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.

Cherubs

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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The Exploring the Symbolism of Kilpeck Church

Introduction

Symbols are a language that can help us understand our past. As the saying goes, “a picture paints a thousand words”. But which words? Understanding our past determines actively, our ability to understand the present. So how do we write our own histories, personal and cultural, and therefore define ourselves?

About

The Church of St Mary and St David is a Church of England parish church at Kilpeck in the English county of Herefordshire, about 5 miles from the border with Monmouthshire, Wales. Pevsner describes Kilpeck as “one of the most perfect Norman churches in England”. Famous for its stone carvings, the church is a Grade I listed building.

History

The history of the church is quite sketchy. In 1086 a castle was built of wood adjacent to the church and later fortified with stone and a defensive wall.

The church was built around 1140, and almost certainly before 1143 when it was given to the Abbey of Gloucester. It may have replaced an earlier Saxon church at the same site, and the oval raised form of the churchyard is typical of even older Celtic foundations.

By around 1259 Kilpeck possessed a weekly market and annual fair. The population of the village is unknown but was likely to be as many as 600.

The plan of the church, with a nave, chancel, and semi-circular apse, is typical for the time of its construction in the Norman period. It was originally dedicated to a St David, probably a local Celtic holy man and later acquired an additional dedication to St Mary from the chapel at Kilpeck Castle after it had fallen into disrepair. At the time the current church was built the area around Kilpeck, known as Archenfield, was relatively prosperous and strategically important in the heart of the Welsh Marches. The economic decline of the area after the 14th century may have helped preserve features which would have been removed elsewhere. However, it is unclear why the carvings were not defaced by Puritans in the 17th century. The church was substantially repaired in 1864, 1898 and 1962, and its unique features were protected and maintained.

The Doorway

Little is known about the famous door of the church. Speculation suggests it’s about the battle between good and evil. However, it is worth noting that opinion and speculation can be biased by a person’s culture, age, race, gender, religion, sexuality, background, upbringing, education and their own belief system. We can attribute our own characteristics to others, particularly when we see the past as a foreign place.

Above the doorway we have the Tree of Life that is growing out of water. The zigzag below is typical and almost certainly represents flowing water. Above the tree of life there is an angel. Angels are said to be the intermediaries between God and the living world, messengers. They are there to help mortals by guiding and guarding them.

Looking around the doorway we see a line of snakes. Head up on the right, head down on the left. Possibly not the snakes of the garden of Eden, they may represent Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Ouroboros represents cyclical natural life, or the eternal cycle of things. It may also represent the cyclical nature of things and the idea of a constant and eternal return, life, and death.

At the top of the right column is a 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.

Midway down the right-hand side of the doorway is the symbol of Indalo or the Rainbow Man. Indalo is a prehistoric magical symbol of Spanish origin said to ward away bad luck and even the evil eye, and as a symbol of protection and wellbeing. Legend has it that the Indalo was a ghost that could hold and carry a rainbow in his hands in an apparent pact of protection with man.

Interestingly, in this setting we seem to see below Indalo chaos, no pattern or order in the carvings. Above it we can see there is a pattern or order. Some interpret this as that even among the chaos of the world, there is still hope.  

On the left-hand side, we see two figures who are possibly warriors. If we look at the shape of the headwear, we could speculate they are wearing a Phrygian or Liberty cap. This is associated in antiquity with several peoples in Eastern Europe and Anatolia, including the Persians, Thrace and in Phrygia, where the name originated. The oldest depiction of the Phrygian cap is from Persepolis in Iran.

Both figures are wearing trousers. This is quite unusual and may indicate they are probably warriors from the Middle East. It has been suggested that the founder of the church, Hugh de Kilpeck, lived at the time when warriors frequently went to the Holy Land in the time of the Crusades. It is not certain if Hugh de Kilpeck was a crusader, but there are a number of indications elsewhere on the church that he may have been.

