Monday, 3 April 2017

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, and Gender Relationships

'No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.'

Focusing on Volume One, Chapter Three of Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey, I would like to explore how the relationships between the sexes are represented, how the chapter relates to the rest of the novel and what is its function?

This early chapter is the point in the novel at which the hero, Henry Tilney, is introduced to the heroine Catherine Morland. Although Austen narrates that their initial conversation is based on trivialities, she switches to dialogue as Tilney begins to satirise social norms: he does this by playong a game with Catherine during which the conventional course of polite conversation is mocked: 'forming his features into a set smile... affectedly softening his voice... with a simpering air' ( Northanger Abbey, p.12). Catherine colludes with the execution of the game, and Tilney makes barbed comments upon the conventions he mocks: '...some emotion must appear to be raised... I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.' With this verbal game, Tilney demonstrates that he understands the underlying silliness of affecting modes of speech and referencing specifically trivial subjects for the sake of 'manners'. Catherine, however, is less confident; although she plays her part in the game, she is unsure whether she should laugh at the end of it.

  Henry then teases her, regarding what he believes that she will write in her journal about him, but here Catherine challenges his assumptions. To the reader, this asserts that Cstherine is possessed of a degree of independence: she is willing to play Henry's game, but will not be dominated by his putting words in her mouth. However, she lacks confidence over the depth of his mock-solemnity - her response to his comments upon ladies' journals is not to simply repeat or emphasise her earlier denial, but to remark that she doubts the quality of female writing is superior to the male style. Here, at the close of their conversation, they reach an agreement... for Henry too believes that 'excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes' (Northange Abbey, p.14).

  This initial conversation betwern the heroine and the hero reveals the differences in their personalities: Henry as a shrewd and satirical observer of Bath 'society', and Catherine as an observer who has yet to develop her critical faculties. She asserts her independence when Henry attempts to speak for her, yet falters when faced with more hypothetical topics. Despite Henry's eventual agreement with Catherine on the subject of writing, his behaviour has been interpreted as an accomplished form of 'bullying' by the critic Claudia L Johnson, who believes that Catherine's lack of confidence is a result of Henry's refusal to admit he could be wtong - as when he asserts, wtongly, that Catherine keeps a journal. For Johnson, Henry 'takes away the power of refusal, simply by turning a deaf ear to it' (Johnson, 1988, in Regan, 2001, p.183).

  The conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Allen, engaging in her favourite pastime of talking about clothes. Once again, Henry appears to be gently mocking, with not only his discourse upon a subject associated with the feminine sphere but his use of phrases which echo the language of Mrs. Allen herself: 'a prodigious bargain', 'I do not think it will wash well' (Northanger Abbey, p.14). He also grasps the opportunity of another joke at Catherine's expense by suggesting that her gown may provide useful material for smaller items - all the while disguising his satire as the semblance of sound economic sense: 'Muslin can never be said to be wasted.'

  Austen somewhat ambiguously states that Catherine, listening to the dialogue between Henry and Mrs. Allen, wonders if 'he indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others' (Northanger Abbey, p.15). It is unclear here whether Catherine has missed Henry's satirical point, or is expressing criticism of his manner. As the chapter closes, Henry asserts that he now has the right to 'tease' Catherine whenever they meet.

  The function of this chapter is, principally, to introduce the character of Henry Tilney. Beneath his mocking/bullying are the roots of his rolebasbankind of 'teacher' to Catherine, a man who shows her how to challenge what she sees, an occupation he carries out himself through the medium of satire. However, as his assumptions show, he is not perfect. While teaching to others, he is also marked by his inability to listen to others.

