Cheshire Proverbs 6: “As long as Helsby wears a hood”

“As long as Helsby wears a hood
The weather’s never very good”

J.C. Bridge no.409, p.161

Helsby Hill from Marford

There’s no doubt that this proverb carries real authority for anyone who sees Helsby Hill on a regular basis.  It can look perfectly angelic under a blue sky, particularly across a sea of bright yellow rapeseed, but when the clouds cluster over its apex, it looks like the devil’s work.

This is one of the “Weather Sayings” listed in Bridge’s 1917 book Proverbs, Sayings and Rhymes Connected with the City and County Palatine of Chester.  The saying requires no explanation, which is just as well as Bridge, often enjoyably loquacious on the subject of the proverbs and sayings that he compiled, offers no comment at all on this one.

Walking along the footpaths from Churton towards Aldford during late spring, it was immediately noticeable that Helsby Hill near Frodsham is rarely out of sight, a constant companion on all those footpath walks.  During the spring and early summer it was a benign presence but since then I have seen it look particularly malevolent under heavy clouds, the “hood” to which the saying refers.  With its distinctively carved profile rising out of the flat landscape, it is often truly dramatic against a dark sky.

View to Helsby Hill from a footpath just east of Churton on a sunny day, minus the weather-forecasting hood, but with some grey-lined white clouds overhead.

The far northern outpost of the Mid-Cheshire Ridge, Helsby Hill is today a Scheduled Monument, the site of a late Bronze Age and/or Iron Age promontory hillfort (usually dated to between the sixth century BC and the mid-first century AD).  It takes strategic advantage of that dramatically steep drop down to the Cheshire Plain (370 feet / 110 metres above sea level) with views across the surrounding landscape and the Mersey and its floodplain.  I will be talking a lot more about the Iron Age hillforts along the Mid-Cheshire Ridge on future posts.

If we have cause to complain about the weather as autumn gives way to winter, just imagine what it was like during the Iron Age, sitting in a round-hut or patrolling the defences on the top of Helsby Hill when the weather was closing in 🙂

For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1

For the previous posts in the Cheshire Proverbs series, see the Cheshire Proverbs category in the right hand margin

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 will look at the 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 3 will look at 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 4 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 1-4:

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.

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

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

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

 

 

A visit to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen – Thomas Telford’s iron trough 126ft over the Dee

It is without question a marvel of modern engineering and a remarkable sight, but what strikes most people when they first see the 1000ft (c.305m) Pontcysyllte  canal aqueduct is that the handrail along the pedestrian walkway 127ft (38.5m) over the river Dee is only a few steps away from the other side of the narrow canal trough, which has no handrail at all to separate a boat user from a straight drop into the valley bottom.  Until you lean over the towpath’s handrail and look straight down, 127ft is a rather abstract number.  The photograph on the right shows me crossing it on a 40ft narrowboat in the 1990s on a two week canal holiday.  What you cannot see are the white knuckles with which I am gripping the tiller for dear life, in spite of having absolutely no fear of heights, because there was absolutely nothing between me and that drop.  The aqueduct, Grade I listed, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, is the longest and highest in Britain.  It’s a long way down.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct passing over the Dee valley at Trevor. Source: Dronepics Wales

Seen from below or from a distance, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a fabulous sight, not pretty but truly awe-inspiring, and it shows exactly what Pontcysyllte is:  an iron trough built on 18 vast tapering brick piers, with 19 arches.  It was all about function, nothing to do with aesthetics, and has no ornamentation to soften it, but the sheer ambition of it grips the imagination and makes one look beyond the factual details of the thing.  It really is superb.  There is a path leading down along the side of the approach to the aqueduct into the valley below, a long but well maintained track to the valley bottom, where you can walk along the Dee and get a long at the aqueduct from a distance.  That’s one for another day.

It was a beautiful day, absolutely flawless, with cerulean blue skies, a golden sun warming one’s face, and a brightness of autumnal colours that takes some beating.  After attending the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Churton war memorial, with a memorable and moving address, and a two-minute silence filled with birdsong, I collected the car first, the parent next, and we proceeded towards Trevor, on the A539 to Llangollen.  There’s a brown signpost pointing to the aqueduct’s pay-and-display car park at the Trevor Basin, which is the home of a number of canal boat companies today, but when it was built was used for the transhipment of coal, building stone, iron products, timber and bricks, much of which was brought to the canal wharf by horse-drawn waggons.

Map of the key canal features in the Vale of Llangollen. I have added a red arrow to show the best car park for Pontcysyllte. Click to enlarge. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal World Heritage Site

Thomas Telford and his chosen team

Portrait of Thomas Telford, who chose to be painted with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in the background. Engraved by W. Raddon from a painting by S. Lane.

The aqueduct (built (1794-1805) was part of the Ellesmere Canal project.  It is one of the many British civil engineering projects that has the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), ironmaster William “Merlin” Hazeldine (1763-1840) and master stonemason John Simpson (1755-1815) attached to it, three men who had brought their particular skills to many different joint projects and in doing so had developed an invaluable relationship of trust and mutual respect.

Thomas Telford started his career as a stone mason, working in London on buildings such as Somerset House, and had ambitions to develop his career as an architect.  When he became the County Surveyor for Shropshire, he worked on a great variety of building projects including, by his own estimation, 40 road bridges between 1790 and 1796, two of which employed iron in their construction.   Hazledine had initially trained as a millwright, but  his family owned a small foundry  and Hazeldine went on to grow his iron casting business with the large Coleham Foundry at Shrewsbury.  Hazledine and Telford, both Freemasons, had met at Salopian Lodge  in Shrewsbury in 1789 and become friends and professional collaborators.  On one of his earliest projects in Shrewsbury Telford hired a childhood friend Matthew Davidson to oversee works, and Davidson employed master stonemason John Simpson who worked on many of Telford’s projects. Telford described Simpson as “a treasure of talents and integrity.”

Although Telford is by far the best known of the three, he, Hazledine and Simpson worked together frequently on many different projects to produce some of the great civil engineering constructions of their era, mainly bridges.  All three were involved with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, where  Matthew Davidson also joined them, but the story of the canal starts before any of them were recruited to work for the Ellesmere Canal project.

Background to the aqueduct

The Trevor Basin today.

The big name in canal construction was James Brindley (1716-1772), who was responsible for building over 365 miles of canals by the time he died.  Brindely realized that any inland waterway network would need to connect to all the great navigable rivers that connected to the sea, including the Thames, the Mersey, the Severn and the Trent, incorporating other important navigable rivers like the the Avon and the Dee.  Most of his canals were contour canals, wherever possible built on the level and avoiding slopes so that locks and lifts could be avoided.  The network was therefore a sprawling affair, but it revolutionized transport, avoiding roads that would become mired and impassable in winter, as well as unnavigable sections of rivers, and the riverine problems of drought and flood.  Water into and out of the canal system was regulated and therefore predictable, and allowed year-round transport.  The advantages became very clear very quickly, and manufacturing and trading businesses began to locate themselves at critical points on the canal network.  Eagerness to invest in infrastructure resulted in a canal boom in the late 1780s and 1790s.  Each new section of canal required an Act of Parliament, subject to Royal Assent, and Act after Act was passed as the network expanded.

The complex arrangement of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches is shown as a think blue winding line. The thick blue line is the Dee. The yellow lines are roads. Click to see a bigger version. Source: Wikipedia

In 1791 a proposal for a canal to link the Mersey at Netherpool (later renamed Ellesmere Canal) to the river Dee at Chester and the Severn at Shrewsbury was discussed by three Shropshire entrepreneurs, carrying mainly coal, iron and lime, supported by other goods as well.  It was decided that a branch would be needed to Wrexham and Ruabon and onwards, via Chirk, bypassing Oswestry at its west, to Shrewsbury in the south with a branch to Whitchurch in the east and another to Llanymynech.  Originally it was planned to run a branch from Ruabon to reach the Irenant slate quarries near Llantysilio, via Llangollen, but this was at first dropped and later revived for different reasons (discussed below).  That branch would in turn connect to the Montgomery Canal from Frankton Junction via Welshpool to Newtown in mid Wales (for carrying limestone, coal, timber, stone and slates).

This seriously ambitious plan found sufficient support for a surveyor to be hired and possible routes to be explored.   William Jessop, an experienced canal engineer, was hired to head up the project and oversee all of its different components.  After disagreements over the final route were resolved (albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction), the Ellesmere Canal proposal went through parliament and received its Royal Assent in April 1793.  There were still a lot of technical and logistical details to resolve, including how the canal was to cross the Dee and Ceiriog valleys.