Other Symbols at Kilpeck

The carving on the archways above the door and the rest of the church are a combination of creatures, but we can only speculate as to their meanings. Most certainly the one object that seems to attract most attention is the Sheela Na Gig.

Sheela Na Gigs are quasi-erotic stone carvings of a female figure usually found on Norman or Romanesque churches. They consist of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva, a fairly strange thing to find on a church. The carvings are old and often do not seem to be part of the church but have been taken from a previous older, usually Romanesque, building. Even though the image is overtly sexual the representation is always grotesque, sometimes even comical. They are usually associated with hags or old women.

The Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig is one of a series of corbels each of which are examples of sculptural motifs repeated throughout western European churches. This Sheela Na Gig is just another of those motifs, a very memorable one agreed, but just another motif. Possibly its origin is firmly rooted in medieval Christianity rather than it being some archaic survival of a goddess figure from antiquity.

Conclusion

A symbol is a self-proclaimed voice from the past. The social meanings of symbols are rarely fixed and certain and are frequently ‘contested’ by different social groups. A symbol is a type of object either explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of past events. Symbolic objects are also often designed to convey historical or political information.

Symbols are the foundation of oral histories. With a significant proportion of the population being illiterate up until recent times, our past has been maintained as oral stories, passed from generation to generation. To make our past more memorable and to give it emotional potency, oral stories are indeed colourful and emotional. In the same way biblical stories are told in the churches’ stained glass windows, religious and oral stories can be told in the form of objects and symbols.

The village of Kilpeck was once a thriving marketplace and community, but in the 14th century it suffered a significant market decline, and the village and castle were abandoned. With the loss of a population, there would have been a loss of a local culture.

Cultural norms are the standards we live by. They are the shared expectations and rules that guide the behaviour of people within social groups. Cultural norms are learned and reinforced from parents, friends, teachers, the church and others whilst growing up in a society.

Norms often differ across cultures, contributing to cross-cultural misunderstandings. Thus, a range of additional meanings and significance can be evoked. Everyday words, objects, symbols and even concepts often have more than a single meaning. Across time, certain aspects of everyday life and experience evolve in meaning and associated significance, making them symbols of something besides what they actually are or were.

So, with loss of a local culture at Kilpeck, was the oral story lost in time too, and with it, the symbolic meaning of the objects found in and around the church?

The website of Kilpeck’s church.

The Sheela Na Gig Project

A 3D image of the Church Doorway (you will need the latest edition of Adobe Reader to view it)

Addendum

It has been suggested that the symbol of Indalo or the Rainbow Man could represent the story of Noah’s Ark.

In Genesis 9:12-17, after the floods have gone down, God says he will make a covenant with human beings and that the rainbow will be a sign of it: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between man and the earth… Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”

We also see what appears to be two doves at the base below the symbol of Indalo.

In Genesis 8:8-9: “Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him.” The dove returned with no indication that a place had been found to alight.

A week later, in Genesis 8:10-11, Noah sent the dove again: “He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So, Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.” Things had begun to grow once again; the earth was becoming more habitable.

Subsequently, below the symbol of Indalo we see chaos and disorder while above we see order.

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Excited with this old stone gatepost

Why am I so excited with this old stone gatepost?

Our landscape is packed with relics from our industrial past. These objects of heritage are given from the past in the same way we inherit a family heirloom. If history is about what happened in the past, the stories of where, when why and how, heritage is about objects we have from the past in the present.

These objects from the past not only have changing values, but they can also tell stories of the past events too. The stories these objects hold, are not immediately obvious as in a written narrative, they are a record of events imprinted on the object and landscape through time that has shaped and changed things in a coded format. We need to understand the code, and how it was shaped and imprinted.

The value of objects is also an ever-changing entity. When we buy a new car, it will give a different value to a person’s status, however, it will worth less than half its monetary value less than 3 years’ time. As the car transcends time, this once pride and joy object is looking tired. Its status value has diminished with everyone else having something, newer, bigger, better, faster. The value has changed and diminished, it’s time for the scrap heap.

