A short walk along the Dee at Holt, taking in Holt Castle

Holt Castle

After a morning of shifting logs, the sad remnants of an enormous fallen tree, from one end of the garden to the other and stacking them in the shed, I was fairly stiff and very bored.  It was a lovely day, so even though there is an immense pile still sitting there, I put the wheelbarrow back in the garage and decided to go and walk along the river, taking in Holt Castle.

A number of people have asked me if I’ve visited the castle yet, and my answer that the last time I saw it was probably 30 years ago always seems a tad lame, given how close it is.  I will talk about the castle on another post, but it was interesting today to see how much it has changed.  When I was last there, it was inaccessible and covered in ivy.  I remember the doorway hanging in the side of the wall, and remembered that it was built on a sandstone base, and that local sandstone was quarried from around the castle to provide building material and form a moat, but I had forgotten anything else that I knew about it.  Today, I was so pleased to see how well it has been served since I last saw it.  There is now a staircase leading to the top of the castle, from which the views of the Dee and the fields beyond are excellent, and there is plenty of signage to explain all the features remaining, and to show what existed in the Middle Ages.  I must try to find the photographs I took 30 years ago for comparison.

I was walking straight into the sun, which was beautiful but blinding, so after visiting the castle I retraced my steps and headed instead towards the bridge, crossed the road just before it, and went through the gate into the grass field that flanks the Dee to its west, heading north in the direction of Chester.  It was only a short walk.  I did not pass out of the field onto the track, which was covered with deep pools of muddy water, but the sun on the grass made it glow, the reflections in the river were lovely, and the cobwebs forming silver nets on the ground were glorious, and all in all it was a really rewarding stroll.

 

 

 

 

Visiting and accessibility notes

There is no carpark for the castle, but during the week there is plenty of on-road parking.  The footpath leading down to the Dee is well maintained, but as it opens into the open grass it is muddy and a little slippery after rainfall.  That is true for the worn footpaths around the castle too, so suitable footwear is required.  The path leading up to the top of the castle is gravel set into a plastic matrix, and felt very safe underfoot.  The metal staircase up tot he top of the castle is also well-textured underfoot, with a good handrail.  It’s only a short flight.  Do note that the noise from the bypass is considerable, so if you were thinking of carrying on along the Dee to the south after seeing the castle, do bear that in mind.

The walk along the Dee has no car park on the Holt side, but cross the bridge and there is a small car park on the Farndon side, to the south of the river (to the right as you cross from Holt into Farndon).  You can then return across the bridge on the narrow footpath to do the walk on the west of the river heading north.  As you open the gate, you may again find that the converging feet and paws have muddied the approach from the field, making it slippery.  The rest of the walk through the field is slip-free, and on the flat.

The late 19th century Churton village pump

A little way down Pump Lane, opposite Churton Hall in the village of Churton is a cast iron hand-activated water pump, in an alluring shade of bottle green.  Its original manufacturer marking is almost illegible, but apparently reads “G. INGOLD B. STORTFORD,” referring to G. Ingold of Bishop’s Stortford.  The modern paintwork makes this illegible today.  I haven’t found any photographs of the pump prior to 2005 when it was renovated and reinstalled, but there must be plenty in local collections, so perhaps some will turn up.  It looks as though it is in very good condition, at least externally, its paintwork glossy and its structure intact.  Its What Three Words location is ///lance.alas.prune.

Pumps were installed from the 18th century, and began to replace wells in the  latter half of the 19th Century.  Wells in Churton are recorded at Churton Hall, Pump Lane, inside and out, and inside Cherry Tree Cottage on Chester Road, discovered during renovation work, the latter now sealed over.  Latham says that well water was very hard in the Farndon area, and that most houses had some form of rainwater storage as a common supplement to use of the well, for washing clothes and other tasks were softer water was required.

There were two primary types of upright pump commonly installed in Britain in the mid-late 19th Century: the lift pump and the force pump.  The Churton pump is probably a lift type.  These are relatively simple, with two valves opening and closing as a piston is lifted and dropped with the lever.  When the handle is lifted, the lower vale opens and the upper valve closes.  The barrel draws the water up the downpipe, filling the barrel below the piston.  When the handle is pushed down, the lower valve closes and the upper one opens, forcing water into the barrel about the piston.  The next upward pull of the handle pushes the water out of the spout, with water again filling the barrel below the piston.

Pumps relied on bringing water up from local aquifers via boreholes, which were the biggest part of pump installation.  A simple screw-shaped auger could be used for soft soils (I use a small one for planting daffodil bulbs), but percussion drilling was required for sinking a borehole through stone, a far more laborious and expensive process.   

The first village standpipe pumps were made of wood, which inevitably rotted, and later lead.  Lead was malleable and enabled smaller pumps to be made, but it was expensive and was targeted by thieves for melting down for resale, in spite of the threat of transportation, which was the standard punishment for theft of village pumps. Cast iron, a new technology in the 18th century that spread during the 19th century, replaced both.   Cast iron pumps were cheap to produce and far less prone to decay.  They spread rapidly into villages that had not previously been able to afford a pump, and found their way into homes, inns, farms and public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

Public pumps were not merely water sources but, much like the office water fountain today, places where people bumped into one another and where information, news and gossip were exchanged.  Some activities were easier to carry out at the pump itself rather than carrying the water back to home or business, whilst some better-off residents paid for the water to be delivered to them.  Comings and goings at the pump made it a social as well as a functional resource, and probably changed the dynamic of village life quite substantially once installed.

Servicing the pump was important, replacing the more vulnerable parts to ensure that it stayed functional.  The pump would sometimes be out of commission during the winter months due to frozen water, and the pumps themselves might be chained up to prevent use, and wrapped against the cold to protect them from frost damage.  I do much the same (wrapping, not chaining) with my high-tech hose reel and my outdoor taps.


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So far a precise date for the installation of the Churton pump eludes me. Latham says that the village pump at Crewe-by-Farndon was installed by William and Mary Barnston in the 1850s, and the one in Farndon by Mary Barnston in about 1877.   However the Churton pump is on the Churton-by-Aldford side of the road, inset into a field on that side of the road.  This is relevant because Churton was divided at that time into two parts, Churton-by-Aldford and Churton-by-Farndon, the division between the two running down the middle of Pump Lane.  Churton-by-Aldford came under the Grosvenor family’s Eaton Hall estate, and Churton-by-Farndon came under the Barnstons of Farndon, so the pump, if not paid for by public subscription, is more likely to have been donated by the Grosvenor family rather than the Barnstons of Crewe-by-Farndon.  On the other hand, I can find no record of a village pump in Aldford at around the same time.  Aldford, of course, was a model village, built from scratch by the 2nd Marquess of Westminster in the mid-19th Century, and the houses may have been supplied with running water.  So the question of how and precisely when the Churton pump arrived remains, for the time being, unanswered, but there are clues to establishing a rough date.  

G. Ingold of Bishop’s Stortford (Hertfordshire), made pumps for a variety of locations, although usually in the south, including villages in Essex and Cambridge.  The company had been founded in 1851 by John Ingold for sinking wells and manufacturing pumps.  He was based at Rye Street with a workshop in Apton Road in Bishops Stortford.  Following the death of John Ingold, the business was taken over by his son George, but the latter was marking pumps “G. Ingold” well before his father’s death.  This seems to put our pump quite late in the 19th Century.  This is born out by a number of wells and pumps in Uttlesford in Essex, where the date was recorded.  The earliest marked as “G. Ingold” as opposed to merely “Ingold,” was in 1873, then 1886, with a cluster of five in the 1890s.

Where images are available, all of the Ingold pumps looked very similar. As far as I can tell from the Essex and Cambridge examples posted on the web, most Ingold pumps had handles to the rear, with only some, like the Churton pump, fitted with handles at the side.  The Ingold spouts often had a thorn-like feature at the top of the bend, a bucket hook, often decorated.  This is absent on the Churton pump, although there is an indentation where one might have been located, visible in the photograph above left.

There are two modern signs on the walls flanking the Churton pump.  One is a disclaimer notice drafted by a local solicitor, commenting on the quality of the water available from the pump, saying that  it derives/derived from an artesian aquifer and warning that one drinks at one’s own risk.  I did try to activate the pump, giving it a really good go after heavy rainfall when the aquifers were all filling up, but it produced nothing.  Although I’ve never tried to use a village pump before, there was no feeling of resistance as you might expect of a lever raising a piston.  Thanks very much to Irene Mundy and John Gallagher for the information that When the renovated pump was reinstalled it was discovered that the pipe delivering water up to the pump was deeper than expected. Half way down the pipe towards the water reservoir another, secondary pumping mechanism had been attached in the past.  Although the pump initially drew water, it eventually ceased to function.  It’s nice that it did work for a while, and it still looks great.

The other sign refers to the restoration.  Although it says that it was a Millennium project, commemorating the arrival of the 2000s, Latham comments that the renovated pump was not actually installed until 2005.  The sign records that the project was supported by both Barnston and Grosvenor estates, both with vested interests in the village, as well as the Chester City Council.  The engineering and installation work was carried out by A.E. and K.E. Jones, farmers near Pant yr Ochain (Gresford), and the welding by J. Vale.  Someone must have a record of the project and the installation of the pump, including photographs of the installation and official opening, which would be really good to see.  The Eaton estate repaired the stone wall that encompassed the pump.  If any more details come to light, I will cover the restoration project on another post.

It was super, late last summer, to see that the sandstone trough beneath the pump had been planted out, and that a very attractive display of bedding plants had replaced the straggling weeds (see also the photo at the top of this post).  Many thanks to whoever took the trouble.  It was great to see it looking so good.  The photograph was taken in August 2021.  The other photos on this post were taken in May 2021.

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For more information on village pumps
I recommend the short book, Village Pumps by Richard K. Williams and the Village Pumps website (details of both below), both of which provided a lot of the general information in this post and are comprehensive resources on the subject of all types of village pump.
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Sources:

Books and papers

Latham, F. 1981.  Farndon: the History of a Cheshire Village. Farndon Local History Society

Williams, R.K. 2009.  Village Pumps.  Shire Library

Websites

The Recorders of Uttlesford History
https://www.recordinguttlesfordhistory.org.uk/

Village Pumps website
http://www.villagepumps.org.uk
Village Pumps: Churton entry
http://www.villagepumps.org.uk/pumpsChesh.htm#C10C

Waymarking.com
Village Pump, Widdington, Essex
https://staging.waymarking.com/waymarks/wmC4MW_Village_Pump_Widdington_Essex_UK

 

Valle Crucis #2 – How the abbey buildings were used

Ivor Mervyn Pritchard illustration showing elevation view of Valle Crucis. Source: Coflein

When I first visited Valle Crucis, I was so bound up in the architecture and its complexity that it took me some time to get to grips with the idea that this was a place not merely where people spent time in worship, but where they spent their entire lives, an enormous amount of it taken up with liturgies.  The entire abbey complex is all about how those people’s lives were lived.

Monastic communities conformed to a vision of life in the 13th century that had been first conceived in the 6th century.  The Cistercians were one of a number of reforming orders that were attempting to return to the 6th Century values of St Benedict.  St Benedict was long on attention to detail, but devoted less time to the bigger picture, so there was plenty of scope for incorporating his Rule into a broader vision of monastic life.  Each order approached the task differently, and the Cistercians did it by establishing remote communities where they could live out their lives, bound together by vocation, devotion and the cohesive regulations that laid down how their lives should be lived.  The foundation of Valle Crucis is covered in part 1.

Plan of Valle Crucis. The buildings on the plan beyond the core abbey unit are all post-Medieval, mostly modern caravans and holiday chalets.  Source: Coflein

The Cistercians, with their centralized approach to the management of their European network of abbeys, understood all about the bigger picture, and knew how to impose its vision via standardization and conformity.  They had a system of government, and when they colonized a new country or region, they had mechanisms for ensuring that their operational procedures and their beliefs endured.  One abbey supplied the abbot and monks of the next, and the new abbey was answerable both to its parent abbey and to the founding abbey in Citeaux.  This was not just an idea; it was implemented.  The abbots of all abbeys went to Citeaux each year to attend the General Chapter where all Cistercian decisions concerning the order were made, and each parent abbey was responsible for visiting its daughter abbeys each year to inspect and judge it.  The Cistercian system was one not merely of self-discipline but of accountability.

The organization of the abbey, both its hierarchy and the functional components embedded into its architecture, promoted the Cistercian vision of monastic life.  It was ambitious and powerful, and it attracted both founders and members.

The organization of the abbey

Early pencil sketch showing archway at Valle Crucis Abbey. Source: Coflein

An abbey, priory or nunnery combined a church with monastic buildings, making up a community in which all the residents chose to devote themselves not merely to religious observance, but to a set of commitments that seems fairly daunting today.  Some must have been unnerving to the prospective novice even in the Middle Ages.  Once a novice had passed through a number of stages and was ready to make this final vows, he or she entered a life of devotion, self-denial and hard work.  The vows of personal poverty, celibacy and obedience were accompanied by the vow of stability, perhaps the most daunting vow of all.  It was a commitment to remain at the abbey for life.  All the vows were binding, and breaking them could result in punishments, including imprisonment for the most serious infractions.

As a novice, the future monk would experience the monastic code in practice, based on prayer (ora), manual labour (labora) and contemplative reading of religious texts (lectio divina).  The Cistercian order was guided by the principle of opus Dei, God’s work, and their abbeys were laid out to meet the needs of regular devotion in church, scholarly activity, economic self-sufficiency, communal support, and, when required, punishment for transgressions.