It was clear that Jessop needed help, and although the internal promotion of William Turner was Jessop’s first choice, Telford was brought in without his input. It is not certain how Telford, increasingly bored with life as a county surveyor, managed to insert himself into this ambitious engineering project, but the canal was already generating considerable excitement in the area and it looks as though he heard of the position and sought the support of one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists, John Wilkinson, to help him secure it.  Jessop made it clear in his letters what he thought of having Telford, who he had never met, brought in against his wishes as his right hand man, and refused to attend the meeting that appointed Telford to the Ellesmere Canal Company.  In spite of this rocky start, Jessop and Telford seem to have hammered out a decent working relationship, with Jessop teaching Telford what he needed to know about canal construction, and Telford injecting some ideas into the project.  Like Jessop, Telford managed to broker a deal to enable him to carry out other projects when his personal presence was not necessary, and this enabled him to work on other civil engineering works whilst the Ellesmere Canal was being built.

Building the aqueduct

Work began at Netherpool on the Mersey, renamed Ellesmere Port, in 1793.  The 9-mile canal ran down the Wirral to meet the Dee at Chester, and went so well that it opened for traffic in 1795 and was an immediate success.  While this section was underway, discussions were underway about how the canal might cross the Dee.  The original idea presented to the directors by Jessop and Turner, and apparently not opposed by Telford, was a relatively low level stone channel crossing three stone arches, with step locks either side to manage the ascent to and descent from the level of the canal to the aqueduct.   This would have been an expensive option, requiring not only the locks but the management of the water that would feed the locks.  Even after this had been agreed in principle, concerns resulted in a new plan for an iron channel on stone columns.  It is likely that it was proposed by Telford and supported by Jessop partly because it would have reduced the cost as iron was lighter, easier to work and move, and cost less.  A sketch by Telford from March 1794 survives showing an early version of this aqueduct design.

Telford’s Grade 1 listed Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct in Shropshire, 1796. Source: Chris Allen, Wikimedia

In early 1795 Telford had the opportunity to try out a smaller, less ambitious version of the design at Longdon-on-Tern on the new Shrewsbury Canal, on which Telford was also working, as replacement for the incumbent engineer who had died mid-project.  Later in the same year he had built a fully navigable iron aqueduct on a canal that had none of the problems of leakage or shattering that had worried other engineers.  Whether or not this was taken into account by the directors of the Ellesmere Canal Company, they decided in the same year to go for the iron trough on immense stone piers that was eventually built.

Telford’s friend and frequent collaborator, master mason John Simpson soon joined him on the project.  Telford also brought in Matthew Davidson, his childhood friend of Telford, a stone mason, civil engineer and excellent organizer, to oversee the bridge works.  Telford and Davidson had worked successfully together on Telford’s Montford Bridge project of 1790 – 1792.  Shortly afterwards, William Hazledine arrived to establish an ironworks and take charge of the construction work for the iron ribs and the trough.  By assembling three men that he had worked with before and trusted absolutely, Telford was not only ensuring that the project was in good hands, but that he had a team who could operate in his absence. The foundation stone for the aqueduct was laid on 25th July 1795.

Jessop and Telford made wooden models to test the design for the trough, finding that 1000s of iron parts would be needed.  The cast iron for the aqueduct was made of cast iron that was produced in William Hazledine’s new iron foundry nearby at Plas Kynaston, Cefn Mawr.  Hazledine established the Plas Kynaston foundry to service the construction of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, thereafter taking advantage of the canal network to carry his cast iron in segments to be transhipped by river or sea to where it was needed.  When he built the Eaton Hall Iron Bridge at Aldford on the river Dee (described on an earlier post) it was from Plas Kynaston that the iron was shipped by canal.

After 1801 Jessop was much less involved and Telford also had interests elsewhere, and Telford was also involved in other projects, leaving Davidson, Hazledine and Simpson to run with the project.  The piers rose steadily, each built in turn from south to north by, at the peak of the project, over 500 men.  Jessop had been desperately worried from the beginning by the dangers to workmen’s lives of such tall piers, and safety precautions were taken very seriously, with the loss of only one life.  The iron parts were manufactured as needed at Plas Kynaston, and were numbered according to the order in which they would be needed so that only pieces needed at any one time would be delivered to the site.  First, ribs of iron were fitted to the piers, and then the trough was bolted on top, after which a wooden towpath was fitted to the side.  The entire project was finished in 1805, and opened on a sunny afternoon on November 26th 1805 at a grandiose ceremony followed by a lavish feast.  The entire cost for the aqueduct project was £47,018, which in today’s money translates as around £617,855 (National Archives Currency Convertor).

Metalwork over and under the arch at the left-hand Rhos y Coed bridge.

Although not as visible in the finished design, iron was also used in the Chirk aqueduct on the Llangollen canal where ten semi-circular masonry arches were crossed by a water channel with an iron bed plate and brick sides sealed using hydraulic mortar.  As well as in the aqueducts, iron was used in various ancillary structures too.  for example, Bridge 29, Rhos y Coed, at the Trevor Basin has visible iron metalwork supplementing the stone arch, and iron was used to cap the weir at the Horseshoe Falls.

The role of the aqueduct

Map from Nicholson’s Guide to the Central canal system, showing the stump end (framed in orange) of the planned Ruabon to Chester section of the canal, which was never built and now houses the attractive Trevor boatyard where the visitor centre is located. Source: Nicholson 1989

The Pontcysyllte aqueduct was almost immediately  in danger of becoming something of a white elephant, because its original role as a direct route to Wrexham and Chester was never fulfilled.  The section that led past Trevor Basin over the aqueduct was supposed to run straight on to the west of Ruabon, via Wrexham and on to Chester where it would link with the Wirral stretch leading to the Mersey and to the  Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal.  All that is left of the Trevor-Ruabon-Wrexham-Chester branch is a stump end occupied by the Trevor Basin, where the car park is located.  This is clearly visible on Nicholson’s map left, where the main line of the canal comes to a sudden, abrupt end.

The abandonment of this important part of the original plan was due to both engineering problems and financial issues.  There were only  two obvious engineering options – an enormous tunnel or a series of locks climbing towards Wrexham and another descending into the Cheshire plain where the canal could run along the flat plain to Chester.  The tunnel would have been appallingly costly, and it was difficult to know how the locks, by no means a low-cost option themselves, could have been supplied with the sufficient water.  Although other technologies were considered, they were rejected for reasons of practicality and cost.  This left the problem of where the water was to come from to feed the rest of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches.

Horseshoe Falls

At the far end of the Llangollen canal is Telford’s great arc of a weir, today known as the “Horseshoe Falls,” marking the point at which the Dee begins to feed the Llangollen canal.  An original survey had considered using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake  Tegid at Bala and through the Vale of Llangollen as a water source for the canal.  The idea had been to link the canal to a slate works, feeding the canal at the same time.  This proposal was now revisited.  The owner of Lake Tegid gave his permission and the plan was actioned.  At the Horseshoe Falls the canal is fed with water from the Dee via a sluice and meter, and today carries over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, emptying it into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal.  I will be posting more about the Horseshoe Falls weir on another day.  There is no turning point for vessels over 10ft long beyond Llangollen, so the final stretch is only used by minimal traffic today.

This means that the vast aqueduct, such a remarkable feat of civil engineering, would only ever lead to the relatively unimportant narrow section of canal and feeder to a complete dead end at Llantisilio after passing high through Llangollen.  This navigable channel is approached from the aqueduct by negotiating a sharp left-hand corner just beyond the exit of the trough.  Although this seems like a sad role for an aqueduct that should have carried many times the traffic that it eventually did, without the aqueduct there would have been no water to feed the rest of the system.

Even without the Ruabon – Chester link, those wishing to carry all their goods by canal were still able to connect to the main canal system, although to reach Chester they had to take a very long way round, and Wrexham was excluded completely.  The Llangollen canal still linked to the Shrophsire Union at its eastern end, from which the rest of the vast canal network could be reached.

  • Chester could still be reached by travelling the full length of the Llangollen canal to Hurleston Junction, just north of Nantwich, on the Shropshire Union Canal.  From here Chester was nearly 16 miles away.
  • Just to the north of Hurleston Junction was the Middlewich Branch, which headed east and linked to the Trent and Mersey Canal, from where Manchester, Stoke on Trent, the eastern Midlands and Yorkshire could all be reached.
  • In the opposite direction, from Hurleston Junction the Shropshire Union ran directly to Birmingham, which was a vast junction for canals in all directions, including London on the Thames and Gloucester on the Severn.

The Cefn Mawr railway viaduct, which opened in 1848.

Along the line that the original canal would have taken, a cast iron tramway was built to connect local collieries and ironworks with the canal, the iron supplied by Hazledine.  This made the Trevor Basin a particularly important hub of activity, taken delivery of bricks, tiles, coal, iron limestone, slate and sandstone for transhipping along the canal.  It was also a boatyard, with  working narrowboats being built and repaired by Hills Boatyard in the dry dock next to the Visitor Centre (now occupied by a floating take-away café).  Later, there was an interchange with the steam railway.

