St. Botolph and Æpslea

I keep stumbling across Anglo-Saxons. Last week I discovered Peace Meadow. This week’s wanderings took me to the Bedfordshire village of Aspley Guise where I discovered an Anglo-Saxon saint. After a good start we got totally lost in the woods (mud! mud! glorious mud!). The walk was rather longer than it should have been, but it was a glorious winter morning, so not too much of a hardship. When we found ourselves again we ended up at the Church of St. Botolph.


Who was St. Botolph, I wondered? I have seen the dedication before, but had no idea where it came from. Thanks to Google I now know that he was a 7th century East Anglian saint, who founded a monastery near Aldeburgh in Suffolk. He died in 680 but his monastery survived until it was destroyed by Danes in 870. His relics were then divided between Ely, Thorney, and Westminster Abbey. Churches dedicated to St. Botulph were built at the four gates of the City of London, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Billingsgate. Three of these survive, but Billingsgate was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. St. Botulph, whose remains wandered about the country, became known as the patron saint of wayfarers and travellers.

St. Botolph’s church itself is largely Victorian, thanks to over enthusiastic restoration and rebuilding work, although there has certainly been a church on the site since at least the late 12th century. Aspley itself first appears very much earlier in an charter of the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar dated 969, in which he grants 15 hides in “Æpslea” to his thegn Alfwold with dire threats of hell fire to anyone who might try to hinder the gift. As translated by George Herbert Fowler this reads:

“In the name of our Lord Jesu Christ. Every generous gift of kings should be strengthened by the witness of writings, lest after-ages, from ignorance, fall unhappily into a distraught error. Wherefore I, Eadgar, by permission of divine grace King and Chief of all Albion, grant to my faithful servant called Alfwold by name known to the learned of this island, and to his heirs for ever, a certain piece of land, to wit [the land of] fifteen husbandmen in the place which by the vulgar is called Æpslea; so that he, while life be with him, may hold it as he wish wit hall that is useful – to wit, fields, pastures and woods – and after the term of his life may leave it freely to whatever heirs he will. But be it aforesaid that the land is free from all burthen of land service, three things excepted – to wit, warfaring, and the repair of bridge and castle. If therefore any one wish to change our gift to something else than we have settled, may he be cut off from the fellowship of Holy Church, and be wretchedly punished by the everlasting flames of the pit, along with Judas the betrayer of Christ and his accomplices, unless he shall have made good his fault against our decree by fitting amends. The land aforesaid is bounded by these marks from place to place”.

The charter then goes on describe the boundaries of the land in detail, in terms which are a miniature natural history of the 10th century parish: “thence on to the white moor, and afterwards by a fen to the chief field, up to the little knoll; thence to the apple tree where three land boundaries meet” … “from the deer-gate over the heath to the combe” … “from the maple tree on to the long corner, always by the High Wood to the tall thorn tree”. It is extraordinary that a single document can paint such a vivid picture of the landscape as it was over 1000 years ago. Unfortunately given that I could not follow even a modern set of directions without going astray – although I would normally consider myself to have a reasonably good sense of direction! – I wouldn’t fancy my chances of managing to walk the bounds of Anglo-Saxon Æpslea even if the apple and maple trees were not long gone. [You can find the full text of the charter here]



Peace Meadow

Most of the places I pass on local walks have only small scale, local histories. Yesterday a stroll down the Grand Union Canal took me to a spot which had a brief moment of national importance. Walking along a slightly different section of the canal to usual I found myself in Peace Meadow.


Although I was familiar with the history of the area,  Peace Meadow itself was new to me. An information board told me that the site had been bought by the local council in 2012, extending Tiddenfoot Waterside Park at Linslade (Bedfordshire) to the opposite bank of the canal. The meadow was given its name as a reminder that a peace treaty had been agreed at Tiddenfoot, then known as Yttingaford, between the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Elder and the Danes in the year 906. After the death of King Alfred, the great king’s son Edward had continued his father’s fight against the Danes. The early years of Edward’s reign were difficult. In 902 he fought the bloody Battle of the Holme, and in 906 he found it necessary to make peace with the Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria.