As 6.1 million cars in the EU are scrapped each year, there is also a change in value for the cars that get away. The garage find or the well-loved enthusiast’s car can suddenly realise a now value due to rarity. Should the car survive the inevitable wear and tear, corrosion problems, MOT’s and subsequently the scrapyard, the surviving car can be elevated to classic car status or even a vintage.

We all know classic and vintage car are highly collectible and expensive. Sometimes well exceeding the original purchase value. These classic cars bestow on the individual a newfound status as a classic car owner, along with all trappings that go with it. Knowledge of old cars and engineering, restoration, and maintenance skills, topped with the endless opportunities to show off at classic car shows. What more could the status driven classic car collector want.

The objects from the past also hold a story that can, and often do add to the overall value, as long as the object is not overlooked or not misunderstood. Familiarity in the landscape erodes away the curiosity of the casual passer-by.

Fortunately, objects of the past can be bought back to life through stories of their own histories. It is possible to change, and influence values of objects by opening up and laying out, for all to see, the imaginative potential of the object’s former lives. It shows that objects are imbued with a history and geography all of their own.

I am so excited with this old stone gatepost because the route I am walking is known to be the towing path of a long disused canal that ran just south of Lea Bridge to the Cromford canal junction at Aqueduct Cottage. This short section is a shadow of its former self and barely visible without a back story. In the past there was a wharf would have been a hive of activity. Narrow boat and butties packed in, eagerly waiting for the transhipment of the goods. People, and horses quietly ready to move these goods to other destinations.

It was a scene of intense activity. But time has changed this landscape into a serine setting, now a nature reserve where a visitor can find quietness and be at peace with the landscape and themselves. It is now a million miles away from its bustling industrial past. A best kept secret that no one will ever know.

But the clues to its past are here, written subtly in the landscape, on and within the objects that we find. Here in the stone gatepost, we can see the rope marks of the thousands of horse drawn narrowboats that have passed by this spot. The gatepost just catching the rope, yet when done thousand of times, a number of groves have been cut.

These rope rub marks are quite common on the canals around the industrial midlands, but they don’t need any stretch of the imagination to understand their origins. Here in this rural setting, it is not so obvious and harder to imagine the level of industrial activity in times past. But its here for me to see and become so excited with an old stone gatepost

If you listen, the landscape and objects whisper in the wind. They will keep the past and the memories of the people who lived before us safely as time passes.

History is not to be seen as a set of facts that add to an individual’s body of knowledge. It is a place of possibility.

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Peacock Butterflies

Peacock Butterflies are unmistakeable and best-known species. They say the eyespot pattern evolved to scare or confuse predators. They tend to lay their eggs in baches of up to 500 on nettles or hops, so a rewilded garden is a perfect spot.

When threatened, the peacock butterfly makes a hissing sound which it creates by rubbing the veins on its forewings and hindwings together.

The adults hibernate over winter, usually in dark spaces like inside sheds and holes in trees. They fold their wings up and sleep; their dull wings allow them to blend in and rest undisturbed. Peacock butterflies then wake from hibernation during the spring, sometimes as early as March.

Did you know that butterfly’s tase with their feet? Butterflies do indeed have contact chemoreceptors on their feet, so they “taste” plant chemicals through their feet, just as we use the receptors on our tongue to taste our food. In some mythologies and rituals, it is thought that it’s the Butterfly Spirit who brings us our dreams. Because of this, babies people often present with a small depiction of a butterfly at bedtime, along with a lullaby invoking Butterfly for sweet dreams

Country lore says that a butterfly landing on you is a indication that you are in the process of growing, and learning your own reality, inner wisdom, and transformation.

May the wings of the Butterfly kiss the sun,

and find your shoulder to light on.

To bring you luck, happiness, and riches today,

tomorrow and beyond.”

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The Myths and Misconceptions of Timer Framed Buildings.