Visiting Pontcysyllte

A small pay-and-display car park is available for visitors at the Trevor Basin, now the home of some canal trip and holiday companies.  There is also a pub with outdoor seating, and a take-away small café on a little boat next to the visitor centre.  There is a lot of disabled parking provided for in the small car park, which is reached from the A539 in Trevor, clearly signposted with brown heritage signposting.   The aqueduct is a very short walk from the car park, and the towpath heads for miles in both directions.

If, before or after crossing the aqueduct, you are interested in finding out more about the general context of the aqueduct and its location in relation to other parts of the canal, at the Trevor Basin there is a visitor centre, a small but nicely put together display space.  As well as a map of the area that takes up a wall and shows all the main features of the landscape and the canal system itself, there is a display of some of the tools that were used in the construction of the aqueduct, which are startlingly basic, and photographs and artists’ impressions of some of the supporting works, including the foundry at Plas Kynaston.  There are ring folders full of additional information, including facts and figures, that you can look through.

Walking the aqueduct itself is not for everyone.  The towpath is rock solid, with a tall handrail on the valley side, but only wide enough for two people, so there is a lot of stopping still to allow others to pass and there is nothing to stop you falling into the canal.  The canal is only just over 6ft (1.8m) wide, and beyond that is an unrestricted (no handrail, no nothing) drop 127ft to the valley floor.  A couple who I passed told me that they were determined to walk the full length and back, but were conquering their fears to do so, and they were gripping firmly to the handrail.

An alternative to walking is to cross by boat.  There are a number of short cruises that leave the Trevor Basin and run for about 20 minutes before turning and coming back (depending on which one you take and the time of year).

For those with uncooperative legs, everything is on the flat, so it is a very good walk for those who find uphill sections of walks difficult.  After rainfall, towpaths always become a bit muddy, and can be slippery, but even though we’ve had some rainfall recently, it was fine.  The towpath between Trevor and Llangollen is beautiful, and a good choice if you can face the aqueduct.

I noticed that one of the passenger boats said that it was suitable for disabled passengers, but I would recommend getting in touch with them first to find out about timings, prices and suitability for different types of disability.

Sources

Books and papers

Glover, J.  2017.  Man Of Iron.  Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Bloomsbury

Lynn, P. A. 2019.  World Heritage Canal.  Thomas Telford and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  Whittles Publishing.

Nicholson, R. 1989 (4th edition). Nicholson/Ordnance Survey Guide to the Waterways 2: Central. Robert Nicholson Publications and Ordnance Survey

Rolt, L.T.C. 1958, 2007.  Thomas Telford. The History Press.

Pattison, A.  n.d. William Hazledine (1763-1840): A Pioneering Shropshire Ironmaster.  West Midlands History https://historywm.com/articles/william-hazeldine-1763-1840  (Pattison’s full 278-page M.Phil, on which the article is based, is available here: https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/3358/1/Pattison12MPhil.pdf )

Websites

Canal and River Trust
Montgomery Canal
https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/montgomery-canal?gclid=CjwKCAiAp8iMBhAqEiwAJb94z7aIVzLoaYuqtwbDdRQsaUL73ssnmF_u1LpoURZmI9YxVUlrKi15whoCtxoQAvD_BwE

DronePics Wales
Pontcysyllte
https://dronepics.wales/pontcysyllte/

Engineering Timelines
Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct
http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=308

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
James Brindley
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Brindley
William Hazledine
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Crosley_(1802-1838)
William Jessop
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Jessop

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site
https://www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk/

 

 

Object histories in my garden #7: Little fragments of willow pattern china – what are the stories?

Willow Pattern sherds found in a Churton garden

I defy any gardener, even in a modern home, to do any digging without finding a few pieces of willow pattern china.  It is so common that one barely notices it, whether it is found as garden fragments, encountered in antique shops or viewed as eBay listings.  It comes in all forms – plates, jugs, bowls, cups, saucers, tureens in all sorts of shapes and sizes, varying in quality from fine early examples to increasingly poor imitations as well as a few modern reinventions on fine china.  Early examples were hand-painted on porcelain, but as it became popular, transfers (described below) were used to cheaply replicate their finer predecessors.

Pieces of willow pattern found in a garden in Darland

The examples shown in the photo at above left were all found in my garden, and could date to any time between the 19th Century to relatively recent times.  None of them are fine porcelain, all stoneware, which means that they were built to be durable.  This does not mean that they were any less valued by their owners than finer bone china pieces, which are almost translucent, but either that their purchasers were unable to afford finer pieces, or that these were intended for everyday use.  In either case the sheer volume of china that we have dug out of the garden argues that if finer pieces were purchased, they were kept safely on display or only used for special occasions, because so far we have only found two finer pieces of translucent china.  It is a similar story with china dug out of a Darland garden by my parents (shown right).  In that early Georgian garden, belonging to a large house built by a prosperous land-owner, the pottery was all fairly coarse, although there is no reason to suppose that the owners did not purchase finer wares that were better cared for.

1930s willow pattern in red on white

In America, willow pattern is known as “blue willow,” but although the vast majority produced was in cobalt blue on white, there are also examples of red or brown, and even green on white, and there are some much later examples that were painted with multiple colours (and look both exceedingly odd and rather unpleasant).  Today willow pattern has fallen out of fashion, presumably because it is so formulaic and so commonplace, in spite of  attempts by some modern producers to reinvent it, but the history of willow pattern is an interesting one, even if the design itself has become rather tedious to the modern eye.

There are two strands to the invention of willow pattern, three stories to tell.  The first is how and when willow pattern developed, what influenced it, and why it became so ubiquitous.  The second story concerns the tale told by the pattern itself, which narrates a forbidden romance, a dictatorial father and an unwanted, ultimately vengeful suitor.

At the end I have a look at why the tale embedded into the willow pattern is fundamentally in opposition to Chinese morality, using two examples from Chinese literature.

A random sample of the smaller objects found in the garden

I have already used the terms “china” and “porcelain,” and will go on to mention stoneware, so here are some quick and dirty definitions:

  • Ceramics:  all items made by clay and hardened by heat.  A generic term used interchangeably with pottery.
  • China:  another generic term, referring to ceramics that have a pure white fabric, of the sort first seen in Europe on items imported from China
  • Porcelain:  from the Italian “porcellana.”  Porcelain is made of fine-grained clay which is then fired at very high temperatures that causes a transformation of the material called vitrification.  It is very thin, and semi-translucent.
  • Pottery:  objects made of fired clay
  • Stoneware:  fired at much lower temperatures than porcelain using inferior clays, and made into much thicker fabrics without any translucence.  Similar to earthenware, which is also made with coarse clays but fired at a higher temperature than earthenware and is superior in quality.
  • Transfers (discussed in more detail below):  Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.

The development and spread of the willow pattern design

This or a similar type of Nanking ware scene could have been the prototype for English willow pattern. Source: The Culture Concept Circle

I had always assumed that the willow pattern design was invented in China for the European export market in the late 18th Century, but this is not true.  It is certainly true that decorated china had been finding its way into Europe and America for two centuries before willow pattern was invented.  The East India Company began to purchase Chinese blue and white ceramics for the British market in the 16th Century when it was a luxury item.  It swiftly became very popular and continued to be in high demand even after the East India Company was deprived of its right to trade in 1833.  Private ships that began to import Chinese tea, still a high value import during the 19th Century, also brought back ceramics that were increasingly standardized and mass-produced for the European market.  Chinese producers had swiftly developed a sense of what themes, colours and designs Europeans and Americans liked, and they began to make them in great quantities.  Willow pattern was inspired by a type of blue and white porcelain called Nanking or Nankin Pattern.  It was made at Ching-te-chen / Jingdezhen and then sailed down the river Yangtze to the coastal port of Nanking from where it was shipped to Canton.  Canton was the main port at which foreign ships were allowed to trade, (the sole trading port until 1842) and here it was loaded on to European and American ships for the export market.  

An early design similar to the willow pattern on a creamware teapot.  Attributed to John Warburton, Staffordshire, England, c. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Although influenced by Nanking,  willow pattern was not imported from China; it was an English invention based on Chinese patterns.  The first version appears to have been produced in 1779 for Thomas Turner and his Caughley works in Shropshire, originally for a teapot, and then in the late 1780s on other objects, probably by apprentice Thomas Minton. 

Robert Copeland, in Spode’s Willow Pattern, acknowledges Caughley but points out that this was not the standard willow pattern, which he argues persuasively was developed by Josiah Spode, and initially called the Mandarin pattern.  It is not known if Turner, Minton or Spode had a particular story in mind when they began to produce their versions of the formulaic pattern, but a story soon emerged, and probably helped sales, raising the decoration from the level of a  mere pattern to the encapsulation of an exotic legend (albeit one thought up in an English porcelain factory).  It would otherwise be difficult to account for how popular the design became.  Other manufacturers also went on to make willow pattern.


The main features of the willow pattern design

The plates shown above exemplify the most common arrangement of the motifs that make up the willow pattern design, although there are sometimes minor variations.

