I often tell you about the land and the stories hidden within it.

Now I will  tell you about the land inside me and the story hidden in my inner land. I believe we all feel a resonance with the land because it resonates with something within us. I have grown up within the limestone boned valleys of Bath and later of Stroud, Gloucester. These valleys all work well with me, they are introverted, nookish, elusive, deep and variously individual. They get round their difficulties in a long, pondering, seemingly delayed but eventually surprisingly sensible route. They are prone to damp and to copious waters spouting below the ridge line. I am fascinated by springs and streams, and it appears I have naturally ended up in a landscape where it is impossible not to come upon one. It is their utter vulnerability but also adaptability to what we do to their waters that is fascinating.  I know about being vulnerable. In my teens I spent most of my years at secondary school being bullied and not really having any real friends, though outside school in my street I did have two friends but too often I experienced even that friendship as no better than dust. I became used to feeling anxious, isolated and estranged from my own kind. But I no longer knew who or what a friend was. I was subject to betrayal and bullying humiliates the individual into feeling there is something wrong and therefore ill-fitting about themselves. So I grew into my teens feeling I was odd and that nobody would really want to be friends with me, afterall I was the odd one who hid away in the library, hiding in books I could escape away into and possessed an imaginative, novel way of thinking about things that was definitely odd. I was not happy with this pigeonhole of having to be the odd misfit but nobody was lifting any finger to help at school, so I got on with it.

Saying ‘I got on with it’ though is not true, I struggled continually at my work which seemed to confirm by my failure to understand what I was being told to do that I was never going to succeed and this was made all the worse by my very low confidence. The only place to go to where I could be free of all this crushing exclusion was Nature and my imagination. I could go back in time in history or invent other worlds to inhabit. I could climb up a tree and be somebody else. But really I hated feeling the way I did, I wanted to feel confidant in my work, I wanted real friends, I wanted far more than feeling like I had to conform and pretend to be what others wanted but already in my teens the world was closing its doors on me. I was fortunate though that my parents cared about me and through the Bath young people’s theatre I found out that my seemingly oddness could be put to good use, and as well nobody minded at all that I was rather eccentric, they didn’t feel they had to bully me and instead rather remarkably people were being friends with me (some of these people were girls, something had to be right for them to like me). This helped me get through my last two years at secondary school where my confidence was always going up and down, and sometimes never really getting up but staying at a level that didn’t attract too much attention, like a shy nervous humming. By the time I had come to the end of this ordeal and done my exam I felt I been completely let down and did not want to stay in mainstream education anymore. I had worked very hard at my work with much anxiety fuelling it that I would inevitably fail. The bullying still continued perpetrated by one individual who was in all honesty just a sad loser. I didn’t care about it much anymore, it was the normal state of affairs and the adults put in charge of us didn’t seem to be able to do much either. I was very enthusiastic about school ending for good.

By the age of seventeen I had transformed myself into a hippy; the bright colours, the long locks, the free spiritedness, the excess of bare feet all of it chimed with how I saw myself breaking free of the arbitrary, limiting, uncaring and excluding cage I had been stuck inside. I drank up music like the Beatles, the Average White Band and Pink Floyd; I bought a DVD of all the Rhubarb and Custard episodes from the seventies (a childrens TV animation those distinctive art style wobbles continually on the screen as its main protagonists Rhubarb the dog and Custard the cat tried to do silly things) and read the Moomins dreaming I would become a vagabond. I would finally escape!

Well that was now just over eleven years ago and I still carry wounds from that miserable time at school. I still have times when my self-confidence just doesn’t want to have to deal with the world and I feel still constrained by my past like a life sucking shadow round the corner. Sometimes I still want to disappear away and have nobody disturb my protective shell. At least now I have more confidence in myself and feel I am included far more than I ever was before; I am not so afraid of people anymore now I have learned that they generally do not harbour monsters behind their faces. I have come a long way from my seventeen year old self, I could have told him that he would finally end up in Stroud where there is a natural ecosystem for strange, imaginative people with an inclination for their nonconformity in most matters.

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(Swallowhead spring, Avebury, somewhere aged eighteen)

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Haresfield Beacon or Ring Hill has a thunderous panorama out over the Severn Vale. It is the bald spur of an Iron Age promontory fort that defines this ridge as it juts out from Standish Woods. Broadbarrow Green is the site of the earthworks that cut the hillfort off from the rest of the hill and make it secure. These earthworks I have not investigated. They would lie now in the two large arable fields Broadbarrow Green has become. Once Haresfield Common which is now the windswept grassland spur looking down to the combe of Standish was also Broadbarrow Green. The common lands covered all of this ridge where the Iron Age promontory fort lies. Fisher in Notes and Recollections of Stroud tells of how Broadbarrow Green was enclosed in 1820 by the lord of the manor in Haresfield and thereof a much loved tract of rough common land was cut out of its countless generations of use by the folk around.

