Monday, 26 September 2016

Staweford: Routeways and meeting places in North Northumberland

View looking northwards towards Staweford (near the trees in
the middle distance). Image (C) Google Earth
Over the last couple of years, due to my involvement with the Gefrin Trust, I've been increasingly thinking about the Anglo-Saxon palace site at Yeavering, which lies on the River Glen in North Northumberland. It is usually described as being on a side valley opening out onto the fertile soils of the Millfield Basin. However, I've always had a bee in my bonnet about the importance of Glendale itself as routeway. Today, almost all visitors to the site arrive from the east driving down towards Kirknewton having turned off the A697. Very few people keep on travelling past Kirknewton following course of the Glen, which becomes the Beaumont Water in its upper reaches. Ultimately, this routeway crosses the Scottish Border and reaches Kirk Yetholm. From here it is easy to strike north-west towards the Tweed at Kelso or head westwards along the course of the Kale Water to the River Teviot and Jedburgh (site of an important Anglo-Saxon monastery). It is clear that despite appearances when viewed from Yeavering, Glendale is very much not a dead end

Yet, although I've always been convinced of the importance of this routeway up Glendale, I must admit, I've never been able to take this beyond a vague hunch. However, recently whilst researching something entirely different I've come across evidence that seems to corroborate the importance of this Beaumont Water axis. I've been reading up about the landscape of Northumberland during the 16th century, a period that was the high-tide of the endemic lawless border reivers. At this time, the Anglo-Scottish borders saw endemic livestock raiding and feuding between various extended families that lay both sides of the frontier. This violent society, despite its lawless nature, did have its own rules and regulations. Amongst these were formalised meeting and assembly points, where business and legal proceedings could be conducted under a temporary state of truce.

I've been trying to identify and understand these locations, partly because I'm interested in the 17th century landscape of the region, but also because I'm interested in whether a better appreciation of the Tudor landscape of assembly and gathering might provide a window into similar practices in the region during the early medieval period. I obviously owe an appreciation of the potential of this approach to work that has been done in Durham on early medieval assembly places by Sarah Semple and Tudor Skinner.

Anyway, I've been working my way through the wonderful, but dense, Calendar of Letters and Papers relating to the affairs of the Borders of England and Scotland preserved in Her Majesty's Public Record Office, London (1894), which brings together much of the important and extensive document record from this region. Amongst these documents are repeated references to an meeting place at a site called Staweford or Stawford. These meetings were between the English and Scottish wardens of the Border Marches and where Warden courts were held. An initial search via the OS Gazetteer produced no location for this site. However, a bit more poking around showed that Staweford was recorded as a point on the Anglo-Scottish border in a survey of 1604; and it was clear that it lay close to where the Halter Burn met Countrop Sike, close to Yetholm Mains (NT884 292) – which lies, pleasingly, on precisely the routeway between Yeavering and Kirk Yetholm. The presence of an important meeting location at this site does seem to imply that this was an important communication route and not an isolated backwater. Certainly, other known meeting sites of this type were also on major routeways, such as Carter Bar, still one of the main crossing points between England and Scotland.

Location of Staweford. Map (C) Ordnance Survey / Edina Digimap
The obvious next question is the antiquity of Staweford as an assembly point. It had its importance in the 16th century as a location where England met Scotland. Given this point only emerged as national border some time before the 13th century, it might at first seem unlikely that it was important in the Anglo-Saxon period. During the Anglo-Saxon period, this area seems to have been part of a composite estate comprising a series of townships lying along the Beaumont Water that probably had its estate centre at Kirk Yetholm. These vills were recorded as gifts to the monastery at Lindisfarne given by King Oswiu in the later 7th century. The overall estate seems to have been split up in the 12th or 13th century with most vills staying in England with a western rump ending up in Scotland. It seems then that the boundary on which Staweford sits was not originally of a large estate or early ‘shire’ but may possibly have been a boundary between two vills within a putative ‘Yetholmshire’ (see Colm O’Briens paper in Archaeologia Aeliana 2002 for more discussion of this).

There is one more piece of information to bring into play. Whilst, Staweford may have been a crossing point over a relatively small stream, possibly dividing two units within a larger early medieval estate, it was not an entirely isolated location. There are records of a small chapel standing close to the site, although this has now disappeared. Intriguingly, it was recorded as being dedicated to Ethelreda – this is probably the same as Etheldreda, better known as Ã†thelthryth, a 7th century Kentish princes, who married Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, in 660, but subsequently returned south to found a monastery at Ely. On her death she became an important Anglo-Saxon saint. It is just conceivable that the dedication of this chapel could go back to a relatively early period in the centuries after the land was gifted. This might indicate some early importance to the site, although the dedication may of course be much later.

So in conclusion, the presence of a 16th century meeting place at Staweford does seem to vindicate my hunch about the importance of the Beaumont Water as a routeway into the Tweed and Teviot valleys from the Yeavering area. However, it is not easy to be certain how much earlier the importance of that particular location can be pushed as an assembly point. A most likely origin date is the 12th/13th century when it became the Anglo-Scottish border. The Ethelreda dedication of the chapel might just hint at an earlier origin, although its importance may have been far more local at this earlier stage.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

"Oh, is the water sweet and cool, Gentle and brown, above the pool?" Landscapes of swimming

I’ve just had a great weekend down on my home turf in Wessex which involved a fair amount of sploshing around in water: paddling in the icy cold crystal-clear waters of the Test in Hampshire and wallowing in a bathing hole near the source of the Thames in West Oxfordshire. As ever, I kept my archaeological head on and got to thinking about the landscape evidence for swimming. I don’t mean the rise of the public swimming baths, pools and lidos which flourished following  the 1846 Public Baths and Wash-houses Act; there has certainly been lots of work on the architecture of these structures. Nor was I thinking about sea bathing which developed in popularity over the 19th century, rather I was pondering how swimming in fresh water, or what is now rather archly termed ‘wild swimming’, mucking around in rivers, ponds and streams might leave a landscape trace.
Obviously, much of the immediate impact is ephemeral, there are scrapes and erosion patches on river banks showing where people got in and out of the water. There are also the inevitable scrappy lengths of rope tied to trees, by which teenagers and those who still think they are teenagers can get their Tarzan fantasies out of their system. It is unlikely that these would survive in the long-term in the landscape record, although presumably it is this kind of simple set up that characterised the bathing places of the medieval and early modern world, everything informal and ad hoc. However, poking around a little it is clear that there is in fact a more substantial and developed landscape of freshwater swimming.