A 19th century anonymous poem, of which there are numerous versions, summarizes the main themes as follows:

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

The story behind the features on the plate can be fairly short or tediously long, but the essentials of the story can be summarized quite briefly.  Let’s have a closer look first at the main motifs that provide the cues for narrating the story.

The main anchoring feature of the composition is a two- or occasionally three-storey pagoda, usually just right-of-centre, approached by a path and a short flight of steps.  To the left of it is a smaller pagoda on the edge of the river.  A fence zig-zags across the front of the scene, blocking access to the approach path to the pagoda in its garden.

Behind the pagodas is a tree with big round discs that look like enormous pizzas.  Susan Ferguson has researched these and concludes that although they are usually referred to as apples (heaven help you if an apple of that size landed on you), and sometimes oranges, they are probably abstractions of circular spans of a Chinese conifer (needle clusters), a design that over the centuries has become so simplified that on the willow pattern the species of tree is completely unidentifiable.  In the absence of any other explanation that makes sense, I’m convinced.  A lush arboretum surrounds the pagoda.

A huge willow tree leans over the bridge, to the left of the pagoda, which gives the design its name, and usually has some sort of rosette- or round-shaped growths on the trunk.  Its long branches appear to blow lightly in the breeze.

The bridge crosses a narrow strait of water, met by a small building on the other side.  The bridge is being crossed by a woman at the front, a man in the middle holding a long thin box, and another man raising a stick at the rear.

Above left of the willow is a large expanse of water crossed by a man navigating a boat, heading towards the pagoda.  One or more cabins on the boat suggests that another person is inside.

In the distance at top left is an island with another pagoda, again surrounded by lush vegetation.

Overhead in the sky are a pair of birds facing each other, their wings spread to catch the breeze.

If the composition graces a plate, a tureen or a lid, the whole thing is usually circled with a loosely Chinese-themed geometric pattern, sometimes elaborated with leaves and flowers.  On teapots, cups and jugs only favoured portions of the entire composition may be shown.


The story of a forbidden romance and how to read a plate

The story is an invention, and English interpretation of scenes on Chinese export ceramics that had no such narrative.  It is probable that the story gained momentum as the willow pattern became more popular, becoming more elaborate over time.  The basics are these, although there are multiple alternatives:

  1. The pagoda, right-of-centre, the garden, and the weeping willow:  Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Koong-see who lived in a palace in China, a delightful sprawling pagoda in lovely ornamental gardens, with cherry blossom, apple trees, willows, streams, wildlife and birdsong.  Hidden within the pagoda, she is in love with a lowly office clerk named Changwho serves her father, a mandarin (senior official), and is far beneath her social standing. They meet every night beneath the willow.  Forbidden to marry by the Mandarin, she and Chang are in despair.  Both console themselves by caring for the birds in the garden, to which they are devoted and which are, in turn, devoted to them
  2. The mandarin’s daughter is promised to a warrior duke against her wishes:  The Mandarin has arranged for Koong-see to be married to the warrior Duke (a Ta-jin), who is even now approaching.  Much older than Koong-see, he brings a treasure chest as a gift for his future bride, also hidden from view.  Deaf to Koong-see’s pleas, her father insists on the marriage, erects a huge fence around the house and garden and imprisons her in a small pagoda overlooking the lake.  When the cherry blossom eventually blooms on the tree in the garden, the marriage will take place. 
  3. Three individuals are seen crossing the bridge.  When the Duke arrives, he, the Mandarin and guests celebrate with an excess of food and alcohol.  Chang enters the compound and seeing that the inebriated gathering has fallen asleep, he goes to Koong-see and they flee, taking with them the duke’s treasure, crossing the bridge over the river.  Koong-see is at the front, carrying a staff, the emblem of virtue.  Chang follows her, carrying the stolen treasure in a rectangular box.  They are pursued by the mandarin, brandishing a whip.  Sometimes a a fourth figure is shown, and this is the duke seeking to retrieve both his bride and, probably more importantly, his treasure.
  4. The pagoda in a distant land, top left.  Chang steals a small boat, and they couple sail to the north.  Having made good their escape, the couple sell the duke’s treasure and buy a pagoda in a distant place.  Having failed to find his daughter in spite of employing spies to track her down, the mandarin has the brilliant idea of releasing the birds that were so loved by Koong-see and Chang. The birds fly straight to the couple, with the mandarin’s warriors following close behind.  When the warriors discover the hideaway they set it alight. 
  5. The turtle doves in the sky.  Koong-see and Chang die in the flames, but unspecified gods looking down on the scene take pity on the devoted couple and transform them into birds so that they can remain together for eternity. 

An extended version, tears-and-all version of the tale, was published in The Family Friend, volume I, in 1849, and is extremely long-winded and tedious (as well as slightly sickly), but obviously pushed some of the right buttons in the 19th Century.  As well as the anonymous poem quoted above, there were a number of others as well, some of which are posted on the Potteries website here and the Willow Collectors website here.

Chinese morality versus English romanticism

The willow pattern design that grew out of these imports was not merely an English invention, but the romantic tale of runaway lovers that was developed to sell the design would almost certainly have offended Chinese morality.  The story was born of an unmistakeably western tradition, recognizable in the narrative concerns of star-crossed lovers, persecution by unwanted suitors and unreasonable parents, all of which are solidly  familiar from the Classical Greek tale of Hero and Leander, the 16th Century Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, Shakespeare’s 1597 Romeo and Juliet, and many, many more.

The Butterfly Lovers. Source: ShenYunShop

There are some tales from Chinese literature that are superficially somewhat similar, but a closer look at them reveals culturally significant differences.  Two good examples are “The Butterfly Lovers” and “Han Ping and His Wife.”  

The story of the butterfly lovers concerns a rather complicated story about a woman disguised as a man, Zhu Yingtai, and her unsuspecting friend Liang Shanbo who eventually fall in love with one another.   Although women were usually prevented from becoming scholars, Zhu was allowed to study in the guise of a young man.  She meets a fellow scholar, and they become close friends, studying together for the following three years.  Liang remains none the wiser, but Zhu begins to fall in love with him.   Although tolerant enough to allow his daughter to study as a man, Zhu’s father expects her to return when he writes to tell her that he is ill.  She departs, and Liang accompanies his dear friend for part of the route.  Although she drops hints about her true sex, Zhu is unable to reveal her secret to Liang directly and intend invents a sister to whom she proposes that Liang should become betrothed.  She offers to set up a meeting.  Liang eventually visits Zhu, and finds that there is no sister and that Zhu is a woman.  Liang realizes he loves Zhu and they are both overjoyed for a brief period, but Zhu now reveals that her father’s illness was a ruse and he has betrothed her to a wealthy merchant.  Liang leaves, heartbroken, and although he tries to lead a normal life, soon dies.  Zhu, meanwhile, is prepared for her wedding.  The wedding procession forms, its route due to pass Liang’s grave.  As they reach the grave, a great wind blows up, stopping the marriage party in its tracks.  Taking the opportunity to pay her final respects to Liang at his grave, she begs for the grave to swallow her too, and in response to her pleas, it opens up and takes her in.  Zhu and Liang rise as butterflies, and fly away together for eternity.  

A second tragic romance, from a collection of early legends (The Man Who Sold A Ghost), is the tale of Han Ping and his wife also concerns lovers who were transformed into birds following the successful completion of their suicide pact.  Han Ping and his wife were deeply in love.  Han Ping worked for Prince Xang as steward.  His wife was very beautiful and the king, inevitably attracted, took her for himself.   Han Ping’s anguished protests were answered with imprisonment and hard labour.  Eventually his wife managed to send Han Ping a letter, a cryptic message written using allusions to lay out her plan for suicide, which each carried out.  In a separate letter to the king, she requested burial alongside her husband, but this was denied her.  They were buried in the same cemetery but far apart.  All was not lost. Two trees sprung up overnight and within only days were tall and strong, leaning towards each other, their branches intertwining.  Two inseparable lovebirds nested in the branches of the entwined trees, the spirits of the wronged Han Ping and his  wife.

A silk bed covering from Canton, showing the type of artistic device used to represent clusters of fir spines.  This might be the source of the enormous disks in the trees behind the pagoda in the willow pattern design  Source: Ferguson 2017

Although Chinese literature has stories of star-crossed lovers, acting on a forbidden love was counter to Chinese ideas of obedience and arranged marriage and would never be celebrated.  In the first case, even though Zhu is in love with someone else, she obediently, albeit unhappily, accepts marriage.  The gods intervene to allow the couple to live together as butterflies, but only after Zhu has behaved with honour according to her father’s wishes.  Although the couple were not married, they came to represent fidelity in marriage.  In the story of Han Ping and his wife, the two are already married and it is only when the wife is dishonoured by the prince that they are reunited as birds, again demonstrating the power of marital fidelity.

