Forde Abbey is a former Cistercian monastery dating from the c12. Grade 1 listed, it is now privately owned. The gardens and parts of the house are open to the public, and in Michelin guide speak Forde undoubtedly Mérite le détour and is Vaut le Voyage. In spring, the gardens are filled with thousands of tulips. Here is a small collection.
Closworth, a small village on the Somerset / Dorset border, has a fine church with c13 origins. The village itself is best known for its historical importance as a bell-foundry between the c16 and c18, originating with the Purdue family. Few traces of the foundry remain, but some notable bells survive from its earliest days, for example in Wells Cathedral.
A quick visit to the church revealed two items of interest for this blog: a fine early c17 tomb; and an agreeable but gnomon-less sundial of uncertain date.
TOMB OF WILLIAM COLLINS, 1609
HERE . LYETH . THE . BODIE .
OF . WILLIAM . COLLINS . THE .
SONNE . OF . ELLIS . COLLINS . WHO
DIED . THE . XXIX . OF . IAN
ANO . DOMI . 1609
The inscription on this lichened hamstone tomb is in leaded letters set into the stone and fixed. Not all have survived the intervening centuries. I have no idea how this was achieved, but presumably the lettering was first cut into the stone; and with the stone on a horizontal surface the lead was then added to fit the incisions, and pinned in place. The result is pleasingly rustic, with some ornamentation of the As and Hs. This type of inscription-work may not be particularly unusual, but seeing this ancient tomb dappled by sunlight on a spring day made it seem special. And I always enjoy ornamental dates.
SUNDIAL: ALL SANTS CHURCH, CLOSWORTH
We didn’t notice the sundial on the way into the churchyard. Our attention had been drawn to a tall memorial to the other side of the path. On the way out, it was of course obvious – as was the lack of a gnomon. Like the tomb and the gateposts, the pillar appears to be made from the local hamstone. There isn’t much information to be gleaned from the dial itself. There’s no maker’s mark (though sometimes those are hidden on the underside of the plate). At a guess, it is c19, but any comments would be welcome.
Shepherd’s huts are very vogue. For the price of a small- to medium-sized car you could have your own bespoke hut. For rather less, you could build one from a kit. If you had the time and patience. Then you could go glamping, even if only in your own garden. Or you could search online for a ‘pre-loved hut’, with the reassurance that apparently almost no hut, however dead, defunct or derelict, is beyond restoration. Even if what you end up with is, to all intents and purposes a new hut with couple of original parts (de-rusted).
For as long as anyone living remembers – and it’s at least 65 years – the hut featured here has been in situ by a gate in one of our fields. There’s some evidence that it may even have been brought over from Ireland sometime after my wife’s grandparents came to Dorset a hundred years ago. I first met the hut more than 40 years ago, when its condition seemed to be much as it is now. Over the passing years, until this winter, it had gradually become entirely concealed. First, there was luxuriant undergrowth. By the end, there was luxuriant overgrowth as well: you could have walked straight past without knowing there was anything under the thick tangle of bramble, hawthorn, old man’s beard and the like. Recently the area was cleared of much of the vegetation, and the hut stands revealed.
As far as I know, no one has been inside – or even tried to open the door – for decades. The family that farms the fields is into its 3rd generation of pastoral care. They haven’t needed the hut. A bit more clearing of undergrowth will be needed before we try to get in. It may prove interesting. During WWII some shepherd’s huts were used to house prisoners of war who had opted to work on the land in preference to captivity. In one I know of, their graffiti is still visible inside.
On the hub of the wheel is the maker’s name: Pierce Wexford Ireland – the Irish link. The company was established in 1839 and continued in operation until 2002. At one time, Pierce was the largest manufacturer of engineering and agricultural machinery in Ireland. Pierce stoves are still made, though elsewhere.
The enormous former Pierce foundry is now mainly occupied by a huge Tesco supermarket, their largest store outside Dublin. A memorial to the historic usage, made from machinery parts, is all that remains there of Pierce of Wexford. However, the name lives on, stamped on machinery and other manufactured items from the past. I find there is quite a trade in Ireland for Pierceiana, as no doubt it is known.
We have no plans for the hut, apart from having a look inside to see what (if anything) is there. A rattery, maybe. Its work is done, and it can continue to watch over the fields for many more years to come.
Credits: Pierce’s info & images from random online sources, in particular Emma Stafford (Observations from Daily Life), who hasn’t posted anything for 2 years and who I hope will not mind a credited use of the Pierce tractor seat & drain cover if she comes across this post; Photopol for the Tesco / statue image; National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (gateway); History Ireland Magazine (foundry image); and adverts.ie for the other Pierce items
The Pyrénées-Orientales department is rich in early medieval religious foundations. One of the most striking is the abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1009 on the flanks of The Canigou. This high mountain (2,784 m /9137 ft) – once thought to be the highest in the Pyrenees – is of particular symbolic significance in this Catalan region, one that has changed ownership and allegiances many times over the centuries. Even now the Catalan flag predominates in public places.
