December’s Treasures are all the local businesses that work so hard. A friend who bought beehives and is now selling her own honey posted on Facebook:
Until we started doing it, I had no idea how much a sale means to a small business owner – how exciting it is when someone values something you’ve created, worked hard over and worried about being good enough. With this knowledge, this year every single Christmas present we’ve bought and will buy is coming from an independent retailer, a crafter, handmade and/or upcycled, a voucher for a service and made in the UK. If you can, give it a go, I can guarantee the person you buy from will be excited, grateful and likely give a happy dance – it will help pay a mortgage, feed a family or pay for dancing lessons and importantly it spreads a little love, a little happiness in this craziest of years
So, instead of buying gifts from the big multiples and lining shareholders pockets to pay for another holiday home abroad, buy from a local family business. Belinda at Mick’s Mill sells everything you need for livestock – and Christmas treats for pets – she also makes her own holly wreaths every year.
We are so lucky in Shropshire as we have lots of Shropshire food and drink producers making wonderful things to eat and drink over the festive season. You can find a range of local preserves and pickles in many local shops – give a taste of Shropshire for Christmas.
At Maynard’s Farm Shop, as well as their own award-winning bacon, sausages and hams – they sell their own pâtés and a range of locally produced real beers, ciders and wines. Lots of other local produce too – including Belton Farm’s hand-crafted Red Fox cheese – perfect for Christmas – it’s a Red Leicester with a difference that is guaranteed to surprise taste buds.
It also makes a delicious toastie or panini with Maynard’s ham which you can sample in the Coffee Barn at Holly Farm Garden Centre – and where you can choose a Christmas tree grown locally at Woodfield Christmas Tree Farm.
When you use the local services advertised in this Gossip magazine you are supporting local families, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, chimney-sweeps, garden designers, – we have some unique artisans right on our doorstep – designers like Katrina Kitchens – beautiful bespoke kitchens.
When you buy local, you are not just buying food – you are buying responsibly sourced, ethical, ecological food that tastes really delicious – and when you sit down to your Christmas dinner you know the people involved in producing it have been fairly treated, paid properly and not exploited for corporate profits.
Published in the December edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Today’s Treasures – Butterflies, Bees and Blackcurrants
Life can be a challenge sometimes and, although places are opening their doors again, people are still scared to go out – and anyone who had social issues before – has much more to deal with now. But people have found solace in nature – growing vegetables and enjoying walks and found life’s little treasures all around them in flowers and trees and butterflies and bees.
I walk around the field every morning and there is always something new to see. When it’s been wet, toadstools spring up unexpectedly overnight and when it’s sunny butterflies dance along the hedgerows. The buddleia flowers are opening and butterflies of all colours love its purple blooms.
I bought a packet of mixed seeds ‘flowers for butterflies’ and planted them in an old wheelbarrow, they’ve been really pretty – corn cockle, cornflower, field poppy, vipers bugloss, forget-me-not, corn marigold.
I always leave some ragwort at the edge of the field for the Cinnabar Moth and in July I check every day for the appearance of their striking orange and black caterpillars.
The blackcurrants are ripe and the kitchen is fragranced with the rich aroma of blackcurrant jelly and the anticipation of that first delicious mouthful on toast the next morning.
The chicks that hatched in an incubator during lockdown have grown. Dillon III – who was the only one to hatch successfully in the first batch – is the boss and leads them on forays around the garden. They are quite mischievous and keep finding ways to get out – under or over the fence, trying my patience somewhat!
The herb garden is at its best – and the bees love all the blues and purples – sage, hyssop, thyme, rosemary, chives, borage and marjoram.
Life is not about the destination – but the journey – every day is a gift – fill it with moments to treasure.
Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble, give a whistle!
And this’ll help things turn out for the best
Always look on the bright side of life!
If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten!
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing,
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps,
Just purse your lips and whistle — that’s the thing!
And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the bright side of life
For life is quite absurd,
And death’s the final word.
You must always face the curtain with a bow!
Forget about your sin — give the audience a grin,
Enjoy it, it’s the last chance anyhow!
So always look on the bright side of death!
Just before you draw your terminal breath.
Life’s a piece of shit,
When you look at it.
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true,
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ’em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you!