All of this is far more subtle than the rather simplistic willow pattern narrative, which celebrates love conquering all, but ignores the Chinese morality that would have seen the willow pattern story and its outcome as abhorrent.  Daughterly disobedience and unmarried, prohibited love would have been a serious breach of decency and integrity.  Fleeing paternal control would have been unthinkable, particularly as it left behind and honourable and broken-hearted father.  The theft of the Duke’s treasure would have appalled most Chinese people; the Duke, after all, was not the bad guy in the scenario, because arranged marriages were perfectly normal and his gift to his prospective bride was a gesture of great generosity.  A happy-ever-after outcome for the disobedient and ungrateful runaways, even in the form of turtle doves, would not have been sanctioned by Chinese moralists or the authors of Chinese literature.

Stoneware and transfers

Mid 19th Century transferware willow pattern trivet. Source: Inessa-Stewart’s

All of the willow pattern from my garden is robust transferware.  We have found porcelain pieces in other designs, some of them very fine, but the vast majority of it, including all of the willow pattern, is transfers applied to stoneware and earthenware.  Porcelain, almost translucent, was time-consuming to produce, often shattered during production, was usually hand-decorated and was therefore expensive to buy.  Stoneware an earthenware were much easier to manufacture, fired at lower temperatures and not hand-painted.  These solid wares were far more robust and suitable for everyday domestic use.  

It is often possible to find the edge of the transfer on bigger pieces of transferware, as on this corner of a large 1930s red-on-white Royal Venton plate.

Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture in the second half of the 18th Century, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics that could be produced by relatively unskilled workers rather than craft specialists.  Chinese-influenced ceramics, like many product that were once luxury products due to their exotic source and/or their expensive manufacturing process, began to be produced in inferior fabrics, became more affordable, and were therefore in more demand, both in Britain and America.  Once an appropriate fabric was developed, a quicker way of decorating the ceramics was required, and transfers were developed to meet this need.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.  The meeting of the demand for transfer wares was helped by the roll-out of the canal network and the improvement of trade networks that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  

Final Comments

A more recent interpretation of willow pattern (microwave safe, dishwasher proof).  Although it is a nice, clean design, there is a gap in the fence in front of the path to the pagoda, which rather defeats the object (and is more evocative of an English country cottage than a defensive barrier to prevent a daughter escaping).

The story behind the willow pattern design is far more interesting than the design itself.  Some of the earliest patterns, evoking original Chines designs, had considerable charm, but very soon a fairly rigid formula was developed that was repeated over and over again, with only a little occasional variation from one piece to the next.  As such it is more than a little tiresome.

It is entirely different when it emerges piece by piece from one’s garden, all of them minute fragments contributing to the house’s own story.  Over time, the people who lived here broke an awful lot of pottery!  The house was probably occupied by farming families for many years, with a sign of increased prosperity when the two original cottages were linked up to become a single building.   The earliest finds from the garden belong to the later 19th Century, well into the period when most willow pattern was stoneware.   Not the sort of thing that a labourer’s family would be able to indulge in, but probably affordable as Sunday Best for a slightly more affluent rural family.  I need to find out a lot more about who lived in the house before speculating further. 

Pealrich clock in the form of a willow pattern plate. Source: Amazon UK

It is interesting that willow pattern continues to be made and purchased.  The above picture shows a simplified version of the design, much less elaborate than earlier versions, much cleaner but also more sterilized.  I would not have thought that it is  the sort of story that would carry much appeal today, but the design itself obviously continues to be attractive to a modern audience.  A quick search on Amazon produced willow pattern oven gloves, a willow pattern mug that could be personalized, an embroidery kit, a large tea set, a “collectible” thimble, a cushion cover and even a clock in the form of a willow pattern plate (shown left).  A company called PRSC specializes in “deconstructed” willow pattern products, which take the motifs and arrange them in aesthetically pleasing combinations that abandon the narrative completely.

Deconstructed willow pattern. Source: PRSC

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, willow pattern obviously spoke to something in people’s imaginations.  Perhaps the very standardization and mass-production of the design enabled the exotic to be both familiar and comprehensible, even offering some level of reassurance.  By developing new and improved ways of manufacturing pottery and decorating it, and taking advantage of new modes of transport and communication, potteries making ceramics in the English Midlands were able to spread willow pattern throughout the UK and into America.  A decorative phenomenon, it is difficult to account for its success, but a success it certainly was.  It has left a legacy that continues to attract collectors and re-interpreters alike.

For other posts in my History in Garden Objects series click here or see the
link of the same name in the Categories list on the right.


Sources:

Books and papers

Copeland, R. 1999 (3rd edition). Spode’s Willow Pattern And Other Designs After the Chinese.  Studio Vista

Ferguson, S. 2017.  “Blue Willow”: Apples or Oranges?  Transferware Collectors Club Bulletin, 2017 Vol. XVIII No. 1.
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/bulletin_previews/articles/17_TCC_XVIII_No1_Blue_Willow_Apples_or_Oranges.pdf

Hsien-Yi, Y. and Yang, G. 1958.  The Man Who Sold A Ghost.  Foreign Language Press
Available online at:  https://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/Arts/Literature/TheManWhoSoldAGhost-ChineseTalesOfThe3rd-6thCenturies-1958.pdf

O’Hara.  P.  “The Willow Pattern That We Knew”: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow.  Victorian Studies. Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 421-442
Available online with the academic site JSTOR digital library if you register (free): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828644?seq=1

Websites

East India company at home 1757-1857, University College London
The Willow Pattern Case Study:  The Willow Pattern Explained
https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-willow-pattern-dunham-massey/the-willow-pattern-case-study-the-willow-pattern-explained/comment-page-1/

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Willow pattern pottery
https://www.britannica.com/art/Willow-pattern#ref235738

Popular Culture in Modern China
The Butterfly Lovers – Response.  By Dr Liang Luo
http://chi430.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-butterfly-lovers-response.html

The Potteries – An A-Z of Stoke on Trent Potteries
The Willow Pattern Story
http://www.thepotteries.org/patterns/willow.html

Spode History
Spode and Willow Pattern. By Pam Woolliscroft
https://spodehistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/spode-and-willow.html

Transferware Collectors Club
What is transferware?
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/news-information/faqs

Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool
Story of the Willow Pattern, 15 January 2021 by Amanda Draper
https://vgm.liverpool.ac.uk/blog/2021/willow-pattern/

 

Adventures with Churton honesty eggs: A user guide to Hollandaise and Béarnaise sauce

Both of these butter- and egg-based sauces, hollandaise and béarnaise, only take about five minutes to make, but an awful lot longer to prepare.  You will see many alternative recipes in books, but Mum’s was based on Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and that’s where I went when I had to start from scratch.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are based on a mix of base ingredients, but add different flavourings.   The basics usually include the following:  egg yolks, white wine vinegar, butter, peppercorns, and bay leaves.  The differences are described below.

Hollandaise is usually served used with fish and/or vegetables, and is traditionally made with egg yolks, butter and lemon juice.  It is a rich, buttery sauce that gives the kiss of heavenly life to poached salmon and asparagus.

Béarnaise accompanies steak and is defined mainly by armfuls of tarragon.   Another traditional differentiator is that it is  usually made with white wine and vinegar instead of lemon juice.

Breaking with tradition, my hollandaise and béarnaise both have the same base by using a same reduction as the base for both sauces.  I combine all three liquids, the lemon juice, wine vinegar and white wine and mix them together as a base for the reduction in both hollandaise and béarnaise.  The only differentiator in my version is that lots of tarragon is added to make béarnaise.  My reason for this blending of the two recipes stems from a comment of Elizabeth David’s that an hollandaise based on just butter, egg yoks and lemon juice is “apt to be insipid” and consequently she recommends the addition of a reduction of white wine or vinegar (as in béarnaise).  It works splendidly for me, but I would suggest that you experiment.  The only time I feel like doing an hollandaise the original way is with poached salmon, where the simplicity of the lemon, egg and butter mix is perfect.

Cover of the hardback version of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking,” Grub Street, 1960, 2007

On this occasion I was cooking a béarnaise sauce, so I used a huge handful of tarragon from my garden.  A couple of nights ago I found a ribeye steak from Bellis (farm shop and butcher in Holt) in the freezer.  The Bellis ribeye is wonderful, although I have no idea where they source it from.  It deserved special treatment, and as I have three big pots of French tarragon in the garden, and had a box of Churton eggs at the ready, here’s how I did it, resulting in a happily successful outcome.

 

A couple of weeks ago I was very gung-ho about how easy it is to make mayonnaise in my post on the subject,  which I think is fair enough because it is so easy when you know the two basic rules about how to handle it.  However, I am never gung-ho about Hollandaise or béarnaise, because they can go seriously wrong.  I’ve only screwed it up a couple of times, and I have now learned some excellent risk-avoidance techniques and one or two rescue solutions.  Preparation minimizes the risks, but  things can still go wrong, especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand. WOW is it wonderful, so the best thing to do is to prepare well and experiment on someone who won’t mind being a guinea pig.  Once you have the knack, and you will have it for life.