Detail of a 13th Century illuminated manuscript depicting St Benedict of Nursia, showing him with a tonsure. Source: Cover of Carolinne White’s The Rule of St Benedict (Penguin Classics)

As well as providing a church, the abbey had to make provision for its inmates.  The Cistercian hierarchy within each monastery was headed by the abbot or abbess, responsible for the smooth running of the abbey and the well-being of the monks.  The strict discipline, clear regulations and multiple routines were essential for cohesion, consistency, reassurance and morale.  Often there was a prior who was deputy to the abbot.  The main community of abbeys like Valle Crucis was made up by “choir monks.” Like other Benedictine-based orders, the Cistercian choir monks were tonsured, meaning that the top of their heads were shaved bare, leaving a ring of hair that represented Christ’s crown of thorns.  Up until the mid-14th Century, at the lowest level of the Cistercian abbey hierarchy, were the lay monks, conversi, who were allocated their own quarters within the monastic precinct.  Some had supervisory duties, but the main body of the conversi carried out most of the agricultural labour.  They did not have the tonsure. These roles, and others, will be discussed in part 4.

Aerial view of Valle Crucis (with caravan park).  Source:  Coflein

Each Cistercian abbey’s floorplan was an echo of the order’s founding abbey, Citeaux, which itself echoed the layout of earlier Benedictine monasteries.  The earliest abbey in Britain to conform to this layout was St Dunstan’s at Glastonbury in the 10th Century.   Although every abbey and priory is unique, all conform to the basic template.  Valle Crucis provides a very useful example of this template, simple enough to illustrate the principles of the Benedictine model, but elaborate enough to demonstrate some the options exercised by individual abbots over time.

Annotated plan of Valle Crucis showing the central cloister around which all the other buildings were focused, including the church, the south wall of which makes up the north wall of the cloister.  Source:  Evans 2008

The above plan of Valle Crucis shows the main organizational elements of the abbey, with the church at the north, and the rest of the buildings arranged around the cloister.  The monastic buildings surrounding one or more cloisters are called “ranges.”  Each range consisted of several rooms with doorways out into the cloister.  At the centre of the cloister was a garden or “garth.”  Around the garth was a walkway, usually termed an alley or walk, linking all the rooms in all the ranges. The monks’ formal and domestic buildings made up two sides, to the east and south, and in Cistercian abbeys the rooms for the conversi made up the fourth, western side until the mid-14th century, after which the west range was used for different functions.  Both the east and west ranges, facing each other across the cloister garth, were two-storey buildings.  This formulaic plan was a very effective organizing principle.

Standing at the east end looking west.   The dark block at centre marks the position of the original pulpitum, which divided the west end nave from the east end

In an ideal world, an abbey church would be orientated east-west, with the main entrance at the west opening into the nave, where general worshippers such as lay brothers and guests would attend services.  The nave was separated from the east end choir, chapels and presbytery (the domain of the choir monks) by a stone screen called a pulpitum or a rood screen.

The church’s south wall would make up the north wall of the cloister.  The cloister would ideally be located on the south side of the church to protect it from the wind and expose it to the sun.  Valle Crucis exemplifies this arrangement, but there are monasteries where it was not possible to orientate the church west-east or to position the cloister to the south of the church, such as Tintern in south Wales, founded in 1131, the second Cistercian abbey in Britain and the first in Wales.

14th Century window tracery in the chapter house, east range, Valle Crucis. Source: Coflein

The early Cistercians valued simplicity and rejected ostentation, associating decorative features with adulation of the material, wealth, self-indulgence and a tendency to succumb to luxury.  Monks who were supposed to be engaged on scholarly religious reading and profound, introspective contemplation needed no distractions, so the earliest buildings of the 13th Century had very few decorative flourishes.  From the mid-14th Century, however, more elaborate architectural features common to other monastic orders were added, such as window tracery and stained glass.  The chapter house in the east range, shown left, is an example of this elaboration of style.

No two abbeys were alike, which could be due to any number of variables including the richness of the original endowment, the preferences of the founding abbot, the accessibility of building materials, the availability of skilled craftsmen, financial constraints, changes in direction during the initial building phases, later re-building after fires or floods (common phenomena) and the incorporation of new ideas and technologies.  However, all abbeys share enough features to make their layout instantly familiar, with the function of many of their main rooms immediately identifiable.  Once you have got to grips with the layout of one abbey, you have the essentials for finding yourself around any other one.

The exterior

Rear view of the abbey’s east range.  From left to right, the grand passage leading from the cloister towards the fish pond, the rear view of the east range with its three tracery windows of the chapter house (with the monks dormitory overhead), and the ground floor window of the sacristy

Valle Crucis west front. Source: Coflein

For Medieval monks and modern visitors alike, the main experience of Valle Crucis takes place in the interior, but the first impression was provided by the impressive west front.  In the 376 years of the abbey’s life, local people will have seen little more than the imposing walls and tower, whilst pilgrims, guests and novices (trainee monks), will have had all the layered responses of a first impression when they arrived.  Most had probably seen other abbeys, or at least substantial churches.  For all, the view of Valle Crucis in its isolated valley setting was one of height, solidity and worthiness.  The 12th and early 13th Century Cistercians eschewed most architectural decoration, their focus on the serious business of doing God’s work without distraction.  The restored west front (which is the end at which today visitors enter the church) has the rose window and elaborate arch that were probably added after the fire that swept through the church 40 years after its foundation, and would have been considered trivia by those who founded the abbey in 1201.  For those invited to enter the church, the early 13th Century doorway would have been big, but relatively plain.  The overall impact of the ornamental details was more impressive, but less Cistercian. The east face, shown below, with its almost grim austerity, is far more consistent with early Cistercian ideas.

The innovative and austere east end of the abbey church, with the rose window of the west end showing through the left lancet window

On all of the church’s outer walls there are buttresses, long, flat vertical sections that sit against the wall, sometimes to its full height.  You can see them right, imaginatively incorporated into the design of the east end of the church. and below on the north wall, in both cases with splayed bases.  A buttress supports and reinforces a tall masonry wall, sometimes to the full height.  It counteracts the outward force of a wall to prevent it buckling by providing a counteracting force, preventing a wall from bulging by pushing against it.  These are often faced with fine stone (ashlar) or at least cornered with it (quoins).  The photograph below shows the buttress bases along the north wall of the nave of the abbey church.

Ashlar covers most of the church and monastic buildings, although some was robbed for building material after the dissolution.  The smooth surfaces, neatly carved lines, tightly fitting corners and fine joins give a much finer appearance to a building.  Being far more expensive to make and install than the roughly carved interior stone, its use also communicate something about the abbey’s status.  It really must have been quite a sight when first built.


The Virgin Mary

St Bernard of Clairvaux by Juan Correa de Vivar, 16th Century

Cistercian abbeys were dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  St Bernard, the charismatic and highly influential abbot of the 12th Century Cistercian abbey, Clairvaux, promoted Mary as a personage who encompassed all the most important Christian virtues.  She had a central role in the Christian story, she was sacred, approachable, empathetic and she had the ear of both Christ and God.  “If you fear the Father, there is Christ the Mediator.  If you fear Him, there is His Mother.  She will listen to thee, the Son will listen to her, the Father to him.”  This was St Bernard’s view of the matter, and one that he promoted energetically.

In spite of this, there is little sign of Mary in early Cistercian monastic establishments due to a Cistercian mistrust of effigies.  In most of the other monastic orders there would have been architectural carvings, paintings, tapestries and sculptures to commemorate the most venerated religious figures, but in accordance with St Benedict’s view of monastic life as pared down and austere, Cistercians rejected art works and instead venerated the Virgin only in their liturgies and rituals.  She was revered in their worship, and presumably in their hearts, but only occasionally in their architecture or art.  When the abbey was dissolved, all its possessions were sold off to raise funds for the crown.  It is thought that two chandeliers, one now at Llandegla parish church, and another at Llanarmon yn Ial may have been sourced from Valle Crucis.  I have not seen a picture of the one at Llanarmon yn Ial, but the one at Llandegla is topped with a statuette of the Virgin Mary.  If it was indeed from Valle Crucis, the depiction was from late in the abbey’s history, dating to the late 15th or early 16th Century.

Procession and Horarium

Artist’s impression by G.Pickering of monks in the east end of the Valle Crucis abbey church, having filtered down the night stairs from their dormitory, at far right.  Source:  Coflein

All buildings, whether religious or not, are about access, movement and visibility.   Doorways, walls, screens, corridors, passages and stairways all constrain and direct the sort of movement possible.  It is sometimes difficult to remember, when wandering around a roofless abbey, that the presence of windows, or the absence of them, impacts not only what can be seen from the inside out, but how clearly interiors can be seen based on the amount of light available, and whether candle light would be needed in key areas.  With the Benedictine plan,  control of movement and lighting were all about the main activities of the abbey.  All abbey activities had to be scheduled around the daily liturgies, which were at fixed times of the day.

The canonical hours or horarium scheduled the daily liturgies.  There were seven daytime gatherings, and one night-time gathering in the abbey church for prayer, psalms, chants, lessons, readings and hymns, as described by St Benedict in the Rule.  Attendance was obligatory.  In the Cistercian order these began at daybreak with Lauds, which was followed by Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers (at around 6pm) and Compline (at Sunset) with Vigils (known in some orders as Matins) at night.  Between these liturgical assemblies were the daily meeting in the chapter house, mass (once a day and twice on Sundays and feast days), eating (once a day in winter, twice in summer), manual labour and intermittent sleeping.

Cistercian monks shown on a mural in the Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

Every Sunday, and on feast days, the abbot led a procession of the entire community from the east end of the church around the cloister.  In larger abbey communities this must have been a spectacular sight as they monks lined up in pairs behind the abbot in their white habits and proceeded along the alleys of the cloister.  First holy water was blessed at the high alter, and then the abbot led the whole procession through the eastern part of the church, spreading holy water on altars in chapels.  Then they proceeded into the eastern alley of the cloister and walk the full circuit, sprinkling holy water into each of the rooms, before entering the nave at the west end of the church, again sprinkling altars with holy water, and finally returning, through the pulpitum, to the east end of the church.

Valle Crucis ground plan. Source: Valley Crucis Abbey by D.H. Evans (Cadw 2008)

In the order in which the procession visited them, here are the rooms at Valle Crucis, at least as it was when the abbey was suppressed in 1537, although the configuration was quite clearly somewhat different during the 13th Century.  It might be worth opening the above site plan in a new window so that you can follow the descriptions on the plan.

The Abbey Church

Cadw sign at Valle Crucis showing a cutaway of how the church may have appeared, with the nave where the lay brothers worshiped, separated by a pulpitum from the area used exclusively by the monks.

The procession began and ended in the abbey church.  The Valle Crucis church walls are preserved to a reasonable height throughout, and it is easy to see that its footprint was cruciform and orientated along the preferred east-west axis.  St Bernard of Clairvaux is usually given the credit for certain aspects of the Cistercian plan, particularly popular during the second half of the 12th Century,  which includes a short squared-off presbytery, low transepts, an aisled nave and a short tower.

The church was divided, physically, functionally and spiritually, into two main sections.  The west end of the church was the nave, flanked by two aisles, achieved by building two runs of walls supported on arches of which only the piers (columns) remain.  This is where the conversi, guests, and corrodians (permanent residents who were not choir monks) would attend services.

Cadw signage at Valle Crucis showing how the east end of the church may have looked in the early 16th Century. Note the undyed habits worn by Cistercian monks, giving them the name the “white monks.”

A screen, the pulpitum, divided the west end from the east end, the domain of the choir monks.  Beyond this screen was the choir and the presbytery, where the monks would have carried out their liturgical ceremonies eight times a day (including one at night).  Here there were a number of important architectural details shared by most Cistercian abbey churches.  The base of a spiral staircase may have led to an organ.  The pulpitum was moved towards the east end later in the church’s history, perhaps reflecting the decline in numbers of the resident choir monks.

The two arms of the cross formed wings to the south and north, the transepts.   Each  transept contained two chapels, side by side, originally both with rib-vaulted roofs, very beautiful.  The south transept chapels are still present with much of the vaulting in tact.  Chapels were required for ordained monks to give mass.  Most monks were not ordained, and although many liturgies were required, mass performed separately.  It was the duty of the ordained priest-monk, and had to be catered for with one or more chapels, each with its own altar.

Between the transepts is the crossing, the section at which the north-south and east-west axes cross.  Here a short tower was built overhead.  Beyond this section, forming the top of the cross, was the most sacred part of the church, the high altar.  If you stand in the crossing facing the east end of the church, look right and there is a doorway hanging 10ft\3m above the ground.  A flight of stairs from the first floor dormitory gave access to the east of the church for the night time liturgy. Offset from the dormitory entrance at ground level is the entrance into the sacristy.

The sacristy

13th Century sacristy

If you walk through the entrance into the sacristy, the room that housed the religious vessels and other items used in the liturgy and other ceremonies, you will find yourself in a remarkable barrel-vaulted room, worth a visit to the abbey in its own right.  It is lit by two windows, a lancet window at the end and a peculiarly oblique square window in the opposite wall to the entrance from the south transept. In some Benedictine layouts this in turn had an entrance into the chapter house, but in this case it opens instead into the cloister at one end.

The cloister

Lavatorium in the garth, with a view to the remains of the west range on the far side, and the south wall of the abbey church, together with its west end

The cloister is the core organizing element of the abbey.  It is made up of the garth (the lawn or garden) and the cloister alleys or walks that run along all four sides of the garth.  The garth still contains the base of the base of the lavatorium, a raised stone basin, used by the monks to wash before proceeding to the refectory to eat.  Drains under the west range were found during the 1970 excavation, running in the direction of the basin, perhaps fed by a hillside spring.  The cloister walkway, which surrounded the garth and linked the buildings that surrounded it, is thought to have been covered by the 14th Century, with the roof fittings still visible on the wall of the east range.  The left-hand illustration below by Chris John-Jenkins shows how it might have looked when the roofed arcade was first built.  Later, it seems as though part of the roofed section was removed to enable a door and staircase to be added to the top floor of the east range, when it was the private quarters of the abbot.  Again, Chris John-Jenkins’s illustration below shows how this may have looked.