What remained is what we have today and at least we can celebrate the survival of Haresfield Common with the Beacon, so that you can make a good ridge walk all the way from Stonehouse up Doverow Hill, to Randwick through Standish Woods and to the gaping wide skies of the Beacon.  Around the escarpment under Broadbarrow Green is Clift Wood and Hallidays Wood. Examining the 1838 Map Hallidays Wood was marked as the Common Wood. I thought this was amazing, the common open to use by the tenants of the manor as embedded in the custom of the manor, spread over the whole angle of the hill! I considered that the land here must have been regarded as not worth cultivating and infertile to crops. The soil is thin brash and quite unpromising in the past for anything other than rough grazing among gorse and juniper bushes. Though there are now arable fields slotted into Broadbarrow Green but it is only because of petroleum based chemicals that the otherwise poor soil has been kicked by heavy doses of nitrogen into yielding anything. It is this poor soil though in its unfertilised state that yields a  great diversity of wild flowers and grasses that carpet the limestone common. We can all observe for ourselves how England has become frighteningly eroded over the past fifty years of this diversity of flora and fauna. Hugely nitrogen soaked fields become surrounded by angry nettles, thuggish burdock (wonderful leaves for keeping butter cool while bringing it to market), masses of cleavers and the kind of plants that will overwhelm the old plants that once stitched Englands fields and ways together at the seams.

Haresfield Beacon always feels like a bleak watching post in winter gazing like a grey headed ram over the damp river plain and to the shadows of the Forest of Dean. The promontory fort seems to be part of an interesting Iron Age defensive system that harnessed the ridge from Dyrham up to near Breedon. Here in these valleys the Haresfield promontory fort forms a quite a tightknit system that joins with Painswick Beacon, another potential Promontory fort/cross-dyke at Brotheridge (Above Great Witcombe) and going on to Crickely Hill. There is as well the cross-dyke in Randwick woods and another around Pen Hill above the Stanleys cutting off the ridge that takes you on to the curving Uley Bury. I have thought about all these Iron Age hill-constructions and think what is going on here in these valleys shows an intense focus on part of the Iron Age folk on holding the ridge against something out there in the Severn Vale: sea borne raiders from Irelands tribes? cattle thieves from the Brecons?

As I look out with wind in my face from Haresfield my world thunders with the ancient pulse of life in this land. The Iron Age inhabitants are here watching over their stocky cows that roll in the mud to keep gnats off in summer and the later Saxons coming up to cut gorse to drag home for winter kindling. At the time of the Napoleonic Wars there is the rough cries and laughter of men holding games and horse races here at Broadbarrow Green while lovers ducked away from the crowd among the hawthorn. IMAG0100.JPG

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The Stroud valleys have historically been well wooded it seems from my delvings into the root tangle of its past through place names, records and its history. Here are several kinds of wood name that are common around here…

1. Frith 2.Buckholt 3. Grove 4. Short Wood

The first ‘Frith’ is one of those old Anglo Saxon names which has been defined as meaning  a wood that is not dominated by tall tree’s but by bushy trees and more spaced out mature trees. This sounds like what we call a coppice, where trees are cut to the stump on generally a cycle of six years for harvesting their young straight growth. Older trees are left spread about for providing timber for roof beams and the like. The second buckholt is a beech wood. A grove is a small wood that may also be used like a coppice like a frith. The fourth ‘short wood’ I have interpreted as meaning a wood that is short in height so the trees would be bushy like a frith wood.

There are several buckholts around here. The wood along the ridge above the Stanleys running towards Frocester is recorded as being a ‘buckholt’. Standish wood is also named as a buckholt, and Cranham has kept its wood name of buckholt on the maps. There is a Frith wood at Bussage, a second one along the ridge where Folly lane leads to and next to Bullscross above Slad, a third one at far Oakridge where the Holy brook runs down to meet the Frome, and a fourth vanished one in that combe overlooked by the Bear Inn, where Little Britain farm lies. That was called ‘Breckcombesfrith‘. There are a lot of woods with grove attached to the end of the name around the valleys, for example ‘Proud Grove’ above Stroud Slad Farm, and simply ‘Grove’ which is now Hawkwood. I think in the case of these valleys a grove meant a wood that had been taken out of a bigger wood for the purpose of turning it over to coppicing or timber. Or perhaps the grove remained from where the rest of the woodland had been taken into farmland. Last the short woods are found in Nailsworth, up at Haresfield Beacon and there maybe others I have overlooked or have fallen out of name use. They seem to be woods that could have been used as common land in the manor for harvesting short growth wood for firewood and grazing animals on rough pasture.

The Stroud valleys have also several ghost woods that were old common woods used and regulated by the manor tenants living by them. Two of them was where Rodborough and Minchinhampton Common now lie as open grassland. I guess Selsley had a common wood as well and likewise Edge or Rudge Common above Painswick. So too for Chalford, Oakridge and Bisley. Above Slad’s many winding nooks are two large level hills now turned to farmland on top named on names as ‘The Scrubs’ and ‘Nottingham Scrubs’. Both of them are shadows of common woods, the first was Plaisters Wood the second Weekstie Wood. Bisley’s common wood was Bussage wood or Nashend (At the Ash End) that is still named on the maps as a place name beyond Eastcombe and the name of a farm. Oakridge common wood, Bussage wood (also Nashend wood), Weekstie wood are named among other woods as lords woods in the 16th but open to commoning rights by the tenants. Those rights were the grazing of a limited number of cows and sheep on the pasture, the taking of firewood (fallen twigs and sometimes lopping branches) and more detailing the resources the tenants could harvest, that in turn were managed by the tenants themselves with any disputes taken to the manor court. Only as the populations became much bigger in the later medieval periods did these commons mentioned begin to lose their trees. Probably because of a larger population putting more pressure on the land as well as pressures on a demand for timber and likely many other elements working to erode the former wooded commons. In Avening as the eleven hundreds wore on there are complaints put to the manor of Minchinhampton from its inhabitants of growing numbers of charcoal burners cutting down the woods around the valley, one of the biggest being Hazel Holt now known as Hazel Wood and shrunken from farmland having eaten into it since. As well on Minchinhamptons common wood around a time between 1300 and 1500 we hear of the woods being reduced and not being able to provide pannage (the eating of mast and acorns and bulbs) for more than one thousand pigs.