Important Preparation 

There are a couple of technical points to take into consideration, other than briefly editing out the conversation of your friends.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are all about preparation, and that’s not just about lining up your ingredients and equipment, but understanding how it’s all going to work, and how you may attempt to to recover it when/if it goes wrong.

First, both sauces have a terrible reputation for splitting, which means that after being heated, the oil in the butter separates from the other ingredients and you end up with a big oily mess on your hands.  Eggs should be at a nice cool room temperature before you start.  This is only a small part of the prep work, but it is an essential one.

Two, I have experimented and found that clarifying the butter makes life a lot easier.  I have no idea what the proper way of doing it may be, but I simply heated butter in a saucepan and poured it into a small jug.  White bits (solids) drop to the bottom of the jug leaving a translucent, bright yellow liquid on top.  The yellow bit is the clarified butter and the white bits need to be left in the bottom of the jug.  It means that you use a lot less butter, because it emulsifies much more efficiently, which is much better for the health.  That in turn means that it forms more quickly.  As a technique, it is also easier to prevent separation of the oil from the egg because you can easily control the addition of the butter, in drops and a slow trickle, to the egg and vinegar mix.  So I now always start off by separating my egg/s.  Keep the clarified butter somewhere warm so that it does not solidify.

Three, make sure you have some ice cubes in the freezer.  If everything starts to overheat you will end up with scrambled egg.  A bit of cold water helps, but if it is going too far too fast, lob in an ice cube, stir it rapidly until the sauce starts to go slightly lighter in colour and then haul it out.  That usually does the trick.

My impromptu bain marie, at the back, consisting of a glass bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water that heats the sauce, reducing the chance of splitting. The asparagus is steamed, but here it is waiting in cold water prior to cooking, after having its ends trimmed. Don’t worry – not all of this went on to my plate!  Some of it made a leek and asparagus soup.

Four, if you don’t have a bain marie (I don’t) you need to sort out a glass bowl (not metal) that will sit over one of your small saucepans.  Anyone who has worked with chocolate will be familiar with this.  The water in the pan must not come into contact with the glass bowl, and should simmer, not boil.  You are cooking your eggs with indirect heat, not direct heat, a bit like steaming.  However, no lid is required.  A wooden spoon must be to hand for almost constant stirring, so that the sauce is moved constantly into and away from the heat.

Five, and assuming that you are making a béarnaise for steak (which means a lot of tarragon), take hold of your tarragon and divide it in half, finely chopping all of the leaves.  Do not throw away the stalks, but snap them into short sections.  Keep half of the leaves on one side and put the other half of the leaves and all the stalks into a bowl of white wine vinegar, shallot, bay and white wine.  Leave it to infuse flavour into the vinegar for an hour or so.

SixWhatever gas  you are cooking on, what you want for the sauce is a light simmer, absolutely not a boil.  If the water is boiling, you run the risk of creating scrambled eggs, not a sauce.  I am cooking on Calor gas, not mains gas.  Calor and Butane burn hotter and make it difficult to maintain a low temperature.  I have a set of round, diffusing metal plates with handles that  sit over the top of my hob and diffuse the heat, allowing the water to become hot but preventing it from boiling.  

Seven, if you are intending to serve this in a jug rather than just plonking it onto plates alongside whatever else you are eating, remember that the jug (as well as the plates) needs to be warmed through.  If you pour warm hollandaise/béarnaise into a cold jug you will instantly lose the heat and end up with a cold sauce and, more importantly, you will raise the chances of it separating before it reaches the table.  

Eight, there are conflicting views in the literature on whether you should use salted or unsalted butter.  I use salted.  Salt helps the emulsification (thickening) process but you can also add salt to a sauce made with unsalted butter to taste.  Just be sure to add it early on in the sauce-making process so that it helps to emulsify the sauce.  I’ve tried it and it works, but unsalted butter with no additional salt is risky.

Nine, keep some cold water in a jug at the side so that if your sauce starts to over-thicken you can loosen it up.  Add a teaspoon at a time until you have the right consistency.  Cold water also helps to prevent the sauce over-heating and separating.

Ten, the vinegar mixture must go into the egg and butter hot.  Do not let it cool down.

Finally, bear in mind that the whole process is only going to take a few minutes once you have added the hot vinegar mix to the egg yolk and started adding the butter, no more than five minutes, possibly less.  Most of the time is taken up with preparation.  Whatever you are intending to serve it with, you either need to be good at delivering multiple time-sensitive dishes in one go, or alternatively persuade someone to look after the rest of the meal while you concentrate on the Hollandaise or béarnaise, because the latter can turn against you in just a few seconds.

If this is your first attempt, I would suggest that you keep an emergency back-up sauce or herb butter on one side.  For the latter, finely chopped herbs added into soft butter, and rolled in clingfilm to form a cylindrical tube of butter, and placed in the freezer for half an hour to solidify before putting it in the fridge works well.  Before serving you can chop it into disks that sit on top of your steak or fish and melt beautifully to form a gentle butter sauce.  If I was planning to do a béarnaise, as in this case, the herbs chopped into the butter would be tarragon.  If the béarnaise works, you can keep the herb butter in the freezer for a quick way to liven up a piece of steak or fish, or use it to make unusual, flavourful sandwiches.


Getting on with it

Everything else is fairly straight-forward, but there are a number of steps that cannot be avoided.   I usually avoid writing down step-by-step instructions because whatever the recipe, the outcomes depend so much on the ingredients used and the equipment employed, but there are some things that really must be taken into account.

  • I recommend clarifying the butter.  Like mayonnaise, the key trick here is to add the butter so slowly that you begin to seize up.  Mum used to add small lumps one by one and not add another until fully incorporated, the system that I used until just recently when I read that if you clarify the butter, it reduces the risk of separation and stabilizes it at the end.  That end moment, where the sauce is ready but you may be waiting for vegetables, fish or steak to cook, is a terrible waiting game when you hope that the sauce stays in one piece, but worry that it might split.  Clarifying the butter reduces the risk and the stress at one and the same time.  Keep it warm until you need it so that it doesn’t solidify.
  • Remember that if you are using a jug, this needs to be nice and warm to receive the sauce, as do the serving plates.
  • When you are ready to cook, first you need to heat up your vinegar mix until it just threatens to boil.  Turn down the heat until it is just simmering and keep a careful eye on it.  You are aiming to reduce it in order to intensify the flavour.  If you’re cooking for two, you’ll need about a tablespoon and a half of clear liquid, but a dessert spoon for one.
  • When it has reduced, strain out the flavourings and retain the flavoured vinegar.  The vinegar needs to be hot (very warm rather than boiling hot) when you add it to the egg yolk.
  • Make sure that the water in the pan of your assembled bain marie arrangement is hot and place your glass dish over the top.  By sealing the water pan with the bowl you will cause the water temperature to rise, so keep an eye on it to stop it boiling.
  • Separate your eggs and put your egg yolks (one per person) into your glass dish.  Add your vinegar (still warm) and mix it very rapidly into the yolks.  You now have a beautiful yellow fluid that will start to heat in the bowl over the water.
  • Add the remaining fine-chopped tarragon and give it a good stir
  • The sauce heating in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water, a quickly assembled bain marie

    Now your clarified butter (or small dice-sized chunks of butter) needs to be added, but oh-so slowly.  If your butter is clarified add it first in drips and then in a very slow and fine stream, stirring gently all the time and breaking now and again to ensure that it is fully incorporated.  If you are using chunks, make sure that each is melted before adding the next. I cannot repeat enough that you should go slowly.

  • Pause occasionally to ensure that the butter is being incorporated into the egg and vinegar mix.  Adding the butter is very much suck-it-and-see, but if you go slowly enough and keep stirring you should be safe.  There’s no clear guideline, because different butters emulsify the yolks at different rates, and egg yolks are different sizes.  
  • If it doesn’t emulsify properly, add another egg yolk and keep adding the butter.  That might produce rather more sauce that you were aiming for, but hey – it’s lovely stuff!
  • Continually make sure that the water is simmering, to heat the eggs, but not so hot that you end up with scrambled eggs.  If it begins to cook rather than heat, add either a little cold water or an ice cube to the egg mix.  Don’t forget to retrieve the ice cube before it melts.  You want to cool it down, not liquefy it.

Rescue

I’ve modified Elizabeth David’s recipes, as did Mum, but here are her originals on pages 118-9. Click to expand.

Don’t forget that if the water in the pan is too hot and the sauce starts to scramble, you can take it off the heat for a moment, and use ice cubes or cold water to help cool it down, stirring, and ensuring that the water in the pan has calmed down before placing the bowl back over the pan.  If the sauce is thickening too much, cold water is again a good solution, added gradually.

I have never successfully recovered an Hollandaise or béarnaise that has split completely (where the butter abandons the sauce and forms rivers of oil over a lumpy egg mixture).  I only ever twice split it in my early days of making this sauce.  Even following all the advice about rescuing a split Hollandaise, it was a matter of chucking it away and starting again or providing an alternative sauce.   But if you have used a rescue method that works, please do let me know.