Reconstruction of Valle Crucis east range and cloister in the mid-14th and early-16th centuries, showing how both the cloister walk and the upstairs dormitory may have changed over time. On the left, the cloister is surrounded by a roofed arcade, but this has been removed in the early 16th century and a staircase to the abbot’s new quarters has been added.  By Chris John-Jenkins, in Evans 2008, pages  41 and 43.

Like the layout of the church, the buildings that surrounded the garth also conformed to the basic Benedictine model and contained the functions of daily life, organized around the cloister in “ranges,” often in exactly the same order from one abbey to the next, with the chapter house and dormitory on the east range, the refectory on the south range and the conversi and cellarer (in charge of the monastic stores) occupying the west range.  The ranges at Valle Crucis are described below.  The east range is the most complete, partly protected by its use as a farmhouse after the dissolution, but the rest was robbed for stone, and only a few courses of stonework survive, which is just enough to give an idea of the layout just before the monastery was abandoned.

The East Range

Vaulted roof of the chapter house

The Sunday procession, having exited the church proceeded along the east range of buildings, which still stands to the original two storeys thanks to post-dissolution roofing.   The ground floor has one of the most important room in the complex – the chapter house.  Here the monks gathered daily to listen to the abbot read a chapter from the Rules of St Benedict, or a hagiography (the biography of a particular saint), to discuss the work of the day, and to hear confession and mete out punishments.  Readings about saints could focus on any saint from anywhere in the Christian world, but it is likely that in a Welsh abbey populated mainly by Welsh monks, hagiographies would have focused mainly on the numerous Welsh saints.  This beautiful room is rib-vaulted and contains various large niches, one of which was a fireplace.  Windows at front and back, with fine tracery, provided views over the cloister and the narrow stretch of land that ran down to the river.

The ornate door leading into the book cupboard and, beyond, into the chapter house. The main entrance to the chapter house, for daily use, is on the right. The entrance to the sacristy, which also has access to the abbey church, is partly visible on the left.

Accessed from the chapter house was the book room, which at Valle Crucis could be seen through an arched window with elaborate tracery.   This embellished entrance dates to the mid-14th century, and a simpler version of this would have been in place during the 13th century.   The cupboard is where the most important documents belonging to the monastery were held, some of which may have been borrowed from other monasteries either for studying or copying.  Two of the Valle Crucis books survive.

In the photograph below, the book room is flanked by the the entrance to the sacristy on the left and the main entrance to the chapter house at the right.  The next entrance to the right, much smaller, led to the dormitory.  Finally, the big arch at the end is a passage to the rear of the abbey, known as the slype.  The roof was removed after the dissolution in 1536, but replaced in the later 16th century.

The east range

Over the top of the sacristy and chapter house were the 13th Century dormitory and the latrines.  The dormitory can be seen in the illustration by Chris John-Jenkins above, at far left.  The latrines were built over a drain that was intended to flush away the waste (see photograph below).  These upper levels are still accessible but behind a locked door and would require special permission to visit.  They are much altered from monastic times, due to having been used as a farm house after the dissolution, and one fireplace has a 13th century gravestone incorporated into its design.  At the time of construction the dormitory was a communal room used by all of the monks.  Initially it was one large open space, but in the later Middle Ages a demand for more privacy usually led to divisions between beds that provided individual spaces.  The stone-lined  drain that ran along the base of the latrines still survives at the south end of the east range.

Stone-lined latrine drain

Later in its history the dormitory was converted into a private dwelling area and grand hall for the abbot, heated with fire places.  Evans makes the comment that so few monks were left that they could have lodged elsewhere within the monastic complex.  An obvious candidate would have been the west wing, which had formerly housed the lay brethren.  It seems peculiar that the abbey could have sustained the conversion of the dormitory into an ambitious private space for the abbot and his guests if there were so few monks remaining, but Evans does not comment on this.

The passageway at the end of the east range is located where  the “parlour” was usually located, where the monks could meet up, but here it seems to have been merely a passageway.  Originally it may have led to an infirmary, although no infirmary has yet been located.  In its later form it is much more elaborate than usual passageways.  Evans speculates that this was because it may have led to the abbot’s quarters at a time when the abbot was becoming a far more prominent figure.  This end of the range was longer in the 13th century and it was clearly modified extensively.  The far end, where it gives access to the rear of the monastery, the stream and the fish pond, has a 13th century arch that was removed from another part of the abbey and put in place here.   Whatever the incumbent abbot’s reasons, he went to some trouble.

The part of the east range on the other side of the passage, which looks like a wall of unsorted rubble, is the inner stonework of the latrine.  The latrines were on the first floor, at the end of the dormitory, and waste fell into the drain, where it was flushed away with water.

The South Range

Monks’ refectory with spiral staircase in the opposite wall. This will have lead to a pulpit for reading to the monks as they ate. Monks were rarely allowed to converse in the Cistercian refectory, but readings accompanied the meal.

Again following the procession, having turned right into the south range, the small room on your left may have been the calefactory, or warming room, in which the monks could warm themselves after work outdoors or in unheated parts of the abbey. No hearth was found here, so if it was indeed a warming room, it must have been heated by braziers. Alternatively, it may have been the access to the location of the day stair (the stairs that gave access from the dormitory to the cloister), later relocated.

The main room of note in the south range is the refectory, where the monks met to eat.  In earlier claustral layouts the refectory was parallel to the walkway, but from around 1170, the refectory could be built perpendicular to the walkway, allowing for more seating, more windows for light, and the positioning of the kitchen alongside.  The lavatorium, usually a raised basin in the garth containing water (for which the base survives at Valle Crucis), was always situated close by because the monks always washed before eating.  Conversation at mealtimes was forbidden.  Instead, readings might be delivered during meals.  The remains of a short 13th century spiral staircase are visible, leading to a pulpit where a monk would have read from a religious text which, as in the chapter house, was often a hagiography.

A very finely sculpted head was found during excavations of the refectory. Source: Evans 2008

A carving of a human head was found during the 1970 refectory excavations, now considered to be one of the finest pieces of Welsh Cistercian sculpture carved from sandstone that was used for all decorative features at the site.  It may have fallen from the pulpit.  It has an inscribed crown that reads “+MORVS.”  It has been much debated, and in the absence of any princes or other local leaders with a similar name, is thought to represent either St Maurus, or early medieval religious scholar Rabamus Maurus.  The excavator says that its style suggests a 13th Century date, and is a good example of the north Welsh school of stone carving.  As with many objects of significant archaeological value deriving from North Wales, it was removed to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

The last room in the south range was usually the kitchen, and this is no different at Valle Crucis where the kitchen not only linked to the south range refectory, but being on a corner, also served the west range refectory built for the conversi.  In some refectories, such as Basingwerk in Holywell, the refectory was linked to the kitchen by a hatch, through which food could be passed, and it is possible that at Valle Crucis, built after Basingwerk and in a position to copy some of its most useful features, hatches in two of the kitchen walls were included for delivery of food to both south range and west range refectories.

The West Range

Part of the west range, showing the south wall of the abbey church at far right

There are only very few courses of the stonework left in the west range, making it difficult to get to grips with how it was used and what it looked like.  In his 1976 excavation report, Lawrence Butler says that the west range was badly disturbed by Ministry of Works clearance of the site after they took it over, enthusiastically destroying archaeological levels and making it very difficult to determine historical sequences, and to tie sequences in with each other across the site.

In a typical Cistercian monastery, the west range was the domain of the conversi, at least at the time that the abbey was built in 1201.  Butler’s 1970 excavations found four rooms, and parts of the abbey’s drainage system passing under the floors, one of which probably drew water from a natural spring further up the hill to make use of gravity to flush through the monastery’s drainage system.  Most of the rooms were floored with small slate tiles.

There was a passage, and there was probably a day room.  It is not entirely clear how day rooms were employed, but it is possible that when weather was poor or when an indoor location was required for the type of tasks carried out, they were where monks undertook craft work and other indoor activities.  There was a refectory and there was a ground-floor cellar at the end of the range that served both conversi and choir brothers.  Mirroring the east range, a second storey, which may have been half-timbered, contained a dormitory and latrine for the conversi.

The Black Book of Basingwerk, National Library of Wales reference NLW MS 7006D, probably copied at Valle Crucis.  .Source:  National Library of Wales

The tradition of using lay workers for maintaining abbey lands went into decline in the late 13th Century and early 14th century, and the Black Death wiped them out by the end of the century, so these premises would have undergone a change of use after that time.  The dormitory probably served as sleeping quarters for the choir monks when the abbot took over the top storey of the east range.  Some abbeys used the west range for extending their book collections and for copying books.  As Valle Crucis was clearly an important centre for the production of Medieval literature, the west range may have been the most obvious place for the monks to work, once the conversi had left.  The Black Book of Basingwerk, mainly containing the work of Welsh bard  Gutun Owain, was kept at Basingwerk Abbey at the dissolution but is thought to have been copied at Valle Crucis.  Remarkably it survives, and is the National Library of Wales

The North Range

The southern wall of the abbey church nave, marking the north alley of the cloister

The north alley of the cloister, which ran along the outer wall of the church, would have been  fitted with desks along one wall, and used for reading Cistercian, hagiographic, historical and biblical texts.  Reading, copying and  meditating took up much of the monks’ time.  Silent reading was uncommon, so a gentle murmur of sound would have accompanied the reading of texts, one of the few unregulated sounds that would have emanated from the otherwise quiet, if not completely silent Cistercians.  There was an entrance here into the nave of the abbey church, into which the monks proceeded during their procession, and from there they returned to the east end, and their own inner sanctum.

The cemetery

There is very little left  to see of the cemetery.  The best of the surviving tomb stones were moved into the former dormitory in the east range, and only a few token examples remain outside.

For 376 years monks had been living and dying at Valle Crucis, all of whom were granted burial rights within the abbey’s own cemetery, which lay to the south and east of the main buildings.

Original founding monks of the abbey, sent from their home abbey of Strata Marcella, would have been permitted to return to their home monastery to be buried, should they wish to do so.  The abbots, priors and most notable donors would have been buried in the abbey itself.

Cleanliness and hygiene were built into the Cistercian way of life, and this will have helped avoid disease and illness, but the close proximity of monks leading the cloistered life must have led to much higher risks of transmission than those living in the surrounding countryside. Even with a infirmary on the doorstep, medicine was still in its very early infancy, and illness must have been endemic.

The abbey precinct

Artist’s impression of the Newry Abbey precinct.  Newry was also Cistercian, another daughter of Whitland Abbey, founded nearly 50 years before Valle Crucis. Source: Philarm.com

Valle Crucis as it stands today, with its abbey church and four ranges, was the core of a much larger abbey precinct that would have contained a number of other buildings and features.  A well house and a fishpond were preserved, but this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.  Unfortunately, no  surveys or excavations have extended beyond the abbey itself.

A standard component of Cistercian monastic precincts was an infirmary, often with its own cloister, near to the main cloister, usually to the southeast.  It would have been unusual for a Cistercian monastery to be without an infirmary, but so far none has been identified.

Typically, the precinct might include any of the following:  a formal gatehouse; guest quarters; stables; a home farm with barns, dairy, hen house, animal sheds and slaughter house; a granary; a bakehouse; one or more mills; herb and vegetable gardens; an orchard; a smithy; a dovecot; and a brewhouse with malting lofts.  Not all precincts with have had all of these, and some only a handful of them.   Sometimes the entire precinct was surrounded by some sort of boundary that was more symbolic than defensive.  Some abbeys and priories even had moats.  Unfortunately it is not known whether Valle Crucis had any of these within its precinct.

Final Comments

The abbey’s fish pond. It is the only surviving monastic fish pond in Wales.

With an impressive church, substantial monastic ranges, a cemetery and a fish pond, Valle Crucis was a well built and admirably self-contained unit.  It was built along the lines adopted by most Benedictine orders, and whilst it served the three main concerns of the Cistercian ethos:  ora, labora, and lectio divina, it also served the economic, administrative and domestic needs of a community of monks bound together by the vow of stability for the duration of their lives.

The character of the rest of the abbey precinct remains unknown.  There may have been an infirmary nearby, and there must have been a much larger precinct that could have included farm-related and other buildings, but it is not known where they were or how they were organized.  A caravan park now covers part of the precinct area, and there is farmland on the other side of the stream, where other parts of the precinct may have been located.

There is considerable scope for future field investigations to understand at least some of the precinct and its limits.

Postcard of the interior of the abbey church, looking west, with gravestones lined up in the foreground (now in the former dormitory over the east range). Photochrom Print Collection. Source: Wikimedia.

Although the above description of the church and the ranges is a fair stab at the way in which the abbey was designed for monastic activities to be carried out, there are many unanswered questions about the exact layout in the abbey’s early history and how its drainage was organized (an important aspect of Cistercian monasteries).  It is also unclear exactly how the west range was used after the demise of the conversi.

The next post, Part 3, will take a chronological romp through the architecture to see how the monastery changed physically over time, reflecting changes not only in Valle Crucis but in the Cistercian order itself during the 376 years of the abbey’s life.

Bibliographic sources for parts the Vale Crucis series:

For sources see the end of part 1.  Although I usually include a bibliography at the end of each post, the Valle Crucis posts have been rather long, so it seemed sensible to post all the sources used in the series on only the first and last posts.