beech woods are abundant in the Stroud valleys. In an Anglo Saxon charter from the early 700’s AD and another one later in the 800’s detailing the bounds of the Woodchester estate in which the Bishop of Worcester had been gifted woodland. Through the maze of Latin interpreting the English names we see there is a Mast Redding which covers the Long Ridge, likely describing the ridge from Nympsfield to Selsley Common. The Mast Redding fattened swine. Redding or Ridding is another woodland designator also found in other places in the valleys on older maps, lingering on in Slad’s Redding Wood, that means a wood clearing perhaps where straight rods are harvested or where some other specific thing was happening like pasturing swine (we only have a general idea of what the different woodland words used in Old English meant to the Saxons using them).

Emerging from the trees we glimpse the valleys historically up until cloth making became the centre of its life as swathed in woodland providing swine pasture, coppice wood, timber, also honey from wild bees and some charcoal burning in places. Hunting as well would have been attractive here for the Anglo Saxon kings as it would be later when we hear of Henry the eighth lodging at Prinknash to hunt deer in Cranham and Sheepscombe that the Norman kings had as deer parks.

So it should seem wholly unsurprising to find that in the Roman period there was a local godling with a shrine up on the Scrubs (Slad valley, see above) called Mars Ollouidios, the Roman Mars paired with a Celtic god those name meant ‘The Great One of the Trees or Woods’.

I’ll leave you to munch on the beech mast and ruminate sylvan dreams…

The Orpheus mosaic in the Woodchester roman villa was a marvel and a celebration, I feel, of the polytheistic world of Roman civilization. From 312 AD it began to see Christianity gradually eclipse over the decades what had been a world that had never defined itself by any religion, but by the worship of many gods. The Orpheus mosaic may have been laid down perhaps in the mid 300’s, when at least some of the British nobility it appears in reaction to the spreading belief of Christianity were proudly paying out for exuberant mosaics to be laid in their villas depicting the gods and scenes from classical mythology. But Christianity for now was still one religion among the throng of polytheism, yet its acceptance and integration into the Roman empire’s power structure marked a change that could only change the world further.

The Orpheus mosaic in Woodchester shows Orpheus at the centre of a great multiple circle showing beasts of the land, birds and fishes all seemingly enthralled to the youthful, beardless Orpheus playing his lyre, who appears to be at the centre of creation with a star above him. The outer mosaic is a scene of the ocean with nymphs of the waters. Orpheus is the enchanter of the beasts, of all of life itself that gathers around in sumptuous assembly to listen and fall into the magic of his lyre playing. In the story that is most well known about Orpheus he makes the journey down into the Underworld after Eurydice he had just been wedded to was bitten by a snake and perished; he thereof embarks to bring her back from death from shady Tartarus, to make his petition to Persephone and Dispater employing his lyre playing to soften them to his pleas to bring Eurydice back to life.  He succeeds in making the king and queen of the dead return her, but on the condition that he will not turn back to look to see if Eurydice is following as he ascends the shadowy tunnels of Tartarus. In the most popular version Orpheus has a tragic moment of doubt and going back on his promise to the gods to have a peek, looks round to see Eurydice is in fact following him-only now he see’s her shade plunging back into the underworld lost to him for good. Orpheus comes back  to the world of the living the first mortal to have returned from Tartarus alive, but framed by his very resonant human moment of existential doubt about his confidence in the gods agreement (perhaps they haven’t sent Eurydice back up? Perhaps I should look round to see if she is there? Oh bugger she was).

In the Orpheus mosaic we see the vanished owners and commissioners of this great piece of art have chosen not to centre a god, but a legendary mortal with a tragic glow of the divine running through his gift with music that charms creation to gather round in wonder at the sounds of his lyre that have never been heard before. There is a harmony of the classical conception rippling out from Orpheus at the heart of the mosaic. The oracular poet draws on and affirms the underlying harmony that orders creation, as the animals are shown in girdling circles like the signs of the Zodiac processing about him like a core dynamic, a DNA strand in a cell. In the mosaic Orpheus plays and we are all drawn to the scintillation of his music; death becomes something our souls can transcend as Orpheus does returning from his trip to the land of the dead and we are recalled to the eternal harmony that ultimately shapes a world that seems sometimes too chaotic, arbitrary and full of loss. Is this what the vanished residents of the Woodchester Villa saw?

