British folklore, Britishness, countryside, entertainment, Essex, history, leisure, lifestyle, UK

Essex mysteries: The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Say what you like about Essex, but it is a county that knows how to celebrate its own, sometimes unusual history.

 

Take the Dunmow Flitch Trials, for example. Although they only take place once every four years in Great Dunmow, a small market town in north Essex, they apparently date back to the twelfth century, which makes them an astounding 900 or so years old.

 

And while I doubt the pantomime and light-hearted revelry of it all would have been particularly appreciated by peasants of yore, it certainly went down well with the present day audience last weekend, seated on plastic chairs in a marquee in Talberds Ley park.

 

The Trials are intended to establish the devotion of couples no matter where in the world they come from, who have been married for at least a year and a day. If, in the word of the Flitch Oath, they can persuade a judge and jury of six local maidens and six bachelors that they have “ne’er made nuptiall transgression”, indulged in “household brawls or contentious strife” and, most importantly of all “not wisht themselves unmarried agen,” they are awarded a flitch, or side, of bacon (basically, half a pig cut lengthways).

 

Dunmow Flitch
Dunmow Flitch

The Trials themselves, meanwhile, take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, in our case Dave Monk, who has been a radio presenter with BBC Essex for the last 30 years and played a slightly befuddled old soak. There were also four lawyers in full regalia, three of whom were actual real-life barristers and the other writer and witty stand-up comedian, Steve Bugeja.

 

Two of them were there to represent the couples or claimants, while the opposing counsel was employed on behalf of the Flitch, which stood demurely suspended from its wooden frame throughout the whole proceedings. The opposing counsel’s role was to test the claims of each couple and convince the jury not to grant them the bacon.

 

And so the entertainment began. It all kicked off with a lively procession of local majorettes, clog dancers, a town crier, the jury, barristers, a couple of big solid oak chairs and, of course, the Flitch, carried by burly local men or ‘simple folk’ in peasants’ smocks and straw hats from the Saracens Head Hotel in the middle of town to Talberds Ley.

 

Once in the marquee, my Beloved and I settled down to watch the two afternoon Trials (there are morning and evening ones too), one of which consisted of a couple who lived locally and had been together for 30 years, and another that hadn’t yet made their second year anniversary but who lived in Cambridge.

 

The older couple’s Trial was my favourite though. Soon after they’d first met, an event that he described as love at first sight although she wasn’t initially quite so keen, he’d been really eager to see her. So he tracked her down to one of several potential hospital sites (she’s a nurse) and left a pot plant for her outside the nursing station – his rationale being that cut flowers invariably got nicked.

 

But the defence for the Flitch construed that the real truth of the matter was that he’d stalked his poor Missus relentlessly until she eventually gave in and then got her hooked on drugs (pot plant – get it?). Needless to say, the couple lost and the Flitch won, but it was very amusing all the same.

 

Ancient tradition

 

On the way back to the Market Place though, it was their fate to make a walk of shame behind one of the two wooden Flitch Chairs – although they did seem remarkably cheery about it all. Luckily according to ancient custom, they were still entitled to a gammon (hind leg) of bacon, which actually seemed to morph into a bottle of champagne instead. But that was alright.

 

The second couple, however, who won their Trial in a well-matched contest of wits, were carried shoulder high through the streets on a Flitch Chair by the burly, local smock wearers. Once at the Market Place, they kneeled to take the Flitch Oath, resting somewhat uncomfortably on some stones, before the smock wearers all threw their hats in the air. And following the presentation of a certificate and bottle of champers to the winners, that was that – for another four years anyway.

 

Flitch winners
Flitch winners

Interestingly though, while Dunmow may not be the only place in Europe where the ancient tradition of rewarding marital harmony with a side of bacon exists, it is completely unique in still performing it – which it’s been doing on and off since 1104, it seems.

 

As to how the whole thing came about in the first place, however, the most popular story goes that Lord of the Manor in nearby Little Dunmow village, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife decided to dress themselves up as humble peasants and beg for the blessing of the head of the local Augustinian Priory a year and a day after marrying. Impressed by their fervour, the Prior decided to reward them with a Flitch of Bacon.

 

On revealing his true identity though, Fitzwalter promised to bestow his land on the Priory on condition that a Flitch be awarded to any couple who could prove they lived a life of similar marital devotion and harmony. And by Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the Trials had achieved such fame that he included mention of them in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a collection of 24 stories that is deemed among the most important in English literature.

 

The tradition lapsed for a number of years during the 1830s, however, as it was considered “an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”. But by 1855, it was happily revived by Victorian novelist and master of historical potboilers Harrison Ainsworth, following the publication of his popular novel ‘The Custom of Dunmow’. This recounts the efforts of a local publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in a bid to find the perfect one for him. Which is certainly one way of going about it.