Object histories from my garden #8 – Pieces of 19th century clay tobacco pipe

A photograph of the collection of clay pipe pieces from the garden

Clay pipes are ubiquitous in Britain.  The small collection from my garden, extracted from all over the garden over several months, is meagre but the fact that those bits were there at all is still interesting.  Like willow pattern ceramics, I would be very surprised if there are not clay pipe pieces scattered in almost every garden in Churton, Aldford, Farndon and Holt.

The ones found in my garden are shown in the photo on the left.  I suspect that we missed quite a lot when we first started digging out old beds and introducing new beds.  The stem fragments, which survive better than the more fragile pipe bowls (see diagram below right for terminology), are far easier to spot on a river bank where they have been washed back to their original white, than in gardens.  In fields and gardens, they are earth-encrusted and the broken pieces of shaft look almost no different from short pieces of twig.  After I spotted a broken pipe bowl in the garden, I realized that they were there to be found and started looking for them.  Several more emerged, all pieces of stem, one including a mouthpiece.  Most of the rest of the photos in this post are taken from elsewhere to illustrate the points made in the text.

Clay pipe terminology by D.A. Higgins. Source: National Pipe Archive http://www.pipearchive.co.uk/howto/date.html

A clay pipe consists of a long tube of white clay, which makes up the shaft, finishing in a bowl, which often has a small heel (also known as a  spur) to keep it upright when placed on a table.  As clay pipes were prone to snapping and could be easily replaced, their remains are littered throughout the country, turning up in fields, gardens, rivers and on building sites.  When I lived in London I found many decorated pieces on the Thames foreshore, including two complete short pipes, but all of the bits I’ve found in the garden have been completely unmarked by either decoration or manufacturers’ marks.

Clay pipes first started being produced at the end of the 16th century, in the wake of Walter Raleigh’s introduction of tobacco as a luxury item from Virginia.  Although tobacco was new in English society, it had been adopted on ships and was known in many parts of western Europe.  Its rapid success after Walter Raleigh introduced it was due to his launch of it into the upper echelons of society. Much the same happened with Chinese tea in the late 17th Century.  The Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders was granted a charter by King James I in 1619 and although a duty on the sale of tobacco pipes imposed between 1695 and 1699 appears to have lead to a hiatus in clay pipe manufacturing, this did not prevent its success spreading.  It rapidly found its way from the wealthiest to less privileged households.

Decorated bowl from the Thames foreshore

The pipe making industry had spread throughout England by the end of the 17th Century, when there were very few towns without at least one pipe maker, and there were over 1000 clay pipe makers in London alone.   As prices of tobacco fell and consumption expanded, the size of the pipe bowl increased.  There was another hiatus in pipe manufacturing around in the 18th Century, this time due to interruption of tobacco imports during the American War of Independence.  They came back into fashion in the 19th Century, when all sorts of decorations were applied, some of them real works of art.  These more rarefied pipes became more collectable and less disposable, although plain, unmarked pipes still dominated in the less wealthy echelons of society.  For many more examples of the sort of decoration that was fairly common, see the What The Victorians Threw Away website.

Makers’ marks. The two at the top are a single stem, with the name H. Dudnam from Plumstead clearly shown. At the bottom is a maker’s mark, EW, on the heel of a clay pipe bowl

Some pipes were marked with the maker’s stamp, either on the shaft or on the base of the heel, enabling the manufacturer to be identified and a date to be assigned.  Some manufacturers became particularly popular, their names a guarantee of quality, and their pipes were priced accordingly. Pipe-making dynasties sometimes emerged, with the skills being passed from one generation to another.  There’s more about pipe marking on the National Pipe Archive website.

Longer pipes were more expensive than shorter pipes, because they more were difficult to make, and used more clay, although the shorter types were more practical, were easier to smoke without holding up, and were less prone to breakage.  However, longer pipes were preferred by connoisseurs as they cooled the smoke as it travelled from the bowl.  Other factors that commanded a higher price include the above-mentioned decorative embellishments, which became particularly popular during the 19th Century.  Some very special ones had elaborate sculptural elements, but are very unlikely to be found in agricultural village gardens.  A far greater number are unmarked in any way and are found everywhere, rural and urban.  Of course, where only small pieces are found, it is entirely possible that a different portion of the same shaft would have been marked and its bowl decorated; there is no way of knowing.

Clay pipes began to be replaced by wooden ones in the early 20th Century, and all were largely replaced by cigarettes in the mid 20th Century.

A short pipe that has little decorative bumps on the bowl and stem called “thorns” (pipes featuring this are referred to as thorn pipes).  This one also has a button mouth piece and decorative leaf motifs along the mould seam at the front of the bowl.  Found on the Thames foreshore.

Clay pipes were made in moulds, although they had to be pierced with a long metal rod before being fired.  Any decoration or manufacturer mark was incorporated into the mould.  The mould seam can usually be seen on the pipe’s underside and the front and back of the bowl.  The pipes were then left to dry before being fired in a kiln.  Before being shipped, the mouth piece, the very end of which was often defined by an additional ring of clay, was painted with red or, less usually, yellow wax to prevent the smoker’s lips sticking to the clay.  The wax, which presumably wore off quite quickly, didn’t do much to prevent damage to the teeth.  Habitual pipe-smoking led to damage to the teeth, as well as the lungs.  A Museum of London study of skeletal remains excavated from a Victorian cemetery in Whitechapel found that in many cases teeth had been worn down by pipe-smoking, with some having a circular hole when the jaws were closed, formed in two or four teeth.

Piece of a bowl with spur, and piece of a stem with button mouthpiece. From my garden in Churton

Having found many really fascinating examples on the Thames foreshore, I confess that the small crop of unmarked clay pipe remains from my garden are a little disappointing, although it is a little unfair to compare my garden with the vast reaches of the Thames foreshore.  Without a maker’s mark to work with, there’s not a lot to be said about these specific examples, and that’s rather frustrating because there has been a lot of great research that has helped to develop clay pipes as archaeological tools to understand the pipe-making industry, the tobacco industry, and how both shed light on economic and social history over the centuries of their usage.  Even simple questions of source and distribution are unanswerable when the maker cannot be identified.  Even so, it’s great to have them.

The oldest objects to emerge from the garden so far have been later 19th Century, and that seems a probable date for these pieces too.  It is impossible to extrapolate from a single pipe bowl, but that one example is so simple and basic, that it was not something that would have been singled out by someone wealthy.  This was an everyday item, nothing special, like a lot of the decorated ceramics and embossed glass found in this garden.

Broseley Clay Tobacco Pipe Museum. Source: Visit Bridgnorth

I initially thought that at least some of the pipes from which the pieces came could have been made in Chester, where there were multiple pipe-makers, some of them producing pipes of very high quality that were in demand both within and outside the immediate area.  Many were exported in great volume up until the 18th Century.  An example is the clay pipe works where the Roman Gardens now stand, with the kilns lined up along the side of the city walls.  It turns out, however, that by the early 19th Century the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes in Chester had collapsed.  The main source of clay pipes in the general area in the 19th Century was Broseley in Shropshire, a few miles to the south of Telford, which had been producing clay pipes since the 18th Century.  The Broseley Pipeworks, for example, was established late in pipe-making history, in 1881, and only closed in 1957, now a small museum.  Realistically, unless I find something more diagnostic, there’s no way of knowing where these odds and ends originally came from.

If you are in the Churton, Aldford, Farndon and Holt general area, and you have found clay pipe remains in your garden, especially if there are any type of markings at all, it would be great to hear from you.

For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page


Sources:

Books and papers

Another photographs of Churton clay pipes from my garden

Ayto, E.G. 1994 (3rd edition). Clay Tobacco Pipes.  Shire Publications

Cessford, C. 2001.  The archaeology of the clay pipe and the study of smoking.  Assemblage,  Issue 6, August 2001
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/assemblage/html/6/index.html

Dagnall, R.  1987.  Chester Pipes in Rainford. Society of Clay Pipe Research, Newsletter no.15, July 1987, p.10-12
http://scpr.co/PDFs/Newsletters/SCPR15.pdf

Davey, P. 1985. Clay pipes from Norton Priory, Cheshire. In (ed. Davey, P.) The Archaeology of the Clay Tobacco Pipe IX. More Pipes from the Midlands and Southern England British Archaeological Reports British Series 146i and ii. p.157-236.

Nevell, M.D. 2015.  The industrial archaeology of Cheshire: an overview. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, 85 (IV), p.39-82
http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/37519/
http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/37519/1/Nevell%202015%20JCAS_ns_085_IndustrialArchaeologyInCheshire_textonly.pdf

Pearce, J. 2007.  Living in Victorian London: The Clay Pipe Evidence.
Part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded study ‘Living in Victorian London: Material Histories of Everyday Life in the Nineteenth-Century Metropolis’ Award Number AH/E002285/1 led by Dr Alastair Owens in the Department of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London
https://www.academia.edu/737367/Living_in_Victorian_London_The_Clay_Pipe_Evidence

Sandy, J. 2019.  Clay Pipe Making: The Victorian Way. Beachcombing Magazine, volume 11, March/April 2019
https://www.beachcombingmagazine.com/blogs/news/clay-pipe-making-the-victorian-way

Victoria County History 2003.  Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: The economy, 1762-1840, the demise of old Chester. A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003, p.172-177.

Websites

Victorian smokers had rotten teeth to match lungs
MOLA
https://www.mola.org.uk/blog/victorian-smokers-had-rotten-teeth-match-lungs

 

The redevelopment of Chester Marketplace – more imminent changes

Yesterday I posted about the vision for the new shopping and parking complex in Chester based around the Town Hall and the former library (a.k.a. the Motor Works).  Today I wandered into another relevant website, which describes the upcoming move of the market to a new location in 2022.

This website is entitled Chester Market and can be found at https://newchester.market.  Their vision is captured in a poem of sorts on their home page.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Tune in to the modern vibe… and the tribes of butchers and bakers, artists and makers… Creating the reasons for trying and buying, playing and staying… Sharing and caring…for people and planet.
Balancing learning, entertaining…and playing tasting the best – not wasting what’s left…in our city we invest.
The heartbeat and art-beat of Chester combine… Reaching out and drawing in… The young and the old… the shy and the bold. Fathers and mothers… Significant others… 

Most of the website is a bit like that, full of chunky soundbites and big colourful blocks of texts and organic, leafy motifs (Matisse might have done a somewhat aggrieved double-take at bits of it).

On the other hand, the history page has this wonderful photograph in its favour.

Here’s the description that goes with it, genuinely interesting if a tad brief:

Chester’s market charter was granted in 1159.  The markets were originally hosted on the streets and Rows, with the focus in Market Square, outside the current Forum entrance.

The first permanent building was the Exchange, built in the square in 1692 until it burned down in 1862. It was replaced by a grand Victorian construction in 1865, designed to complement the new Town Hall next door, although sadly this was demolished in 1967 and replaced by the current Forum building.

A second photograph below, from Wikipedia, but without attribution to an original source, is also excellent.  What it was replaced with was really bad, but even if it had been something halfway acceptable, the loss of this façade was tragic, a lapse of judgement and a thorough abdication of cultural responsibility.  Heritage was simply swept aside, and for what?  One wonders what went on behind closed doors.

The 1865 marketplace façade, next to the town hall, torn down in 1967. Absolute tragedy. Source: Chester ShoutWiki

Quite by coincidence, a few weeks ago I took this photograph as I was attending the Local List  Workshop, and was on the lookout for anything slightly unusual or amusing.  This turned out to be the tragic sole remainder of that wonderful façade.

I am just hoping that the 2022 version of the market and town hall square heads us in the right direction.  Here’s their stated ambition:

“The vision driving the new market is to be a ‘modern traditional market’ that takes the best of the new breed of thriving city produce markets such as Borough Market in London, Barcelona market, combined with communal foodhall markets such as Altrincham and Liverpool’s Baltic.”

The entrance to the market as it looks at the moment

It’s a laudable ambition, but we will just have to see how it looks and feels when it comes to using itThe website states:  “Applications have now closed to trade at the new Chester Market. We expect to announce which traders have been successful over the summer.”  When the market moves, I sincerely hope that Mr Fernyhough the butcher, from where I buy game, is going with them.  I’ll ask him when I see him.

I am all in favour of a programme change for the more demoralized corners of Chester, including removal of some of the ugliest  previous attempts to revive it.  In this particular convergence of some great buildings, (Chester Cathedral, the Motor Works, the Town Hall and even the Story House) the space between them should be a vibrant and attractive place for people to enjoy, a  Cestrian piazza, so the hope is all there.  I am balancing optimism against past experience, but crossing fingers that the change will be substantially better, and will deliver something that everyone can feel good about.  

Architect’s impression of what the new marketplace will look like.  Source:  Chester Market website

The redevelopment of Chester Northgate: the imminent future

Architect’s view of two aspects of the new arcade, with the motor works at top.  Source: https://chesternorthgate.com

A couple of days ago I was trying to find out what the construction works were all about at the delightful Westminster Coach and Motor Car Works building next to the Town Hall on Northgate, its façade formerly fronting the library.  I found a whole website dedicated to the redevelopment of Northgate at https://chesternorthgate.com.

Too late to have any influence on the outcome, because the public consultation is over, but for those wondering what the redevelopment is going to look like, there are indications on the above site, including many more details and architects’ illustrations of what’s being planned.

It’s a matter of waiting and seeing what it looks like when it’s up, although one or two of the proposed new buildings seem completely out of keeping with Chester’s personality.  The new multi-storey car park, in particular, looks like a step in quite the wrong direction.

