Archive for November, 2012

Having missed visiting Flag Fen in the spring, which is a relative concept in East Anglia, I had been nominating it for a weekend trip for several months. Bear had it fixed in his mind that the site was closed because it had in fact been closed the one time we tried before, but the overall operation itself was still working just fine. Finally, not unlike Chinese water torture, repeated mentioning worked.

When we arrived, we were informed that Flag Fen is no longer considered an associated attraction with English Heritage and so didn’t get the discount, but at 5 pounds apiece that was hardly the greatest hardship. We were approached by Ian, one of the workers who was a volunteer tour guide and, in character, volunteered to be our tour guide. As we walked out to the grounds, we chatted about where he was from (Aberdeen, Scotland) and where he had gone to school (St. Andrews) and where he hadn’t been (Orkney, John o’Groat, and lot of other places).

As we reached the site, we stopped at a replica of an iron Age hut which had several key things going for it–1) it was out of the stiff wind, 2) protected from the drizzle that was threatening to come on, and 3) it had a fire going.

Warm, dry, protected–yes!

For bonus points, a fire

Inside, huddled around the fire, Ian the Tour Guide explained the history of how the Flag Fen site had been discovered by an archaeologist, Frances Pryor, who hadn’t actually been at work at the time. He had been on his way home from work, stopping at the pub at the Dog and Doublet when he tripped in the darkened conditions and since he happened to have a trowel in his pocket, like any good archaeologist, was able to dig up a bit and realized that he had literally stumbled on something. What that something was would have to wait though for better conditions and more light so it was over a week before he was able to return with reinforcements.

Archaeologist on a suspended platform to work on the site

What they found, while undeniably important, is still under a bit of debate –not for its importance, but for the preciseness of interpretation. The higher raised points above the marshy water level of the fen were like islands. If you see a place name ending with “-ey” it generally indicates that it’s an island, like Northey. (The name Flag Fen is for the flag flowers which grow thickly in this area of the fenland–I think that might be some kind of iris, but don’t quote me.)

The marshy fen

What Pryor discovered was that there was a causeway of timbers, piled up and built on, that formed a path running for nearly a mile through the fen with a raised oval platform in the middle where (the theory is) religious ceremonies were performed.

Because of the nature of the peat soil, the timbres were preserved and they didn’t decay in the same way that most wooden artifacts do, which allowed for excavation and examination. What they found within the fen was even more interesting than the mysterious wooden causeway. There were numerous metal objects (swords, daggers, and  jewelry) that had been purposefully dropped into the watery fen. Archaeologists theorize that the area was a center of religious significance, possibly taking over in significance from Stonehenge, which wasn’t as active in the later Bronze age.

Shears with a wooden carrying case

A receptacle for makeup with a tool for crushing, mixing and spreading.

A modern replica of a woven eel trap, used in the fen to catch…eels

Bronze age remnants of an eel trap

Some of the swords and daggers had been deliberately broken which is also a matter of speculation, either that they were deliberate offerings and had been broken to prevent them from being retrieved or used by others, or that there had been flaws in the making and they were offered for burial as one would bury a stillborn child.

Ian took us around through the museum and then through a door with a sign on it that said that it was a door back in time to the Bronze Age. It seemed like a fair enough sign, but I chuckled a little…until I opened the door.

The room was set directly over the ancient timber causeway as it had been uncovered so that you look down through the large square hole and into the timbers. The room all around is painted in a mural that shows the Bronze Age landscape with plants and features authentic to the time. Each wall shows the landscape in one of the four seasons with summer directly ahead so that as you stand on the viewing platform you’re looking intot he horizon with your feet pointed on the timber causeway, walking toward one of the raised islands. It is literally a window back in time, planting you squarely in the middle of the fen.

Looking down into the exposed area of the site so the original timbers are exposed, then up at the mural of the timber causeway stretching ahead as it would have appeared in Bronze Age times.

Every so often the overhead sprinkler system comes on to water down the exposed section of causeway to keep it damp and preserved, kind of like the produce section at Publix. But a lot, lot cooler.

On the walk back, we passed the herd of Soay sheep again and Tour Guide Ian told us that they had been specially brought in by Dr. Frances Pryor. Research indicated that the inhabitants had been very industrious sheep herders (as many as 100 per person possibly) and they had quite a little operation going on based on the long straight patterns of fossilized sheep droppings which indicated they had been driven back and forth in straight lines between various dry areas.