The mosaic was placed at the end of the villa at the head of its complex, connected to the family residence and within a specially made chamber. This chamber is shown in an artist’s impression as rising above the tiled roofs of the villa, a four-cornered tower with a roof that has small windows to let in down to fall on the Orpheus mosaic. At the centre of the mosaic there may have also been placed a small fountain, tinkling water bubbling out where Orpheus played his lyre. Perhaps this was the villa temple to Orpheus? A great amount of money and skill had gone into this work, but there is more than that. There is a candescent vision, inspiration and beauty in the whole mosaic, as well the confirmation of a belief in the world the owners saw and sought to reaffirm in the dusk of the Roman empire.

But here is a twist, because though it clearly is Orpheus in the mosaic, the story and mythos of Orpheus may have been a classical veneer over a native ‘Celtic Orpheus’. As the skills of music and the spoken word were very highly regarded in what for a generalised umbrella term we will call ‘Celtic culture’ I would not find it strange at all that classical Orpheus fitted in with a Celtic god of poetry and oracular ability, who could have power over death and the dead. But that’s enough for now, please come along later for more.

The Woodchester Orpheus mosaic, you have to employ X-ray vision these days to see through the turf that covers it in the old churchyard.

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A place where I walk every week is by the little valley that runs into Stroud where the Badbrook flows. what follows is a study of this diminutive stream and its surrounding land that has its origins in the iron-tinted spring drunk from by many at Hawkwood.  The waters of the Badbrook now run down into Stroud hidden under the concrete, where they converge with the Sladbrook roughly around the bottom of Gloucester Street. Here was once a bridge in a very wet marshy place that was prone to being flooded by the brooks, as I have read in Fishers Notes and Recollections of Stroud. Since this was a place the traffic had to cross it is not hard to imagine the mouthful of cursing and other antique imprecations being hurled at the streams for making a farmer stuck or a coach mired. Now a maddening chug of traffic gyres about the roundabout here, also probably echoing such a tradition of foul mouthing the difficulties of getting about Stroud using wheeled vehicles. Where I start this walk I go up Lovedays Mead to where Upper Grange and West Grange stand, here a distinctly muddy and rutted track appears at the end going to a slouching field gate.  Directly ahead of the said slouching gate begins the open farm land which goes up to Hawkwood.  I have taken a picture of it, you can see there is a very fine and mature plane tree standing on its own on the left and hidden is an oak tree opposite. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You can also see the straggling hawthorns at the top of the rise that I’m sure must have been a hedge, of the kind planted in the 1800’s when systematic land enclosures were happening over England and for which hawthorn was employed as a fast growing hedge plant. The hawthorns are very characterful now resembling a motley gathering of rustic idlers and loiterers with their unkempt hair. This former hedge has long since been abandoned as a hedge, and in the more immediate foreground there are more recent barbed wire fences, also now lapsing into abandonment. It is a fairly tumbledown place here, welcoming to wildlife but I suspect to property developers also welcoming (Somebody owns land here out of the picture, and a development was fortunately thwarted not long ago, but sadly I think it may not be the end of thwarting the concrete monster here). In the space I have walked from Lovedays Mead to this tumbly rough land I have also gone past the site of where was discovered following a housing development at West Grange, a Roman-period shaft furnace forge where iron was smelted and a lot of broken samian ware pottery. That means whoever was living here at that time also knew this view I am looking at now, although many details would have been different and of course they would have entirely different names for the ones I use for the land.  Here below is the second picture, where the oak tree appears.

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There are many oak trees growing around this land. They have the look of being deliberately planted, for this was once the land that belonged to the Hawkwood estate or as it was called in the time the Capels family owned it (mid 1800’s) when these oak trees could have been planted: The Grove. Planting oak trees was probably part of making the estate like parkland and for sheltering their livestock. They were a landscaping idea to create a romantic scene so when the Capels looked down from the Grove (Hawkwood) they gazed upon a sight that balanced arboreal shade with reassuringly sheep nibbled pastures. That is my thoughts on the oaks of Hawkwood, and I wonder if these present ones were not replacing older ones since died. I like the oak trees and there are some more out of the picture on the left, that are I guess a hundred years old. If this land were to go under housing no doubt these oak trees would be lost, idiots choosing concrete rather than oak trees to live in (they have zero maintenance cost).  Now where is this Badbrook? Well I’d be unfair to bring you this far and not tell you the Badbrook is quite hard to see these days, the only sign it is there are the trees. See the picture below with the sprawling old willows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Badbrook is down there, but it is so overgrown and ignored now that its waters trickle through dense mud and tangled roots. Fifty years ago you would be probably be able to see the stream, for much of the growth in brambles and trees here has the look of having occurred within the last thirty years when the land began to slowly decline from less management and care. By then the land you see here no longer belonged to Hawkwood, and much of that land around the Badbrook which the Hawkwood estate sold off (and was being used by Hammonds Farm for grazing, now also sold off) is now rough grass and brambles. I have seen a fox here twice, for it is now a very foxy land with all kinds of fox corners to hide in. At least it is very useful for a fox to have more bramble. This is one reason why it would be upsetting to lose this land to any encroaching concrete ogres for the animals can live here mainly in peace.  I will return with more on the Badbrook, but for now go and find the streams near you and befriend them.