 

But as similar traditions are found across northern Europe, I’d be rather more inclined to side with British historian, Helene Adeline Guerber as to origins. Her theory goes that it can be traced back to an ancient Norse custom linked to the pagan Yule feast, which is celebrated today as Christmas.

 

Although Yule is mainly linked to Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, the protection of mankind and, interestingly, fertility, it is also important to the god Freyr. He was likewise a fertility god and often invoked by married couples for his ability to “bestow peace and pleasure on mortals”. Incidentally, he also rode about on a wild boar called Gullinbursti.

 

As a result of all this, a boar was eaten in Freyr’s honour at each Yule feast and could only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. This, in turn, led to the custom of rewarding married couples who managed to live in harmony with a piece of boar meat. So it’s not a huge jump to switch boar for bacon.

 

And with that particular little thought, I rest my case.

 

 

 

 

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history, holiday, leisure, lifestyle, tourism

Trials and tribulations holidaying in the Emerald Isle

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re fated? That things, despite your best intentions, seem doomed to go wrong?

 

So it was when my parents and I decided to take ourselves off to Ireland, the land of my maternal forefathers, for a lovely week’s holiday. The aim was to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday (April) as well as my twin brother and my 50th birthday (August) in the month of my mam’s birthday (June), which, being in the middle of the two, meant that no one was left out. Apart from my brother, that is, who lives in Australia and so couldn’t make it. But the thought was there.

 

So the plan was to fly in to Dublin, pick up our hire car and hot tail it over to Athlone, which is roughly half way between the Emerald Isle’s capital city on the east coast and its cultural hub on the west side, Galway. And thus began one of the central themes of our holiday – that of getting lost.

 

The streets of Galway
The streets of Galway

While everything was quite stress-free as long as we stayed on the straight and narrow of the country-spanning M6 motorway, it was getting to our final destination that flummoxed us each time – satnav notwithstanding. In Athlone, after going up and down the same stretch of road several times and ending up in a farmyard anxiously eyeing an approaching dairy herd, we finally gave in and called our hosts at a local B&B who came and rescued us in their SUV.

 

To make matters worse, when driving out to dinner at the excellent Hodson Bay Hotel on the shores of the lovely Lough Ree that very evening, we somehow took a wrong turn. Twenty-two whole kilometres up the motorway later, we finally found a slip road and were able to go back the way we came. Amazingly, we made our booking a mere 30 minutes late.

 

But it was a similar story when arriving in Galway the next day. On trying to find the apart-hotel close to the town centre that we’d opted for as a respite from the usual strictures of hotel life, we ended driving round in endless circles getting increasingly desperate as the satnav took us near – and yet so far.

 

So again, we got on the phone, only to discover we’d actually been driving fruitlessly up and down and around about the road directly behind our intended destination. But that’s what happens when you’re naïve enough to assume that signage will be visible from the main thoroughfare rather than the pretty, little canal on the other side. So we had nobody to blame but ourselves. Obviously.

 

Even in Dublin though, where you wouldn’t think we could go too far wrong, we still managed to miss our end point – although in mitigation, we were given the name of the main road rather than the street leading off it, which was in fact our true destination.

 

Sensory shennanigans

 

But as if such transporting delights weren’t enough, it also seemed to be a week of things going wrong apropos our sensory organs. I started the ball rolling by leaving my steroid eye drops at home, which in the wake of my second cataract operation – despite being 20 to 30 years too young – were possibly the most important thing not to forget when packing.

 

But after ripping my luggage apart after finally arriving at our B&B in Athlone, I discovered their unexpected disappearance – or as it turned out, my absent-mindedness. And this, despite having constructed a scenario in my head where I distinctly remembered having put them in my handbag. Which meant, of course, that they must have magically transported themselves back home to my kitchen just to annoy me.

 

So the planned guided tour around the stunning, ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise on the banks of the River Shannon had to wait for another day. Instead we spent the morning in a pharmacy in downtown Athlone traversing our way around the system so that I could be prescribed some more – with it must be said the aid of the sweetest, most helpful pharmacist that ever walked the earth. I can’t imagine people going out of their way quite so much at home, but I wasn’t half grateful.

 

Clonmacnoise monastery, near Athlone
Clonmacnoise monastery, near Athlone

Next on the list was my dad, who after quietly enjoying a respite from seemingly endless female chatter, actually discovered that the batteries in his hearing aids had run down – although it wasn’t anything that a hasty trip to the not entirely obvious destination of optician SpecSavers couldn’t sort out.

 

Not to be outdone, meanwhile, my mam managed to break off a sizeable chunk of back filling after crunching down particularly vigorously on a Murray Mint on the way to Galway. So that accounted for another morning of our precious holiday as she, in turn, availed herself of the facilities.