  The chapter's relationship with the rest of the novel is one of both continuity and contrast. Continuity is provided by the Bath setting which had been introduced earlier, and which continues to form the environment backdrop for the rest of the volume, and by the characters of Catherine  Mrs. Allen with whom the reader is already familiarised. Contrast is provided by Austen's familiarising her readers with other new characters in the surrounding chapters. Catherine herself is introduced in the opening chapter, the Allens in the second, Mrs. Thorpe and Isabella in the fourth, with James, John and Eleanor being introduced later. It is a systematic way of emphasising the characters' differences by allowing breaks in chapters between introductions. This is a subtle allusion to individuality. After Henry's introduction in Chapter Three he vanishes from the narrative until Chapter Eight, during which time Catherine's sojourn in Bath becomes dominated by the boisterous Thorpes. However, his presence in the novel remains, as Catherine is eager to continue the acquaintance and looks for him at the Bath landmarks that she visits, and when he finally reappears , once again at a social gathering, he provides a contrast with the uncritical James and the oafish John.


Northanger Abbey, Austen, Jane, 1818, OUP, Oxford.
The Nineteenth Century Novel: A Critical Reader, ed: Regan, Stephen, 2001, Routledge, London.

'And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady…in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.'

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Village Divided

Village sign

Remote settlements can have a tendency to be defined by their very remoteness. How many times have you seen a hamlet, village or even a small town described as 'sleepy', or 'quiet', or 'peaceful'?

 These adjectives instantly qualify their subjects as places that are out of the way, spots relatively undisturbed by the roar of traffic and the clamour of crowds. Places that are awakened only by the twitter of birdsong and the sonorous pealing of Sunday morning church bells.

All of those adjectives could accurately be used to describe the Essex village of Paglesham. As much as any village in this dense and crowded shire could be described by any of the above, Paglesham seems the archetype. It can only be reached by a single, unrated road that originates in the large village of Hullbridge a few miles away, and the course of that road takes you through a distinct change in the landscape, from rolling fields and hedges into the flatter, wider expanses of the large areas of floodplain and saltmarsh that dominate the eastern seaboard of the county.

The village sign, pictured above, was set up to mark the Millennium and neatly encapsulates the qualities of the settlement. The larger plates reflect Paglesham's history of agriculture and maritime activity, while below, the sigil of Essex County Council is flanked by a cowslip - the flower also known as a pagle or paigle, from which the village takes its name - and an oyster, the community's chief export in a bygone age. The division of the two plates also reflects a more geographical split, for Paglesham is distinctly a village divided.

Paglesham Church End
The road splits as the traveller approaches the village; the turning on the left leads to the pastoral Church End, while the other leads to the maritime East End. Broad, austere fields form a distinct spatial barrier between the two.

St Peter's Church

The single street that runs through Church End trails off onto the marshes, and the hamlet is flanked by two distinctive buildings: St Peter's Church, dating back to Norman times, and the atmospheric, weatherboarded Punch Bowl inn, an establishment richly redolent of the area's smuggling past. Among the graves in the greensward of the village churchyard are those of the Blyth family, and one of them - William 'Hard Apple' Blyth - is something of a local legend.

Smugglers, busy smuggling.
William Blyth (1753-1830) was a busy man. He was a churchwarden, the local grocer, a Parish Councillor and even the local constable. He was also a smuggler, and stories of his physical prowess continue to the present day.

One story relates how Blyth once drank two glasses of wine at the Punch Bowl, then calmly proceeded to eat the glasses. Another has him partaking in a village cricket match which was interrupted by a rampaging bull. Enraged by this bovine interference, Blyth set about the startled animal with a cudgel then, as the beleaguered bull attempted to flee the scene of its chastisement, he grabbed its tail and was dragged along behind until the beast finally keeled over and died of shock and exhaustion. A local writer (and magistrate!), John Harriott, recorded how he hitched a lift, with Blyth and his crew,  back to Essex from Dunkirk in France. While seated in an inn with the smugglers, Harriott refused to partake in a toast to the destruction of the Customs men. This could have ended in an uncomfortable situation for the traveller, but he eloquently argued that without the Customs service there would be no smuggling, and they would all be the poorer for it. Ultimately, the smugglers begrudgingly conceded the point and they all drank a toast to 'revenue laws and officers for ever'.

