Latest Posts

North Hinksey

The scholar navvies

In 1874 John Ruskin, art critic, Fellow of Christ Church, and Slade Professor of Fine Art, was riding out in the countryside around Oxford when he noticed the terrible state of the road that ran through the village of North Hinksey. Reflecting on this, Ruskin had the notion that a spot of road-paving would be just the thing for Oxford undergraduates. Not only would the exercise improve the village amenities but it would also teach the young men of the University something about ‘the pleasures of useful muscular work’.

Ruskin recruited about a dozen young men, mostly from Balliol College, and set to them to work under his supervision. In a letter to his friend Henry Acland, Ruskin characterized the project in terms of beauty as well as utility:

Now that country road under the slope of the hill, with its irregular line of trees sheltering it not darkening it, is capable of being made one of the loveliest things in this English world by only a little tenderness and patience, in may labour. We can get all stagnant water carried away of course, and we can make the cottages more healthy; and the walk, within little time and slight strength from Oxford, far more beautiful than any college garden can be.

In addition to paving the road, the Diggers, as they became known, were instructed by Ruskin to plant flowers along the banks and lay a village green, Ruskin also sought to encourage the villagers to tidy the moss and weeds from their cottage doorsteps.

The Diggers at work
The Diggers at work, photographed by Henry Taunt

The project attracted much mockery at the time and some University wags would stroll out to North Hinksey on an afternoon to amuse themselves by watching and teasing the amateur navvies. The mockery only increased when the scholars proved unable to lay the paving stones correctly. Even Ruskin had to admit that the only level parts of the new road were due to the efforts of his gardener, summoned from the Ruskin country house.

One of the gang, LR Farnell, writing fifty years later, recalled

As I heard that those who obeyed [Ruskin’s] call had a good chance of being invited to breakfast by him, and I was most anxious to meet the great man, I went forth and for a long afternoon shovelled away the mud under the prophet’s eye. I found the toil more tiring and less attractive than rowing and equally unproductive; for he never asked me to breakfast; and as Troy’s wall was taken at the place where a mortal had built it, so — as I heard afterwards — a farmer’s cart lost a wheel on our road at the place where my hands had laboured.

(An Oxonian Looks Back – LR Farnell)

Not all the scholar navvies were as dryly cynical about the exercise as Farnell. Some were genuinely inspired by Ruskin’s fusion of aesthetic and social concerns. Among them were Arnold Toynbee, the historian and social reformer, and Hardwicke Rawnsley, priest and founder of the National Trust. A more improbable member of the gang was Oscar Wilde. Recalling the undertaking five years later, Wilde wrote:

So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank—a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the ‘diggers’, as they called us, fell asunder.

(‘Art and the Handicraftsman’ – Oscar Wilde)

Twenty years later, Wilde had to take up a pick and shovel again, when he was sentenced to two years’ penal servitude with hard labour following his prosecution for gross indecency

Ruskins Cottage
Ruskin’s Cottage

The poor workmanship meant that the efforts of the Diggers were soon erased. The final verdict of the district surveyor was that ‘the young men have done no mischief to speak of’. The only trace of Ruskin’s efforts in North Hinksey now is the cottage known as Ruskin’s Cottage, named so not because he ever stayed there but because he admired its simple, rustic beauty.

Glastonbury Tor from Wearyall Hill

MGAA: Make Glastonbury Avalon Again

On a recent trip to Glastonbury, I noticed a couple of reports in the local newspaper about the sabotage of water management infrastructure on the Somerset Levels. One of the stations that pumps out the water from the network of drainage channels, known in Somerset as rhynes, was blown up with an IED, causing flooding of the surrounding land. In another incident, a stolen digger was used to breach one of the embankment walls of the River Parrett, again leading to extensive flooding. The press coverage was brief and all it added to the barest facts was that the Avon and Somerset Constabulary was ‘keeping an open mind’.