 

Which at least gave us a respite indoors from the driving rain that had pursued us from the moment we set foot in the place, I suppose. A particularly poignant situation as such intemperate weather had sadly followed hot on the heels of a two-week heat wave.

 

But there were lots of pluses too. The Irish people we met were as friendly and convivial as ever. The country was as beautiful and varied as I remembered it. And its history was just as poignant and affecting now as it’s always been, especially in this centennial year of the Easter Rising, a pivotal moment in Ireland finally managing to win independence from England/Britain after 800 years of oppression.

So I guess the moral of this particular little tale is that, even in what seem to be the most difficult of times, things can, and very often do, turn out just fine in the end.

 

 

Britishness, history, religion, tourism, UK

Is Britain really a Christian country these days?

Although the UK still describes itself as a Christian country, it appears that a majority of its citizens these days simply aren’t.

 

According to a recent analysis of data collected over three decades via the British Social Attitudes survey, a huge 48.5% of people in England and Wales said they did not ascribe to any religion – nearly double the 25% who chose not to acknowledge any religious affiliation in the 2011 census.

 

On the other hand, people who identified themselves as Christian, which includes members of the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches, made up only 43.8% of the nation, the study entitled “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales” found.

 

Wayside cross
Wayside cross

Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, who analysed the data, attributed the shift to people who had been brought up in a religion no longer choosing to classify themselves in that way.

 

“What we’re seeing is an acceleration in the numbers of people not only not practising their faith on a regular basis, but not even ticking the box,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “The reason for that is the big question in the sociology of religion.”

 

As a lapsed Catholic who wouldn’t quite know how to describe herself if asked, I could certainly proffer an opinion on that, although I wouldn’t claim to be representing the Great British Public’s views in any general sense, of course.

 

Firstly, there’s the question of relevance in an increasingly secular society. At one time, priests and vicars automatically sat at the heart of the community as respected figures. But it seems to me that, as society has changed and drastically so since the 1950s – when incidentally established religion first started to go into decline – many of them failed to move with the times and think through what useful role they might play, simply expecting to retain their former status as a right.

 

Personally, I’m a big fan of liberation theology,  which is much bigger in South America than it is here, but is all about enabling social justice, human rights and helping to alleviate poverty. In my humble opinion, getting out there and helping the vulnerable and needy has to be more of a worthwhile goal than surrounding yourself with often elderly acolytes and pontificating from a church pulpit once a week.

 

Losing faith

 

But the goals don’t even have to be that lofty really – just focusing on pastoral care  and corporal and spiritual works of mercy for people across all faiths would be enough. At the very least, it would help, in many instances, to make spiritual leaders more visible to the (wider) communities they supposed to serve.

 

A second point relates to the fact that, as a society, we seem to have lost faith in the great institutions that ruled us in the past, preferring to go our own way and make up our own minds. As we’re all well aware, very few people trust politicians to do anything these days but create their own power bases and feather their own nests.

 

Trade union membership has also plummeted to just over six million from a peak of more than 13 million in 1979. And with lots of people you talk to, unless they happen to work in the public sector, it wouldn’t even occur to them to sign up. They just can’t see the point – or remember the seemingly endless industrial disputes of the 1970s with more than a little distaste.

 

Recent junior doctors' strike
Recent junior doctors’ strike

So it’s of little surprise, particularly when so many disillusion-engendering child abuse cases in both the Catholic and Anglican churches have come to light, that people are turning their backs on yet another traditional institution of behavioural control. The question is that, if these idols with feet of clay prove themselves less than worthy and close ranks to protect their own when public exposure threatens, why would anyone buy into their moral authority?

 

But there’s also a third consideration, which is linked to the last one. And that is, perhaps the time for gurus is over. While lots of people may be losing interest in established religion per se, that’s not to say they don’t have spiritual yearnings that they fulfil in multifarious different ways. And I’m not just talking about pursuing increasingly popular alternative paths such as paganism.

 

Instead I’m referring to everything from doing voluntary work in order to help others through to throwing yourself passionately into a worthwhile cause or tapping into your own creativity and painting a beautiful picture, for example. Spirituality means different things to different people and there are myriad ways to express it.

 

But ultimately, it’s about moving beyond the mundane and working with something bigger than yourself in order to help give your life meaning. And you don’t necessarily need a church to mediate that for you.

 

Special relics

 

Anyway, going back to Bullivant’s report for a minute to prove the point, it revealed that four out of 10 people raised as Anglican, the established or state church of England, have now abandoned their faith, with almost as many Catholics doing likewise. As a result, the segment of the population describing itself as Anglican has plummeted from 44.5% in 1983 to a mere 19% in 2014, with Catholics accounting for only 8.3%.

 

Although the study did not cover either Scotland or Northern Ireland, findings from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey published in April revealed similar trends, with 52% of the population failing to align themselves with any religious grouping. The figure compares with 40% when the study began in 1999.