Ludlow has timber framed building that date back to the 15th century. Its an ideal spot to explore the myths and misconceptions of the timber framed building.

The earliest timber frame building is the cruck frame. Constructed of two curved timbers (the cruck blades) using the natural shape of a tree sliced long-ways down the middle so that whatever the shape of the curve the two sides are symmetrical. Look out for identical knots on either side. The two beams are joined together at the top by a ‘collar’ or tie-beam to make an A frame.

By the eighteenth nineteenth century the box frame had also become popular for residential buildings because it allowed the building of second and third floors and, being a square construction, made more use of town-centre space above the ground floor. The upper storeys often overhang the lower; this is called ‘jettying’ and can be seen all over Ludlow. Box framing also made it much easier to add extra wings to a building.

Because timber was a premium item, the owners would show off their wealth by incorporating more timber than necessary to provide structural integrity. Hardwood timbers are a highly durable material which can last for centuries. If you give oak a good hat and coat, it will last for 200 years or more. As a result of this, many impressive medieval timber frames are still standing.

The panels were infilled with wattle and daube, a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung, animal hair, straw or grass. The use of dung, blood or urine in the mix was due to the use of old straw from animal sheds, saving money on buying fresh straw. The daube was finished with Limewash, a traditional lime-based paint with a high porosity and permeability that enabled walls to breathe, reducing the risk of damp.

The oak timbers were left bare as built and would develop a wonderful silvery colour that needed no maintenance. It was the Victorians who started painting timber framed building black and white. Doing so inflected more damage to the structure than a thousand years of the glorious British weather could throw at it. Victorian renovation has a lot to answer for.

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The Ancient Oak – Moseley Bog

There are around 500 species of oak that are surprisingly related to the beech family. Of all the trees in Britain and Ireland the oak is considered king. The oak is known as a keystone species that play a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community. Most oak trees live around 100-150 years, however there are a few that are known to be around 2,000 years old.

The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves. The word Druid may derive from a Celtic word meaning “knower of the oak tree”.

Oak was also favoured for its strength and durability. It was a core part of the distinctive Tudor timbered houses, that gave the UK its chocolate box look. They say that in building, if you give oak a good hat and boots, it will last for a thousand years.

Artists used its even-grained, honey-coloured beauty for carving and turning. The bark was valued by the leather tanning industry as it contains a lot of tannin.  During the Industrial Revolution large amounts were sent from northwest Scotland to Glasgow for this purpose. The bark also yields a brown dye, and oak galls gave the strong black dye from which ink was made. And of course, woodworkers like me make all sorts of furniture from oak; come and see my living room, hall, bedrooms, bathroom….

A tonic could be derived from boiling the bark that was used to treat harness sores on horses. Country-people frequented the oak for its curative powers, which in some places was considered so great that healing could occur simply by walking around the tree and wishing the ailment to be carried off by the first bird alighting on its branches. Strangely enough, a few local people have told me that this particular oak sits on a Ley Line.

I love looking for the Knopper galls on oak trees. They develop as a chemically induced distortion of growing acorns caused by gall wasps which lay eggs in buds.

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The Sequoia Trees at Brandwood End Cemetery.

Brandwood is one of those overlooked and undervalued garden cemeteries. The fact it was overlooked has proved to be a bonus in terms of its conservation and preservation. Most of the big Birmingham City cemeteries have been vandalised. A majority of the vandalism done by the city council itself under the guise of Health and Safety.

In reality, it is a cost cutting, kicking the can down the road, we cannot be bothered with heritage attitudes of we are here to create jobs and not to provide a public service council officers and the blindly lead nodding politicians.

Everyday people have lived and worked in Birmingham for hundreds of years, making a significant contribution to the growth, health, and wellbeing of the city. Yet, the only monuments to their lives are these grave markers that the council treats with contempt.

This sequoia tree avenue is a fitting tribute to the everyday people of Birmingham, a monumental guardian of everyday lives past.

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