And always look on the bright side of life
Come on guys, cheer up
Worse things happen at sea you know
Always look on the bright side of life
I mean, what have you got to lose?
you know, you come from nothing
you’re going back to nothing
what have you lost? Nothing!
Always look on the bright side of life
Thanks Eric Idle and Monty Python for making us laugh when times are grim!
When we first found our dream home, the sun was shining on golden chains of laburnum and frothy pink cherry blossom. The wooden farm gate was open and as we walked down the drive wild birds fluttered away – and – I remember quite clearly – a jay flew across into the field – the first jay I had ever seen.
The house was totally empty – not even a light bulb was left – but it still felt warm and welcoming and we fell in love with it. The garden was neglected – no flowers – but the grass had been cut and there were lots of trees. The traditional Rowan tree by the back door to ward off evil – and a beautiful spruce tree – which we later found out is a Brewer’s Spruce.
We moved in on 3rd August, 1992 with two-year old Dane and Kirt on the way (born the following January), one border collie, two cats and 3 ducks – and lots of ideas for homesteading.
One of the first things I did was visit the local library to borrow books on sheep, pigs and donkeys (google wasn’t around then). After talking to local farmers, I soon realised that it is much easier to have someone else’s livestock in your fields – all the pleasure of sheep bleating in the morning without the problems of dipping, shearing and all the form filling – so that’s what we did.
But we bought some hens and geese to keep our ducks company – and later on I started breeding New Zealand White rabbits again.
With 4 acres, the possibilities were endless.
There was a massive shed for the poultry – which they all shared quite happily.
The conservatory on the side of the house was perfect for growing seedlings – I started out with growing flowers – and had soon filled the patio with tubs and hanging baskets – and some vegetables – potatoes and broad beans – and runner beans. Initially I dug a small vegetable patch which has gradually been extended year after year until it’s now big enough to grow everything – courgettes, pumpkins, onions, strawberries, purple sprouting – all sorts of vegetables – and a rhubarb bed.
I also grew my own herbs from seed. I had brought spearmint and applemint with me – cuttings originally from my aunt – whose green fingers I inherited. When Kirt started home-schooling one of the first things we did was to make a proper herb garden – we marked out squares with bricks and gradually filled them – then extended them. The herb garden now contains Rosemary, Bay, Sage, Thyme, Hyssop, Fennel, Lovage, Parsley, Feverfew, Lemon Mint, Oregano, Marjoram, Tarragon – and the latest addition – Angelica – which is a magnificent plant.
I used to dry herbs and hang them up in the conservatory – and freeze some (like mint) in ice cube trays. Now I dry some herbs in the warming oven, chop them in the blender and store in jars – but I also freeze some in small plastic bags which are perfect for soups and mint sauce – and retain the flavour better.
Mint and horseradish have their own separate spaces as they do tend to be rather rampant. And basil and coriander were grown in the conservatory as they like to be a bit warmer – and also the slugs love them! They were later relocated in the polytunnel.
I also found that dried herbs make wonderful firelighters – when cutting them down in the Autumn, tie them into bundles and hang up to dry. They are much better than – and greener – than traditional firelighters – ad because of the oils they contain – they work exceedingly well.
Dad bought us some apple trees and a greengage and we bought some blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and a loganberry. A friend gave us a cutting of a thornless blackberry – and some raspberry plants. Loganberries, blackberries and raspberries all need lots of space – and need cutting back vigorously every year.
Fruits are wonderful for homesteading – when you have made enough jams you can use the rest for making country wines. Home-made jams taste divine. Wines are a bit more hit and miss – but they are always good for cooking – and elderberry wine makes excellent mulled wine mixed with sugar and spices.
When I lived in Birmingham, I used to breed New Zealand White rabbits – and I had brought all the equipment with me – so we found some breeding stock and started again. Baby rabbits are born blind, deaf and without any fur – but, by the time they are 3 weeks old, they are little white furry balls hopping around and they are absolutely gorgeous. Rabbit manure is excellent for the garden so makes a wonderful addition to my natural recycling programme. Rabbits like lots of wild plants like comfrey, clover and wild garlic – as well as dandelion leaves – and carrot leaves are their absolute favourite.