The event is recorded only by a brief entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but it is not hard to see why Tiddenfoot might have been chosen for a meeting between Danes and Anglo-Saxons. The edge of the Danelaw ran for some way along or close to nearby Watling Street, making Leighton (which had not yet gained the Buzzard part of its name) a convenient border settlement. Tiddenfoot itself was handily accessible, being located at the point where an ancient salt route known as the Theed Way, or Thiodweg, crossed the River Ousel. After its moment in the 10th century spotlight Tiddenfoot passed into obscurity and the Theed Way was rerouted through the town of Leighton. It is good to see that 1100 years later there is now a public space to commemorate its place in history.

Ancient Woodland

Winter Tree

Last year we celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (which spellcheck irritatingly insists on changing to “manga”). Next year it will be the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter’s less famous little brother, the Charter of the Forest, which was drawn up to limit some of the abuses relating to the king’s forest law. To celebrate this, in 2017 the Woodland Trust is planning to issue a Charter for Trees, Woods and People which is intended to “redefine the relationship between trees and people in the UK for the future”. To shape the contents of the charter they are asking people to share their own stories of trees and woodland, and the ways in which they have shaped both the landscape and the lives of individuals and communities. So, as you do, I have been pondering trees in general and historic woodland in particular.

One of our regular walking spots is a nearby country park at Heath and Reach in Bedfordshire. Much of this is recently planted woodland on land which was once the grounds of a country house, but it also includes some reinstated natural heathland and two areas of “ancient woodland”, Bakers Wood and Kings Wood. Google tells me that to qualify as “ancient” a wood must be known to have existed since at least 1600, though most will be far older and may date back 10,000 years as part of the country’s original woodland cover. These woodlands are semi-natural – for centuries they were managed and used sustainably through the use of pollarding and coppicing, practices which are being reintroduced to maintain the ecological balance of the woodland. Bakers Wood also has a medieval woodbank, originally used to mark boundaries and now flanking the side of a footpath, formerly a road.

A little research turned up a lawsuit which gives a glimpse into the working life of the wood in the 19th century. In 1842 a local man, Thomas Bodsworth, appeared at the Bedford Quarter Sessions charged with stealing a quantity of “ling” or “heath” (heather) from Bakers Wood. James Hedges, a woodman employed by the owner of the estate, Lord Leigh, had been cutting and faggoting ling, leaving it in stacks containing ten faggots. Another woodman, Thomas Morgan, described how he had been going along the bottom of Bakers Wood early one July morning when he saw a man who should not have been there coming down a private path. The man called out to him, apparently assuming he was someone else, but he did not answer. Morgan followed, caught the man, who he then recognised as a certain Thomas Bodsworth, and found him in possession of a bundle of ling. Morgan escorted Bodsworth from the wood and left the ling under some oak boughs. Hedges stated that when Morgan told him he had caught Bodsworth he had checked his stacks; two had been pulled down and the best of the ling taken out of the faggots.He was able to identify the ling found on Bodsworth as the missing amount. Lord Leigh’s land agent John Flint told the court he had never given Bodsworth permission to take any ling, either from the wood or from any other part of the estate. Bodsworth said he hoped Mr. Flint would forgive him. He was unable to buy any ling and he had wanted some to make besoms; he had nothing else to live on. Although Bodsworth pleaded not guilty, he was found guilty of stealing two faggots worth sixpence and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

London Underground: 153 Today

Thanks to Twitter I discovered that today is the 153rd anniversary of the London Underground. The first passenger trains ran on 10th January 1863 between Paddington and Faringdon on what is now the Metropolitan Line. To celebrate the birthday of the world’s first underground railway, here are some links to posts and articles celebrating the history of the Tube.


Image: GWR broad gauge Metropolitan class locomotive, as used in the 1860s [Wikimedia Commons, public domain]

The Birth of London’s Underground by Adam Wood at Casebook: Jack the Ripper describes the origins of the Underground and traces the history of the Metropolitan, District and Circle Lines through to electrification in 1905.

Transport for London’s A Brief History of the Underground gives a timeline of its first 150 years, and the Telegraph has a pictorial history of the Tube.

If you are intrigued by lost stations take a look Disused Stations on London’s Underground by Hywel Williams at Underground History. I can’t believe that in the many times I have travelled between Tottenham Court Road and Holbon on the Central Line I have never noticed the British Museum “ghost” station, though  I do remember using the shuttle service to Aldwych station before it closed in 1994. You can also play with jigsaw puzzle versions of pictures of some former stations and abandoned platforms.