The enterprise of reclaiming the Somerset Levels from the element of water and then protecting them from inundation has gone on for centuries. Long ago, this area of the West Country was virtually an inland sea, and the Isle of Avalon, with Glastonbury Tor at its heights, was its dominant feature. Water and its management has a social and historical significance in this part of the world unmatched anywhere in Britain except for the Fens.

While the newspapers and the police may have been low-key in their responses, in the town I found a more unsettled reaction. There were dark mutterings in the shops and the pubs about an underground organization known by the initials of MGAA, standing for Make Glastonbury Avalon Again. As an outsider, I had no idea what that meant or how the group was linked to those acts of sabotage.

I tried making some discreet enquiries but was met with incomprehension, silence and, in some cases, hostility. And whoever and whatever the group was, it had no digital presence: no social media accounts, no email addresses, no search results. It was a chance meeting in a café on Glastonbury High Street that eventually brought me into contact with them. I was reading, or should I say re-reading, my battered copy of Geoffrey Ashe’s King Arthur’s Avalon, when I heard a low voice say, ‘He will return’.

I looked up and saw a bearded young man looking at me from a nearby table.
‘Geoffrey Ashe?’ I said, knowing that Ashe had died earlier this year and wondering if he hadn’t heard the news.
He shook his head. ‘No, the king. Restore Avalon and the king will return.’
‘Ah, you mean King Arthur.’ I said.
He smiled the smile of the initiate and rose from his chair, pausing by my table only to pass me a small card.
‘Wait a minute,’ I said, but he only laughed and left the café.

I sprang up from my chair, about to follow him, but then remembered I hadn’t paid for my coffee. By the time I’d done so he’d have been out of sight. I sat down again and looked at what he’d given me. It was the size of a business card, matt black, and on one side were the letters MGAA in silver. On the other, in smaller type, the following: ‘All written communications to be left in the copy of Dion Fortune’s Avalon of the Heart in the quiet room of the Magdalene Almshouses.’ At last I had an entry point.

Shapwick Heath nature reserve
Shapwick Heath nature reserve. Somerset

The Royal Magdalene Almshouses are attached to St Margaret’s Chapel on Magdalene Street in Glastonbury. It took me only a few minutes to walk there. I found the room and the book, and left a note there, asking for a meeting with the MGAA leadership. I told them that I had to leave the town in a couple of days, that I would like to learn more about their campaign, and assured them that I would keep their identities secret. I gave them my mobile number and my hotel address.

There were no other notes left in the book, which I took as a sign that it was checked regularly. As I left I couldn’t help scrutinizing the gardener working on a flowerbed. Was he an agent of MGAA? Was it his job to check the book? He looked up from his plants, apparently aware that I was examining him, coughed, and spat into the soil. I decided not to approach him but left the almshouses and waited impatiently for a response.

It came the following morning. When I went downstairs to breakfast, the receptionist called out to me. ‘A grubby-looking gentleman left this for you early this morning,’ she said frostily, holding out an envelope between her thumb and forefinger, as if she thought she might catch something from it. It was clear at that moment that my reputation among the hotel staff had taken a tumble. I was now known as an associate of ‘grubby-looking gentlemen’. The envelope too was grubby and creased, as if it had been carried by hand across fields and along tracks. I thanked her and sat down at my breakfast table to read the letter it contained.

The message was short and to the point. I was invited to meet two representatives of MGAA at noon in a room above an esoteric bookshop on Glastonbury High Street. They were aware of my blog (this blog) and appeared to assume that while I mightn’t be wholly sympathetic, I wouldn’t be hostile. It was impossible to know if that was true or not because I still knew nothing of their purposes.

I arrived at the bookshop at the appointed time and, after showing the letter of invitation to the woman at the counter, was taken to an upstairs room. The curtains were drawn and the only light came from a single candle. There was a sweet scent of incense and something more earthy beneath it. A man and a woman, both young, perhaps in their twenties, I guessed, sat on a sofa covered with a red and green throw. I say, ‘guessed’, because they were both wearing ski masks. And both were dressed as if for action, clad in black sweaters, cargo pants, and boots.