So we don’t have a green bin to put out for the refuse collectors. We have a compost bin, the rabbits eat a lot of the weeds, the hens eat scraps from the kitchen (their favourite is bacon rinds but you are not really supposed to give them meat!), the dog has meat scraps and the cats demolish most of the chicken bones. And the ducks eat the slugs and snails. I have also seen the hens eat mice and frogs on occasions.
When digging over the vegetable garden in winter, pause for thought and watch the hens scratching about for worms – stop for a cup of tea and return to find the robin sitting on the spade handle waiting for titbits.
The trees are amazing, here is the beech tree through the seasons
There’s a beautiful silver birch and a really old willow tree – which the boys loved to climb when they were little.
This is the oak tree in the field – with broom growing beneath it.
Some of the hedges are ancient hedgerows with blackthorn, hawthorn, ash, alder, beech, hazel and oak, interwoven with brambles and honeysuckle.
We kept part of the field as a wildflower meadow with ox-eye daisies, bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, restharrow, pink campion and lots of different grasses. The butterflies love it and I have spent wonderful sunny summer afternoons counting holly blues, commas and painted ladies – and peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells on the buddleia – and joining in the Big Butterfly Count.
JANUARY is the time when all the garden catalogues arrive and you can spend hours deciding what you would like to plant – the only problem with having enough room to grow everything is restricting yourself to what you can physically manage.
I soon learned what grew well on our sandy soil – and what our family would eat – which were not always the same things! Peas are definitely better from Bird’s Eye. By the time you have grown them from seed, planted them, protected them from pigeons, fed them, picked them and podded them – it’s blindingly obvious that frozen peas are a much more sensible alternative.
The first winter I was absolutely delighted to discover at least 3 different varieties of snowdrops growing in the garden, closely followed by celandines and coltsfoot.
There’s a badger sett in the big field – our neighbour says it’s been there as long as he can remember. Badgers make scuffs in the ground looking for worms and truffles so you can see when they have reappeared from hibernation. There’s also rabbits and moles – so our field is a sort of combination of Wind in the Willows, Watership Down and Duncton Wood. There’s an ancient beech tree – Queen Fagus – and an oak tree – King Quercus – and on our morning walks we often hug a tree – we can only just reach around the beech tree – finger-tips touching!
The variety of birds is simply amazing – the first time the Great-Spotted Woodpecker graced us with his presence I was simply dumbfounded. He is so beautiful – he loves peanuts but also sunflower seeds.
I have also seen a kestrel perched on the fence – and a sparrowhawk on the table outside the kitchen window. Buzzards are often seen being chased by crows – and the finches and tits love the pine trees.
We’ve put bird boxes up and the great tits and blue tits use them – but the blackbirds, robins and wrens prefer to make their own nests in various places in the barn – especially in the holly wreaths that I hang up ready for renewing the following Christmas.
The frogs return to the pond and you can hear them burbling late into the evening, then frogspawn appears and gradually morphs into tadpoles.
Best of all, the birds start singing in the mornings and we open the bedroom window to listen to the liquid notes of the blackbird floating in on the breeze.
The daffodils are out – at one time there must have been a hedge in the big field but all that remains now are three clumps of daffodils.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd – a host of golden daffodils” – which I believe was written about Stourhead – but daffodils always remind me of this poem.
Seed sowing starts in earnest. My Dad bought me a small propagator which is marvellous for starting off difficult things that like the warmth – courgettes, tomatoes and pumpkins – and sweet peas – I used to have real trouble getting sweet peas to germinate until last year I bought some Eckford Sweet peas – an old fashioned variety – which grew really well
Time also to plant early potatoes – and the first rhubarb appears – lovely and sweet and tender at this time of year – perfect for rhubarb crumble.
APRIL – the swallows return, swirling and swooping over the fields.
Oh, to be in England Now that April’s there … While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now … Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge Leans to the field and scatters on the clover Blossoms and dewdrops—
The apple blossom appears – the crab apple tree first almost luminescent in the twilight of lengthening evenings. The blue tits and great tits are busily feeding chicks, popping in and out of nest boxes.
The yellow flag irises are out in the wild pond
Beltane 1st May – the first day of summer in the ancient Celtic calendar – and the Druid celebration of fertility when the Lady of the Land takes the hand of the Horned God. We celebrate with lots of flowers in the house, music – and lighting candles.