Image: Aldwych Station in use as a shelter, 1940 [Imperial War Museums HU44272 under IWM Non-Commercial Licence]

In 2013 the Independent published 150 facts for 150 years of the London Tube. A couple of snippets to whet your appetite … It is common knowledge that Underground stations were used as bomb shelters in World War II, but in 1917 as many as 300,000 people were sheltering in Tube stations to avoid German bombing raids; the original recording of “Mind the gap” was made in 1968 by Peter Lodge; and Farringdon Station is said to be haunted by the ghost of a dead milliner, Annie Naylor, known as the Screaming Spectre.


Pickering Flood of 1754

Pickering Market Place

Image: Mattbuck under Creative Commons Licence

Like most people I have been watching this winter’s dreadful floods in Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire with horror. In amongst the bad news my Facebook feed pointed me at this article from the Independent on how the town of Pickering in North Yorkshire successfully used natural defences to avoid flooding. Copying methods used by the medieval monks of  nearby Byland Abbey the town built a bund to hold back rainwater on the moors along with a series of leaky dams and other obstructions. According to the article the town had flooded four times between 1999 and 2007, but this time while other towns and cities were inundated Pickering stayed dry.

Curious about the town’s history of flooding I found this documentary record of flooding in the Vale of Pickering with descriptions of historic floods back to 1754 when “the River Derwent was never known higher in the memory of man” and the bridge at Thirsk was washed away. Thirteen people from two families were drowned. This description comes from the British Hydrological Society Chronology of Hydrological Events:

” A sudden inundation of the river Rye happened at Helmsley in Yorkshire, such as had never been known by the oldest people in those parts, probably occasioned by the late heavy rains.Two houses were entirely washed away , the one inhabited by James Holdforth, he and his whole family drowned, except his wife, who being sick in her bed, was carried down the stream half a mile, and at last washed off into a field, where she was found the next morning very little hurt. The other house belonged to John Sunley, was also drowned, and all his family. In the whole thirteen persons.(sic) Two other houses were greatly damaged, as was also the stone bridge at the entrance to the town; fourteen hay-stacks were driven down the river a mile, on one of which was a half year old calf, who kept its footing, and was taken off alive. The kitchen-garden walls, and part of those of the park, belonging to the fine seat of Thomas Duncombe esq were washed away. Two large bridges, one of stone, the other of wood, at Rivaulx, were driven down, as were several more lying upon the river Rye, and others damaged. A malt-kiln, with a large quantity of malt and cinders at Rivaulx, belonging to Robert Berry, were utterly destroyed. The water formed a vent for itself, by forcing through the wall of his kitchen, which prevented the house from being driven down; the man and his family saved their lives by getting up into the chambers. There had also been terrible havock among the inhabitants at Rivaulx, as well as at Helmsley, by damaging of houses and drowning of cattle. One Simpson, a farmer at Rivaulx, had seven calves drowned; and Robert Sandwith’s tanyard at Helmsley, were utterly destroyed, and leather washed out of the pits to a great value. The river Derwent was never known higher in the memory of man. Mr Creasor, of Ferby, near Malton, was drowned near Westow, in his return home from Pocklington fair.Thirsk bridge was entirely washed away, and the inhabitants suffered great damage, but no lives lost.”

Floodwater at Pickering, 26 July 2007

Image: Harkey Lodger under Creative Commons License (unaltered)

Previous efforts to prevent flooding have been rather less successful than those of 2015, with the law of unintended consequences producing worse floods downstream after efforts were made to reduce flooding  higher up. The British Hydrological Society Chronology records that the River Derwent “continued to overflow its banks following heavy or prolonged rainfall, and so an Act of 1846 authorized the elimination of the old mill weirs at Old Malton and Malton. This increased the river’s gradient …above Malton, but the Act made no provision for improving the river’s channel below Malton. As a result the Derwent rose higher there than previously in high-flow conditions; in 1868 the railway had to be raised, and neglect of the river’s channels contributed to ‘the worst flood ever known’ in 1878”.


Honest Old Thomas Cotes

On New Year’s Day we decided to walk off some of the festive overeating and over drinking with a country walk at the Buckinghamshire village of Wing. The village is blessed with an extraordinary Saxon church, possibly dating from as early as the late 7th century and with a 9th century (the earliest in the country). The church was open, so we took advantage and went inside. I have been many times before, but this was the first time I noticed a memorial plaque on the south wall. The inscription reads:


Honest old Thomas Cotes, that somtime was porter at Ascott Hall, hath now (alas) left his key, lodg, fyre, friends and all to have a roome in heaven. This is that good mans grave reader, prepare for thine, for none can tell but that you two may meete to night, farewell.