Going about the Cotswold region in Roman Britain you might come across small temples or shrines at the edge of villages or not far from a wandering stream. Here you may find a stone relief carved of the Genii Cuculatti, or the Hooded Spirits. The representations of the Hooded Spirits found in Britain seem mostly to centre around Cirencester shown in threes, but some have been found up at Hadrians Wall. In the Rhineland the genii cuculatti appear to have been quite numerous in their stone reliefs, but they are also found in other countries. Their name is a sign to the garment they always wear that was a distinct kind of cloak with an attached hood worn in Britain and Gaul: the cucullus. This hooded cloak was likely a garment worn most of all by the native peasantry who would have appreciated its protection against the weather while working every day on the land. It was worn as well by pilgrims going on their way to sacred temple sites, indeed those walking the ways of Roman Britain as itinerant pedlars or temple pilgrims would have valued the cucullus as their chief comfort against the weather. The Hooded Spirits look strange, secretive and their hooded heads make them slightly egg-shaped. In a few stone reliefs I can think of found in the Cirencester/Cotswold region they are shown in their magical combination of three with a mother goddess seated on the right, whom they appear to be approaching while she holds a vessel of some kind or another object connected with fertility and life. In this particular one the Hooded Spirits are all gripping short swords and the folds of their cloak are shown, except for the one in their middle who does not appear to be armed. I think of the Hooded Spirits as being very closely tied to the fertility of the land, and therefore to life and death. Their hooded, concealed nature makes me wonder if they are not spirits of the dead, the ancestors who dwell with the mother goddess in her realm of plenty where worldly aches and sorrows are left behind. She is the faery goddess who grants prosperity to those who respect the land and yet her Hooded Spirits will emerge to punish in the night those who abuse this. The Genii Cuculatti if they can be thought of as ‘faery folk’ (which in the past were synonymous with the spirits of the dead) they are not be trifled with as they have the power to go to the goddess and gods on behalf of their mortal petitioners and ask for their intervention whether that be for good or ill.  In Roman Britain as can be seen in lead curse tablets found in places like the great temple of Aqua Sulis in Bath, people could think up quite unpleasant ways for the person they wished to be punished by the divinity for their offence towards them.

Go to Cirencester Museum and you will see this and they will see you

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When we go about a museum exhibit or read about Roman Britain (as we call it) we are often quickly lured into a trap, a fantasy that deceives us into thinking Roman Britain was civilized with its masonry built towns, courtyard villas, straight roads, wine, lavish dining and on it goes. It is the fantasy of Romanitas that our culture is too easily entranced by. Romanness in Britain is seen too one-sidedly, afterall ever since the Romans spun out their propaganda inflating their culture as a civilizing machine of rightness have had a strong appeal and attraction ever since to later medieval nation-building seeking to legitimize their right to dominion in the world (show it has some tentative connection to a Latin man with a laurel wreath about his head, and you’re already on the way). Roman Britain though, let’s say for a local Dobunni (the tribe recorded living in a large part of the south-west in the area of the Cotswolds, and the Severn vale) man or woman living in Gloucester was not at all about what we have been told to expect about that era to be like.

When Britain was annexed to the empire it soon became a very important exporter of grain, wool, metals and salt. This island on the edge of the known world was now secured seemingly, as the furthest frontier of the empire.  A lot of bloodshed, suffering and death had happened between the Iron age inhabitants of this island and the Roman legions to claim Britain, but it had been done. Not completely though. For our hypothetical Dobunni man or woman in Gloucester farming on the land, they would have now have to pay taxes to Rome and feed the Roman military edifice. Nobody could be exempt unless you were living in a region poor for agriculture, which like in Cornwall would see you doing tin mining and smelting to supply the insatiable legions and towns. The people who had emerged as a kind of proto-peasant class in the later Iron Age would in Roman Britain see their lives becoming more entrenched in land subsistence labouring, unless they took up another trade and became lucky.  In the Roman language this class were in their society the plebeians, the commoners. For our Dobunnic commoner the town of Glevum would have been a backdrop in the land but would not have dominated their own universe. The military roads that connected the Roman towns would not have been important either. Villas were residences of the rich and had little place in the lives of the ordinary.  Certainly they would have been aware of the Roman empire and its influences would have been felt but the poorer you were the different your perspective of this time.  A money based economy became normal in Britain in that period, along with power becoming more centralised in the Roman planned towns and in the highest administrative positions in imperial officials. Ultimately all of the Roman empire lay invested in the semi-divine figure of the emperor himself.

Here in Gloucester we see under the Cotswold edge in the Severn vale the small thatched farms of our Dobunnic locals, who are likely tenants on land belonging to a Dobunnic equites (the Latin name for a social rank higher up the ladder than a plebeian, it means a horse rider) or veteran of the Roman military (who could sit on the town councils). Within a few generations of Colonia Glevum being built first as a military garrison then a town, their lives have come under dramatic changes that in their intensity and rapidity are unlike anything felt before in the time before a single legions boot stepped on the shores of this island. Their lives are now tied with thousands and thousands of others to the talismanic and faraway aura of the emperor of Rome (Sol Invictus, the invincible sun), to whom they must pay their tribute in the form of taxes which all conquered provinces give as part of their subjugation. They are now subjects to a massive power structure spreading all the way to Egypt and Persia. In Gloucester trade arrives up the river Severn on trading vessels bringing a constant flux of goods from Gaul and the Mediterranean to Colonia Glevum. Big pottery industries, tile making, lead working and pewter would have been patronised by Glevums wealthy veterans seeking to make a fortune for themselves out of the boom in mass made goods that found their way to the military. Outside of Glevums grid-streets an unplanned road-side settlement called a vicus (the Anglo Saxons re-used the word as Wic) would have grown up as a place to buy cheap goods and services.