Abandoned vessel on Paglesham Reach

Across the fields sits the hamlet East End, which forms the maritime half of Paglesham. Here may be found the popular Plough & Sail, a pub run by relatives of the TV chef Jamie Oliver, a native of Clavering on the other side of the county. Behind the pub, a rough road leads to the Marina, overlooking Paglesham Reach and the bleak Potton Island, most westerly of the five islands of the Essex Archipelago, and accessible only from a lane in Great Wakering. This island was home to several arable farms until it was overwhelmed by flooding in 1884, and is now pasture populated mostly by seabirds.

Paglesham Oystermen in 1908

A path along the sea wall strikes north from the Marina, and several points of historic interest can be seen before the path swings west to follow Paglesham Creek. The first is a series of old oyster beds on the foreshore, dating from  Victorian times. The heyday of Paglesham's oyster industry was between the 1870's and the Second World War, but the trade continues - albeit much reduced - to the present day.

Historic Oyster Beds

A short stroll to the north, at the confluence of Paglesham Reach and Paglesham Creek, overlooking both Potton and Wallasea Islands, stands a rather forlorn pillbox.

Paglesham Pillbox
Between the oyster beds and the pillbox, however, sits a patch of foreshore which, until about a century ago, was actually a dock... and, unknown to many of the visitors who amble along this bleak stretch of Essex coastal inlets, this innocuous piece of land hides a fascinating secret.

The site of the dock
Back in the area's days as a notorious haven for smugglers, several 'watch vessels' were set to work, patrolling the maze of inlets and waterways that form what is now known as the River Crouch and River Roach Tidal River System. One such vessel, larger than the others, was acquired from the Admiralty in 1845 and was unimaginatively named 'Watch Vessel No. 7'. Moored in the Reach at Paglesham, local fishermen and oystermen complained  it was forming an obstruction for honest traders as well as smugglers, and consequently the vessel was placed in the dock in 1851.

By 1870, probably in a poor state of repair, WV7 was sold to a pair of locals named Murray and Rainer, who set about dismantling it for salvage. It was stripped down to the hull, which was then abandoned in its dock.

Time and tide took their toll, and eventually the hull sank into the foreshore mud and disappeared from sight. The dock, unusable, silted up, and the remains of WV7 were apparently lost in time... until, in the early 2000's, Dr Robert Prescott of St Andrew's University uncovered documents which revealed the vessel's true identity.

It turned out that WV7 was, in fact, one of the most famous ships in English maritime history. Built at Woolwich Shipyard in 1820, it had made several trips around the globe as a research vessel. One such voyage was documented by its onboard scientist, the young Charles Darwin, who later turned those memoirs into a famous book.

Watch Vessel No.7 was HMS Beagle.

Depiction of HMS Beagle
Dr Prescott's team descended upon Paglesham and pinpointed the site of the dock. Victorian pottery was recovered from the scene, and an excavation revealed the ship's anchor, which now rests in the garden of Paglesham resident Ann Boulter, who has written a book about the vessel and its last days. An atomic dielectric resonance test performed in 2003 revealed that the ship's hull sits 21 feet deep in the mud and silt of the Paglesham foreshore. The last resting place of HMS Beagle had been rediscovered.

The grave of the Beagle
Paglesham is a quiet place, a peaceful place, long past its boisterous days of smugglers and oystermen. Nothing much to disturb the tranquility, other than the 'rustle of mudflats and the bustle of geese'.*

A bracing winter's breeze assails the rambler who follows the sea wall, passing the oyster beds, aiming for the distant pillbox. Stepping onto the springy, tough, wiry grass that hugs the brackish shore, avoiding the meandering rills with their treacherous, sucking pools of alluvium , scanning the almost featureless horizon and welling up with the knowledge that, less than six metres below your feet, lays the timbered remnants of a ship whose global journey in the 1830's sparked a scientific revolution. The name Beagle resonates into our present, into the era of space exploration, and here where the land and the sky stretch out into remote distance, it is so easy to stand and contemplate the echoes of destiny...

