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.