Our Dobunnic farmer who never has much denarii goes to the vicus knowing he can find what he wants among the untidy road-side town of booths, temporary sheds and all kinds of ramshackle quickly put up hovels. Within Glevum prices are higher and there is more official control.  The vicus in the first place has grown up because of the traffic going in and out of Glevum, customers who can be caught before they’ve even entered its gates.  The Dobunnic farmer though knows that in Glevum are many shrines and a temple to gods and goddesses(the threefold Celtic mother goddesses are found in many reliefs in Gloucester and Cirencester) local deities merged with Roman deities (mostly Mercury or Mars) where he can receive powerful supernatural aid in his life. It is a strange world where the Dobunni now see their gods carved in stone in the likeness of humans (Roman humans), placed in stone buildings, and when they look to the ancient long barrows along the ridge their power is still there but something has been crossed with the Romans taking over Britain that they cannot go back on. The Dobunnic farmer see’s a family with ragged clothing, barefooted, gaunt-faced in the vicus, not an uncommon sight, and they are trying to sell something: their youngest child. He hopes he will not fall on hard ground like them, and gives offerings with what little denarii he has to the gods. He see’s two more better-off families have got together buying sacrificial goats to have their throats cut in a pen next to the temple, their life dedicated up to the gods.

There was never a golden age of Roman civilisation in Britain, it has to be put back in the weathered and unsmooth skin of those who had to live in it and survive it. Britain as a Roman province seems to have never shaken off in the eyes of its continental neighbours comfortably far from its mists, a barbaric and backward status that was not deserved but had been fabricated out of ignorance, Roman propaganda and smugness. How the conquerors looked at those they had conquered; how the conquerors created an artificial nation called Britain on the maps for imperial convenience, how they put down the indigenous ‘Britons’ in their words that would become history; this should remind us Roman Britain was a construct that should be unlatched so we can see what really lies behind it if we want to step out of comfortable norms.

Toots Long barrow on Selsley Common and the river Severn in the distance.  An ancient and powerful place that has seen much come and go in the land below.

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What is not as well known is the existence of another large Roman villa dating from the same time as the Woodchester villa, in Oakridge along the Frome valley. This one lay at the head of a quite well hidden side-valley at Bournes Green that can be reached from Chalford or up at Oakridge. There is an area of grassland in the combe today called on the map ‘Strawberry Banks’ that has wild granny’s bonnets (not actually bonnets belonging to granny’s the Latin name for the flower is Aquilegia) and many other rare wildflowers. The Oakridge villa was apparently discovered in the 1800’s by a labourer ploughing a field when a hole suddenly opened up and he found himself and the plough horses were in the stone foundations of some ancient abode. After that there was one excavation which revealed a villa with twenty nine rooms, some with mosaic floors that were particularly fashionable among the rich of the Cotswolds circa 300 AD.  Also there was likely found the villa’s rubbish dump in a mound not faraway, and apparently a Roman well by limekiln lane which runs diagonally above the villa site to Bisley. Further treasures that have survived is a few Roman altars and stone reliefs of gods that could have originated from the villa, that had ended up in Bisley’s church. It has been called the delightfully peculiar name of the Lilyhorn Villa, named after Lilyhorn farm which is more or less by the site (there was another Lilyhorn farm near Folly Lane at Uplands, since vanished under housing). An old house in Oakridge was known for having Roman tiles scavenged from the villa remains.

The Lilyhorn Villa has struck me as being quite similar in its siting with that other more well excavated villa at Chedworth. It lies snugly shoehorned into a combe or side-valley, a secluded and private air pervading it. Lilyhorn Villa would have had a fine view out to the bosky valley of Frampton-Mansell, and to the arable uplands that climb on their way to Cirencester. It is a beautiful absolutely enchanted little hideaway in summer. There are springs as well that the Lilyhorn Villa would have doubtless channelled into it, and plenty of woods which in the time of the villa may still have covered what is now Oakridge, the old common above Chalford and at Bussage. Behind the villa the land levels out into the high upland of Bisley, riven with little stream combes and resembling a smaller microcosm of the Cotswold plateau. Almost next door at France Lynch across from Oakridge there is the remains of a Neolithic long barrow not far above Avenis Green (a fine walk from Chalford goes up there following a hidden nook known as Dimmels Dale, with a stream and woods around, probably hobbits as well if you’re quiet and bring a hamper basket with food). There is as well a bronze-age round barrow called Money Tump near the villa site and another now almost vanished long barrow marked as the Giants Stone at Battlescombe. Unlike the Woodchester Villa, the Lilyhorn Villa is surrounded by a resonant scatter of ancient barrows and a palpable feeling that people have been coming here and living somewhere nearby for a very long time. Lilyhorn Villa feels sited because its owners were surrounded and could see these ancient barrows. The presence of the ancestors sanctifying the land made it supernaturally safer perhaps to for them to lay down the foundations of what would be a building very different in its materials and visual effect to the dwellings everyone working on the villa estates were still dwelling in.