*from the poem 'The Leveret'. Yup, it's one of mine.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Scattering Of Stones

In the Diary that he wrote in the 1660's, my old mucker Samuel Pepys recorded his visit to an ancient monument: 'Three great stones standing upright and  a great round one lying on them, of great bigness, although not so big as those on Salisbury Plain. But certainly it is a thing of great antiquity, and I am mightily glad to see it.'

So where in the realm was Pepys wandering? Not Wiltshire, that much is certain from his own words. The lofty moors of Cornwall and Devon, perhaps? Remote isles off the Scottish coast? The Lakes or the Peaks?

None of them. He was writing about Kit's Coty, a Neolithic burial chamber in North Kent, part of a cluster of prehistoric monuments known as the Medway Megaliths.

The Megaliths form two distinct groupings on either side of the Medway valley. On the western side, Kit's Coty, Little Kit's Coty/The Countless Stones, the White Horse Stone and the Coffin Stone sit within easy walking distance of each other while on the eastern side, the remnants of two longbarrows lay in close proximity.

Together, they form the only surviving megalithic complex in Eastern England and, although they are all in various states of ruination, their survival in an area of intense agriculture, riverside industrialisation and heavy transport links is remarkable. They can also, provided one is armed with the knowledge of their exact locations, be visited in a single day.

White Horse Stone

From behind the Cossington Services on the southbound A229, a track crosses a bridge over the Eurostar line and follows the Pilgrim's Way toward the North Downs. Between the track and a field can be found the White Horse Stone. There once existed a Lower White Horse Stone to the west, but it was destroyed in 1823 and its site is now covered by the road. When the Eurostar line was constructed, the site of a Neolithic longhouse was excavated at the point where the railway enters a tunnel, and a now lost monument known as Smythe's Megalith - named after a local antiquarian who investigated it in the 1820's - once stood in the field.

A scattering of smaller stones are strewn across the undergrowth immediately to the west of the stone. I suspect that this monument is a collapsed burial chamber, the main relic being a capstone that has been propped onto its side, and the others its supports.

A scattering of stones
According to the writings of Nennius and the Venerable Bede, the Battle of Aylesford took place in this area, and local mythology has connected some of the Medway Megaliths with this event. It was supposedly fought between the Anglo-Saxon invader brothers Hengist and Horsa and the Briton princes Vortimer and Catigern, sons of King Vortigern. Horsa was killed in the battle and, according to the legend, laid out in state upon the White Horse Stone. Another casualty was Catigern, and his legend is associated with the next site I visited... the site about which Pepys scribbled his review, and which stands about 400m to the west on the other side of the A229.

Kit's Coty

Pepys was not the last notable figure to visit this monument, standing on the southern slope of Bluebell Hill with extensive views across the Medway valley. It was sketched in 1722 by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who also noticed a low, 70-yard mound extending to the west... evidence that Kit's Coty formed the entrance chamber of a longbarrow. A rock known as the General's Tombstone stood at the end of this mound, but this was destroyed in 1867 and the remnants of the mound have since been ploughed away.

Stukeley's sketch of 1722
George Orwell visited in 1938, and reported it as 'a druidical altar of some kind.' It had been classified as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1885 and by the time of Orwell's visit had been railed in for several years.

Kit's Coty from the NW
The word 'Coty' seems to have been a local dialectal term for a house, and the 'Kit' a shortening of Catigern, the British prince who died fighting the Saxons in this area and who, according to local custom, is buried underneath it - although archaeological exploration has sadly failed to comfirm this legend.

At the bottom of the hill, opposite the entrance to a vineyard, sits my next destination.

Little Kit's Coty/ The Countless Stones

Apparently destroyed in the seventeenth century before they could be recorded by antiquarians, there are about twenty sizeable sarsens piled in a sprawling heap, showing that the monument must have been visually impressive in its day, perhaps similar to the longbarrows on the other side of the valley.