 

So with all of this in mind, I must say it did strike me as a bit odd that the re-emergence in the UK of a bit of St Thomas Becket’s elbow from its former resting place in Hungary  would get so much national press coverage.

 

OK, it was the first time that the relic had been home for 845 years after the man it was formerly attached to was murdered by four burly knights in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was archbishop. He’d fallen out with his former good mate King Henry II and ended up being hacked to death in front of the high altar as they’d thought that’s what the sovereign wanted. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” etc.

 

Place where Becket was murdered
Place where Becket was murdered

In the process though, they created a martyr whose shrine became a magnet for pilgrims from all over Europe – a situation that in turn became the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of our first works of literature written in vernacular English rather than Norman French, at that time the language of the elites. So far, so good.

 

When Becket was reburied in 1220, however, bits from his remains in the shape of bone fragments, scraps of clothes and the like were nicked and disappeared across Europe, with his elbow shard somehow making its way to Esztergom in Hungary. And there the relic has remained ever since, reportedly becoming a symbol of Catholic resistance under communism.

 

But at the end of May, it came back home for a week and toured Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, Rochester Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and other churches associated with the 12th century archbishop to great apparent excitement – despite the fact that venerating bits of saints bodies has never been a particularly British thing, as far as I’m aware, even among Catholics. Instead it seems a much more popular, if rather macabre, activity of Southern European countries such as Spain.

 

Still, each to their own – not least because even scientists, despite their secular logic, insist on keeping relics of their own gods too. A lock of Sir Isaac Newton’s hair on display in the entrance hall of the Royal Society in London. Albert Einstein’s blackboard, with his E=MC2 formula chalked on it, at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It all just depends on how you look at things really.

 

 

 

birds of prey, British folklore, conservation, environment, history, leisure, tourism, UK, wildlife

Peregrine-spotting at Norwich Cathedral

My Beloved’s favourite birds are peregrines – and for a man who loves raptors of all descriptions as much as he does, that’s quite a statement.

 

So he was delighted when we got to see a couple of them in all their unadulterated glory the other weekend. While these lovely, majestic birds once nested predominantly on mountains and coastal cliff ledges, they can now also be found dwelling in urban edifices of all kinds – including cathedrals such as Norwich, which is where we spotted them on our little jaunt there.

 

In fact, for a few weeks now, we’ve actually been watching a pair of chicks grow, develop and get fluffier via a webcam strategically placed by the Hawk and Owl Trust, which is based in nearby Fakenham of thoroughbred horseracing fame. The chicks belong to a couple of peregrines, which incidentally mate for life, but first took up residence in 2011 on the Cathedral spire using a special platform put up by the Trust a knee-wobbling 75 metres above the ground.

 

Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral
Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral

And like similar breeding programmes elsewhere, the move seems to have been very successful. Which is just as well really seeing as last century, peregrines actually became an endangered species, with numbers falling to only 400 or so breeding pairs.

 

The population had initially started declining about 100 years ago during World War I when lots were killed off to stop them attacking carrier pigeons bringing home important intelligence from the front. Despite the fact that they don’t tend to munch on game birds such as pheasant or grouse much, preferring more medium-sized prey such pigeons and doves, peregrines were also a favourite target of gamekeepers too.

 

But the worst offenders of all were farmers using organo-chlorine pesticides, and especially the now infamous DDT, from the 1950s until it was banned in the 1980s. The problem was that the chemicals caused the shells of the birds’ eggs to thin, which meant that fewer survived through to the hatching stage. And when you have a situation where between 70% and 80% of all fledged youngsters die in their first year anyway, it’s not hard to see how disastrous such environmental pollution was to the peregrines’ wellbeing.

 

But populations have now recovered to such an extent that there are a much healthier 1,500 pairs across the UK, a scenario helped at least in part by the birds’ highly protected status. And so they should be – not only are these magnificent creatures our largest native falcon, but they are also intimately tied into our history due to their important role in the art of falconry.

 

Bird of choice

 

Although falconry is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia, with the earliest accounts dating the activity to approximately 2000 BC, it was apparently introduced to Europe around AD400 when the Huns and Alans invaded from the East. By 875AD, falconry was widely practised in Saxon England, but following the Norman conquest in 1066 it was restricted to the upper classes, and peasants could find themselves hanged for keeping hawks, which does seem a bit harsh.

 

While yeomen were assigned the privilege of using short-winged birds such as goshawks and sparrowhawks to hunt for food, it was only the King and his nobles who were allowed to own long-winged falcons such as peregrines and merlins.

 

But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that falconry really took off as a sport, becoming a veritable status symbol among the nobility. They trained their raptors to hunt small prey such as rabbits and other birds and, as the activity did not involve face-to-face encounters with potentially dangerous creatures such as boar and stags, women were allowed to play too.