I was invited to sit in a chair opposite the pair.
‘So you want to know more about us?’ the woman said.
‘Yes, I do.’
‘So you can attack us?’
‘No.’
‘So you can shop us to the police?’
‘Certainly not!’
‘Then why? Do you want to join us?’
‘Well, if I knew what you’re trying to do…’
‘And then what? When you know what we’re trying to do?’
‘I don’t know.’ This wasn’t going how I’d planned or expected. I was the one being questioned.
The woman looked at the man. ‘Why are we here? What’s the point?’
‘We need to start communicating our aims,’ he said. ‘The mainstream media won’t take us seriously at the moment so we have to start somewhere.’
‘Yes, somewhere,’ she said, looking at me. I could imagine the withering look concealed under her ski-mask.
The man took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. ‘We’ve prepared a statement. I’ll read it first and then you can ask questions.’ He cleared his throat.

‘The world is in crisis. Nature is in crisis. Our island is in crisis. Humanity has been diverted from its true path and lost touch with its true nature. In ancient times, St Collen was invited by Gwynn ap Nudd, king of the fairy folk, to visit his castle on Glastonbury Tor. This Christian fanatic betrayed the king’s hospitality by scattering so-called holy water throughout the castle, causing it and its inhabitants to vanish. The human race and the fairy race were split asunder, and Gwynn ap Nudd and his court left Glastonbury.
‘Then, in later times, the waters that surrounded the Isle of Avalon were drained, banishing the water fairies, including Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. Avalon was desacralized, its borders erased. But it endured as a myth and a spiritual locus. Even the Christians had to recognize that eventually. Now, at this moment of existential crisis, it is time to restore the physical Avalon, to bind it once again to the Avalon of the heart, ushering in a new era.
Make Glastonbury Avalon Again!’

Shapwick Heath nature reserve
Shapwick Heath nature reserve, Somerset

We were all silent for a moment. I felt the onus to say something was on me. ‘One of your supporters said to me yesterday, “Restore Avalon and the king will return”. I thought he was talking about King Arthur but I suppose he meant Gwynn ap Nudd.’
‘Both kings will return,’ the man said. ‘The human king and the fairy king. Two races of beings, two kings, you see.’
‘But when Arthur does return he’ll have to change his ways,’ the woman said. ‘All that toxic masculinity, that controlling relationship with Guinevere, that phallic sword-waving — that’s over. He’ll have to understand that the Earth goddess reigns over all kings, be they human or fairy. Both Gwynn ap Nudd and Arthur must acknowledge her primacy.’
‘And so,’ I said, ‘your group blew up the pumping station and breached the dyke with the aim of restoring Avalon by turning Glastonbury into an island again?’
‘Yes,’ they said in unison.
‘And once that’s achieved, everything else will follow?’
‘Yes,’ the woman said. ‘The cosmic balance will have been restored, the sacred waters will surround the island, the kings and their courts will return.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘We must go.’
‘How many of you are there?’
‘Enough,’ the man said. ‘And we have to be careful who we admit. There are police spies, NFU spies, and Natural England spies all trying to infiltrate us. At first, we wanted to build a mass movement. We set up a website and social media accounts. We had t-shirts and caps printed with the MGAA initials. But we soon realized we’d all be rounded up and arrested if we were open about it. This sacred work must be the work of a vanguard, a few totally dedicated people.’
‘What’s next for you?’ I said.
‘Those incidents were just practice runs. The real campaign starts this year.’
‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll get arrested — or lynched by farmers whose land you’ve submerged?’
He shook his head. ’We’re on the right side of history.’
‘And we have the goddess and the fairies on our side,’ the woman added.