 The idea that the stones cannot be counted is a familiar motif with Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. Similar legends exist at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire and at Long Meg And Her Daughters in Cumbria, to name but two.

Stukeley's sketch proves that the monument was demolished prior to 1722
The vineyard across the road shelters the final site of the eastern Medway cluster.

The Coffin Stone

Although a public footpath obliquely traverses the vineyard, direct public access to the Coffin Stone does not exist at the moment, although the landowner hopes to provide access in the future. The uppermost stone was recently placed in its position by the farmer, the original Coffin Stone now underneath. It looks to me very much like a collapsed burial chamber, perhaps very similar to Kit's Coty.

Although the western cluster of Medway Megaliths are only a couple of miles away on the other side of the valley, the River Medway is planted firmly in the way so I have to use my car, making use of the A229 and the M20 as well as a couple of country roads, in order to reach the village of Trottescliffe.

Coldrum Long Barrow

The barrow stands in a pretty spot east of the village, which is pronounced 'Trosley'. It overlooks broad farmland, with the North Downs rising across the fields. As can be seen from the above picture, the stone-built chamber has suffered from slippage, and many of its stones have tumbled down the slope. The mound is surrounded by smaller kerbstones, known as a peristalith, and the spot is popular with practitioners of the Earth Religions - the tree behind the barrow is often festooned with clouties and offerings.

Tumbled stones at the foot of the mound

Archaeological investigations over a century ago uncovered the remains of seventeen individuals, interred over two occasions during the Early Neolithic, some five thousand years ago. The skeletons showed signs of excarnation and dismemberment before being deposited within the barrow.

Bone assemblage from Coldrum
The site's popularity with neo-Pagans means that rituals take place here at all of the major festivals, including Morris Dancing which takes place here at dawn on May Day. Sadly, it seems that some visitors like to build small campfires on the centre of the mound, akin to the tealights which can sometimes be found at monuments such as Wayland's Smithy and West Kennet Longbarrow. Most pagans and megalithomaniacs would severely censure this practice.

Addington Park Longbarrow

Stones from the chamber

Little more than a mile from Trottecliffe sits the neighbouring village of Addington, which contains the remnants of two Longbarrows. The first, Addington Park, is easy to find as a road originating in the village goes right over the top of it.

The chamber lays north of the road, with peristalith stones visible on both sides
Sarsen stone found in various buildings in the village suggest that the barrow has been quarried for building materials in the past, and no skeletal remains have been reported. Some recent subsidence on the road crossing the monument was found to have been caused by tunnelling rabbits.

Perstalith stones south of the road
Chestnuts Longbarrow

This monument is difficult to spot from the road, as it sits in the rear garden of a property called 'Rose Alba'. It is possible to contact the owners and arrange for a guided tour of both Chestnuts and Addington Park, which takes about an hour and involves dowsing.

Archaeological exploration has recovered the remains of nine or ten individuals, although the acidic nature of the sandy soil upon which the monument sits means that quite a lot of organic material may have been destroyed. It was found that deliberate attempts had been made to damage the barrow, probably by zealous Christians - a medieval practice which has damaged many prehistoric monuments in the past, most notably the great complex at Avebury, Wiltshire.

©Adamsan at Wikipedia
As well as the usual prehistoric finds, archaeologists also found clay pipes dating from the seventeenth to the ninteenth century, stone and clay marbles, and bottles from the nineteenth centuries. This was taken to confirm local reports that the Chestnut Longbarrow had, for centuries, been a popular picnic spot for sightseers.

And for this sightseer, another quest is over. The Medway Megaliths, this scattering of stones across a river valley in the Garden Of England, have been visited in a single afternoon and, as I make my way home in the deepening darkness, I realise that there is, after all, an advantage to living in South Essex.

It's close to Kent!