 

Interestingly though, it was peregrines with their keen intellect that became their birds of choice. Being relatively small, they are also relatively light to hold on the fist and particularly graceful in the air. They are also the fastest bird on the planet.

Peregine diving
Peregine diving

Attacking their prey by making spectacularly accurate dives of more than 200 miles per hour, peregrines opt to break its bones and knock it out of the sky rather than sully their talons in a bloody fight to the death, thus sanitising the whole macabre process.

 

What all of this means in a symbolic sense though is that falcons in general, and peregrines in particular, are all about focus. So if you believe in auguries and a peregrine comes into your sights, they are apparently reminding you to concentrate on your desires and goals, and do whatever it takes to realise them. To do so successfully, however, you’ll need to act in as methodical and strategic a fashion as any self-respecting peregrine would when out on a hunting trip.

 

But these beautiful birds also represent a visionary power that, if tuned into, can help you solve on-going dilemmas, or even discover your life’s purpose. And as such, their appearance implies a time of transition and change and the need to rise above your current situation.

 

So next time you happen to spot a peregrine, it might repay you to ponder on just what it is they’re trying to tell you. It certainly can’t do any harm anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

countryside, culture, history, leisure, lifestyle, regeneration, tourism, UK

Buxton: A town that keeps on surprising

Buxton in Derbyshire isn’t necessarily entirely what you’d expect. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect at all really when we went there on a weekend jaunt a few weeks ago to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. But then I can’t say I’d ever particularly explored the Peak District before, of which this charming old market and spa town sits at the heart.

 

In all honesty it’s probably a bit regionalist of me, but I’d always seen the area as a bit of a poor relation of the Highlands of Scotland, the Lake District and even my own personal favourite – but probably least well-known of the lot – Northumberland. But shame on me.

 

It’s actually a fascinating place, packed full of quirky surprises, and cast in a truly lovely setting. Not so very dissimilar to the Yorkshire Dales, in fact, only somewhat less tourist-y. As a for instance, lots of the hills surrounding Buxton carry the word ‘low’ somewhere in their name, Arbor Low or Grin Low being cases in point. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlaw’, it actually means ‘burial mound’ and the town is apparently surrounded by lots of such bronze age sites.

 

But just to add to its mystery, Buxton also boasts quite a few firsts. On the one hand, at 1,000 or so feet above sea level, it is said to be the highest market town in England – although Alston in Cumbria also lays claim to the title too.

 

On the other, the town’s oldest building, the Old Hall Hotel, is believed to be the UK’s first ever hotel. It was allegedly built to house Mary Queen of Scots who stayed there at sporadic intervals between 1548 and 1573, after being taken into custody by local dignitary, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. And it still does a mean pan-fried sea bream to this day, a fact to which I can personally attest after partaking of a lovely meal there with my family.

 

Old Hall Hotel
Old Hall Hotel

Mary was quite keen on the place too allegedly as the warm waters of the nearby natural thermal spring, which emerges from the ground at a constant 82 degrees Fahrenheit, helped keep her rheumatism in check. And it is spring water, at least in bottled form, for which Buxton is probably most famous. You’d certainly be hard-pressed not to find the odd bottle or two in most supermarkets or motorway service stations in the UK these days anyway.

 

But to get back to the Earl of Shrewsbury for a moment. He just happened to be married to Elizabeth Talbot, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick, who by virtue of a few smart marriages scaled the heights of 16th century English society to become fabulously wealthy, helped along in such matters by her own shrewd business sense.

 

Bess of Hardwick’s legacy

 

Anyway, Bess built herself, among other things, nearby Chatsworth House, which must be among the most lavish and flamboyant stately homes that I’ve ever set eyes upon. In fact, as an emblem of its if truth-be-known somewhat vulgar over-the-top-ness, all of its window frames are even covered in gold paint. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its sumptuousness, the 126-room country pile has also starred in loads of films from “The Duchess” to “The Wolfman”.

 

Although I must confess that I wasn’t particularly taken with its interior, which I found a bit oppressive, what really did grab my fancy was the 105-acre gardens, landscaped in the 1760s by no less a personage than Lancelot “Capability” Brown himself. There’s a maze, kitchen garden, water garden, rose garden, gravity-fed Emperor Fountain and even a display greenhouse, divided into three climactic zones – Temperate, Mediterranean and Tropical. And there are, of course, also the breathtakingly elegant landscaped vistas for which Brown is so renowned and which still seem so quintessentially English 300 years after his birth.

 

Chatsworth House
Chatsworth House

Anyway, all of this is rather more pertinent to Buxton than it might appear at first glance. This is because Chatsworth just happens to be the official seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, who are in fact the progeny of Bess of Hardwick’s second marriage to courtier, Sir William Cavendish.