I had to wait in the room when they left so that I couldn’t follow them. I heard them lock the door behind them. It was twenty minutes before the bookshop owner let me out. Feeling quite light-headed, I walked through the town and up to the summit of the Tor. I stared out across the Somerset Levels. All that flat land waiting to be inundated. I tried to imagine what it looked like back in the days of Avalon. And I wondered if the two kings, Arthur and Gwynn ap Nudd, were waiting and watching too.

I’ve had no more contact with the MGAA people since that meeting. But I’m checking the Somerset news sites every week for more reports of water management sabotage. Can they really make it happen?

Salisbury Giant

Land of the giants

At this time the island of Britain was called Albion. It was uninhabited except for a few giants. It was, however, most attractive, because of the delightful situation of its various regions, its forests and the great number of its rivers, which teemed with fish; and it filled Brutus and his comrades with a great desire to live there. When they had explored the different districts, they drove the giants whom they had discovered into the caves in the mountains…
Brutus then called the island Britain from his own name, and his companions he called Britons…

(The History of the Kings of Britain – Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe)

Giants have been part of Britain’s national consciousness ever since we had a national consciousness. Three centuries after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book was published, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, later used by Shakespeare as the key source for many of his history plays, claimed that the giant race that Brutus found here originated when a giant called Albion, a son of the god Neptune, settled here. As Brutus was to do later, he named the island after himself.

When Brutus and his Trojans took control of Albion, they didn’t, according to Geoffrey, exterminate the indigenous giants but instead sent them off into a kind of internal exile. Given how many tales of giants there are in Welsh folklore, those mountain caves might have been in Wales. And when the Anglo-Saxons arrived centuries later, they seem to have picked up on the notion of Britain as a habitation of giants, attributing the impressive Neolithic and Roman ruins they found to the giants’ handiwork.

Geoffrey of Monmouth also ascribes the original construction of Stonehenge to giants, though it was Merlin who brought the stones to their current location. In a passage in The History of the Kings of Britain, Merlin explains to the British king, Aurelius Ambrosius the origin of the stones and his plan to transfer them from Ireland to Britain:

These stones are connected with certain secret religious rites and they have various properties which are medicinally important. Many years ago the Giants transported them from the remotest confines of Africa and set them up in Ireland when they inhabited that country. Their plan was that, whenever they should fall ill, baths should be prepared at the foot of the stones; for they used to pour water over them and to run this water into baths in which their sick were cured.

(The History of the Kings of Britain – Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe)

The king appoints his brother, Uther Pendragon (the father of King Arthur) to lead the expedition to Ireland and provides him with an army of 15,000 men. Eventually, after trials and tribulations, and with the considerable assistance of Merlin’s magic, the stones are transported to Britain and re-erected on Salisbury Plain.

Salisbury Giant

The gigantic thread is also woven into British folklore in tales such as Jack the Giant Killer and Jack and the Beanstalk. One indication of the appeal of giants to the national imagination is that the popularity of figures of giants in the parades and pageants of the medieval guilds. Many cities and large towns had their own giants, who were paraded through the streets on feast days. One of these giants survives, living out his dotage in the Salisbury Museum, along with his hobby horse sidekick.

The Salisbury Giant is first recorded in 1570, being paraded in the Salisbury tailor’s pageant. This event took place twice year, on 23 June, the eve of St John the Baptist’s day, the patron saint of tailors, and on 15 July, when the city celebrated the removal of St Osmund’s relics from Old Sarum to Salisbury Cathedral. His companion, Hob-nob, the hobby horse, gets his first mention in 1572. At some point, the Salisbury Giant got his name Christopher, after the saint who was also something of a giant, according to medieval writers. Christopher was designed to be carried by one man standing inside his wooden frame, and was able to sway, lean, and turn. Hob-nob, also with a man in his frame, was much more mobile, chasing those people in the crowds who taunted him, snapping at them with his wooden jaws lined with nails.