Previous blog articles that included megalithic monuments:

And The White Horse Looked On

Rough Circles

On Going A Journey

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Season Of The Witch

For the last couple of years I have managed to post topical articles regarding Samhain events that I have attended in Southwark and New Forest; however, Hallowe'en passed uneventfully this year, with no dancing in urban burial grounds and no druidic rituals on forest plains.

Although Samhain went unmarked this year, earlier in the month I managed to find myself in a place that has a historical connection to witchcraft: the small town of Manningtree, sitting on the banks of the Stour Estuary on the border of Essex and Suffolk, buttressed by the villages of Mistley to the east and Lawford to the west.

Manningtree from the Stour

The circular walk that my Eldest and I intend to undertake officially begins at the railway station on the west of the town, but we have decided to start elsewhere along the loop; therefore, we leave our vehicle along the waterfront, only a stone's throw from the town's most notable landmark: the so-called Mistley Towers.

Mistley Towers

The original church on this site had been built in the classical style early in the Georgian period, reflecting the architectural trend imprinted by Wren and his colleagues on the City of London following the Great Fire. However, in 1776 an ambitious local politician named Richard Rigby, who nurtured plans to create a spa town, employed the renonwned architect Robert Adams to 'enhance' the buiding, and the Towers that stand today are the result.

Adam's church served the community for a century, before being replaced in 1870 by a new church to the southwest. This was built in the Neo-Gothic style, reflecting the change in architectural taste between the Georgian and Victorian periods. The main body of Adam's church was demolished but the Towers were allowed to remain, and today are maintained by English Heritage.

River Stour from Manningtree, with Suffolk across the water

We stride west along the waterfront, heading for the centre of the estuarine settlement which claims to be the smallest 'town' in the country, although it has rivals to this claim ( such as Fordwich in Kent and Llanwrtyd in Powys, to name but two). The mudflats to our right are peaceful, dotted with godwits and lapwings, and boats bob quietly on the water.

High Street, Manningtree

This riverside road, known as The Walls, reaches an art gallery then kinks left up an incline before swinging right into a High Street with a narrow roadway and even narrower pavements. There are plenty of hostelries and tea shops, and little to disturb the street's Georgian feel. Many of these facades conceal older structures behind, and the town contains over a hundred Grade II listed buildings. We purchase a Meal Deal from an unobtrusive Tesco Extra and sit on a bench next to a small market area to enjoy our lunch.

In the medieval period, Manningtree was known for a Whitsun Fair at which a whole ox was roasted. This event was famous enough to be known to William Shakespeare, who made reference to it in Henry IV Part 1, with Henry describing Sir John Falstaff as 'that roasted Manningtree ox, with a pudding in his belly...'  Today, a sculpture of the Ox - complete with the pudding - hangs at Market Cross.

The Manningtree Ox

With our lunch finished, we continue west along what is now called Station Road, which leads to the edge of the town and - no surprise here - its railway station. From here, we take a footpath that heads south across countryside toward the parish church of Lawford, and then we strike east, across fields and through woodland, skirting the southern edges of Manningtree as we head toward the hamlet of Mistley Heath. To our left, across the meadows of Furze Hill, we can see the landmark chimney of the EDME Maltings, and somewhere beyond that lays the site of a 'secret' nuclear bunker.

Maltings Chimney

It is peaceful, attractive North Essex countryside, and yet - during the tumultuous, Civil War-torn decade that was the 1640's - this community managed to nurture one of the most notorious and controversial figures in English history. This was the home of Matthew Hopkins, son of a Suffolk clergyman, the man who descibed himself as the Witchfinder General.

Detail from frontispiece of Hopkins' book 1647 book, The Discovery Of  Witches

Hopkins was born at Great Wenham, Suffolk, around the year 1640, but moved to Manningtree in the early '40''s. East Anglia was a stronghold of Puritanism and strongly favoured the Parliamentarian side in the Civil War. The times were rife with superstition and were ripe for unscrupulous 'gentlemen' like Hopkins and his companion, John Stearne, to enrich themselves by exploiting the gullible. Already the iconoclast William Dowsing had rampaged through the district, destroying stained glass windows and whitewashing church walls as he carried out his commission to destroy 'monuments of idolatry and superstition'.