Time to plant runner beans and French beans in pots – ready for planting out once the last frosts have gone. Dig a bean trench and fill it with compost from the compost bin – and put the bean sticks up. Plenty of hazel trees in the field hedgerows to cut bean sticks from.
Clear out pots and hanging baskets ready for geraniums, lobelia, impatiens and petunias – lots of colour for the summer patio.
The elderflowers are in full bloom – ready to make elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne.
The cushions are put out on the chairs around the patio table ready for breakfasts in the early morning sunshine – and summer barbecues. We always celebrate Midsummer Eve – like the Moomin family – it’s a special day – with music and dancing outside under the stars. In the past we had to rig up a speaker with wires connected to a stereo – now we just have a Bluetooth speaker and a mobile phone!
New potatoes, broad beans and strawberries are all ready to pick. There’s nothing like broad beans fresh from the garden – and I love podding them – sitting on the bench in the sunshine. Small sweet broad beans only take 5 minutes to cook. New potatoes, freshly dug, cooked with mint and melting with butter are divine!
JULY Hot summer days, the patio is a riot of colour. The great tits are busy feeding their brood on the bird table. Last year Daisy, our Dorking hen, hatched 4 chicks and Jemima, one of the Indian Runner ducks hatched 4 ducklings. Amazing to watch the chicks crowding around mum, as she pecks corn into tiny pieces for them to eat. When the ducklings are a few days old we give them a bigger bowl of shallow water so they can have their first swim – they get so excited and whiz around the bowl quacking ecstatically.
The raspberries are ripe – and the ducklings love them. Raspberry jam – and jelly – and raspberry wine. Blackcurrants also make delicious jam and wine – and redcurrants for redcurrant jelly to eat with chicken – and turkey at Christmas.
The poppies are out
AUGUST – shooting stars – lying on the trampoline on quilts and blankets looking at the stars – and spotting wishing stars – and planes and satellites – and watching the bats across the darkening sky.
The sunflowers are out
The butterflies are at their best and I can spend ages watching them on the buddleia – and on the ragwort with the bees and the stripy cinnabar moth caterpillars
“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare …”
1st August is Lughnasadh or Lammas and marks the first day of harvest – when corn dollies were made from the first straw and bread from the first wheat.
Time to lift onions and set them out to dry before tying into ropes.
Courgettes tend to be rather prolific at this time of year and I’ve been quite inventive in using them up before they turn into marrows. Curries, soups, salads, all benefit from the addition of grated courgettes. They are of course best fried in a little butter!
The greengages are ripe – I found the best time to pick them is when it’s raining – as there aren’t many wasps about. They are the sweetest plums and best eaten fresh – although they are also good bottled for winter use.
SEPTEMBER – the harvest – I am usually picking runner beans and freezing them – and picking tomatoes – and skinning them, chopping them and freezing them in tubs to use in Bolognese, curries and soups.
Blackberries are ripe for blackberry jam and blackberry wine – along with loganberries and elderberries. One year I made a ‘many berry wine’ from a mixture of fruits left in the freezer – and elderberries.
Rose hips are ripe – they contain lots of vitamin C (twenty times more than oranges) – ideal for keeping winter coughs and colds away. During the war – when there were no oranges – children were given rose hip syrup from the Ministry of Health. Rose hip syrup is quite easy to make – it makes a lovely summer drink with ice cubes – and a warming winter toddy diluted with hot water.
Time to pick apples and store them for winter use – the rabbits love them and so do geese. One of the pleasures of keeping livestock is enjoying watching them eat titbits – during the summer the rabbits have lots of plants from the garden – in winter it’s mainly apples and carrot tops.
Hallowe’en is always special – The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter and we have a sort of combined Guy Fawkes and Hallowee’en around the weekend of 31st October – with a bonfire and sparklers – and ‘Jack’o’Lanterns. There’s a lovely story about ‘Stingy Jack’ and how is destined to roam the earth with his Jack’O’Lantern. https://barbararainford.co.uk/halloween-in-barbaras-back-yard/
The last few years we have had an Indian Summer and the days have been really sunny although the nights are drawing in. Runner beans have carried on cropping into November – when the first frosts finally finish them off – and the nasturtiums are ‘gone willy-nilly, umbrella and all’.