The Reformation led to the suppression of these Catholic processions with their pagan elements. Giants were treated as just another material expression of the old religion and destroyed accordingly. But somehow, the Salisbury Giant survived. In the 1600s, when the old guilds had been re-formed as trade companies, the Tailor’s pageant was revived, though with a strictly secular character. The procession continued on into the early 1800s, but then fell away, being re-staged only on great national occasions such as royal jubilees. In 1873, the curator of the Salisbury Museum bought the Giant and Hon-nob from the last two surviving members of the Tailors’ Company for thirty shillings.

Salisbury Giant
Victorian photograph of the Salisbury Giant with pageant members © Salisbury Museum

The Giant cuts an impressive figure in his current home, standing twelve feet high, clad in his red robe and green headdress, Hob-nob at his side. Of course, the Ship of Theseus paradox applies here. Over the centuries, the Salisbury Giant has had many, possibly all, of his parts replaced. Does that mean he’s really the same giant as the medieval one? Let’s leave the metaphysics to one side. What the visitor will see when they visit the museum is a figure which has been continuously mended and amended since he was first made by those guildsmen. The parts may not all be original, but it’s the same Giant.

The oldest part of him is certainly his head, which cannot be precisely dated, but may originate from the earliest times of his existence. Then there is the wooden frame of his body, which was certainly repaired by a local firm of coach builders in 1850. His costume is recent, dating from 1982, though his baldric and wooden sword are much earlier than this.

There have been stirrings of a giant revival in recent years. The British Isles Giant Guild was formed in 1993 to ‘promote the building, operating, and maintaining of carried Dancing or Pageant giants in the British Isles’. As for the real giants, they haven’t been seen for centuries. In case you think they are all myth, legend and nonsense, the Megalithomania website has a Top Ten listing of giant skeletons unearthed in Britain, the remains, or so it’s claimed, of that ancient race of giants.

[The information about the Salisbury Giant is gleaned from the pamphlet The Giant and Hob Nob by Hugh Shortt and John Chandler, available from the Salisbury Museum.]

Witches Well Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s weird sisters

FIRST WITCH:
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

SECOND WITCH:
I’ll give thee a wind.

FIRST WITCH:
Th’ art kind.

THIRD WITCH:
And I another.

(The Tragedie of Macbeth – William Shakespeare)

In a corner of Edinburgh Castle’s grand esplanade, there’s a small memorial that’s easy to miss unless you’re looking out for it. This drinking fountain with its bronze relief is a modest thing compared to the military monuments that line the rest of the esplanade. It was the brainchild of Sir Patrick Geddes, a man of many parts, who distinguished himself in the fields of sociology and town planning. Geddes employed his friend, the symbolist painter John Duncan, to design the memorial, called the Witches’s Well, and it was completed in 1894.

John Duncan
John Duncan © estate of John Duncan

Both men were at the centre of the Celtic Revival movement and the memorial embodies a romantic conception of witchcraft and magic, in which occult powers can used for good as well as evil. The relief depicts the heads of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, and his daughter, Hygeia, the goddess of health and cleanliness, a vision of witchcraft as a combined form of natural and supernatural healing. The serpent that curls around their heads, and from which the well’’s water once flowed (sadly dry now), ‘has the dual significance of evil and wisdom’ (according to the plaque, added in 1912).

The siting of the memorial here was not random. The castle’s esplanade is where several hundred supposed witches, mostly women but some men, were strangled and then burnt at the stake during the Scottish witch-hunting craze (roughly from 1590 to 1670). Scotland was not exceptional in this holy war. But its pursuit of these devil’s helpers was more wide-ranging and severe than that carried out in England

Witches Well Edinburgh

If there was something different about witch-hunting in Scotland, there was different too about Scottish witches. Shakespeare knew this when he created the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. They embody an Englishman’s idea of Scotland’s particular occult otherness. The Scottish historian John Hill Burton wrote in 1852:

Our Scottish witch is a far more frightful being than her coadjutor on the south side of the Tweed. In a people so far behind their neighbours in domestic organization, poor and hardy, inhabiting a country of mountains, torrents, and rocks where cultivation was scanty, accustomed to gloomy mists and wild storms, every impression must necessarily assume a corresponding character. Superstitions, like funguses and vermin, are existences peculiar to the spot where they appear, and are governed by its physical accidents.