The Final Product

Not an elegant presentation, but it tasted heavenly.  As I said, I was doing mine with rib-eye steak (with loads of black pepper ground over it), tender stem broccoli, asparagus and baby new potatoes (which, apparently unusually, I peel).  I like my steak cooked on an iron griddle pan, super-heated very quickly on the outside, which chars it but leaves it pink and moist in the middle.  The spuds were boiled, the vegetables steamed and the plate heated beforehand.  Terrible presentation, but in spite of that, it was a really  luxurious treat.

A classic vegetarian option that I have often served as a starter just because it’s so good, is asparagus Hollandaise (no tarragon).  Most fish works for a pescatarian option with Hollandaise, but salmon and swordfish are particularly good.  Strongly flavoured fish like tuna and mackerel won’t work.

Health and Safety

Your egg yolks will be cooked through when it comes to serving them, so don’t worry about serving raw egg.  You won’t.

Fat and cholesterol:  When I was editing this, I had also  been editing images of gravestones in Aldford and Farndon churchyards to go with a post on 19th Century Churton directory listings.  It reminded me that both hollandaise and béarnaise are exclusively for special occasions 🙂  All that egg yolk and butter!  To be handled with care, and reserved for special occasions, and avoid completely if you are trying to shed a few kilos.  But one of the most delicious things ever.  And don’t forget that if you clarify your butter you will use less than if you add it in chunks.

You can see my previous Churton egg adventures by clicking here.

For fun: Dolmades made with locally grown vine leaves

Whenever I see Ann Davidson, who runs the free magazine My Village News, we discuss gardens and she nearly always brings me cuttings and little plants grown from seed, of which a yellow dahlia is a particular favourite.  I haven’t seen her for a couple of months, but she remembered that I had said I would like to grow vines in the future, partly for the grapes but also for the vine leaves, which can be stuffed.  Yesterday I heard the doorbell go when I was in the shower, and by the time I emerged, no-one was there of course, but there was a bag in my parcel box with lots of vine leaves and several bunches of tiny red grapes.  The excitement!

Ann grows the vines herself in Bulkeley (probably best known as the home of The Bickerton Poacher, but perhaps that’s just me).  The vine is a variety called Black Hamburg (Vitis vinifera Schiava Grossa) that Ann found at Wroxeter Roman Vineyard (which lies partly over the Roman site of Viroconium Cornoviorum).   Wasting no time, I tried some of the grapes, which are tiny little explosions of massive flavour, utterly delectable, and I started looking at recipes for stuffed vine leaves (Greek dolmades).

I have had a love of Greek cooking for decades, due to the emphasis on quality ingredients and simple but big and well-matched flavours that taste, above all, fresh.  Dolmades were a feature of rural cooking, usually vegetarian, quick, easy and inexpensive to prepare, but full of taste.   In the vegetarian version the flavour comes from the onion, garlic, fresh herbs (including a selection from dill, mint, parsley, thyme, coriander, bay and oregano) and the stock in which the rice is cooked (which can be herb or vegetable stock).  In a meat-based version, the flavour comes mainly from the meat and a less lavish combination of herbs, but may have more spices  (such as cumin, paprika, fennel seed, nutmeg and cinnamon) and a vegetable-, herb- or meat-based stock.  The meat used is usually minced lamb or goat.  Coastal Greece and its islands have a shrubby, Mediterranean landscape that favours livestock that will browse on low quality vegetation.

Vine leaves are available in tins or vacuum-packed online and in some supermarkets, although I’ve never tried them.  Those need no preparation.  Ann’s, being fresh, needed to be softened a little, and the conventional wisdom of various recipes suggested that placing them in just-boiled water, taken off the heat, to poach for 5 minutes should do the trick, and it worked perfectly.  The green of the leaf becomes a little yellower in the hot water, in spite of lemon juice being added, but this is normal.

I didn’t have any lamb or goat mince, and at this time of year there are not enough herbs in the garden for a fully flavoured vegetarian version, but I did have some beef mince, so went with that.  I kept the spices and herbs simple:  ground cumin, dried oregano, plus fresh marjoram and a bay leaf from the garden and a heaped teaspoon of sun-dried tomato paste.

Onion and garlic are fried with raw long-grained rice, and when the rice begins to go golden, the mince is added.  Once the mince is browned, enough water is added to reach just below the top of the mince mix, and this is simmered off, so that a stodgy mix is left, and the rice has taken in some of the water to plump up a little.  At this stage I stirred in some chilli flakes, some cassia bark (a bit like cinnamon) and some paprika, just to give it a bit more pizazz.

You will need an oven-proof dish with a lid.  Place unused vine leaves on the base (the tatty ones or the ones that are too deeply lobed to hold the stuffing), and place tomato slices over the top.  The vine leaves and tomato slices act as a lining and trivet to prevent the dolmades from burning and impart flavour into the water or stock that you pour over before putting it into the oven.  I also added lemon slices to mine.

The rice mix is then added to the surface of the softened leaves.  The leaf is laid out with the untidy side facing upwards so that when stuffed it is the smooth side that shows.  Leave enough room for rice to continue expanding as it cooks.  The vine leaf is like a sycamore leaf, an upside-down heart.  I did mine by bringing together the two lobes of the heart across the mix, bringing in the two sides to cover it, and then pulling the pointed end over the top.  Place seam-side down on the tomato layer, and when all the dolmades are in, preferably tightly fitting.  I had a vine leaf left over, so aid it over the top, just for decorative effect.

Next add a  good glug of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, then place an oven-proof plate or equivalent on top to prevent them unravelling when you add the water.  I used an all-metal pan lid.  Then pour over hot water or stock. This should reach the top of the dolmades.

Some people do theirs on the hob, some in the oven.  I did mine in a pre-heated oven at 190ºC (conventional oven).  Recipes vary on how you should proceed from here but I simply let mine cook for 40 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to make sure that the dolmades didn’t dry out.  There was still some liquid left at the end of the process, which will make an excellent stock, having incorporated not only the dolmades stuffing flavours, but the tomato and lemon from the base too.

Vegetarian dolmades are usually served slightly warm, at room temperature, or cold whereas meat ones are often served hot, but may also be warm or cold. I had mine straight out of the oven, but I cooked double what I needed to ensure that I would have half left over to try cold, and will be trying it tomorrow.  The photo at the bottom of the page shows a tidy display, but that was before I drizzled the stock over the top of the dolmades, just to add some more flavour and interest.  The tzatziki, recommended by every recipe I read, worked superbly.

Traditionally dolmades are served with lemon slices and tzatziki (mint in yogurt), and I served mine with both, as well as olives and a mixed herb salad with feta.  It was not, however, a Greek salad, but a very English garden salad with mint, buckler-leaf sorrel, little gem, sweet cicely, marjoram and a lot of lovage, with some cucumber.  I drizzled the whole lot with chilli oil and lemon juice, with lots of black pepper.

It was all a bit cobbled together but it was nevertheless a resounding success.  I would like to do it with lamb and a different combination of accompanying herbs, and I must have a go at a vegetarian version, but the beef version was really excellent and will remain in my repertoire.  Of course, I have now added a Black Hamburg vine to my must-have plant list!  A visit to the Wroxeter Roman Vineyard might not be a bad idea either 🙂

The vine leaves before being drizzled with the Chilli oil and lemon juice.

Thank you Ann!

 

Cheshire Proverbs 6: Tied by the Tooth / Llyffethr wellt

Tied by the Tooth /
Llyffethr wellt

Bridge’s number 324, page 124

Dairy cattle relaxing at 4am on a misty morning in a Churton field in June 2021

 

Sheep on Craig yr Aderyn in midwest Wales

Bridge explains that this proverb refers to the fact that “sheep and cattle will not break through fences or try to wander if the pasture of the field in which they are grazing is very good.”  He had obviously not run into any pigs, which are extreme escape artists.

Bridge wonders which came first – the English or the Welsh version of the proverb, but both Cheshire and north Wales are prominent areas for the grazing of livestock, so it could have come from either.  Certainly around many areas of the Cheshire Plain the fields are full of rich pasture favoured by cattle, and the Welsh foothills and highlands are much better for sheep that graze on much sparser vegetation.

It sounds very much like the better known proverb in which the route to the male heart is reputed to be via his stomach.

Cattle grazing below Beeston Castle

A similar proverb in Bridge is “Hanged hay never does cattle” (Bridge 159, page 64).  The word “does” in this context derives from doesome, which means “thriving,” and hanged hay for is feed bought from a supplier and will probably be supplied very meanly to the cattle because of the cost, to the detriment to the cattle.

Both proverbs also resemble another of Bridge’s Cheshire proverbs (no. 208 on p.80, and no.159, p.64):  “A doesome child paises its pasture,” meaning that the health and wellbeing of a thriving child is credit to his or her food, and perhaps, by extension, to the care of the parents that provide the food.  The word “paise” comes from late Middle English and means to be “balanced” or “poised,” but in this context it may be a mistaken reading of “praise.”