For the last few years I have made an autumn wreath with berries and crab apples and hung it on the bird table, the birds don’t seem to be very interested, but it looks very pretty.
Time to clear the garden, remove the rest of the weeds, take down the bean sticks and tidy up the herb garden. Cutting down or pruning the herbs I found a really good use for the cuttings – I dry them on top of one of the wire hen pens and then tie them into bundles, hang them up to dry in the barn, and they make really good firelighters – and much better than those smelly paraffin alternatives!
Time also to pick holly – before the birds pinch all the berries – and store ready to make holly wreaths.
1st December is Yule – make a Yule Log with holly and pine cones and candles for the table – and holly wreaths with moss and holly and ivy, laurel and spruce and hang them on the old front door – and the barn door. I always think about all the other people in times gone by who have hung a holly wreath on the very same doors hundreds of years ago. Although the house has five bedrooms it has been extended at least 3 times and must have been originally a traditional cottage with two rooms downstairs, 2 bedrooms and a thatched roof. The study still has the original oak beams and thick sandstone walls – and a fireplace which must once have been an old range.
There must be lots of secrets that have never been uncovered – there’s a wall safe that’s never been opened; when we extended to connect the studio to the main house, the roof beams were exposed and you could see the remains of the burnt timbers where we assume the thatch caught fire. There are still some old wide floorboards on the landing.
We’ve installed a wood burner and it’s wonderful to curl up in front of a real fire on a Sunday afternoon with a good book – sometimes watching snowflakes swirl outside or with a glass of mulled wine on a winter evening.
December we usually visit Croft Ambrey to see the mistletoe on the hawthorn trees – and bring a small piece home. There’s nowhere to hang it because the ceilings are so low so it hangs over the Yule log on the dresser.
Our Christmas tree always comes from Holly Farm Nursery just up the road – all their trees are grown locally at Fauls Christmas Tree Farm so are very carbon friendly.
Maynards Farm, two doors down, provide local geese, turkeys and hams for Christmas dinner and we save the last of the parsnips, potatoes and carrots to go with them. We have home-made apple sauce and redcurrant jelly. One year I even managed to grow some sprouts and cauliflower that survived the pigeons and slugs – which were delicious!
And so to New Year and the circle of life begins again.
Autumn’s golden glow bathes the ancient buildings and paints pavements and flagstones in the stillness of a September morning. Benches beckon a few moments to sit awhile to savour the serenity and enjoy the tranquillity of a city at peace with the world.
Churches watch over the market Square, all the saints of these precious buildings competing for recognition, St Chad, St Mary, St. Peter, St. Giles, and the ghosts of the medieval pubs are sleeping.
The castle slumbers, its gardens adorned with autumn colours and Charles Darwin surveys his childhood town from atop his pillar outside the library.
The Severn glides slowly through the town from past to present, past crumbling sandstone walls and Roman relics and on to its namesake the modern Theatre Severn nestling on its banks. Under bridges, Welsh and English, swirling eddies caressing the banks, the Himalayan balsam’s plum pink blossoms, rippling reflections in the water. Swans circling, beaks dipping, dripping water droplets, ducks dabbling, past Darwin’s garden where his theory of evolution had its first stirrings of consciousness.
The river snakes past the park and ripples along the quarry gardens; the Dingle still revels in the glorious garden displays perfected for August’s flower show, begonias and dahlias vying for the brightest blooms.
Sitting dreaming in the sunshine, we can imagine all the past lives that have made Shrewsbury what it is, living on, they are in the very essence of the ancient walls, the medieval black and white buildings, the saints who gave their names to the churches, the engineers and ironmasters, merchants and craftsmen who changed the world and how we see it today – Thomas Telford, Abraham Darby, William Hazledine, Charles Darwin …
Shrewsbury’s history lives on, in its sandstone walls, cobbled streets and beautiful buildings, all sleeping in the September sunshine.
Published in the October edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Today’s Treasures – The Flax Mill Maltings in Shrewsbury
Or perhaps this article should be entitled ‘Yesterday’s Treasures’. This is the story of the Ditherington Flaxmill – an icon of revolution, innovation and evolution.