Later historians dismiss this notion that Scottish witchcraft springs from a distinctive landscape and climate. They point instead to differences in social structures, religion, and legal systems to account for this contrast between Scotland and England.

Something else that was different about Scotland was that one of its kings took a very personal interest in the identification and prosecution of witches. James VI (who became James I of England when the crowns were united in 1603) had not evidenced much interest in witchcraft in the early years of his reign. But in 1590, when James and his bride Anne of Denmark, were returning to Scotland form Scandinavia, their ship was battered with such terrible storms that James, Anne, and their advisors came to believe that the cause was witchcraft. The Danish authorities launched an immediate investigation and six witches were tried and executed in Copenhagen within months.

James VI church-ship model
James VI church-ship model © National Museums Scotland

Once he was safely home, James adopted a Danish practice to signify his gratitude for his safe homecoming. The Danes would make ship-models as offerings to God when they were delivered from tempests at sea. James adopted this custom and had such a model made. It was originally displayed in a church in the port of Leith, where he and Anne disembarked. It can now be seen in the National Museum of Scotland.

Later that year a coven of sixty witches, mostly women and from a range of social classes, was discovered operating in the county of Haddingtonshire. They became known as the North Berwick witches. Agnes Sampson, a midwife and natural healer, was identified as the ring-leader and confessed under torture that she and the other witches had caused the storm that assailed James’ ship as it approached Scotland.

It was revealed that some 200 witches, including many from Denmark, had sailed in sieves to the church in the coastal town of North Berwick on Halloween night in 1590. They had met with the devil there, who told them to plot the king’s destruction. This enmity was personal. James, according to the devil himself, was his greatest enemy on earth.

James VI and Anne of Denmark
James VI and I, and Anne of Denmark, with family tree in centre with portrait of Prince Henry © Trustees of the British Museum

Following her confession, Agnes was brought before the king at Holyrood Palace. It seems that James was in a sceptical frame of mind when he began questioning Agnes. If the reports are to be believed, this scepticism only made her indignant. Determined to prove her powers to James, she took him to one side and told him some details of his wedding night conversation with Anne in Oslo. Whatever it was that she told James, it shook him. His scepticism was replaced by fear and a determination to root out witchcraft in Scotland.

Agnes and many of her co-conspirators were strangled and then burnt on the castle esplanade. The rest suffered a similar fate in Haddingtonshire. The witch hunts were to continue in earnest for another eighty years or so. His experiences had turned James into something of an authority on the nature and uses of witchcraft. In 1597, he published a scholarly work on the subject, Daemonologie.

According to the book, the devil was the leader of fallen angels, who had become demons. It was these demons who granted the witches their powers and so enabled them to practice black magic. This occult conspiracy could only be opposed by faith in God and the God-given powers of monarchs — like James. This image of James as a man committed to combating the devil bolstered to his campaign to inherit the English throne when Elizabeth died.

I said earlier that witch-hunting in this period was a craze. There’s some truth in that and yet looking at what happened in Scotland, I’m also struck by how methodical the Edinburgh authorities were in their investigations. Accusations of witchcraft were taken very seriously and investigated very thoroughly. And these were no kangaroo courts: the historian, Christina Larner, a pioneer in the study of European witchcraft, estimated that about half the 600 people who were tried for witchcraft in the High Court at Edinburgh were acquitted.

But local justice seems to have been much rougher than that practiced in the courts of Edinburgh. In 1727, the last person to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland, Janet Horne, was judged guilty by the local sheriff and then stripped, smeared with tar, paraded through the town on a barrel, and burned alive by her neighbours.