 

And it is this family, which made pots of money mining copper at Ecton Hill in Staffordshire that is responsible for shaping (lower) Buxton in all of its Georgian splendour to make it into the UK’s premier spa town of the seventeenth century. In fact, you’ll still see the Cavendish name all over town on everything from street names to buildings and even the odd shopping arcade.

 

But intriguingly, there’s also a Higher Buxton too should you happen to stumble up the steeper-than-it-looks Hall Bank. While you could easily miss it, it’s actually an independent village that formed the original settlement and which still houses the town hall and marketplace to this day. And as such, it’s rather more down-to-earth than its somewhat showier neighbour.

 

Because, perhaps surprisingly for a town of its size, (lower) Buxton boasts more than a few iconic buildings, created mainly out of the local area’s warm-coloured limestone. For instance, there’s the Grade I-listed Crescent, which was designed by the York architect John Carr in 1784 to rival the much more famous Royal Crescent in Bath. Including two hotels, apartments, shops, coffee and card rooms and an Assembly Room, it was funded by the 5th Duke of Devonshire to provide accommodation for spa-goers and any friends of his keen on a health-giving sojourn there.

 

Important British site

 

Even more intriguingly, the Crescent was actually built on the site of a Roman Baths. The Romans called their spa “Aquae Arnemetiae”, which translates as ‘the waters of the goddess who lives in a sacred grove’. Arnemetia was a river goddess worshipped by the local Celtic Corieltauvi tribe and it was believed that drinking from her waters would cure you of sickness and wasting disease.

 

Moreover, as groves were where the Druids conducted their ceremonies, it gives you some idea of just how important a religious centre this place must have been. It was certainly significant enough for the Romans to apply the term “Aquae” to it anyway, an honour accorded to only one other British town – that of Bath, which was known as “Aquae Sulis”. Sulis was a local water goddess there too and the Romans equated her with Minerva, their own goddess of wisdom and knowledge.

 

Anyway, redeveloped in the mid-1800s, the Roman Baths morphed into the so-called Natural Baths and it is they that will form the centrepiece of a new 79-bedroom five-star spa hotel due to be opened next year. This heritage regeneration project is expected to cost £70 million or so, but is intended to help revive the town’s fortunes and stimulate a new wave of tourism in its role as Peak District capital.

 

The Devonshire Dome
The Devonshire Dome

But there’s also the Devonshire Dome. Originally built in 1882 for the Royal Devonshire Hospital, it is now part of the University of Derby and dominates the town’s skyline. With a diameter of 46 metres, it is also the largest unsupported dome in Europe.

 

Or there’s the 23-acre Pavilion Gardens on the banks of the River Wye. Laid out by Edward Milner, a successful Victorian landscape architect and designer who has since vanished into obscurity, this lovely site also includes the UK’s first Winter Gardens. They were created in the image and likeness of London’s Crystal Palace, a development in which Milner played a key role too.

 

His goal with the Winter Gardens though was to craft an environment where the upper crust could promenade in all weathers, enjoying displays of exotic foliage and flowers while listening to the light orchestral pleasures of palm court music. And the idea spread like wildfire across the country from Margate to Sunderland.

 

Today, the building houses sundry shops and cafes as well as the Pavilion Arts Centre, which plays a key role in Buxton’s Festival Fringe each July. Running parallel with the Buxton arts Festival, which focuses on opera, music and books, lots of artistes interestingly use it as a test bed for that much more famous counterpart, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest such event in the world.

 

So say what you like about Buxton, but to me, it’s really rather a special place that just keeps on charming and surprising.

 

 

 

 

 

British folklore, Britishness, conservation, countryside, environment, history, pagan, paganism, trees, UK

Saving our sacred trees: Oak, ash and hawthorn

I was horrified to learn last week that the iconic ash tree could well be wiped out across Europe over the next few years – and that includes the UK, despite the at least partial protection bestowed on us by being an island.

 

The problem, it seems, is not just the fungal disease ash dieback, which we’ve all heard about for a number of years now as it creeps its malignant way across the continent. The disease, which was first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported trees 20 years after initially being discovered in Eastern Europe, has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to as far as South Wales. And, worst case scenario, it has the potential to destroy 95% of our native ash trees.

 

But as if that wasn’t enough, according to the latest research published in the Journal of Ecology, the poor ashes now have a double whammy to contend with in the shape of a deadly flying beetle called the emerald ash borer, which could well do for the rest.

 

The beetle in question is bright green and, like ash dieback, is an invasive species brought in from Asia. Although not yet in the UK, it is spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles per year and is already thought to have reached Sweden.

 

While the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they aren’t actually the ones that cause the damage. Instead it is their larvae that wreak havoc as they bore under the bark and into the wood, thus killing the tree in the process.

