with the forecast being a little uncertain I popped into Belper. It sits on the river Derwent in the Amber Valley just north of Derby. The town was a centre for nail making but with the river Derwent it was able to take advantage of the abundance of waterpower from the river to become one of the very first mill towns.

You can see by the size of the weir, there was some serious horsepower extracted here. One of Richard Arkwright’s pals, Jedediah Strutt built this first mil that went up in flames. The replacement is now a well-known landmark.

Interestingly, a local guy called A B Williamson developed a substance for conditioning silk stockings. The development of nylon stocking after WWII made this substance useless until the mechanics found out it was amazingly good for cleaning oily hands and is still sold today as Swarfega.

Belper, from nylon stockings to Swarfega, some people get all the fun.

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Air Navigational Aids

This is the Air Navigational Aid, Hognaston Winn, Derbyshire. It’s a well-known and enigmatic landmark at the top of the peak as you travel along the B5035 towards Carsington Reservoir.

It has such an unearthly appearance that you may be excused for thinking that a UFO has landed. Now of course, modern technology is making these navigational aids that were widely spaced across the country redundant.

Some would have seen this structure as blighting the landscape, but I see it as a part of our technical past that is an object of its time. We can and are often too dismissive of recent aged technology. Some apply a very blinkered criteria of age alone to judge the value of an object from the past. But I know that time, rarity and a changing interest in things can change the value of an object like this in the landscape to give it new meaning and potency.

I would be saddened to see it go should it be made redundant.

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St Edward’s Church Stow-on-the-Wold

Hidden away on the grounds of the historic St Edward’s Church Stow-on-the-Wold is a mystical doorway on its north porch that looks like a portal that could transport you to another realm.

I’m not going to do the “it inspired Tolken’s Doors of Durin”. That’s as corny as King Charles I slept in ten thousand pubs while being chased by Cromwell bandwagon. Just enjoy this for what it is.

The studded door panels are flanked by a couple of yew trees with a lamp hanging above the doorway. It is for some an invite to enter. For others its an invite to allow the imagination to run wild.

Not a lot is actually known about the origins of this medieval church, but there is evidence to suggest that there has been a holy temple on this site since 708 AD. It has certainly seen a lot of life, and death with its history swathed in lore and legend.

The churchyard itself is full of interesting grave markers and monuments to the dead. There are also a number of very mature yew threes. It’s quite interesting how these trees have wrapped themselves around the door without demolishing the porch.

Most people think that yew trees are slow growing. While they can live for as much as three thousand years, they do grow quite quickly. Its just that most churchyards trim and shape the yew trees each year.

We all know that yew three were used for making longbows, but English yew trends to be not so straight grained. Ironically French yew is excellent for English longbows.

The yew tree is another of our native trees which the Druids held sacred in pre-Christian times. They no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration. Drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground. Thus the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture. This is why yew trees have established a popular association with old churches in Britain.

We also know that yew trees are quite toxic, especially the needles. In fact, just about every part of the yew tree is poisonous, even the wood dust, if accidentally inhaled, another reason why the yew may have gained its reputation as the death tree.

But amidst all this doom and gloom, people have recently attempted to take advantage of the yew tree’s toxicity in an attempt to fight cancer.

The chemical taxol, found in the bark of some yews was discovered to inhibit cell growth and division. It was therefore put to use in chemotherapy, halting the production of cancer cells.

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The Parvis Room

I find slit windows in stair towers built into old building a strong magnet. The same goes for small arched doorways with locked doors. This one is in St Laurence’s Church, Ludlow, I just had to find a way in.

Fortunately, the volunteers who work here are dead helpful, love dogs and will welcome anyone who shows an interest in this building that they love.

All credit to The Pointer who put on an Oscar winning performance, sitting to attention, and shaking a paw when treats were offered. Talk about graduation from charm school.

Chuffed when I was given the key, I rapidly ascended the spiral stairs. They seemed to go on for ages, my pace only broken by a short pause to look out of each of the differing shaped slit windows.

Eventually I came to the Parvis Room. The term ‘parvis’ refers to the space outside the porch of a church but is often also loosely applied to the porch itself. By extension the Parvis Room is the room above the porch. While not too common, I have come across a small number of these hidden gems.