Soay sheep, not too impressed with you

The Soay sheep with their brown wool and curling horns were particular to the an island out past the Outer Hebrides and hadn’t been interbred, so they are most likely a closer representation of the sheep from Bronze Age times. (Their wool naturally drops off, which according to Ian makes them look really wretched during the molting season, but they breed nicely and there should be lambs in the spring.)

So ugly it’s adorable (photo from web, no lambs were on site when we visited)

The visitor center/tea shop, located in a building on stilts directly above the fen

Despite a less than enthusiastic tea shop girl, we had a really nice little snack with a blueberry muffin, brownie bar and a cookie to go and then took off for Longthorpe Tower.

To be continued…


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I’ve been very busy with international travel to Europe and Asia this month (not quite as exciting as that sounds), so I’m behind on current events, but in the mean time here’s another installment in that popular series of things that just make you pause and scratch your head for a moment. The common theme here is that these are all situations I’ve stumbled across while frequenting public bathrooms around the United Kingdom.

This nifty little unit can be found in the bathroom at Portchester Castle (or rather, in the public car park bathroom). It’s a 3-in-1 unit where you can wash your hands, get soap and activate a dryer all at one station. Provided you can make it work. Which I couldn’t.

A notice found on the inside of a bathroom stall door, just in case your Mom wasn’t there to remind you.

In the bathroom near the city wall and Roman amphitheater in Chester — I have no idea what that low square basin with a grate on it is for–maybe to scrape and wash boots?

Just a word to the proprietors of the Tomb of the Eagles in the Orkney Islands — if your bathroom has low lighting and you also use pink toilet paper for some reason known only to God, then unsuspecting women will think they are hemorrhaging from every orifice. Thank you.

Someone really, really wanted that toilet to flush (the button was crushed so badly that you could only see tiny pieces of the mechanism) — duly noted though, this was somewhere in Corsica.

The women’s toilets, symbolically speaking — Creswell Crags

In the bathroom at the Priory, a pub in downtown St. Neots. It’s a curling iron you can feed with coins. I swear, I have never once been out for dinner, or what have you, and thought, “Wow, my hair just isn’t as bouncy as it ought to be. I sure hope there’s a curling iron around here somewhere.”

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Given the state of work that week, I didn’t begin to plan our Saturday expedition until late Friday night which is generally not the recommended approach. What with my mental state, plus my grandmother’s sudden (but not entirely unexpected) passing that week, things were more than a little up in the air, but it seemed that getting out for a little would be good for me so I consulted the English Heritage map, now bristling with map pins, and selected a relatively untouched area.

It seemed that most of the items on the list were pretty well off the beaten track, so we set out with the understanding that we might have to give up on some of them, but we’re getting much better at preparing for these things by getting multiple maps.

The first stop was Sutton Scarsdale, the ruins of a beautiful Georgian mansion from the 1700s.

The back of Sutton Scarsdale

Front, columned with Corinthian columns (no, not Corinthian leather)

It had fallen on hard times, like a lot of the great country houses did following World War I (viz. Downton Abbey, season 2), and they tried to auction it off in 1919 but couldn’t find a buyer. Much of the interior was sold and some relocated to America.

You can see the plastering around the fireplaces on the first and also the second floor

The house had grown up over time as it expanded and abutted the parish church itself. While we were there, someone was practicing ringing the bells and the sound of them echoed over the ruins.

The not-so-abandoned church

On our way to the next stop, we passed a farm store and I’m a little too addicted to farm stores considering that they don’t really cater to the vegetarian side of me, except for cheese and crisps. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

If Chicken Run had been about sheep instead of chickens, I think this guy would’ve been the star.

Our next stop was Hob Hurst’s House, a burial mound and cairn on Beeley Moor. Hob Hurst was a local supernatural creature, a goblin, who supposedly lived in the ruins which had been built by either an elf or a giant (which gives you quite a range of possibility). We saw where a lot of cars were pulled over so that was a clue but there was only one very small and fairly unofficial sign at the beginning.

Bear forging ahead across the moor

We hiked a ways, and then a ways more, and then there was a lot of mud and a few fences you had to climb over.