Architect’s view of the new car park. Source: https://chesternorthgate.com

The FAQs are well worth a look.  There’s also a history section with some interesting details about past developments intended to improve the marketplace itself.

Although there is always the worry that new shopping centres and arcades will concentrate shopping activities in new locations at the expense of older ones, I do hope that it brings renewed life to Chester.  The number of shop-fronts boarded up or simply abandoned in Chester is sad, including the former Browns/Debenhams, Patisserie Valerie, Edinburgh Woollen Mill and the entire of the Grade II listed St Werburgh’s Row.

Architect’s view of the new market place at the rear of the Town Hall.  The view below shows it as it is at the moment.  Source: https://chesternorthgate.com

A Chester Local List Workshop – what is local listing all about?

A few weeks ago, Chester Archaeological Society forwarded a request from Cheshire West and Chester (CWAC) for participants to attend a Local List Workshop.  I volunteered, but at that time I had only the fuzziest idea of what a local list actually is.  This post is about local lists and what happened on the workshop.

A lot of county and city councils have programmes dedicated to local listing, and are running their own workshops and other forms of interaction with the public in order to launch their own local lists.  So what is a local list when it emerges from its burrow?

What Local Listing is not

The Grade 1 nationally-listed Chester Cathedral. Shame about the big purple sign, which completely destroys the first impression.  One of the lessons of Chester is that inappropriate signage and shop frontages can intrude very negatively on an otherwise beautiful city.

First, it’s useful to understand what local listing is not.  Local listing is not the same as the more familiar sense of the term listing, which is where a building or monument is “graded.”  Most of us are aware that when a building is officially listed and allocated a grade (Grade 1, grade 2 etc), it is given a special status and there are limits on what can be done to it and how it can be used.  Here’s part of the English Heritage explanation:  “Listing marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.  The older a building is, and the fewer the surviving examples of its kind, the more likely it is to be listed.”  There are currently 511 listed buildings (Grade 1, Grade 2* and Grade 2) in Chester City Ward alone.  Chester Cathedral, for example, is Grade 1 listed.  This is a national designation, and usually referred to as National Listing.

Local Listing

Local listing is different.  For a start, it is not a national designation and is not determined by a centralized national unit.  It is organized on a local basis by the council.  Here are some of the details on the Cheshire Local List Project website:

“In addition to the National designations, (including Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Registered Parks and Gardens and Registered Battlefields) local heritage can also be identified through the production of Local Heritage Lists of non-designated heritage assets. These enable the significance of any building or site on the list to be better taken into account in planning applications affecting the building or site or its setting.”

As I discovered recently when contesting a planning application, one of the sticking points in objecting to any planning application is the concept of a “material consideration.”  A material consideration is something that a planning department takes into consideration when accepting or rejecting a planning application.  More to the point, anything that is not a material consideration is ignored when objections are made.  Local listing ensures that even those aspects of the built environment that are not nationally listed and have no grading are included as a matter of material consideration, which may make all the difference to communities attempting to care for their assets.

National, graded listing is designed to protect buildings and other sites, and ensures that when changes are proposed, a process of consultation takes place, but there are many other buildings, sites and objects that are not nationally listed, but nevertheless have an important role in communities, either because they contribute to community identity, or represent significant markers of local history.   As locally listed entities, these become subject to material consideration in the planning process.

The Cheshire Local List Project (CLLP) website goes on:

The Cheshire Local List gives importance to local heritage within the planning system, but also allows the expression of community identity, both through the list itself and through engagement in the research and designation process. It is a key component of conservation area management and Neighbourhood Plan development, and allows numerous stakeholders to better understand and appreciate the heritage of the county and its communities.

It would have been helpful if the word “listing” had been confined to national graded listing to avoid any confusion, but hey-ho, we’re stuck with it, and whatever it is called it is a really good idea, assuming that it is well implemented and becomes an integrated part of local planning procedures.  Local listing is a government initiative that sits at a level beneath graded listing, and is a much less formal designation, but could be just as important for communities if they work with councils to identify important local sites that cannot be nationally listed.  It puts the onus on councils to engage with the idea, but my hour on Google suggests that many have taken up the gauntlet.

The idea of the workshop

One of the Project’s aims is to be community-lead.  Here’s the official wording:  “We see the Cheshire Local List as a community-driven dataset. Rather than impose detailed criteria, which may be restrictive and exclusive, we have developed non-asset-specific criteria which we hope will enable local communities to define local heritage significance on their own terms.”

The term “community-driven” is often an indication that an organization intends to do nothing at all unless poked firmly in the ribs by some community-based pressure group, but here we had excellent James Dixon, Built Environment Officer (Conservation and Design) at CWAC, reaching out to Chester Archaeology Society, amongst other groups, for people to come and participate in a series of workshops.  The objective, ongoing, is to understand sensory experiences of small groups of people walking the same route through Chester to see how this might help to build an idea of what the concept of local listing might contribute to a city that already has 511 nationally designated listed buildings.   Rather than looking at the merit of individual buildings, this approach sought to develop an idea of how people respond to and interact with the city as a whole.

The approach is evidence-based.  Evidence-based approaches have become popular in all sorts of research that involves human interaction, including archaeology, social science and economic development as well as urban planning.  They have largely emerged from the basic idea of phenomenology – the way in which different living spaces are experienced and interpreted by individuals and communities – but are now a tool for developing  strategies or policies.  It takes the idea that how people live their lives and how they perceive their built, natural and cultural environment should influence what decisions should be made about those environments.  First, of course, is the requirement to understand people’s responses, both conscious and subconscious to the context under discussion, in this case the city of Chester.  In our workshop group at least, it produced some interesting results.

Another concept that has been incorporated into the Cheshire approach is “group value.”  This divorces heritage in its own right from other things we appreciate, such as assets, objects and spaces and how we experience all of these in a sensory way.  Valuable buildings are easy to put a finger on, describe and evaluate, but the open spaces in front of them, the odds and ends of  modern sculpture, ancient architectural lumps and bumps, and the occasional well-positioned tree or cobbled footpath are more difficult to evaluate.  And yet, they too are part of the heritage landscape, the built environment, the cultural context or whatever else we are calling it this year.  My above whinge about the purple sign in front of Chester Cathedral is just as important to people’s perception of how we move through our cultural space as the building we want to engage with, because signage is an attention grabber, and it manages expectations.

Archaeologists and historians are always flipping between what a site, building or object might have meant in the past and what it means in the present and how that distinction influences how we interpret the past.  That’s the archaeologist in me talking, but it works for any entity that we look back on from the perspective of time.  Cities and towns are accumulations, so we are reacting not to a single slice of time, but to an amalgamation that spans the oldest to the newest building and and is generally  experienced by the user (shopper, visitor, worker) as something that instead of having many multi-layered and multi-temporal identities, has one single identity in their own minds, in this case the identity of being Chester.

Because we humans are all so different from one another, a Chester identity is no single thing, because different people will respond to it in different ways depending on, for example, nationality, familiarity, personal interests, and the way in which they are intending to interact with it.  So Chester actually has multiple identities, each person perceiving the city as single cohesive entity but each doing so from a different perspective,  meaning that there are multiple identities of Chester, all of them compressing the complexities built up by time into a hurried present-day reality through which we pass, often in a tearing hurry.

In order to move beyond this sense of Chester being any single thing, James has come up with a method of directing participants in the workshop to look at Chester in an alternative way, something that had nothing to do with arranging its buildings chronologically or by function, but by asking us to think about how we reacted to different sensory aspects of it.

Participating in the workshop

Post-Covid there are a lot of empty shops, looking abandoned and derelict, dragging down the image of their neighbouring shops. The entire of the St Werburgh Row is devoid of life, and tragic. This initiative, however, where empty shop windows are provided with imaginative Chester-themed boards is excellent, raising a smile. The one here is the former Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street.

On the 18th of November, the 90 minute workshop started at the bottom of Bridge Street, where we received our instructions from James, an excellent, reassuring communicator who turns out to have a natural gift for herding cats.  From the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross, and then from The Cross to the top of Northgate Street, the workshop set out to build an evidence base of sensory experiences including, for example, colour, sound, smell and texture, and more elusive concepts like fun and solitude.

James handed each of us a 6x4inch card, at the top of which was written a single word.  There were eight of us in the group, which was a good number for exploring some of the concepts, and enabled us to exchange notes on three occasions, once after we had walked Bridge Street, once after Northgate Street, and once in the town square, outside the town hall.  The topics were, in no order, were texture, colours, sound, stillness, views, words, and mine was fun.

There were Covid-aware latex gloves for those of us who wanted to explore texture by touch.  We could partner up with someone else, we could proceed en masse, or we could go off individually.  Apart from that we were given no direction so that the thoughts that came to us were not influenced in any way by James, or by the council’s objectives.

The idea was to write down words that occurred to us in relation to the given topic on the card.  I have to say my heart sank because I had no idea how I was supposed to interpret “fun,” but it was hugely enjoyable once I got into the swing of it.  The photos on this post are snaps that I took as I was walking around and thinking about my target word.  It came in very handy for consolidating my thinking as I went along.  If I had had a different word on my card, the photos would have been entirely different, which is an interesting thought in its own right.  For example, if I had had “stillness” or “texture,” both my words and photos would of course have been quite different.

The record cards

The keywords are clever, because they avoid simple reductionist descriptions based on liking or disliking, positives and negatives and instead focus on more nuanced responses and descriptions.

When he set us off on our own, James said that there was no right or wrong thing to write down, that the whole point was to let us react and write accordingly.  We had a card for Bridge Street and either the reverse side or a new card for Northgate Street.  One of mine is shown here, annotated to make it legible.  As well as capturing our thoughts so that we didn’t have to remember them, they helped us to marshal our thoughts when we gathered to discuss our findings.  We handed the record cards in at the end, so that James could collate them with those of other workshops.  The cards were an important part of the workshop.  Several of us had to apologize for our handwriting 🙂

Discussing the keywords

James was great at getting us together, on four separate occasions.  Two of the discussions were about what we had written on our record cards.  Here’s just a bit of  that, but I am sure that James received radically different comments when running different workshop groups, so this is just a sample of a sample.

In all the discussions it was clear is that we were all looking in different directions, and that’s partly because of the keywords, which directed attention to different parts of the built environment, and partly because of how we interpreted those keywords and what took our interest.

The Cross

Our first stop to exchange notes was at The Cross, where Bridge Street meets with the other three primary roads preserved from the legionary fortress, Eastgate Street, Watergate Street and Northgate Street.  We had at that stage walked only up Bridge Street.  James asked us what struck as what we found surprising about Bridge Street, within the parameters of the keywords on our cards.   I didn’t know anyone’s names, so these comments are all anonymous, and are shorter, simplified versions of what was discussed:

The Rows. There is a lot more stillness here than down on the streets, at least at the moment.  It makes for a nicer experience, but I am sure that the shops would prefer greater footfall.

Views:  As one looks up towards the Cross, the impression is of a great complexity pattern of walls and facades of buildings that forms an incredibly intricate pattern that frames the view from the floor up.  Some bits stick out, some don’t, and all the buildings have their own character, but they lead unambiguously to The Cross, along a road that is surprisingly wide given its Medieval past.  The rows give the whole thing a very distinctive feel, and means that the shops on those level are set back from the road. Everything converges on St Peter’s church, which is a big red sandstone building that draws the eye.  The path from one end to the other, seen as a view, is almost too much for the eye to make sense of.

Touches of colour in the old buildings above shop level stand out and are welcome.

Colours:  The biggest surprise was the contrast between the more or less uniform character of the builds above the shop frontages versus the brightly multi-coloured shop frontages themselves.  There were only a few details in colour on the older half-timbered buildings, which made the colour stand out.  Chester at street level is a torrent of colour, but when one captures a little of it in the buildings that soar above the shops, it is a lovely piece of deliciousness.

Sound:  In this area, the biggest surprise was what could not be heard.  There was such a cacophony of clinks, roadworks and street music, that the things that one could see going on around one, were lost in the other noise.  A pair of hard heels could be heard, but trainers and other soft-soled shoes were lost in the overall sound.  Even individual voices were difficult to make out.

Words:  At shop level the impact of words, in the form of text, was impossible to avoid, and overwhelming.  Branding and signage dominate, in a variety of lights and colours, and it is difficult to differentiate one from another.  Silent, in terms of audibility, they still manage to form a cacophony.

Different ideologies expressed in different building materials, different approaches, different design ideas,  different colours and textures.

Texture:  Texture occurs at every level.  It changes underfoot, but is most obvious in the walls, which are red sandstone, yellow sandstone, brick, wood, concrete and many other materials, which each has its own personality.  Decorative plasterwork is very distinctive and very fine, but not always noticed.  Each texture has its own character – granular, soft, smooth, slippery etc.  Each adds to the diversity of the buildings.

Stillness:  This one was rather sad in many ways at this point.  The main stillness was embedded in failed, closed-down shops.  There had been several before Covid, but there have been some tragic losses since.  These were all devoid of movement and interaction, dead areas that people walked past without looking.  More amusingly, anywhere not selling coffee had a certain stillness, by contrast to those places that were, which were busy, noisy and drew attention to themselves.

Fun:  There is not a lot of fun at foot level because it is all shops with unlovely frontages, but look up and there is a lot to make one smile in the decorative architectural elements that embellish the buildings, particularly the 19th century facades, a bit like excessively ornate wedding cake decoration, and improbable towers and incredibly ornate ironwork.  Often OTT, and very confident, these flourishes  are always very finely crafted.  They are both fine and truly great fun.