Hopkins wrote that his career began in 1644 after he overheard a group of Mannngtree women discussing their meetings with the Devil. Stearne seems to have been the dominant figure at first, but their roles were soon reversed. Twenty-three women accused of witchcraft were tried at Chelmsford. Four died in prison, the other nineteen were hanged.

The penalty for witchcraft

With Stearne and a group of assistants named Mary Philips, Frances Mills and Edward Parsley, Hopkins now took his witch-hunting roadshow around East Anglia. The women were employed to physically examine the unfortunate accused, ordeals which included being 'pricked' to see if they would bleed. During his career, Hopkins made the acquaintance of such notable figures as the astrologer-prophet William Lilly and John Thurloe, head of Oliver Cromwell's secret service.

It was certainly a lucrative business. Hopkins demanded that the town of Stowmarket pay over £23 for his services, at a time when the prevailing wage was sixpence a day. It is not known how many victims perished at Stowmarket, but over the course of his brief career he was responsible for the deaths of over three hundred women.

'Ducking', a popular ordeal for identifying witches

Not all his victims were women. The vicar of Brandeston in Suffolk, John Lowe, despite being seventy years old, was forced to run back and forth in his cell for several days before, exhausted beyond care, he finally confessed.

Towards the end of 1646, Hopkins' brutal methods and extortionate ways began to attract negative attention. The vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire, name of John Gaule, heard that the Witchfinder planned to visit his area and denounced him from the pulpit. The tide of popular opinion now began to swing against the zealotry and venality displayed by Hopkins and his followers. Prudently, Hopkins disbanded his gang and retired to Manningtree in the Spring of 1647.

He did not enjoy his retirement for long, dying in August of the same year, of what his former partner Stearne described as 'a consumption'.

The remnants of St Mary's Church, Mistley Heath

Eldest and I stroll along a fieldside footpath and enter the hamlet of Mistley Heath, a few farms and cottages straggling along a minor rural road. The footpath reaches the road and there, right opposite, an ancient wall surrounds a parcel of open land. At one end of this field, below a canopy of trees, lay the crumbling remains of a demolished medieval church, the building that was replaced by Mistley Towers.

We cross the road and survey the site from the wall. This field was clearly the old churchyard and somewhere under this unassuming plot of Essex land lays the dust of one of the county's most notorious and despicable figures. All is peace and quiet in Mistley Heath today but, gazing at this field, I find myself recalling the final line of Emily Bronte's classic Wuthering Heights:

'I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.'

The wall around the site of Mistley Heath churchyard
And off we go, strolling back toward Manningtree, toward Mistley Towers and our parked car. We cross the Hopping Bridge, by local tradition a spot where Hopkins ducked his victims. A pond in the local park is supposed to be haunted by the Witchfinder, and the local pub is said to have been owned by him at one time. We are a couple of weeks shy of Samhain, yet today we have traversed a pocket of Essex town and country replete with legends of witchery and persecution,  and who knows what other dark secrets may rest in this 'quiet earth'...

River Stour

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Coming Of The Corvids

What calls them hither, these feather-clad warriors,
These ebon-swathed guardians of crepuscular sky?
What drives them together in the Norfolk dusk,
A yearning, an instinct, a reason to fly?

They gather and they chatter
They assemble and they clatter
Cacophonous corvids, jackanape jackdaws
They start as just a smatter
Swell to a seething mass of matter
Waiting and watching for a single cause.

They perch on lofty wires
They fill canopies and nooks.
They are waiting for the sunset
They are waiting for the rooks.

Blood-orange sun now bows its head,
Skyline kissed and ruddied.
Dusk infuses, deepening red,
Fields and foliage bloodied.