For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.

For the other proverbs in the series, click on the Cheshire Proverbs label in the right hand margin.

Dairy cows grazing in a field in Churton

Grown in my garden last week and already eaten

For no better reason than I am so chuffed that I actually grew vegetables, lettuces and cucumbers in this, the first summer after moving in.  Showing off, in other words, although none of them are ever going to win any prizes.  I don’t actually have a vegetable plot, because I have turned everything over to flowers, shrubs and a small orchard, so these were grown in pots on a small south-facing side-patio.

The marrow speaks for itself (my fourth so far).  At the back, the little yellow globes are cucumbers (I promise you).  At the front is one of many golden beetroot, which have the lovely earthy taste of purple beetroot, perhaps a little more subtle, but don’t leak colour into everything you eat.  I like them steamed or roasted.  Once steamed, they are great cold too, with vinaigrette.

The salad and vegetable plants, except for the globe cucumbers, were all bought as tiny plugs from Bellis in Holt, but my goodness they grew!  The cucumbers were bought from the Grosvenor garden centre.  All were planted in general purpose compost, with mycorrhizal and bonemeal (in a ratio of 1:3 handfuls) placed in the hole in the compost before the plant was added.  Then slow-release plant food was scattered over the top.   

I have grown herbs outside in pots for years, as well as nasturtiums.  The ones above are lollo rosso and little gem.  Oregano, marjoram, mint, thyme and particularly lovage and the fluffy bits of fennel foliage make for a really special salad.  The round nasturtium leaves and flowers are excellent in salads, and their seeds are a little like capers.  I have also grown lettuces in the past, but not on such a grand scale.  

Feeling rather pleased with myself 🙂

 

The Roman villa at Rossett #3 – The Archaeology Open Day

Chris Matthews from Archaeological Survey West, explaining the puzzle of Trench 2. Note the dark areas of the trench, which contain remains of charcoal and are evidence of burning.

The Archaeology Open Day on Saturday 18th September was a super idea.  There has been so much interest locally about the recent Roman discoveries that it was always going to be a great success.   We were there at 1300 for the 1330 talk on a nice dry day, and the atmosphere was terrific.  The event, which was free but had to be booked in advance, was sold out.  It’s not often that a very local archaeological site becomes an A-list celebrity, but this has the badge, mainly because of the excellent work done to keep the public informed via Archaeology Chester and the #RomanRossett posts (or “tweets” if you really must) on Twitter.

I had already done a lot of reading to find out more about the rural hinterland of the legionary fort at Chester.  My first posts about the villa, part 1 (a summary of research about the nature of villas in general) and part 2 (about the background to the discovery of the Rossett villa, derived from the project team’s posts and tweets) provide some background about the excavation.   All that reading and typing was a nice prelude to the day, but seeing it in the ground, being exposed by trowel and brush as we watched, brought it all superbly to life.

There’s not a lot of point to this photograph, except that I really, really fancy that vehicle on the left, which I could really see myself driving.

Everything was so beautifully arranged on the day.  I picked up my Dad from his house in Rossett and we drove through Burton towards the site, which had been given a What Three Words location (the best way of providing a location for absolutely anything).  Initially the location of the site was very wisely kept secret, to protect it against night-hawking (illegal treasure hunting).  It is lovely that the decision was made to make the location public, so that visitors could see the excavation on an Open Day and learn more about the site.

As soon as we approached the site there were little signposts helping to direct visitors to the site, and there was a one-way system set up to let people into and out of the field next to the site, efficiently managed by some great volunteers who managed to be efficient, relaxed and humorous, which must take some doing when directing the chaotic general public into a field that was to serve as a carpark 🙂  Given clear direction by the volunteers, cars lined up beautifully without blocking anyone else in, and the mood as we all headed towards the excavation was one of gentle excitement.

Our names were checked at the gate between the parking field into the excavation field (perhaps a liminal zone 🙂 ), and we were handed an information sheet, English on one side and Welsh on the other.  Tables were set up in front of the excavation, one with some of the finds that had been excavated in the previous two weeks, another set up to explain the super Portable Antiquities Scheme, another with a set of things-to-do for children (questionnaires, word games and trails).  There were lots of leaflets to collect, and there was even a coffee trailer, which was doing very good business.  In short, lots to keep early arrivals for the talk happily busy.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme, it should be mentioned, is one of British archaeology’s greatest inventions, and there is a Welsh branch, PAS Cymru.  The idea was to set up a service for registering anything that the general public found that might be of archaeological interest, and is helping gardeners, walkers and metal detectorists to not only have objects identified, but to contribute those finds to a national database of objects that has become a massive resource for researchers from prehistory to the 17th Century.  That’s quite an achievement.

The first thing that attracted the eyes (and ears) as we moved towards the trenches was a big tarpaulin covered in children with archaeological sieves, who were all having a fabulous time.  What a brilliant idea!  “Artefacts” had been hidden in heaps of earth and the children had to sieve through the heaps to find them.  Looking at the sheer joy with which children, helped by  grinning parents, were sifting through the soil to find the objects, I suspected that an awful lot of tiny would-be vets, football stars and celebrity chefs decided there and then to become archaeologists instead.

Trench 3, the villa

We were free to wander around the site until the talk began.  The site had been opened at 1000 for wanderers, and then site tours arranged for 1100, 1230, 1330, and 1500 with Roman re-enactments at 1145 and 1415.  That’s a lot of public interaction for one day!  I believe that Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager, at Wrexham Museum and our tour guide for the hour, said that there were going to be over 200 people turning up over the course of the day.

The first striking thing about the site, apart from the uncovered foundations, was how near the surface those foundations are, just a few inches down, probably less than a foot.  There were four trenches open, three at the villa itself and the fourth some distance away that is being excavated by local school children, a superb incentive.  There are plans to involve more school children from surrounding areas as the dig progresses in the future.

Trench 3, the villa

The excavation was just heading into its final week of a 21-day run, an intensive three-week opportunity to find out what’s down there.  That was a fascinating experience – all the interest of seeing what had already emerged, and a sense of the next chapter of the book missing because there was still a week to go.  Thank goodness for the project’s updates on Twitter to keep the momentum going.

The field in which the villa is located has ploughed for at least five years, which has the potential downside of disturbing upper levels, but has the upside of turning up all sorts of interesting finds that suggest the presence of something more substantial below.  It is often disturbance of this sort that suggests to archaeologists that survey, potentially followed by excavation, may be worth organizing.

I’ve talked about the background to the excavation in my previous post about the site, but Saturday was the first opportunity I had to see the site in all its glory.  It is years since I’ve done any Roman excavation but it made me want to whip out my trowel and leap in.  Super to see it all happening.

Trench 3, the villa

Trench 3 has been opened to explore the footprint of the former villa, approximately half of which has now been exposed.  It was great to see how the magnetometry survey image was being translated into real life stone foundations and floors.  Samien pottery, black-burnished ware (imported from France and Dorset respectively) had been found, as well as mortaria, a Roman coin from the date of Constantine (327-341AD), a bronze pin, animal bone and various other finds.

Trench 2, just a few feet away from the villa, and shown at the top of the post with Chris Matthews giving an impromptu talk on the subject, was an enigma at the end of week two, but two pieces of medieval pottery had been discovered.  By the end of the week, Chris Matthews reported on Twitter that it had been established that these were the remains of a medieval building with some fairly heft walls that had been robbed in the past, leaving just the foundations.  The walls retain some pieces of facing stone, which means that something of its external appearance survives.  Traces of carbonization were already visible, often a sign that a fire has contributed to at least one phase of a building’s history, and 14th Century pottery was beginning to emerge.

Trench 1, the possible bathhouse, showing a massive external wall

Trench 1 is a little farther away and lies close to a brook that circles part of the field within which the villa lies.  The proximity of the building both to a water source and to the villa would be ideal for a bathhouse, and excavations were well underway, but this has yet to be confirmed.  Some of the exterior walls were vast, the one above nearest to the camera about 1.2m thick.  A little piece of painted plaster had been found in the morning of the Open Day, so it is possible that the possible bathhouse’s internal walls were once decorated.

The project is  a good example of different interest groups, including academic, museum and commercial interests working together with amateurs, metal detectorists, and volunteer diggers to reveal the area’s past.  The dig was funded by a number of benefactors, which tells its own story of how many parties it takes to get something like this off the ground.  Hats off to all of them.

A seriously great time was had by all.  I suspect (or more precisely hope) that not only will the project receive more funding for the planned six week project next year, but that this dig will be just the beginning of a much bigger project to understand the Romano-British and prehistoric past in the Rossett-Burton area, and the poorly understood areas beyond.

For those wanting to read the previous news about the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep yourself updated

Sources of information for this post were Stephen Grenter’s 1330 talk at the site, the #RomanRossett Twitter feed, and the University of Chester’s excellent video on the subject by Howard Williams and Caroline Pudney at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVXrb45pCiw