The Story House

The Story House is a thing of real ugliness, but even so I would defend it energetically if anyone were to threaten it because it is a monument to its era.  Not all heritage is pretty.  The same could be said for the telephone box in the foreground.  The bollards, however, at the edge of the road, were agreed by all to be cultural as well as physical barriers.

Our next stop was at the Story House.  Northgate Street had started out very like Bridge Street, with lots of engaging architecture similar to Bridge Street, again sitting on top of ordinary shop frontages, but as one proceeds, it opens out and there’s a lot of more architecture to see, some from more recent times, not all terribly positive.  The four most dominant buildings as one filters through the narrow entry to the market square are Chester Cathedral, the Town Hall, the Motor Works, and the Story House.  There is also a very conspicuous frontage to The Forum Shopping Centre, which incorporates the market.  At the moment, the Christmas market dominates the public space, closely clustered and overwhelmingly full of cooking smells.  We walked past the market and gathered in front of the Story House to discuss the walk up Northgate Street.

Inevitably and fascinatingly, we all talked about how interesting it was to compare the walk from the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross with the walk from The Cross to the Story House.

Views:  This was a story of constriction within fairly narrow confines to a sense of release in the big space in front of the Market Square and the Town Hall, but it was also a story of disappointment.  The sense of being lead somewhere by views of trees beyond the narrow start of Northgate Street lead to nothing more than an untidy space that was undefined and offered nothing like the oasis that was suggested by the trees.  At this time of year, particularly, the trees lend very little because they are deciduous and have dropped all of their leaves untidily onto the ground.  The Christmas market did not improve matters.  The cathedral, to one side, was a pleasant presence but did not dominate.  The main dominating factor, in terms of being lead forward, was actually the Story House, not Chester’s most aesthetically pleasing building.  Beyond the Story House, the symmetry collapses and there is nothing to tempt one forward.

Colours:  This is so dependent, just as it was on Bridge Street, on where you happen to look.  Ground level is bright and full of aggressive colours, but although on Bridge Street these were very jarring, they are more restrained on Northgate Street.  Looking up things are far simpler with black and white facades, and reddish-brown brickwork that provide a warmer feel.  The Christmas decorations were felt, by everyone who expressed an opinion, to be just right, not overstated or understated, but entirely suitable for the job in hand.

Sound:  In contrast with Bridge Street, Northgate Street was a far richer audio experience.  There was tapping, humming, rattling, the sound of wheeled suitcases on cobbles, a bicycle, and more human traffic, as well as the inevitable street music.  The sound of heeled shoes versus trainers was again particularly noticeable.  Reaching the marketplace, the noise of people talking increased enormously, and there was more traffic.

Words:  The plethora of promotional messages at street level was again dominant.  It was all very urban and vibrant, but there was also text in the historic buildings above the shops, where there were other messages to be seen that were resonant of the past.

Textures:  There were so many textures to be seen including the old versus the new, tiles versus glass, wood versus brickwork and the incorporation of carvings and sculptures into building facades.  As well as buildings, there were plants and trees to take into account, including moss on cobbles next to the cathedral.

Stillness:  The cathedral, a former abbey, is an oasis of stillness in the city, and offers a gateway into an inner peace, including its gardens.  The interface between the city and the peace beyond is provided by the Abbey Gate, and was probably the only entirely still place in the part of Chester that we walked on that day.

Fun:  Again there were a lot of excellent architectural details that were functionally unnecessary but expressed real exuberance.  Examples are the little sculptures in niches above the row of shops that includes Lakeland and Zara, little towers at the top of buildings and ornamental plasterwork on all sorts of buildings.  The overall impression of certain attention-grabbing buildings, like the town hall and the motor works lift the spirits, and both these draw attention to the positive impact of colour in building materials.

We did not, of course, explore internal spaces, but the idea of exploring interfaces between external spaces and internal spaces is an interesting one.  Little corridors leading from one space to another gave an almost secret feel to some of the city.

The good, the bad, and the highly nuanced

The other two discussions took place first in the public space in front of the Town Hall and the entrance to the market (The Forum Shopping Centre) and then at the point of Bridge Street where it becomes traffic-free and were less on what was on our cards than on our overall impressions.

Market / Town Hall Square

When we paused in front of the Town Hall, in what is usually an open area, we were asked what our impressions were of that public space.  The Christmas market was setting up, obscuring a sense of what it is like of most days of the week, but some interesting comments emerged.

Two of the dominant buildings, the Town Hall and the old Motor Works were exuberant, and were terrific examples of how whole buildings can express the enthusiasm and enjoyment (as well as ambition and pride) of those who created them.  They, together with the Story House and the Cathedral, surround the public open space.  The chap who was looking at “views” drew attention to how we had been funnelled from the lower end of Northgate Street, between buildings similar to those in Bridge Street into a space that, from a distance, with trees visible, had led to a sense of anticipation, but had very little to offer.  There were random odds and ends dotted around, leading to the sense that there was no cohesion in the space.  A very grubby Roman column here, a modern sculpture there, and an anti-terrorism barrier across the road.  I think that we all had the sense that nothing seemed properly integrated, and that a public space that might have had real potential was actually very drab, in spite of being surrounded by some great buildings, each of a very different but superb character.  We also looked at a bike rack that was very intrusive but could be placed somewhere less conspicuous and still be useful.  This was no piazza or plaza, and there was really nothing to celebrate.

The entrance to the indoor market.  A reminder of Chester’s Roman heritage, or just ugly?

I found myself almost back to back with a Roman soldier who was explaining something to a small group of visitors. I love the soldiers, who certainly come under the heading of “fun,” because wherever they go they raise a smile, but these soldiers, whether giving guided tours to adults or leading long strings of children wearing cardboard armour and carrying cardboard Legio XX shields, are a terrific innovation.  Some of us were also facing a Roman column that usually looks a little forlorn and isolated, and for which I have affection, but on that day looked more than a little farcical hemmed in on all sides by the Christmas market.   In Chester, a great effort has been made to incorporate the city’s Roman past, and there are constant, excellent reminders that help to reinforce the fact that as well as the built environment, the buried environment also plays an important role.  But that column could do with a rethink and a clean.

Little flourishes are worth looking out for.

Although the keywords on the record cards avoid simplistic likes and dislikes, positives and negatives, we found that in discussions value judgements were inevitable, because for every example of “fun” there is probably a “dull” in the next street, and for every ten tactile and aesthetically enjoyable examples of “texture” there is probably an edifice of brutal concrete nearby (the Pepper Street multi-storey car park springs to mind for both examples).  One of the interesting things from the discussions was that there are so many positives that the negatives stand out as noticeable intrusions on the positives.  One of the workshop members pointed out that anti-terrorist bollards, for example, are not only very ugly with their modern appearance and big lights, but give a misleading sense that there are better bits and less desirable bits of the city, separating  areas in which one is safe and where there are good thing to visit from those which may be not quite as safe, and not quite as worth visiting.  Once this was pointed out, everyone agreed, and we all understood that the city should not be seen in terms of what lies within and  what lies beyond those bollards, but that the perception is difficult to avoid.

Upstairs or downstairs – where does the fun lie?

Response to the keywords is a hugely personal thing.  I am guessing that many workshops would be required to capture even a small sample of what an entire community might think and feel about their living environment.  I interpreted “fun” as anything that would make me smile spontaneously.  I automatically looked away from the street level shopfronts to the upper levels where time, imagination and skill have wrought wonders. Some shop road level frontages are better than others, but for me all are brash, most of them frightfully ugly, and I hate shopping anyway, so nothing fun is to be found there.  But I have friends for whom shopping is hugely enjoyable, and the bright lights and colourful window dressings are all part of the enjoyment, and some of them would be puzzled by me describing architectural exuberance and decorative flourishes as “fun.”  So my interpretation of fun, confined to the upper levels where history looks down at me and I look back at it, would not be someone else’s.

Pausing again on Bridge Street

We paused again on Bridge Street, just on the uphill side of the anti-terrorist bollards, to discuss our views.  We were on borrowed time, as we had eaten up most of our 90 minutes, but we were all eager to point out the negatives of our immediate environment, because we all wanted to see improvement to encourage businesses to invest in that part of town.  Everyone agreed that the anti-terrorist bollards seemed, again, to cut one part of the street from another, and that the area north of Bridge Street was rather more prestigious than that to the south of them.  We also looked at some truly awful shop frontages, text-heavy, with lurid colours, tacky.  We asked about planning permission for frontages, as we were standing in front of a particular shocker at the time, and it turns out that they are indeed subject to planning permission, but that some retail outlets do not follow the procedures.  There is a lot of work to check up on those who ignore the rules, and it takes even longer to enforce the violated regulations.

The future

James said that he will feed back to Chester Archaeological Society about the results of the workshops once they have all been completed, and I really look forward to that.  Particularly, it will be interesting to know the answer to James’s own question – what can the local list do that designated graded listing does not already do in somewhere like Chester, which has listed buildings everywhere you turn?

The good news, even before the workshops have been completed and their findings collated, is that the Local List facility is already up and running and you can nominate an “asset” for local listing if you feel that it has particular community value and should be taken into account when planning and other issues are raised that might place it under threat.  You can find out full details on the Chester Local List Project website at the following address:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/guidance:

The Proposal Process

When you make a proposal or proposals for the Cheshire Local List, you will first have the option of creating and revising a draft that will not be reviewed until you submit it. When you submit your proposal, a Conservation Officer will check it to see if more information is needed. If so, it will come back to you for revision, and if not it will be moved forward for approval.

Make a proposal for the Cheshire Local List here

Approvals for nominations to the Cheshire Local List will be done by a panel of Conservation, Planning and Built Environment officers from Halton, Cheshire West and Chester and Cheshire East.

The final list will be put forward for formal adoption by each of the three boroughs in due course as part of the development of new Supplementary Planning Documents for local heritage.

The Assessment Criteria are here:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria

The top-level asset categories are Buildings; Parks & Gardens; Landmarks, Art Works and Way Finders; Other Sites, Structures & Landscapes, but see the following page for more information on each category:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria-asset-type

If or when I hear more about the project, I’ll post about it on the blog.

Adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs – Avgolemono soup

Avgolemono, meaning egg and lemon in modern Greek, is both a soup and a sauce. As a slightly thickened sauce it goes wonderfully with fish or chicken, but it sings at its most sublime as a soup, with a handful of white long-grain rice and gently simmered, and a handful of chopped parsley thrown in at the end.  It is an utterly divine and life-changing taste-bud experience.

I first had it on Kefalonia in 2004, preceding an equally divine order of flame-grilled octopus tentacles, sitting on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace, watching the sun set slowly and spectacularly over the hills, and although the wine was seriously rough around the edges, I cannot remember the last time that a meal felt so perfect in all its parts.  It was on Kefalonia that I fell head over heals in love with Greek cuisine, but that particular meal remains my favourite.

Sunset on Kefalonia, 2004

I have reproduced the meal many times since.  Frozen octopus tentacles were available prior to lockdown in a Portuguese shop in Wrexham.  When I lived in Aberdovey my father used to lob a pack in his rucksack for me, and it was always terribly exciting to collect it.  Octopus has to be tenderized before it can be eaten, and the freezer is one of the best ways to achieve this, so frozen octopus is always a good buy.  Not having ventured into that part of Wrexham since lockdown eased, and unable to get it anywhere else, I’ve had to abandon octopus for the time being, but the avgolemono soup needs no special ingredients.  It does need good quality ingredients, but not special ones, which is the usual story with Greek cooking.

The recipe that I first used for avgolemono is the one that I still use.  I bought The Complete Book of Greek Cooking by Rena Salaman and Jan Cutler on my return from Kefalonia, where there are two versions described.  I use the first version, on page 96, although I note that the second one, on page 99, is very like Rick Stein’s version if you’ve ever tried producing that.  The main difference is that the version that I use has egg yolks rather than whole eggs, as well as rice, whereas the other version uses whole eggs and has strips of chicken stirred into it rather than rice.

Here’s my preferred version of the two in the book, a perfect use for Churton Honesty Eggs (or any other eggs, of course 🙂 )

Serves 4

  • 900ml home-made chicken stock, (in my case made by poaching a lot of chicken in water with parsley , onion and peppercorns)
  • 50g white long-grain rice
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 30-60ml / 2-4 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
  • 30ml / 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • salt and black pepper
  • Lemons slices and parsley sprigs to garnish
  1. Pour the stock into a pan and bring to simmering point, then add the drained rice.  Half cover and cook for about 12 minutes until the rice is just tender.  Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl, then add about 30ml/tbsp of the lemon juice, whisking all the time until the mixture is smooth and bubbly.  Add a ladleful of soup and whisk again
  3. Remove the soup from the heat and slowly add the egg mixture, whisking all the time.  The soup will turn a pretty lemon colour and will thicken slightly
  4. Taste and add more lemon juice if necessary.  Stir in the parsley.  Serve at once, without reheating, garnished with lemon slices and parsley sprigs.

Top tip:  The trick here is to add the egg mixture to the soup without it curdling.  Avoid whisking the mixture into boiling liquid.  It is safest to remove the soup from the heat entirely and then whisk in the mixture in a slow but steady stream.

The recipe advises against reheating to avoid curdling, but I prefer the soup hotter than it is at this point, so I heat it VERY slowly and carefully.

Don’t be tempted to skip the rice, even if it sounds a little odd, because it is really gorgeous, but must be cooked through.  12-15 minutes from when it enters the simmering water.  Rick Stein uses orzo instead, but I really don’t recommend it.  Far too solid and intrusive.

Churton Honesty Eggs

You can see my previous Churton egg adventures by clicking here.  Churton Honesty eggs are parked in a barrow by the side of the road, and operate on an honesty system where you drop coins into the barrow in return for the eggs.  You can hear the cockerel crowing, and he sounds like a fine fellow.  The eggs are excellent.