This Parvis Room was originally used by the Church’s Deacons up until the 17th century, when it became a library, then a museum. It is a hexagonal room that matched the shape of porch below. I am loving this diagonally braced hexagonal wooden column supporting the lantern roof.

The walls have a number of frescos that were unfortunately damaged. Restoration as opposed to conservation or preservation can and is quite destructive. Restoring an object to its original state often erases the physical historic markers of an object’s use by significantly altering physical evidence and original materials.

Saying that, this is a stunningly beautiful space that is peaceful and light. It’s a neutral space that’s miles away from anywhere. You almost lose the sense of being in a church building and there is a powerful mystique that only a slit window in a stair tower with a locked door can offer.

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Old Oak Trees

This is one of those old trees in Mosley Bog that looks like it has a story to tell. It on my list of trees to measure to have a guess at its age, it is most likely to be a couple of hundred years old, but hard to tell. Oaks can live for 1,000 years, 600 seems to be the norm.

It may have been pollarded at some stage, but again not sure. I would expect some of the other adjacent oaks to have been pollarded too. If it has been pollarded , this would have reduced its size relative to its age, and made the truck swell.

There are two methods of manging woodland trees, coppicing and pollarding. It a technique known to the Romans and was done for a couple of reasons. To promote leafy material for livestock if done every 6 years or so. However woodland trees were done every ten to fifteen years, so they produce nice straight thicker poles for fencing and boat building. The admiralty used a lot of trees.

Pollarding did protect the new shoots from grazing animals and kept the tree in a perpetual sapling state. This extends the life of the tree because diseases have little time to infect the wood. Coppicing involved cutting young tree stems down to a foot or less from ground level. Coppices had to be protected from animals.

A few local people have suggested that this is an ancient oak tree which would make it 400 years plus. Although oak trees do tend to form their ancient characteristics at around 300 years.

Others have also suggested that this tree sits on a ley line. These are straight alignments drawn between various historic structures and prominent landmarks.

What ever your belief system is, none can deny that this spot is a magical space in the landscape, the tree in itself a miracle of nature.

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Shale…. …. has a lot of sedimental value

Who on earth photographs a pile of shale, me.

Shale mining and quarrying shaped the North Yorkshire coast. Not for gas, but for alum. In the 16th-century alum was essential in the textile industry as a fixative for dyes. Initially imported from Italy where there was a Papal monopoly on the industry, the supply to Great Britain was cut off during the Reformation. Well, there’s a surprise.

Alum was extracted from quarried shales through a large scale and complicated process which took months to complete. The process involved extracting then burning huge piles of shale for 9 months, before transferring it to leaching pits to extract an aluminium sulphate liquor. This was sent along channels to the alum works where human urine was added.

The urine was collected in barrels places at convenient locations in the local towns and villages. Was the person collecting it was “taking the piss”?

What the alum producers wanted was the ammonia. It is suggested that the poor produced a better class of urine, purer because it was less likely to be tainted by alcohol, which they couldn’t afford.

It is said that the finished alum was more valuable than gold because these early works consistently struggled to make alum. There was no chemical knowledge to turn to. Everything was done by trial and error – with a predominance of errors! It was, after all, the era of alchemy rather than chemistry.

There are many sites along the Yorkshire Coast which bear evidence of the alum industry. This one is just north of Ravenscar. When you consider it has been unused for well over one hundred years, the alum industry left its legacy on the landscape.

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Passages, Alleyways, Ginnels, Gulletts and Snickets

Depending on what part of the country you’re in, these ancient rights of way have names that vary by region. They are defined as….

…a narrow place to walk along, leading from somewhere to somewhere else, usually in a town or city….

In Birmingham we have Gully’s, while in Derbyshire they have Ginnels and Yorkshire they have Snickets.

In Tewkesbury there are Alleys, miles of them.

Because the town pattern based on the three main roads hemmed between the Avon River and the Swilgate stream. Access to the land from the streets created gaps between the buildings which turned into alley ways. These rights of access allowed cottages and workshops to be built behind the main frontage of the roads as plots became sub divided.

Tewkesbury still has most of the alleys and ‘courts’ today, although some are blocked by doors.

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