To a crescendo, the avian chorus
Fills the Anglian evenscape
As the horizon pushes close.
Deep and relentless, the coming night
The obdurate failure of the light
A black mass held by crows.

The rooks are here!  The strident caws
Mingle with the ambient roars,
They swoop and dive, blending in the gloaming
Connect and join, mixing in their roaming,
A trembling stack of beaks and claws.

And now they rise, the corvid chorus
Swarming, blotting the indigo sky
The nocturne quakes with their communal roar
A rumble penetrates to the core
Thousands lift, and together fly.

A boiling carpet, a feathered block
Our upturned faces in awe and shock
The jackdaws joke and the dark rooks mock
As we gape below this colossal flock.
They swing, they sway, they murmurate,
They dip, they soar, they susurrate
Their instincts and their needs to sate
A heirarchy to equate.

They shrink, contract, descend en masse
Upon a clump of trees.
They jostle and they tussle
They wriggle and they bustle
They whisper and they rustle
They grow quiet in the breeze.
Settling for the night,
A few rogues left in flight
One lonely 'caw! caw! caw!'
And the corvids call no more.

The night grows deep
Now the corvids sleep
The stars, tentative, emerge.
A distant tawny's plaintive cry
Cuts into this Anglian sky
Where the rooks and the jackdaws surge.

We sleep ourselves under Swaffham's sky
Where the beech and the bramble grows.
Having seen the flight, at the onset of night
Where the army of corvids rose.

What calls them hither, these feather-clad warriors,
These ebon-swathed guardians of crepuscular sky?
What draws them together in the Norfolk dusk,
A yearning, an instinct, a reason to fly?

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Dark Brow

On 17th April 1805, a young Manchester artist named Charles Gough went strolling out in the Lake District with his dog Foxie. He was never seen alive again.

Three months later, a shepherd found his remains at the foot of Striding Edge, near the banks of Red Tarn. His dog was still by her master's side.

This incident caught the imagination of poets and artists of the romantic movement. Wordsworth and Scott wrote about Foxie's fidelity, and Landseer and Danby visualised the scene in paint. Today, a memorial set up at the estimated site of Gough's fall tells his story.

I climbed the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn,
Lakes and mountains beneath me gleamed misty and wide;
All was still, save by fits, when the eagle was yelling,
And starting around me the echoes replied.
On the right, Striden-edge round the Red-tarn was bending,
And Catchedicam its left verge was defending,
One huge, nameless rock in the front was ascending,
When I marked the sad spot where the wanderer had died.

Dark green was that spot 'mid the brown mountain heather,
Where the pilgrim of nature lay stretched in decay,
Like the corpse of an outcast abandoned to weather,
Till the mountain-winds wasted the tenantless clay.
Nor yet quite deserted, though lonely extended,
For, faithful in death, his mute favourite attended,
The much-loved remains of her master defended,
And chased the hill-fox and the raven away.

How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start?
How many long days and long weeks didst thou number,
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart?
And, oh! was it meet, that—no requiem read o'er him,
No mother to weep, and no friend to deplore him,
And thou, little guardian, alone stretched before him—
Unhonoured the pilgrim from life should depart?

When a prince to the fate of the peasant has yielded,
The tapestry waves dark round the dim-lighted hall;
With scutcheons of silver the coffin is shielded,
And pages stand mute by the canopied pall;
Through the courts, at deep midnight, the torches are gleaming;
In the proudly arched chapel the banners are beaming;
Far adown the long aisle sacred music is streaming,
Lamenting a chief of the people should fall.

But meeter for thee, gentle lover of nature,
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wildered, he drops from some cliff huge in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.
And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying,
Thy obsequies sung by the gray plover flying,
With but one faithful friend to witness thy dying
In the arms of Helvellyn and Catchedicam.

Photos © Charlie McManus
Poem Helvellyn by Sir Walter Scott

Helvellyn (pronunciation: /hɛlˈvɛ.lɪn/) (possible meaning: pale yellow moorland) is a mountain in the English Lake District.