Parsons Pleasure c.1870
Parsons Pleasure c.1950
I’ve only looked at a rather small area, the middle and upper Thames in Oxfordshire, an area I know fairly well and it is where I’ve done most of my river swimming. A quick look at the map though reveals a multiplicity of bathing places in and around Oxford. In some cases, these were clearly quite informal , whilst in others quite considerable infrastructure developed. Perhaps the best known site is Parson’s Pleasure – a bathing place on the River Cherwell in the University Parks, which became well known as a place for nude bathing and was frequented by dons and students in the 19th and 20th century. The area was reserved for men, and was located on an ostensibly easily bypassed branch of the river. It was an area rich in University folklore- allegedly a female student accidentally punted passed a group of naked lounging dons. All but one cover their privates, but the classicist Maurice Bowra covered his face instead stating "I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford, I, at least, am known by my face”. From the 1930s a nearby area was used for naked bathing by female students and was known a Dames Delight. Although Parsons Pleasure started as an informal and undeveloped location, by the mid-20th century there were changing rooms, and the area was screened off from prying eyes by formal fencing.

Long Bridges Bathing Place c1950
Whilst, these two sites were clearly rather exclusive areas intended for the use of the Gown, the Town were also well provided with formal bathing places – Tumbling Bay (off the allotment on Botley Road), Long Bridges (near Donnington Bridge), Wolvercote and St Ebbe’s all had their own bathing places which were provided with varying levels of infrastructure. Tumbling Bay had changing rooms, weirs to manage the level of the formally landscaped pool, flower beds and ladders  These were clearly for the use of the general population of Oxford – St Ebbe’s for example, was before its clearance, one of the town’s largest slums. Indeed, many of these places seem to have been at least partly managed by the council before they closed them down in 1990s. Doubtless they were seen as cheap and easily maintained public services, less complex to manage and maintain than formally built lidos. [for more on the bathing sites of Oxford and what remains there now have a look at the great Dereliction in the Shires website )
Wolvercote bathing places - (C) Picture Oxon

It is perhaps not surprising that Oxford has so many river bathing locations- it’s a university town with many channels and watercourses braiding through it. Crucially, there were relatively few large industries chucking effluent into the water. However, it was not only in places like this that there were formal bathing places. I’ve fortuitously stumbled across a similar development in a small village just a dozen miles away. West Hanney lies on the Letcombe Brooke, one of the slow flowing tributaries of the Ock in the Vale of the White House. Not surprisingly, the river was used to power mills and for quenching the thirst of the inhabitants and their livestock. But in the later 19th century, a small formal bathing place was constructed on the brook. It seemingly comprised a corrugated iron enclosure, basic changing rooms and a veranda, whilst the stream was widened and provided with a concrete base. The local mill just downstream was able to maintain the level of water to allow swimming. This bathing place was paid for by the inhabitants of West Hanney and neighbouring East Hanney and was popular until in the early years of the 20th century there were allegations of ‘indecencies’ and its use was kerbed before it was finally destroyed by a flood in the 1940s. I only stumbled across this by chance, it is probable that many more such small-scale swimming holes must have  constructed and used in the 19th and 20th centuries, which would only be picked up by detailed exploration of OS maps and local histories.
Bathing place, West Hanney - late 19th century

A final dimension to these landscapes of swimming are the memorials to the occasions when things went badly wrong. Not surprisingly, it was not uncommon for people to drown, particularly when swimming near weirs or areas with strong undertows. In some cases, memorials were erected to them at or near the place of their demise. Perhaps the best known example is the obelisk erected on the weir at Sandford, just south of Oxford. Known as the ‘Sandford Lasher’ this weir was notoriously dangerous. The obelisk records the deaths of five students from Christchurch college who had drowned there in the 19th and early 20th century including the adopted son of J.M. Barrie. Another monument stands on the Thames between Folly Bridge and Osney Bridge commemorating Edgar Wilson, an assistant chemist, who died saving two boys who had got into trouble in the river in 1888.

 In the later 20th century swimming in natural watercourses went out of fashion, as worries about health and safety peaked in – and many children of my generation will remember being freaked out by the ‘Darkand Lonely Water’ public information films. It’s only recently that there has been renewed popularity in ‘wild swimming’ partly stimulated by Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. But these swimming sites are really interesting and neglected aspects of social history,that could do with some more research. Apart from anything as the worries about public decency at West Hanney and the ever-so-genteel hints of homosexuality associated with Parson’s Pleasure, these were places were the combination of nude swimming and young (and not so young) people meant that there were undoubtedly pretty strong sexual and gendered undercurrents to what went on.  The scene in a EM Forster’s Room With a View in which Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy and Cecil Vyse encounter the group of male characters bathing in the nude is just a hint of the kind of chance and planned encounters that must have happened at such sites. It would be wonderful for someone to start trying to record these sites, before they are lost to memory and nature.