 

 

Valle Crucis Abbey #1 – An introduction to the Cistercians and Valle Crucis

Valle Crucis is a superb example of a ruined Cistercian abbey, located less than an hour’s drive from the Chester-Wrexham area, in a lovely valley on the edge of a quiet stream that flows into the Dee.  It has been extensively surveyed, the few documents relating to the site and its antecedents have been studied and the site has been excavated both in the 19th Century and in the 1970s.  Importantly, most of the main features of the core buildings are identifiable, and can be discussed in terms of how the monastery was planned and used.  All of  these resources form a good basis for understanding how Valle Crucis was established and used, and what happened to it after it was “suppressed” or decommissioned following Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of Britain’s monasteries.

This is the first of a series of posts looking at monasticism in this part of the northwest, on both sides of the Welsh border, and heading some way down the Marches as far south as Shrewsbury on the English side, and Strata Marcella near Welshpool on the Welsh side.  These posts are quite long, and each can be downloaded and saved as a PDF if preferred.  The PDF of this post, Valle Crucis #1, can be downloaded by clicking here.  Valle Crucis, is used in these first four posts to introduce not only this particular abbey, but also the ideas that lead to monasticism, different monastic orders and the  distinctive architecture that defines most of the monastic orders in Britain.

An “order” is a shared monastic tradition, a set of spiritual ideals often spelled out in considerable detail in rules that covered everything from how many times a day a monk should pray, communally or individually, to where and when they could speak, eat and sleep, and what work they should engage in.  All orders involve a degree of renunciation and isolation by communities of monks.  Monastic architecture reflects both the need to gather a community in one establishment, adhering to a single set of rules, and the need to divorce that establishment from the rest of the world.  Unlike monks, friars could leave the monastic community (friary) to preach and tend to the poor, and were often located in urban contexts, but other orders chose to confine themselves to an abbey to focus their attentions on worship and scholarly activities that celebrated God.  Some chose to locate themselves far from other human habitation.  All were what is now termed Catholic, and all owed allegiance to the Pope, as well as to the heads of their own order, and to the founders who endowed their properties with land and resources.  The religious orders of the 12th and 13th Centuries in Britain were differentiated from one another based not on their religious beliefs, but on their ideas about how best to worship and celebrate God.  They dedicated themselves to spirituality and worship in different ways, based on traditions established in the history of monasticism.

St Pachomius in St Shenouda Monastery, Egypt. Source: St Shenouda Monastery website

Monasticism grew out of an early tradition in 3rd-4th Century A.D. Egypt where the devout might abandon their communities to live as hermits in the desert hills and mountains, divorced from anyone else.  They had as their models St John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom had engaged in devout isolation in the desert.  Hermits began to organize themselves into communities that focused on offering guidance and communal prayer whilst still offering isolation from the distractions of secular life.   In the 4th Century, former soldier Pachomius, having followed the eremitic path in the Egyptian desert to live the life of a hermit, heard a voice telling him to establish a community for hermits like himself, a coenobitic (“common living”) way of combining isolation from the outside world with communal support and guidance.  This acknowledged that whilst individuals might seek out a life divorced from the material, they could well need help to achieve the sort of enlightenment that they were seeking.  These communities were therefore sources of knowledge, wisdom and education as well as worship.   He established his monastery in Tabennisi in Egypt, and simultaneously began to develop the first set of formal rules for guiding life in a monastery, which grew over time.  The rules combined prayer, solitude and work in a communal and very isolated environment, a difficult balance to strike.  This  was successful and soon spread.  Monasteries began to appear throughout the Mediterranean from where they spread into Europe.

A 12th Century interpretation of St Benedict delivering his monastic rule in the 6th Century AD. Source: Wikipedia, via Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes France (1129)

In 6th Century Italy, St Benedict developed another set of rules for monastic living that required not only individual prayer and communal worship, but outlined a strict regime of living that included eating merely for fuel rather than enjoyment, a largely vegetarian and very narrow diet, and the requirement for manual work, including contributing to building projects and labouring in the fields.  The concept of an abbey emerged, a religious establishment consisting of both a monastery and a church in a single complex, housing a community of monks who do not leave the premises.  St Benedict’s form of monasticism was popular and spread throughout Europe.

As Benedictine monasticism spread and developed its own personality over the centuries, the strictness of St Benedict’s rules was often abandoned to enable a much more comfortable lifestyle, with an emphasis on liturgy rather than work, a varied and rich diet that included meat, and an emphasis on glorifying God through rich works of art and generous patronage.  Some abbots became involved in religious and state politics beyond the abbey walls, and became influential in their own right, far from the unworldly vision of  monks that St Benedict had promoted.  In the 12th Century this more opulent version of Benedictine monasticism was epitomized by the Cluniac order of monks (named after their abbey at Cluny in France).  The Cluniac order was the apogee of this desire to express devotion through liturgy and art, the elaborate and rich monasteries home to opulent treasures, art works, tapestries and fabulous stained glass that were intended to both reflect and celebrate the glory of God, and the monks entertained lavishly, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.  This trend sat ill with those who sought a simpler, modest, withdrawn and hard-working way of serving God, true to St Benedict.

Johann Petr Molitor, Cistercian monks, murals in the Capitular Hall, Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

During the early Middle Ages, the Cistercians, named after their first abbey at Citeaux in France (Cistercium in Latin), set about returning to the values of St Benedict, which led to the reformation of some branches of Benedictine-based monasticism.  They combined worship with hard work in remote places that encouraged contemplation, eliminated distractions and enabled focus on a communal but pared down livelihood that was far more in keeping with St Benedict’s more spartan ideals.  Starting at Citeaux in 1098, new Cistercian abbeys were established as a network of child abbeys, each secondary to its own mother, and all owing allegiance to the founding house at its core.  Each new abbey could spawn one or more other abbeys.  The monks wore undyed habits, unlike the other Benedictine orders whose habits were dark brown or black.  Accordingly, they became commonly known as the White Monks.  

Citeaux Abbey. Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps the most important Cistercian monastery other than Citeaux, in terms of evangelizing on behalf of the Cistercians, was Clairvaux (founded 1115), which was the home base of abbot St Bernard.  St Bernard was a restless and vocal monastic propogandist of the 12th Century who, in contradiction to the rules of the order, travelled far and wide to bring the Cistercian message to the western world, and whose sayings are still widely quoted: “Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle and do some hard work.”  He was an advocate of crusades, connected with monarchs, politicians and other religious hierarchy, promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary, and became an unexpected and influential celebrity and icon, the poster-child of the Cistercian message.  Gascoigne calls him “the most influential monk of the Middle Ages.”

St Bernard in his white robes holding a delightfully improbable demon at his feet.  Marcello Baschenis, c.1885. Source: Wikipedia

Very quickly, new Cistercian abbeys proliferated in Europe and across Britain, always in isolated locations, each connected as a daughter to its mother abbey, to which it owed homage and loyalty.  Clairvaux was the mother abbey for Whitland in south Wales, which was established by monks from Clairvaux itself.  Whitland in turn established other abbeys including Strata Marcella near Welshpool, and this abbey in turn established Valle Crucis.  It took 86 years from the foundation of Clairvaux until the foundation of Valle Crucis, but it was only four monastic steps from St Bernard, and that sense of proximity must have resonated at Valle Crucis, as with all the abbeys in Wales.

Every Cistercian abbot had to return from his abbey to Citeaux every year for what was known as the General Chapter, a great conference of abbots.  This was the case even for abbeys that were located overseas, and the British abbeys were subject to this costly and time-consuming annual trek.  Also on an annual basis, the abbot or his prior if he had one (the abbot’s second in command) would visit a given abbey’s daughter abbeys to ensure that everything was running according to the original Benedictine plan.  This led to a degree of standardization and adherence to the order’s rules that was not necessarily seen in the other orders.

The remains at Valle Crucis offer a great opportunity for discussing the main points of Cistercian architecture, life and economic strategy.  It is a site that reinforces many of the observations that have been made about Cistercian monastic traditions throughout Britain, but which is also interesting in its own right.  The Welsh abbeys provide a particular opportunity for considering how their circumstances may have differed from their English counterparts, due to a series of factors including the patronage of Welsh abbeys by the Welsh princes, the wars fought on monastic land by Edward I and Owain Glyndŵr, and the character of the landscape in which the abbeys were built.  Other orders will be discussed in the future.

Introducing Valle Crucis

The East Range

Valle Crucis was built in a scenic valley beneath the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, on the banks of Nant Eglwyseg, a fast-moving stream that ran into the Dee and now feeds the Llangollen canal. 

Both choir (or quire) monks and lay brothers were housed at Valle Crucis.  The choir monks and lay brothers lived different lives.  Their refectories, dormitories and latrines were all quite separate, and their roles within the abbey were clearly delineated.  Although the lay brothers would worship in the church, they were confined to the nave and a screen separated them from the choir brothers.  The lay brothers ate more advantageously, as they needed a better diet to support them in their daily work.  Cistercian orders worshiped seven times a day and once at night, and engaged in scholarly pursuits, but were also expected to engage in manual labour, contributing to the work carried out by lay monks.  Lay monks (conversi) were illiterate and worked the land, but were resident at the monastery.  They had their own separate quarters for sleeping and eating, and were confined to a section of the church that was divided from the parts of the church used by the quire monks.  Their church worship was much less frequent than that undertaken by quire monks, as most of their day was taken up by agriculture, crafts and building works.

The name of Valle Crucis is Latin, meaning Valley of the Cross, a reference to the 9th Century inscribed Pillar of Eliseg that was erected to commemorate the ancestors of Concenn of Powys, a  Welsh chieftain who died on pilgrimage to Rome in 858.  Eliseg was Concenn’s great-grandfather.  The inscription is now illegible but was recorded in 1696 and lists great deeds of ancestors, presumably with a view to establishing an incontrovertible connection to the lands on which the cross was constructed.

Survey, excavation, restoration and modern research

Carved head found in the refectory during excavations, and now rather a long way from home in the National Museum in Cardiff.  Source: Evans 2008, p.47

Documentary resources are few and far between for Valle Crucis, so other ways of exploring the history of the site have been employed.  The documentary archives of other monasteries and of related properties have helped to provide some additional information, but the documentary picture remains very threadbare.

Because of the architectural and functional standardization of monastic establishments, it has been possible to extrapolate the roles of much of the site’s key buildings by comparison to other Cistercian abbeys, but this only takes one so far.

Observing the above-ground architecture has taken matters a lot further, telling a story of a major fire forty years after the foundation of the abbey, and the changes in architectural direction that had to be taken as a result.  As the decades and centuries passed, changes in Cistercian values and ideas are captured in the architectural features and new decorative motifs.  This rich source of information has been supplemented by data that has come from the ground.

One of the illustrations from Butler’s 1970 excavations, published in 1976

One of the fads of the 19th Century was antiquarianism, the investigation of ancient sites of all ages.  Excavations became popular activities, although often hair-raising in the level of destruction achieved in the process of the pursuit of dazzling objects.  Valle Crucis did not escape this attention, and a series of archaeological excavations were carried out in both the middle of the 19th century, and in its latter half.   An anonymous letter to Archaeologia Cambrensis dating to 1863 by a visitor to Valle Crucis condemned the mid 19th Century excavations by W.W.E. Wynne, but the subsequent excavations by Harold Hughes appear to have been carried out with rather more integrity.

In 1970 the site was excavated by Lawrence Butler.  He reported on the findings, including the chronological sequences from the site, and full details of the pottery in 1976.  The pottery was limited in type and form but covered the full range of the site from construction to dissolution.  The faunal remains were analyzed by the ever excellent Graeme Barker as part of that project’s post-excavation work, to provide information about diet and economic activities, and his report was published in the same year.  The results of this particular project are of great interest as Butler found evidence of the earliest clearance of the site and was able to clarify details of fire, flood and alterations to the architecture in line both with these events and in response to the relaxation of Cistercian rules.

Because work has been concentrated on the core abbey buildings, it is less clear how the larger monastic precinct was organized.  This is the area surrounding and beyond the abbey’s heart, that were essential to the abbey’s economic survival, in which agricultural and activities took place, and in which vital supplies were stored for consumption or trade.  

Illustration from the 1895 excavation report by Harold Hughes.

Restoration work began with clearance of the site for excavation, but more ambitious work followed.  Sir Gilbert Scott, the renowned Victorian architect, was employed to repair the west front of the church in 1872, and Sir Theodore Martin restored part of the east end in 1896.  The difference in the stonework at the  and the site has been made safe for visitors.

After passing into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1950, Valle Crucis was eventually transferred into the care of Cadw in 2008, which retains responsibility for the site.  Between them the site was made safe for visitors and Cadw has expended some effort on information signage to help visitors understand some of the site’s history.


How Valle Crucis and other Welsh abbeys were founded

12th Century links between Cistercian monasteries. Source: Evans, D.H. Valle Crucis Abbey (Cadw). Although Citeaux, the node for all Cistercian abbeys, established early new bases in France, it was Clairvaux under the lead of St Bernard that was responsible for the earliest new abbeys in Wales. Of these Whitland was the most important for the northward spread of monasticism. The green lines emanating from Savigny reflect the Savignac order, which merged with the Cistercians after only 20 years, in 1147. So although Basingwerk in the north and Neath in the south were founded as Savignac orders, after 1147 they were brought under the rule of the Cistercians at Citeaux.

Valley Crucis was at the northeastern end of a branch of a monastic chain that spread from south Wales to the north over a period of some 60 years during the 12th Century, building on a much older European monastic tradition.  The Cistercian order of monks spread through Wales during the 12th Century AD from the of Wales where it was established by monks from the French monastery Clairvaux, forming an eastern and a western chain of monasteries.