It is a pity only one excavation has happened to the Lilyhorn Villa and that was now over a hundred and fifty years ago. What we know about it still leans on an excavation done when the railways were only just starting to march their way from Stroud to Chalford. The whole bigger villa site is a mystery. Like most villa’s in mainland Britain at that time in the 300’s they were at the centre of large farming estates. The land-tied peasantry growing grain and sheep rearing because wool and wheat were in constant demand from the empire to keep its enormous civic populations and military edifice functioning, and Britain was particularly rich in land for doing both (Iron Age farming systems in Britain continued into Roman times). Lilyhorn Villa I speculate probably sold its grain and wool at Glevum (Gloucester) taking a road that went to Birdlip and connected with the Ermine Way plunging into Great Witcombe. Then where did the people who toiled to keep it running live?  My thoughts are so far weighing on Bisley being the villa village; with its vigorous spring gushing out water into Toadsmore below, Bisley nestles there looking innocently magnetic: how could nobody have lived there before all the little charming Cotswold stone cottages appeared? The owners of Lilyhorn Villa were probably not in the same bracket of wealth and social upness as the Woodchester lot (they were another league), but they certainly had done well for themselves.

The image that comes to mind is of a Romano-British family who have risen to affluence and occupy positions in the governance of Glevum or Corinium, sitting on the council as decurions and eating honeyed dormice with oysters for supper (maybe not together, and I could have made up honeyed dormice though it doesn’t seem farfetched). Yet while Villa’s are interesting, they are only the domains of the rich minority. Beyond their walls, the local people struggled, some managed to do better, others were swallowed by poverty. In Cirencester Museum there was an interesting bit of information on how much in the Roman Empire it cost for an ordinary poor man to afford a pair of shoes, a cloak, a tunic and a loincloth. The lowest paid were farm labourers and shepherds, beneath workers with skills that were more in demand. A poor family would have to pay several days Denarii if not a weeks worth for those most basic items of clothing. Hence the imperative to mend and pass down clothing that is almost the vast collective motto of the poor throughout history. I was left with the impression that if you fell on very hard times you’d end up feeling quite cold. Slavery was the normal state of affairs for most in the Roman empire, when very few people actually owned any freedom.

In one room of the villa a pot was found buried with 1223 bronze coins under the floor. It is poignant nobody ever at the time dug it up, and that the owners of this wealth had to bury it in the first place perhaps intending to dig it up but never did. Burying stashes of coins always appears to be a hopeful but desperate act. Only hundreds of years later in another entirely different Britain also called England , were the coins brought to light; a wealth stranded in a world that no longer bought with Denarii minted by imperial Roman authorities with the heads of the current emperor on. Whoever last touched those coins has sent them far beyond their epoch. Now we are the keeper of the lost coins like the lost voices that persist under our feet, telling us our time is the not the only one where men and women lived and died thinking their time was unique and special and never going to end in ruins.

 

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Bisley Hundred as nicked from British History Online

 

It is quite a well-known thing that Woodchester was once the site of a grand and palatial Roman villa back in the century 300 AD. It is most renown for its huge and opulent Orpheus mosaic that was uncovered in the 1700’s (and now lies under grass to protect it from deteriorating exposed to the air).  The Woodchester villa would have been in its heyday at the centre of a large estate run by a huge army of land-bound local Romano-British peasants. Who actually owned and lived in this important villa is all but unknown, though they were evidently of very high status in the hierarchy, probably of the administrative class, and possibly even the governor of Britannia Prima following the administrative reforms of Diocletian circa 300. The Woodchester villa estate lay between two roman towns or civitates: Glevum (Gloucester) and Corinium (Ciren). It was also not far from Aqua Sulis (Bath) or Venta Silurum (over the river Severn near Chepstow, it gave its name to the later medieval district of Gwent in this area).

We can imagine what the land around Woodchester Villa would have looked like; woods are numerous and defining in the valleys all around Woodchester today, and it is enclosed by long limestone ridges where below their tops springs often emerge. When the Villa was standing in the valley I guess it would not have looked drastically different from today. There probably was more woodland covering what is now Selsley Common and Rodborough Common. I’ve always felt that the desires of the owners of Woodchester Villa for building it in the valley was a) it was in the middle of a well wooded area already favoured as a rich hunting ground, b) the valley offers a rather secluded, arcadian retreat, fitting into a classical Roman mythos, with views that obscure from its wealthy owners the agricultural plain of the river Severn that is associated more with the workaday peasantry, and as well the smoky iron works over in the Forest of Dean.  Now I’d like to know to what extent the Woodchester Villa estate stretched in its days but I can only make a guess that it was very big, perhaps going from present day Woodchester into the Nailsworth valleys, to Avening, Uley, Dursley, Wotton and Ozleworth? Or perhaps slightly smaller?