Stone steps over the fence, reminiscent of Scotland

Bear picked me some heather in lieu of flowers and I carried them the rest of the way back to the car (they’re in the kitchen now)

And then there was some more hiking until you reached the crest of the hill and we found a fellow hiker who confirmed that Hob Hurst’s House was around the path to the right, which gives you a real feeling of elation to have gone so far with so few clues and somehow miraculously found this remote spot.

The mound of the cairn (or maybe you’d call it a ditch surrounding it)

The site was known for centuries but a farmer opened the chamber in the 1800s and found human bones and charcoal remnants as well.

The English Heritage signage from the site — it gives you an idea of what the site looks like from above

The site is unusual in that the chamber is square and the only one of its kind in England. It was also the first site protected under the Ancient Monuments Act and is marked with stone bollards put up in Queen Victoria’s time.

VR signifies Victoria Regina

The hike back went much more quickly because we actually knew where we were going and it seemed safe to venture off on a side path in the forest which ran parallel.

Bear in his natural environment

It reminded Bear a little of the strip of pine tree forest that we hiked out at Holkham Beach in Norfolk when we first moved here.

We were fully in the Peak District by now and had a really nice drive over to the next site, the Nine Ladies stone circle, which also was not remotely marked. We sort of knew where it was on the map and saw a hiking trail, so emboldened by our success with Hob Hurst’s House, we simply parked and headed off.

The hike was really beautiful and took my mind off the fact that we had no idea if we were going in the right direction at all. We passed a lot of stone ruins and I think what used to be a stone quarry.

A peek through the trees, down across pastures and to the village in the vale

“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began” — J.R.R. Tolkien

We were just reaching a point at which I thought we might be in the next shire with no sign of the stone circle when Bear’s ears perked up and he saw signs of hiker activity ahead. We came to the crest of the ridge we had been winding up and came into a clearing where other groups of hikers had stopped to rest and there were the nine stones in a circle. I’m not saying that a beam of light came down through the trees and hit them, but…well, that’s actually exactly what happened.

The Nine Ladies stone circle on Stanton Moor

Legend had it that the stones were women who had been turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath, and a 10th stone at a distance from the circle had been the fiddler, also turned to stone. (We saw other people too and it’s always a little funny to go to places like this and see people on their smart phones, tapping away.)

Hikers who were finishing up a rest and a snack as we arrived. Several other couples and groups came in at the same time and then all dispersed as we left, melting away like magic.

It felt like something of a small miracle that we had struck out on an unmarked hiking path and found the stone circle. After not working out for a few weeks, it also felt like I’d stretched every muscle in my legs and a few that I didn’t know I had.

People had tied ribbons, trinkets and symbols to the trees around the grove (I’d seen something like that at the Avebury stone circle complex also) — the red ribbon had writing on it, “Keith if love could have saved you then you would be here now Mum” and it made me wonder who would have hiked so far to leave this memento.

On the hike back, we came past what we now knew was a part of the original stone quarry and saw a band filming a music video. It really wasn’t what I expected to see after hiking through the Derbyshire hills with a head full of thoughts about stone circles and barrows.

The cameraman was down on the ground on the other side of the wall, shooting up. We said hi to the other band members waiting their turn to be filmed.

The final stop was thankfully marked and at a sheep farm where you could park and then pay a one pound fee to cross the land to reach the stone circle and barrow site. We actually walked through the farm and right into the midst of a transaction involving some sheep being loaded into a trailer.

Another couple had arrived and parked right before we did and we were just a few yards behind them the whole way. It seemed like a little bit of a  time loop because we would hopefully be just like them someday, still active and going out to see and do things.

Neville and Claire?

The Low Arbor Stone Circle is imposing, even though all the 40+ stones have been knocked down. At the center of the ring were some other stones which formed what is known as a cove which is only found at more sacred henge sites.

The Arbor Low stone circle which originally had over 40 stones (all lying flat now) surrounding a central complex of stones called a cove.

Within sight of the henge. is a double barrow known as Gib Hill. The base layer is a long barrow and then a second mound had been built atop the first.

Bear on the barrow

Being well after 3 p.m. then and having hiked a lot more miles than we had planned on, Bear gave me the vote and I said we should call it a day and get some food before heading home.

We wound up in Derby for dinner at the Westfield Centre which was an amazingly nice and very modern mall. In fact, it was the only place I’ve been to in England that really looked like what I think of as a mall with multiple stories, very clean modern stores and an excessive amount of consumerism which was an interesting and very opposite sort of way to end the day.

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