When the Flaxmill was built in 1797, it was the world’s first iron-framed building, and also the world’s first skyscraper as its design later developed into the modern steel frame that made skyscrapers possible. ‘The grandfather of skyscrapers’, it became a Grade 1 listed building in the 1950’s and is one of the most important buildings of the industrial revolution.
Following a devastating fire at one of their mills in Leeds on 13 February 1796, John Marshall, and brothers Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, looked for a more fire-proof construction. Charles Bage presented a design based on the work of William Strutt, a cotton spinner who later became a civil engineer and architect, using iron frames in buildings to make them fire-resistant.
William Hazledine was commissioned to make the columns and cross-beams at his foundry in Shrewsbury. He was a pioneer in casting structural ironwork and worked with Thomas Telford on several projects including the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – Telford nicknamed him ‘Merlin Hazledine – the arch conjuror’
When first completed, it was a state-of-the-art steam-powered flax mill spinning linen thread from flax and its fireproof cast iron columns and beams overcame much of the fire risk from the flammable fibres.
The Flaxmill closed in 1886 suffering competition from the more modern northern cotton mills – and in 1897 the site was bought by William Jones of Shrewsbury and adapted for use as a maltings (picture courtesy of Historic England), and many windows were blocked up.
In 1987, with competition from more modern productions methods, the maltings closed and the site was left derelict until its purchase in 2005 by English Heritage with support from the local council and Advantage West Midlands. Now the site is owned by Historic England with a local charity managing visitor attractions.
Visit www.flaxmill-maltings.co.uk for details of Heritage open days when you can visit this ancient building and see for yourself its historic importance, wonder at the great cast iron beams and columns and imagine the deafening noise of the steam-powered machines, the dust and dirt and terrible conditions for textile workers in the 1800’s and praise the brave people who set up the CWA (Cardroom Workers’ Amalgamation) in 1886 and changed many poor men, women and children’s lives for the better.
Published in the September edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Everyone loves a good ghost story. In January, I gave a talk on folklore – myths, legends – and tales of witches, wizards, Druids, saints, fairies – and of course ghosts.
Did you know that Shropshire is one the most haunted counties? And with its timbered buildings and cobblestone alleys it is hardly surprising that Shrewsbury is believed to be one of the oldest and most haunted towns in the UK and that the dead are often seen walking among the living along its cobbled streets.
There’s that macabre painting in a room in the Nags Head that is said to be cursed – and allegedly caused the suicides of three people who slept in that room. No-one knows who painted it in such a strange place – or why – but their ghosts still haunt this 17th century coaching inn.
The Dun Cow is one of the oldest public houses in the UK – built by Roger de Montgomery, First Earl of Shrewsbury, around 1085 – it was a hostelry with its own brewery. A Dutch army officer was hung on the scaffold in the stables – but he is just one of the ghosts said to haunt this pub.
Shrewsbury castle is haunted by serial killer, Bloody Jack who was finally hung, drawn and quartered on Pride Hill; and the station has the ghost of a local councillor who was crushed when the roof collapsed over platform 3 in 1887.
Perhaps that’s why Shrewsbury also has a lot of saints, immortalised in its churches: St. Nicholas, St Chad, St. Alkmund, St. Mary, St. George, St. Peter and St. John.
St. Alkmund’s church is haunted by the spirit of a drunken 15th-century steeple jack who fell to his death after attempting to climb the church tower on a wager.
In 911, Aethelfleda, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, believed that St. Alkmund, prince of Northumbria, was her ancestor, and she named the churches built at that time after him – at Aymestrey, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – most likely all fortified towns on the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester – providing protection from marauding Danes.
The spire of the medieval church of St Mary’s – one of the tallest in England – has dominated the skyline of Shrewsbury’s old town for over 500 years. In 1739, showman Robert Cadman attempted to slide from it, head first, using a rope and a grooved breastplate. His engraved obituary stands outside the west door.
Published in the february edition of the Whitchurch gossip
St. Alkmund was a prince of the Christian Kingdom of Northumbria, – so why do we have churches in Shropshire named after him? In 889, Aethelfleda, governed Mercia (which was a massive area across the whole of central England). She was a very powerful woman and was known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. She believed that St. Alkmund was her ancestor, and she named the churches built at that time after him – at Aymestrey, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – which were most likely all fortified towns on the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester – so the churches would therefore have had some protection from marauding Danes.