He dyed the 20th of November 1648

Set up at the apoyntment and charges of his friend Geo. Houghton

Above the inscription is an image of Thomas Cotes, holding out his arms (presumably to heaven), with his hat and key beside him.


Wing also boasts a National Trust property, Ascott House. I assumed that this was where Thomas Cotes was porter, but a bit of research showed it was not quite so simple. The present Ascott House is based on an early 17th century farmhouse, very much altered and extended by the Rothschild family in the 19th century. When Baron Meyer de Rothschild bought the farmhouse in 1873 it was known as Ascott Hall, and Ascott Hall is where Thomas Cotes was said to be porter. However, it seems most unlikely that a mere farmhouse would have had a porter’s lodge, especially as there was a great house close by. This was the original Ascott House, which stood on a site to the south-west, nearer to the village.

The old Ascott House was built on the site of a medieval priory by the Dormer family in the 16th century. In 1554 it provided lodgings for Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth on her way to London as her sister’s prisoner. Jane, a daughter of Sir William Dormer of Ascott, was a favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary who later married into the Spanish nobility, so the Dormers must have been seen as safe custodians for the princess. In the early 17th century the Dormers were a family on the rise. Sir Robert Dormer was created Lord Dormer of Wing in 1615 and his grandson, another Robert, was created Viscount Ascott and Earl of Caernarvon in 1628. The earl fought on the Royalist side during the Civil War and was killed at the first battle of Newbury in 1643. The Victoria County History says that his son, the 2nd Earl of Caernarvon, “kept great hospitality at Ascott House, and his fine bowling green, which can still be traced, was much appreciated”. In 1645 King Charles I stayed at Ascott while his army sheltered nearby. We can imagine “honest old Thomas” the porter granting admittance to his beleaguered King. Unfortunately, in the early 18th century Ascott House fell into disuse and decay; today only earthworks remain to mark the site.

Thoughts on the imagery of the monument to Thomas Cotes and the role of a porter in the 17th century can be found in this blog post, “I pray you remember the porter” by Early Modern Whale. I can’t add any more information about Thomas, but his benefactor George Houghton was sufficiently affluent that his will had to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury when he died in 1655.

Every Place Tells A Story

I have enjoyed history for as long as I can remember; sometimes studying it, sometimes working with it, sometimes experiencing it, sometimes just soaking it up. As a child I loved the drama of famous people and great events – largely discovered through those wonderful 1960s Ladybird books. Since then I have discovered the fascination of history that is smaller scale and more local, the story of places and the people connected to them.

I love to see the places around me through the lens of history, adding the past as a fourth dimension to the landscape. Foor example, on my regular drive to work I pass the the site of World War II prisoner of war camp, the location of a medieval holy well, a grange of a medieval monastery, one of the oldest schools in the county, the site of another medieval religious foundation, an army barracks, an old coaching inn, a number of pubs, the entrance arch to a demolished ironworks – I could go on with a much longer list. And all these places are brought to life by their stories. The soldier who was punched by a comrade and tragically died after hitting his head on the brickwork of the entry arch of the army barracks; the former soldier who accidentally killed himself and three other employees in an explosion as he tried to dismantle a souvenir German shell in a workshop at the ironworks; the vicious assault on a pub by an angry mob in 1915 because although the landlord was naturalised British he had been born in Germany; the abbot executed in the grounds of his monastery because he refused to take Henry VIII’s oath of supremacy; the pilgrimages to the medieval well which were stopped by an edict of the bishop of Lincoln. Again, this just scratches the surface of the stories of the places I pass.

I have been thinking for a while about creating a place online where I can share my love of local history, tell the stories of some of the places I visit, and help readers to dig into the past and discover the stories of their own places. I am not sure yet quite what shape this blog will take. It will inevitably be biased towards my own local area – the counties of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire – but I intend to travel further afield too, both in real life and online. I also hope to share some of the amazing work done by local history societies, archives and community projects to bring the past to life. I don’t know yet where else the blog may wander, but I would love you to join me on the journey.