 

Not only is this situation a tragedy in its own right, of course, but if the ash were wiped out, it would undoubtedly change the face of the British countryside for ever. Ash is one of the UK’s most abundant trees – it is our most common hedgerow components, with a vast 60,000 miles of it up and down the country. It is also our second most prevalent woodland tree after the oak and is a popular fixture in most towns and cities.

 

Ash tree
Ash tree

So losing it would also have a severe impact on biodiversity. Some 1,000 or so native species rely on the ash as their habitat, including 12 types of birds, 55 mammals and more than 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects. This means that the affect of its disappearance would take on epic proportions – an even worse scenario than losing our 15 million or so elms in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease.

 

The tree of life

 

But just as epic would be the ash’s loss to the country in symbolic terms. In British/Celtic folklore, it is particularly associated with healing, protection and enchantment and, somewhat scarily in this context, it is actually known as the World Tree.

 

According to the Celtic world order, it vertically spans between worlds from the waters of Annwn (where spirits dwell before birth/rebirth), Abred (physical world), Gwynvid (Heaven/Nirvana) and into Ceugant (God/Goddess/Spirit).

 

In this way, it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe or the central column of the Tree of Life, with its branches spreading into Otherworldly realms and its roots into the lower worlds – hence the ancient Druidic saying “Know yourself and you will know the world.”

 

In Viking mythology, meanwhile, the ash is known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree too. Standing at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its upper branches cradled Asgard, the home and fortress of the gods and goddesses of whom Odin was the supreme deity and All-Father, while its lower boughs spread across the countries of the world and its roots reached down into the Underworld.

 

Yggdrasil grew out of the Well of Urd, a pool holding many of the most powerful beings in the universe. These included three wise maidens known as the Norns who exerted more influence over the course of destiny than anyone else in the cosmos by carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. These symbols then carried their intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.

 

But Odin envied their powers and wisdom and so in order to prove himself worthy, hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights until the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.

 

So given its apparently central role in the destiny of the universe and all its creatures, you tremble to think what it would signify if the ash were to die. In fact, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because, again in the Celtic world view, the ash was the all-embracing World Mother, the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the oak – which just as worryingly appears to be in trouble too.

 

Oak tree
Oak tree

Again the oak, our national tree, is under attack on two fronts. Chronic oak dieback, a complex condition involving the interaction of damaging abiotic and abiotic factors such as high winds, recurrent drought and opportunistic assaults from insects and fungi on already weakened trees, has had a damaging impact for nearly a century now, with the worst outbreak taking place between 1989 and 1994.

 

Aboreal trinity

 

But since the 1980s, acute oak decline has also been taking its toll mostly across East Anglia, the Midlands and Southern England as far west as Somerset. You can tell an infected tree by the emergence of a dark fluid oozing from cracks in the bark caused by the so-called oak jewel beetle – and death occurs within a mere four or five years of symptoms first appearing.

 

But again the importance of the oak to this land in symbolic rather than pure biodiversity terms cannot be underestimated. Synonymous with courage, strength, endurance and steadfastness, oak trees were perceived to be protectors and guardians of the virtuous.

 

Being the tree of the Dagda, the father god also known as the good god because he protected the crops, the oak was considered the most sacred by the Celts and their Druid religious leaders. Considered a means of accessing spiritual wisdom, it was also seen as a portal to the Otherworld – and so unsurprisingly, oak groves or “nematons” were special places where Druids chose to hold their religious ceremonies.

 

The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dedicated their oak groves to Thunor, otherwise known as Thor, the god of thunder, in the south and east of England, with the village of Thundersley in Essex being a case in point. Like the ash, oaks were said to “court the lightening flash” and are still commonly believed to be hit more than any other tree.

 

The final one to complete the trio, however, which thankfully has remained disease-free to date, is the hawthorn. If found growing beside the oak and ash, it was said to be part of a “fairy triad”, which attracted the Fae or spirits of nature who would dance at twilight to celebrate Mother Earth’s abundant beauty.

 

If standing by a sacred spring or holy well, however, the hawthorn acted as a threshold to the Otherworld, and had links to the Welsh goddess, Olwen. Known as the White Goddess of the Hawthorn, it was her white track of hawthorn petals that became the Milky Way when she walked the empty universe, or so the myth goes anyway.

 

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

But at one time simply known as “May”, the tree was also closely associated with the eponymous month, which was the time for courtship and love-making after the cold of winter. All of which means that the hawthorn symbolised fertility, sacred union and the unity of male and female energies, thus forming the third branch of the arboreal Trinity. And so if we can manage to keep that one safe at least, there might just be hope for us yet.

 

 

British stereotypes, Britishness, education, employment, history, lifestyle, social class, UK

Is England really the most class-ridden country under the sun?

“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”

 

These immortal words were uttered by George Orwell, author of the iconic novel “1984” and one of the most influential British writers of the 20th century, in 1941. And they have, it must be said, contributed to one of the most enduring stereotypes of English life. But just how true are they today?