I always feel very fortunate to have been born in Britain – where women have mostly been respected and we have had some great female leaders – like Aethelfleda – and Boadicea, who was queen of the Iceni and led her people into battle against the Romans.
Croft Ambrey, comprises a hillfort, a Romano-Celtic temple and a medieval warren; it was excavated between 1960 and 1966 and found to have been in use from the 6th century BC up to AD 48 by a population of 500-900 people. Finds included weapons, bone and antler artifacts, hammer stones and Iron Age pottery.
As well as the rampart banks and ditches there is a series of mounds which are the remains of a medieval rabbit warren constructed for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares which provided fresh meat and skins.
The Romano-Celtic temple was built over two phases and excavation found the remains of fire pits and stake holes. Its purpose was to house treasures to revere the gods and serve the spiritual needs of the community. Communal gatherings took place outside.
From the top there are extensive views over the Herefordshire countryside and it’s easy to see why it was an excellent place for a settlement. There are many ancient trees – oak, beech and yew – that could tell amazing stories of the ancient communities that lived there.
Standing under these primeval branches it’s easy to imagine Druidic priests collecting magical mistletoe with a golden sickle, catching it before it touched the tainted earth ready to use in spiritual rituals.
These hillfort trees could have watched prehistoric communities gathering around fires, wearing animal skins, heating food in cooking pots, gathering bracken for bedding and blackberries and hazelnuts for food – and defending the ramparts from invading Romans with bows and arrows.
Many generations of animals and birds have nested in their branches and hollows and their decaying boughs still provide a haven for invertebrates and reptiles – including common lizards and slow worms.
It is thought that Aymestrey (at the foot of the hill) was once a fortified town, along with Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – along the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester. In 889, Aethelfleda governed Mercia (which was then a massive area across the whole of central England) and St. Alkmund was a prince of the Christian Kingdom of Northumbria. Aethelfleda was a very powerful woman and was known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. She built churches in fortified towns so they would have some protection from marauding Danes and, as she believed that St. Aklmund was her ancester, she named the churches after him.
The Croft family still live at Croft Castle but the estate is managed by the National Trust.
This article is published in the January 2019 edition of the Whitchurch Gossip.
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12th February, 1809 – if he visited his childhood town today I wonder what he would remember from his boyhood in Shrewsbury. The river still meanders under English Bridge to the East and Welsh Bridge to the West and The Market Hall still stands in the Square, but he might be quaintly surprised that the Darwin Centre is a shopping centre and the museum is in the Music Hall – very confusing to any visitors to the town.
He might also be very interested in a unique outdoor photographic exhibition that has just arrived in Shrewsbury honouring his birthday and International Darwin Day and also commemorating the 70th anniversary of Magnum Photos – a co-operative of photographers formed in 1947. Noted for its diverse work chronicling world events and personalities, Magnum provides a living archive of people, places and discoveries reflecting our built environment, society and history that have shaped the world we live in today.
The exhibition was opened by Mike Matthews, Chairman of Shrewsbury BID with a very eloquent speech describing the range of photographs depicting a complex world of beauty, conflict, sadness, wonder, exploration, compassion and discovery and the emotions invoked by gazing at the images.
David Hurn, one of Magnums most celebrated photographers, also spoke at the opening ceremony in St. Mary’s Church, saying how important photography is – in whatever format – and how much he hoped that the exhibition would reach out to young people and encourage their creative talents.
The photographs are displayed in two locations in the town – outside St. Mary’s Church and in The Square and are brought to Shrewsbury thanks to The Shrewsbury BID and The Hive. Shrewsbury Business Improvement District represents over 500 businesses in the town and has been tasked with destination marketing – putting Shrewsbury on the tourist map. The Hive is a creative hub celebrating arts culture and creativity and providing funded creative projects for young people.
This exhibition is certainly unique – and definitely worth a visit – have a day out in Shrewsbury – you can get the train from Whitchurch or Wem, visit the exhibition, have lunch at one of the amazing cafes in the town, enjoy a stroll along the river and pause on Welsh bridge for a moment to think about how life has changed – and how much we have learned – since Darwin was a boy.