There is known from finds that there was a tile and pottery works connected with the Villa. This small industry would have been in that interesting combe below the Bear of Rodborough, where Little Britain farm lies and overlooking its land the straggling (and now upmarket) hamlets on the ridge of Houndscroft, St.Chloe and Amberley.  The side valley has a name that has gone out of usage but it was ‘Brechcombesfrith’ the combe of the brook where bushy scrub woods are. A tile and pottery works needs a supply of clay to keep producing, so that must have been down in the main valley by the Nailsworth stream or else by the small brook that defines the side valley. Since this industry was bringing in revenue (along with the villa’s agricultural holdings) its workers would have had to have been constantly exploiting clay pits. This would have made a visible dent in the valley to say the least. Along with the clay needed for the tiles and pottery, there would have been charcoal brought in to fuel the kilns. Charcoal could have been made in the woods that would have been coppiced for the long straight poles of wood ideal for creating charcoal. The trees used for this could have been hazel or a mixture of different species; the beech woods that makes the valleys distinguished today to the eye, would not have made useful coppicing trees (at least from what I know, beech trees do not seem to respond with the same vigour when cut like many other trees). The tile and pottery works would have been a smoky, noisy place with well used and maintained tracks connecting it with the woods where charcoal was brought from by mules (better at getting about the narrow wiggly paths) and clay was hauled up in carts from sticky, red-coloured clay pits.

Let us reflect on how tough it is to dig clay, especially on a large scale. Clay is obstinately heavy and absorbs water like a sponge; you will soon be covered in it from digging and when it dries out it tends to suck the moisture from your skin. Clay for making tiles and bricks later on in history was usually dug in winter and left in large mounds to be exposed to the cold and frost which made it ready for the next process. Now we have our clay pits in Roman era Woodchester being dug in winter which makes it look even more unpleasant. These clay diggers, tilers, potters and charcoal makers would have been a rough, strong lot, not the kind the owners of the villa would have been caught associating with. The villa itself is positioned so it faces inward straight in the direction of where this supposed industry was, which makes me wonder if the place was not screened by planted trees the better to hide the workers? It is interesting to speculate about the tremendous amount with do not know about the villa and its estate lands, even more so when at that time in history the rich and poor in Roman Britain did not think that one day their seemingly very technologically advanced, bureaucratic and hybrid chimera of many cultures would one day cease to exist. There is the temple to Mercury not far from the Villa at Nympsfield, where names on lead curses of individuals who came to the temple for the gods intervention and help may tell us of the people who lived here, either land-bound workers, traders coming through or officials. Only Orpheus returned from the darkness to tell us what had been, with rather appropriate mythological symmetry.

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I found myself in Cirencester museum again embarking on a great journey from the Neolithic Cotswolds to early Medieval Cotswolds. How fascinating it is and how well the museum has carried it out, to behold the precious artefacts of each particular age! It is interesting not to say illuminating, to realise that what modern man constitutes as ‘technology’ these days (I.e. electrical gadgets, oil-powered machines, etc) would be mostly useless as technology for most of human history. Flint technology of the Neolithic was honed over hundreds of years into a very sophisticated  technology  and the use of flint as a tool was not really made obsolete well into the Bronze Age, it gradually and slowly died out to be replaced by metal. A world shaped by flint was not a poor and primitive place. The Neolithic people of the Cotswolds had lives that would been rich with the fecundity of an environment still blinking with the dampness of virgin wildwood, and they dwelled in strong communal long houses of timber, turf or reed thatched roofs, with walls of wattle and daub. There has been reconstructed a seasonal Neolithic ‘village’ that was discovered not far from the place of Stonehenge; the walls of the dwellings were washed white from the lime got from chalk and inside they had wooden sided pallet beds.  Much further on in the age of Roman Britain the kind of materials used for building (among the ordinary people) had hardly changed from the Neolithic, and indeed well into the medieval period the poorest would have used the same basic things got from their immediate surroundings to make their homes (rods of wood, mud/dung/clay/animal hair and straw). Now we live in a world dominated by concrete, brick, steel, glass and electricity, which ultimately depends on the constant extraction of finite fossil fuels to exist. Our experience of the world is shaped by technologies which are removing us in our senses and imagination further and further from the earth and nature. A shorter attention span is probably epidemic among many humans now, especially the younger generation.

It has been fire that has been our companion and enemy throughout the vistas of human experience.  Fire has allowed us through the transformations that happen within its controlled heat to fundamentally change our world so that we now have shifted from lives where fire was raw and visible to one where it has become subliminated and unconscious. Now we harness fire’s hidden and insidious double: electric.  But within the light and dance of fire it is where the human soul was born. We have had a relationship with fire that has brought it into the centre of our homes and celebrations. Electricity though I could never imagine having the same kind of relationship as we have had with  fire. Whereas fire can equally be a creator or destroyer, can bring us warmth and pain, and teaches us about boundaries (step too close and yes that hurts doesn’t it?), electric seems to be like a hidden wizard of dubious intentions. There is an addictive quality about the electric we are firing through our cities and homes. It buzzes, shocks and vibrates. Electricity is here one moment, gone suddenly the next, then back again completely changed. What kind of reality are we working with here with electricity? How does it change us to be exposed to its erratic and ungrounding energy?

We used to always gather around fires. But in the world of electric’s cold flash we do not gather together. The importance to our wellbeing for humans to find belonging in our community and place will always come first even if it is lost sight of. In the Neolithic and in the ages thereafter this is what our oldest ancients created in the land: marks of belonging, and from it a whole language of place. Long barrows, hillforts and country lanes speak of such belonging that they are often taken for granted.  In our times to find belonging again though it may only be a walk away, is what our technology powered by electricity and fossil fuels, inflicting displacement and disconnection, is the challenge to the human race now: if we do not want to become prisoners to our artefacts.