The Abbey is pleasingly inaccessible. Leaving aside a precipitous donkey track down a cliff, there is an easier track that leads up from the little village of Casteil. On certain days, at certain times, this can be negotiated by going in a small trailer drawn by a kind of skinny quadbike. Or else, it’s shanks’s pony. The steep walk is said to take 30 – 50 minutes. You’d have to be fit to reach the abbey in less than half an hour. We took 45 minutes, overtaken at intervals by serious walkers with kit to match. And gratifyingly, we overtook several puffing, wheezing and (frankly) sweaty pilgrims in our turn.
Much of the trek is through woodland, with encounters with red squirrels, nuthatches, black redstarts and a surprising variety of butterfly species. The vertical rise from the village to the Abbey is well over 1000 feet, and the mountain air is sweet and clear. Apart from a small chapel on the way and the visitor centre, there are no buildings apart from the Abbey. Those with the energy left can climb higher to a promontory overlooking the Abbey, from which the postcard and guidebook view can be replicated (header image). However there is the added advantage of being able to take zoom photos.
Over the centuries, the Abbey has suffered earthquake damage, secularisation in the c18, and consequent abandonment by the monks. Thereafter, it fell into disrepair, then ruin. Most of the contents were dispersed. The buildings were then treated as a quarry. The wonderful and important capitals of the cloister were looted, as were the remaining sculptures.
And so the ruins were left for well over 100 years until, in 1902, a local Bishop of Catalan origin began the massive task of restoration. Thirty years later, the work was complete. The lower church – basically the crypt – was found to be largely undamaged, and is substantially as it was in the c11. Much of the upper church and the cloister was able to be reconstructed. The rest of the monastery buildings are early c20.
The Abbey is currently occupied by the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes. This is a remarkable charismatic order, not least because both consecrated men and women can be members, as can priests. Furthermore, it is inclusive of unconsecrated people – even families – who share the broad beliefs and aims of the community and their missionary activities in parishes and hospitals. We were shown around by a remarkably spritely and down-to-earth young nun (at one stage she high-fived me!).
The cloister deserves separate consideration, not least because of the wonderful capitals, some of which were, amazingly, recovered as the result of a diligent search for dispersed original material during the restoration.
If you want to find out more about this remarkable place, it has its own website with plenty of information HERE
Florence in January. -8°C at night, zero during the day – but sunny enough in the middle of the day to be able to have coffee or even lunch outside. Apart from the Uffizi, no queues for anywhere. Most significant places on the tourist trail almost to oneself. Despite the cold, there is no frost: the air is so dry that the pavements, piazzas and even the cars are quite clear of frozen white crystals. By the river I caught the electric flash of a male kingfisher flying up from the water to an overhanging bush, his hunting perch. I watched him as he scanned the water below, occasionally diving down and returning to the same branch. Twice, I could see the glint of a tiny fish in his beak.
Since I was 17 I have been lucky enough to visit Florence quite often, not least because Mrs RH regularly goes there on business, and I am a keen ‘trailing spouse’. Over the years I don’t know how often I have crossed the Ponte Vecchio – or even simply walked to the mid-point to admire the views up and down river from the open areas between the pricey shops. This time I was walking the length of the Vasari corridor that connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno. A section runs straight over the bridge and then passes across the facade of Santa Felicita, into which the Medici family could sneak from the corridor to a large private balcony for spiritual refreshment. Passing the middle of the west side of the bridge, in the ‘tourist photo opp’ gap where Cellini’s bust adds to the photogenic view, I have never before looked upwards.
Here, on the roof of a shop, is an ancient sundial, supported by a white marble pillar. An eroded and almost illegible engraving below the pillar records that in 1333, floods caused the bridge to collapse and that “twelve years later, as pleased the Commune, it was rebuilt with this ornamentation”. The sundial itself, with its columnar divisions reminiscent of a rose window, marks the CANONICAL HOURS. The gnomon’s shadow indicates the hour of the day. If the sundial is the ‘ornamentation’ to which the inscription refers, then it is around 650 years old.
Seeing the sundial for the first time ever, yet in such a familiar place was a reminder that Florence is a city that demands great attention as one walks through the streets. Many buildings, even unassuming ones, have fine adornments high up that will catch the eye… but only if you are looking out for them.
VILLEFRANCHE-DE-CONFLENT is a small medieval walled town in Catalan country. It is watched over by Fort Liberia, one of VAUBAN‘s massive defensive constructions in this historically strategic area. The town is charming, and additionally famous for being the start of the ‘Train Jaune’, a picturesque narrow-gauge railway that climbs high into the Pyrénées. The amazing altitude rise is from 1250 ft at Villefranche to 5000 ft at the track’s summit just above the village of Mont Louis (which has its own Vauban fort)
The sundial above is high up on a house in the church square. It doesn’t exactly draw the eye, and would be very easy to miss. It’s on the house next to the Mairie (right, with the Catalan flag), below the small top windows.
TWO DIALS IN ONE
The main dial is etched and painted on cement, with roman numerals and showing hours, halves and quarters. The long gnomon is attached beneath a small sculpted head from which sun rays radiate – a simple representation of a solar deity. Above the head can be seen numbers, of which only 11 and 8 at the start, and 3 at the end can be made out with any certainty. Possibly, it is a date: the dial (which is not ancient) is otherwise undated and it is very hard to guess its age. I can find no explanation for the initials DS (top left, Gothic font) and ER (top right, normal font).