The first new Cistercian abbeys were established in Wales in the wake of the Norman conquest, the earliest at Tintern in 1131, and had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavour.  However, a second strand of Cistercian monasticism spread in Wales.  It began at Whitland (Abaty Hendy-gwyn ar Daf), founded in 1140 by monks from St Bernard’s abbey at Clairvaux, second only to the Cistercians’ founding abbey at Citeaux.  Whitland spawned a series of abbeys that were funded by the native Welsh princes and were populated mainly by Welsh monks, a pura Wallia (Welsh Wales) version of Cistercian monasticism that nurtured Welsh literature and learning.  This spread into the poorer and more remote areas of Wales.

Valle Crucis was founded in 1201, the daughter house of Strata Marcella Abbey (Abaty Ystrad Marchell) near Welshpool, founded by Owain Cyfeiliog, prince of southern Powys, itself a daughter house of Whitland.   Establishing an abbey was an expensive undertaking, both in terms of its construction and providing it with the resources to ensure ongoing economic security. Accordingly, every new abbey required an endowment by a donor, someone with enough land and wealth to give some of it away in return for divine good will and the prayers offered by the monks for the souls of the donor and his family.  The donor usually required a guarantee that they would be buried within the abbey church, and that their family would be buried either within the church itself or within the monastery precinct.  Monks were considered to have a hotline to God.  Having dedicated their lives to Him, and living sin-free lives, they built up a surplus of virtue and influence that could be employed on behalf of the living in order to provide for them in the afterlife, an intercession to minimize the impact of sins committed in life.  Valle Crucis Abbey was founded by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd. 

Original sacristy entrance, 13th Century.

Prince Madog ap Gruffydd controlled the territory of Powys Fadog from the Tanat valley in the south to the edge of Chester from 1191 until his death in 1236, and was an ally of his cousin Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), prince of Gwynedd, d.1240.  In accordance both with tradition, and to fulfil the terms of his original financing and support of the abbey, he was buried in the abbey church at Valle Crucis, although the exact site of the grave has been lost.  The map above left shows the territorial divisions in Wales in 1267, with Powys Fadog bordering Chester, Gwynedd, southern Powys (Powys Wenwynwyn) and England. 

Valle Crucis was supplied with at least twelve monks (considered by St Benedict to be the minimum number for founding a monastery, following the twelve apostles), possibly thirteen, who were installed in temporary accommodation with a wooden church.  Work would have begun immediately on the stone church, the sacristy and the accommodation, and the 1970 excavation found unmistakeable signs of this work.

Choice of location

The map to the left (Ordnance Survey SJ24/34) shows the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân, all a short drive from Llangollen, which was probably a large village that would have benefitted from the proximity of the monastery and its associated farms (known as granges).

Ordnance Survey map SJ24/34, showing the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân (the latter not built until 1270, 69 years after the foundation of Valle Crucis)

The Cistercian ideal of a contemplative existence away from distractions meant that new abbeys were sited where monks could practise their devotions in relative seclusion, although not in complete isolation.  They were often near to well-established routes, and they always located themselves near to water that would be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, ritual purification, as well as fishing and sometimes for powering water mills.  Abbeys were supposed to be economically self-sufficient, so abbeys still needed to be near enough to manors and villages to enable them to trade their produce, mainly agricultural, in exchange for the basics required for sustaining the abbey, both the choir monks (the dedicated monks within the monastery) and the conversi or lay brotherhood.

Although little is known about Llangollen in the late 12th Century, there was some type of settlement recorded there based around a church, and in 1284, Edward I granted the manor of Llangollen to Roger Mortimer, together with the rights for a weekly market and two annual fairs.  Llangollen was far enough away for monks to feel that they were isolated from civilization, but near enough to a village to enable contacts to be established if required for sourcing produce, raw materials and other goods.  The site of the abbey was clearly idyllic.  The following is an evocative excerpt from a paper by John Williams, who reported on the abbey in 1846 in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis:  

Luxuriantly watered by a clear stream and sheltered by high hills, the sides of which are gracefully ornamented by trees, the place altogether appears as if especially intended to be the home of peace and happiness – a paradise for restored man, where he might securely worship his Creator and cultivate the graces of heaven implanted in his soul.

The sad remains of Strata Marcella Abbey, which supplied the founding monks of Valle Crucis.  Source: Coflein website – RCAHMW, taken by C.R. Musson, 2/1/1995.

The founding monks of Valle Crucis from Strata Marcella near Welshpool certainly thought so.  They moved the residents of the existing hamlet of Llanegwest to a new location in order to establish themselves in this particular paradise in the form of a fine abbey.  Llanegwest was probably a fairly tiny settlement, and it was relocated to Maelor Gymraeg (on the far northeastern border).  This was by no means unusual, and there are enough records of hamlets and villages being moved to make way for a monastic establishment for this to be seen as a fairly standard (if somewhat ruthless) act in the establishment of a new Cistercian abbey.

The fish pond at Valle Crucis

The Cistercians were renowned for their use of water, which in some abbeys included sophisticated networks of sunken drains that fed into and out of monastic buildings.  The siting of Valle Crucis next to the Eglwyseg was essential for sourcing water that was used for cooking, cleaning, washing, for use in rituals and for creating a fish pond and a drainage system to flush both the choir monks’ and lay brothers’ latrines.

The pond is an expanded version of the original one, and is the only one surviving in Wales.  As early Cistercians could not eat meat under St Benedict’s rules, except on certain nominated days, fish was often an important component of the diet.  As the rules relaxed, meat found its way into the diet on more than just special days, but in the early abbeys fish was often responsible for providing much-needed protein.

The latrines, located on the first floor at the end of the dormitories, were flushed by drains below, which diverted fast-moving stream water to clear waste back into the stream,  presumably downriver of the monastery.  Cleanliness was an important component of monastic life, with monks washing their hands before each meal, and latrines associated with the devil.

Pillar of Eliseg by David Parkes 1809. Source: National Library of Wales

Finally, the Pillar of Eliseg may or may not have influenced the location of the abbey, even though it provided the abbey with its name.  It is, however, entirely possible that the presence of the ancient cross as a clear and ancient statement of Christian affiliation would have been particularly attractive to the new abbot and his monks.  Perhaps more significantly, it was probably particularly resonant for the founder-patron of the abbey, Prince Madog ap Gruffydd, embedded as the monument was with memories of the past inhabitants of the region who sought to defend it against all-comers.  With the Marcher Lords at the borders and the English beyond, Madog probably felt a close affinity with Concenn and his predecessors.   The cross still stands to the north of the abbey, but is considerably shorter, with bits missing, including the top, base and arms of the cross.  In the view to the right by David Parkes, dated 1809, the remains of Valle Crucis are visible at the lower left of the image.

I had initially assumed that the siting of Valle Crucis took into account the proximity of Dinas Brân, a Medieval castle that was also located in the Vale of Llangollen and can be seen from the abbey.  The castle was not, however, built until 1270.

View from the interior of Valle Crucis. I find it hard to get my head around the idea that this and other very narrow views were all that the monks would have seen. They could not explore the environment in which their abbey was located, because they were confined to the monastic precinct.  They could merely see it, never truly experience it.


The remains of Valle Crucis

Valley Crucis provides a very useful template for understanding other monasteries in the Benedictine tradition, all incorporating a church and the main monastic buildings arranged around a square cloister, consisting of a walkway connecting the buildings around a garden or “garth.”

Cadw site plan, with photographs of mine added to show the relative location of some of the key features (click to expand).

Above is a site plan of Valle Crucis, which adopted the typical layout of a Benedictine abbey that the Cistercians had adopted, basing themselves on the Benedictine rule.  The earliest known abbey in Britain that adopted this basic layout was Glastonbury Abbey.  Part 2 will show this image again, and look at these and other features in detail, discussing how they reflect historical developments from the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century, via fire, flood, fluctuating fortunes and changing ideas to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Valle Crucis is not merely of interest as a component of the Vale of Llangollen landscape, but is a useful representative of both Welsh and English Cistercian traditions.  It both exemplifies many of the historical details that have been assembled about Cistercian monasticism in Britain, and provides an impressive volume of data that both reinforces existing knowledge and adds to it.  Some of this will be explored further in the next three posts.

This post, Part 1, has introduced the Cistercian order and explained why Valle Crucis was located where it is.  The next post, part 2 looks at the organization of the abbey in terms of its purpose and how it was built to meet the needs of the monastic community, looking at each room in turn.   Part 3 will look at history of the abbey, and then take key features one by one, looking at how these features can be seen in terms of historical developments between the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.  Part 4 will review how life was lived in the monastery in terms of everyday activities, the roles allocated to monks, the subsistence strategies employed,  and how illness and death were handled.  Part 5 will go on to look at the dissolution of the monasteries and what happened to Valle Crucis after it ceased to be a religious establishment.

Sources for parts 1-5:

Resources that were of particular use are picked out in bold.

Books and papers

Anonymous (A. Traveller) 1863.  Valle Crucis Abbey – Correspondence To the Editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3rd series, No.33, January 1863, p.68-72
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2995788/67#?xywh=-1466%2C103%2C5111%2C3522

Aston, M. 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape.  Tempus

Barker, G. 1976.  Diet and Economy at Valle Crucis:  The Report on the Animal Bones.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.117-126

Butler, L.A.S. 1976.  Valle Crucis Abbey:  An Excavation in 1970.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.80-116
https://journals.library.wales/view/4718179/4747123/95#?xywh=-1521%2C-15%2C5975%2C3940

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011.  The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  Boydell Press

Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust.  Historic Settlement Survey – Denbighshire – 2014.  Llangollen SJ 2150 4190, 105978.
https://cpat.org.uk/ycom/denbigh/llangollen.pdf

Coppack, G. 1990.  Abbeys and Priories. Batsford.

Davies, J. 2007 (3rd edition).  A History of Wales.  Penguin

Evans D.H. 2008, Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Edwards, N. 2008.  The Pillar of Eliseg.  In: Evans D.H., Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Gascoigne, B. 2004 (revised edition).  A Brief History of Christianity. Constable and Robinson

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries.  Leicester University Press

Hughes, H. 1894, Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 11:43 (1894), p.69-85, 257-75
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3009987/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Hughes, H. 1895. Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 12:45 (1895), pp. 5-17
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3010260/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Jenkins, G.H. 2007.  A Concise History of Wales.  Cambridge University Press

Jones, O.W. 2013. Historical writing in Medieval Wales.  PhD thesis, Bangor University
https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/files/20577287/null

Platt, C. 1984.  The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. Chancellor Press

Pratt, D. 2011.  Valle Crucis abbey:  lands and charters.  Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions

Robinson, D. 2006.  The Cistercians in Wales. Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540.  Society of Antiquaries London

Silvester, R.J., and Hankinson, R., 2015. The Monastic Granges of East Wales. The Scheduling Enhancement Programme: Welshpool. Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT)

Williams, D. 1984.  The Welsh Cistercians.  Cyhoeddiadau Sistersiaidd

Williams, J.  1846.  Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1 , 1846 p.17-32, 151-153, 279-280
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2989093/17#?xywh=-893%2C45%2C3900%2C3929

Wynne, W. W. E. 1848. Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3:11 (1848), p.228-229
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991333/41#?xywh=-913%2C-241%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1849. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 4:13 (1849), p.22-27
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991554/21#?xywh=-849%2C-1035%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E.  1851. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 8 (1851), p.282-284
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990655/21#?xywh=-893%2C-221%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1852. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 10 (1852), pp. 93-96
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990849/12#?xywh=-893%2C-199%2C3900%2C3929

Yorke, T. 2004.  The English Abbey Explained.  Monasteries – Priories.  Countryside Books

Websites

Ancient and Medieval Architecture
Llantysilio – Valle Crucis Abbey
https://tinyurl.com/8fuybma9

Coflein
Valle Crucis
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95205/

English Heritage
Valle Crucis Abbey
https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/valle-crucis-abbey

Monastic Wales
Valle Crucis (Abbey)
https://www.monasticwales.org/browsedb.php?func=showsite&siteID=35

The Cistercians in Yorkshire
https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/

 

 

Two more 1898 mileposts on the Chester-Worthenbury turnpike route located

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am on a minor quest to check up on all the 1898 milestones that were recorded in the 2018 Milestone Society survey and see what sort of condition they are in.  A full set should run from Chester to Worthenbury and I am slowly assembling a photographic record of the survivors, hoping that all are eventually located.  Last week I located two of the ones that were missing from Chester to Churton, respectively at Huntington and Crook of Dee.  I have updated the main post in which I talk about the 1898 milestones, including the What3Words address for each, but here are last week’s photos for those who have already read that post.

The first, at Huntington, was standing on a neatly mowed street-side road on the northern side of a pedestrian crossing, very easy to spot if a car is not parked in front of it.  It is in beautiful condition, and it was nice to be able to get a good look at the maker’s mark and the back of the milepost, which is usually very difficult to see clearly.

Huntington milepost

The second, opposite Cheavely Cottages at Crook of Dee to the north of Aldford, was completely hidden from view when I went looking for it in the summer, and it is only thanks to a recent trimming of the shrubby hedge and the autumn leaf-fall that I was able to see it.  Even then, it was covered in tendrils of ivy that I pulled gently away to take photographs, and the lettering at the base is fully embedded in fallen leaves and general build-up of earth and twigs.  I would have liked to do more for it, but it is an incredibly dangerous section of the road, on a blind bend with no pavement or verge, just a foot or so of raised ground on which to perch.

Cheaveley Hall Cottages milepost