 

Before we even start, “social class” is, it seems to me, a bit of a loaded term these days. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair tried hard to persuade us all during his tenure (1997-2007) that such a thing no longer existed in modern Britain, siding instead with the US preference for money being the key differentiator between social groupings rather than the more traditional blood and background.

 

Tony Blair
Tony Blair

While this stance was underpinned by New Labour’s aims in moving the Party to the centre ground of politics and keeping the hard left in its place by positioning old ideas of “class war” as irrelevant and old-fashioned, that didn’t mean to say the notion of class disappeared completely. Instead it just appeared to morph in line with other changes in society, not least the progressive de-industrialisation of the UK economy which made traditional delineations less relevant.

 

So in order to get a better handle on what was happening, the BBC commissioned a massive survey in January 2011 – one of the largest ever studies on class in the UK, in fact. Some 160,000 members of the broadcaster’s audience took part in the questionnaire, the results of which were analysed by sociologists Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from the University of Manchester.

 

And their findings, which were published in the journal Sociology a couple of years later, were interesting. Responses to questions based on ‘economic capital’ (income, the value of home and savings), ‘cultural capital’ (cultural interests and activities) and ‘social capital’ (the number and status of people they knew) revealed that the three traditional social classes in Britain – upper, middle and working – had actually expanded to seven.

 

Even though people still tended to think they belonged to a certain class on the basis of their job or income, only 39% of participants truly fitted into traditional middle or working class stereotypes if cultural and social capital were also taken into consideration, indicating that, in category terms at least, things are much more fluid than they once were.

 

On the other hand though, the evidence still suggests that privilege will out. According to a study undertaken by a couple of economists, Professor Gregory Clark and Dr Neil Cummins, at the start of 2015, attempts to improve social mobility in the UK over the last 150 years have failed miserably.

 

In their research, they tracked 634 rare surnames such as Pepys, Bigge and Nottidge, to understand how wealth had been passed down through the generations since 1850, dividing 18,869 people into three categories in the process – rich, prosperous and poor. They discovered that not only were the descendants of the wealthy in 1850 still rich today, but they continued to live longer than average, were more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge, reside in expensive areas and join professions such as doctors or lawyers.

 

In spite of the introduction of wealth taxes in the early twentieth century, the advent of mass education and the opening up of universities and professions to those outside of the elite in a bid to even things up a bit, social mobility rates have changed not “one iota”, Clark and Cummins attest.

 

Inequality and static social mobility

 

“There is no more popular political programme than that which calls for enhanced social mobility,” they wrote. “Our data suggests there is also no programme more guaranteed to fail.”

 

As a result, in order to create a more equal society, the only answer was to “do it directly, by taxing the rich and subsidising the poor”, Clark says. There is no other remedy in his view.

 

Such findings would appear to be backed up by other studies too. Research by The Sutton Trust, a charity that supports projects providing educational opportunities to underprivileged children, revealed earlier this year that a privately educated elite continues to dominate the country’s professions. Whether we’re talking about law, politics, medicine or journalism, a public (confusingly for non-Brits, this is the term used elsewhere for private) school education undoubtedly makes you much more likely to reach the upper echelons of public life in Britain, it seems.

 

Eton College
Eton College

So although only 7% of the population attend fee-paying schools – compared with the 88% who go to comprehensives – just under three quarters of pre-eminent judges working in the high or appeal court today were privately educated. So were 71% of the top military brass, 61% of top doctors, 51% of leading print journalists and just under a third of politicians.

 

But as Sir Peter Lampl, chair of The Sutton Trust, aptly points out, sailing to the top is not just about having the money do so. “As well as academic achievement, an independent education tends to develop essential skills such as confidence, articulacy and teamwork, which are vital to career success,” he says.

 

As a result, Lampl recommends opening up private schools to all pupils based on merit rather than money as well as providing more support for very able pupils in state schools.

 

But sadly, it doesn’t seem as if the UK’s high levels of inequality are likely to change any time soon. In fact, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, for the first time in almost a decade, the situation is getting worse rather than better.

 

This scenario is, unfortunately, mainly due to rapidly increasing house prices, particularly in London and the South East, driven by the Bank of England’s attempts to prop up the British economy following the 2008 recession using policies such as low interest rates and quantitative easing.

 

In the years between July 2012 and June 2014 when the research was conducted, these policies led to the richest 20% of households having 117 times more assets than the poorest 20% compared with 97 times two years ago.

 

Moreover, it appears that wealth and income fault lines are increasingly running along generational lines. So while a quarter of people aged 55 to 64 live in households with more than £1 million worth of assets, the same is true of only 4% of 25 to 34 year olds – a fact that simply can’t bode well for the future, whichever way you look at it.