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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We all know and love acorns

We all know and love acorns or as some say the oaknut. They seem to capture the imagination and run with it.  In fact, tiny acorns have been capturing the human imagination for so long, appearing in artwork, woodcarving, and needlework for centuries.

Acorns take between 6 and 24 months (depending on the species of oak) to mature. The Acorn is too heavy for wind dispersal, so they require help from other animals to spread. Squirrels and jays are great seed dispersers and scatter-hoard acorns in caches for future use. They effectively plant acorns in a variety of locations in which it is possible for them to germinate and thrive.

The oak tree is capable of producing acorns that germinate on a different schedules. Generally, ones that are be buried and will germinate the following year. Then every three to four years the oak will produce an acorn that germinates the year its buried. This provides a problem for the squirrels as once sprouted they are less nutritious and indigestible. The squirrels know this, how I have no idea but will bite of the base of the acorn to stop it germinating. Smart arses.

Acorns were a source of food for many cultures around the world. They need to be properly prepared by selecting high-quality specimens and leaching out the bitter tannins in water.

In many cultures the oak is sacred, and is often connected to legends of deities who interact with mortals.

The Celts, Romans, Greeks, and Teutonic tribes all had legends connected to the mighty oak; in particular it was tied to deities that had control over thunder, lightning, and storms.

The acorn is a symbol of strength and power, as well as perseverance and hard work.

Two twigs of oak tied together with red thread to form an equal armed cross was a talisman that could be worn or hung up in the home for protection, strength and security against evil.

Acorns placed on window ledges would guard against lightning strikes.

Soaking feet in a footbath infusion of oak bark and leaves would not only relieve weary feet, but also guide people on their journey.

To catch a falling oak leaf would bring luck and prosperity

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Warstone Cemetery

A visit to Warstone Cemetery today I came across these to set of interesting grave markers. The first is a highly symbolic marker of possibly a middle-class professional individual

The urn was used by Pagans and Romans to store cremated remains.   The draped urn represents the clothing of the deceased being shed to move from the Earthly realm to the Heavenly realm. The boundary between the living world and the dead.

A broken column indicates a life cut short, a memorial to the death of someone who died young or in the prime of life, before reaching old age.

The caduceus is a symbol comprised of two snakes twining around a rod surmounted with wings. The staff carried by Mercury as messenger of the gods and was later used as a representation of this staff used as an emblem of the medical profession.

Anchors appear on the graves of sailors; however, you may be surprised to learn that this is the exception, not the rule. The anchor is also a Christian symbol representing faith set in strong foundations, hope in troubled times and steadfastness.

The palm frond is an ancient symbol of victory, dating back to Roman times when victors were presented with palm fronds. The palm fronds were also laid in the path of Jesus as He entered Jerusalem. So, for many Christians, the palm represents righteousness, resurrection, and martyrdom, symbolizing the spiritual victory over death associated with the Easter story.

A grave marker such as this would have cost in the region of £30 – 40k in today’s money.

To juxtapose this marker, we have a row of guinea graves. One pound and one shilling (£1.05p). These are a common shared grave of four burials either side of the headstone, and both sides were headed ‘In Memory Of’ followed by the list of names and dates of death. Up to one hundred people in one common plot, with multiple plots in a row. The headstone containing just a bare minimal identifying commemorative detail.

If a poor family could scrape together £1.1s, (£1.05), or half-price for under 7’s, it would cover the cost of a shared grave and shared headstone, with up to 36 letters inscribed.

These were not classified as paupers’ graves, as there would still be the shame of a ‘pauper’s grave’ for the many penniless people buried in Warstone and Key Hill Cemetery, but the poor but not destitute people, who could afford a Guinea Grave, were at least spared that shame.

A pauper was a penniless person buried by the Board of Guardians (i.e., at public expense). Any common grave would probably contain some paupers as well as some people whose families had managed to pay for the burial, so there is really no such thing as a ‘pauper’s grave’, and the term is never used officially.

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Tirley Church Monument – A Story from the Past.

Winged skull gravestone symbols were common in 18th-century cemeteries. While they may look strange to us today – even morbid or creepy – they held important meaning for our ancestors.

Death became frequent in the 1700s, in a world of poverty with poor sanitation, malnourishment, and scant medical knowledge. Infant and child mortality were high to, while epidemics of smallpox, measles, and whooping cough swept through communities, overcoming the most vulnerable.

When gravestones first appeared, many of the common people were illiterate. Not only could they not read or write, but the stonemasons also who carved the gravestones couldn’t either. As a result, the engraved carvings were not meant as mere decorations but were symbols that the layman could understand. A story from the past.

If we look at this 18th century monument in Tirley, we can work our way thought the symbols that tell us about the relationship people had with mortality.

The winged Skull

Skulls really were a reminder of your mortality and death was inevitable.

“Memento Mori” – “Remember, you must die”.

Over time, the skull and the skull and crossbones gave way to winged skull gravestone symbols. The wings were symbolic of a soul fleeing mortality, a journey to heaven. During the 17th century, the Puritans were losing their grip on society and attitudes were changing. People now believed in the possibility that there was life after death, and the possibility that one could reach Heaven. It added a message of hope and resurrection.

The Green Man

The Green Man is a legendary being primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring. The Green Man is most commonly depicted in a sculpture, or other representation of a face which is made of, or completely surrounded by, leaves.


In Christianity the cherubim are ranked among the higher orders of angels and, as celestial attendants of God. They can represent an angel guarding the child’s soul on the way to heaven or a representation of the soul’s rebirth in heaven. Cherubs are often seen on children’s graves from before the seventeenth century.

The Drapes

The drape around the edges represents the veil between the living and the dead.

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