The small dial-within-a-dial shows the hours only, with arabic numerals. The gnomon points straight down. I am unsure of its purpose as a supplementary dial on the same plane, but I hope to find out.
The words “COM MES SOL FA MES BE ESCRIC” are Catalan and mean roughly “When it is sunny, I write (show the time) well”. This rather charming inscription was apparently added around 2000 by the village pastor.
Credit: for information, Michel Lalos, who has compiled a comprehensive illustrated record of the sundials of the Pyrénées-Orientales.
Even on a wet day, the ruins of the remote Premonstratensian Abbey of Shap in Cumbria are impressive. Although not much that is vertical remains, the layout of the extensive Abbey buildings can clearly be seen, with clarification from the helpful information boards. There was one particular puzzle that we encountered: a number of neatly incised circles on the floor of the nave, on both sides.
The purpose of the two lines of circles – we found 5 very clear ones – turns out to be quite straightforward. The nave floor dates from the c15. At that time, each Sunday there would be a procession involving the senior clergy. They entered the Abbey through the now-ruined west door. The circles marked the positions to be taken by the Canons, who then stood in two files before the nave altar. So the circles are in fact place-markers.
Our house provides nesting opportunities for sparrows on all sides. Somewhat ramshackle, with plenty of holes in the thick walls and under the eaves, it is perfect for the communal sparrow lifestyle. Every year we think of filling the holes, and then to decide not to. The sparrows do no harm. We’d miss them. Here are some chicks in the most easily accessible hole for photography. It is used every year, usually twice. An iPhone is best for the purpose because the flash is right next to the lens.
A picnic lunch at the Abbey of Jumièges, Normandy, has much to commend it – not least tranquility and a stunning view. As we sat enjoying the sunshine on our white bench, we both noticed something unusual on the nearest tower, something not mentioned in anything we had read about the Abbey. On the south wall below the 4 levels of arcaded towers you’ll see in the header image a small red item pointing down at 45º. A gnomon – and where there’s a gnomon, there’s a sundial (although the reverse is often not the case). So we went to investigate.
The Abbaye de Jumièges was a Benedictine monastery founded in 654AD. In the c9, the original abbey was burned down by Vikings, then rebuilt. A new and larger Abbey was consecrated in 1067, and it was further enlarged in the c13. Restoration work was carried out in the late c16. Subsequently, a vast sundial dated 1660 was crudely carved in the south face of the tower.
The primitive design and execution of the sundial is rather at odds with the architectural precision of the stonework and the daring of the conceit of building a hexagonal tower on two square ones, and topping it off with a circular tower… just because they could. The rustic sundial has more in common with the medieval Mass or Scratch sundials on churches, primitive devices that originally evolved simply to indicate the time of the next Mass, with the Priest moving a stick into the appropriate hole on the wall to mark the forthcoming canonical hour. From being an ‘event marker’, the addition of a gnomon and roughly scratched numerals placed higher on a church wall would later provide a community with a way to mark the hours – at least when the sun shone.
Returning to Jumièges, here is a closer look at the sundial, with embellishments that seem to have been carved freehand and endearingly ineptly for such a splendid and august building. Yet the time markers have clearly been carved with precision. My only negative comment on this exuberant and enjoyable timepiece is the modern gnomon that looks completely out of place to me. Maybe it’s the colour that’s the problem. Or the flat utilitarian blade of metal. Anyway, without glimpsing it from our picnic spot we would never have seen that side of the tower, and we would have missed an unusual treat.
All images: RH
St Mary’s Church in Melbury Bubb, Dorset stands on a hillside deep in Hardy Country. In The Woodlanders, the hamlet is called “Little Hintock”. The little-known church contains a particular pre-conquest treasure – a well-preserved c10 Anglo-Saxon font of great beauty and intricacy of carving. Simon Jenkins calls St Mary’s a “single treasure church” and praises its extaordinary “lack of pretension”. This remains one of the few un-electrified Dorset churches, with oil lamps for light and a coal-fired stove in the nave for warmth. The solitary church at nearby Hilfield is another.
A quick glance at the font reveals that it is in fact upside down. The theory is that it is carved from the upturned base of a Saxon cross, perhaps a “preaching cross” that presumably predated the original early church building as a place of congregation and worship. The carvings appear to depict – possibly – a lion, a wolf, a horse, a stag, a dolphin or porpoise, and a couple of smaller creatures. It takes a bit of a leap of imagination, and of course the beasts may even be mythical rather than representational. However, the helpful memorial frieze on the wall certainly makes tentative identifications easier without having to crick one’s neck unduly. I thought I’d detected a fish of some sort, but it turned out to be an upside-down animal haunch… I have included photos of the documents that are on the wall by the font, which give additional information and historical interpretations about the “single treasure”
Credits: all photos RH; light-touch research from church documents and Simon Jenkins ‘Great English Churches’