Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Long Post about Hedges

A new hedgerow in Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

In November 1795, George Washington wrote to his farm manager, William Pearce: “There is nothing which has relation to my farms, not even the Crops of grain, that I am so solicitous about as getting my fields enclosed with live fences, I cannot too often, nor too strongly inculcate this doctrine upon you... [For] at least 15 years have I been urging my managers to substitute live fences in lieu of dead ones, which, if continued upon the extensive scale my farms require, must exhaust all my timber...” Washington’s weekly correspondence with Pearce was filled with instructions on the cultivation of hedges. He told Pearce to gather the berries of white thorn and cedar, to germinate and transplant honey locust, and to set out rows of poplar and willow. He even loaned his manager a practical treatise on Hedges.

A mature hedgerow (with gaps). Camp Farm, Kenilworth

Hedgerows are one of the defining features of the English rural landscape. To the American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, who visited Warwickshire in 1850, they represented “the chief difference between an English rural landscape” and the landscape of the rural United States. When he came upon a spot where a section of hedge had been destroyed, and a temporary rail fence erected, he found that “the whole thing was lowered at once to the harshness and rickety aspect of a farm at home.” For George Washington, and other enlightened American farmers in the late eighteenth century who wanted to enclose their fields with beautiful hedges, the challenge was to find a hedge plant that would flourish in the American environment. The most common English hedge plant, the hawthorn, didn’t fare well in America. Washington experimented with honey locust. Another possibility was “Newcastle thorn” (Crataegus crus-galli), which was native to the East Coast.

Michele Felice Corné, "The Ezekiel Hersey Derby Farm" (1800). The farm before Derby's fateful discovery of a new hedge plant.

In about 1808, a gentleman farmer in Salem, Massachussets, Ezekiel Hersey Derby, happened to notice an unusual and flourishing thorn tree in the garden of Salem’s distinguished physician, Dr. Edward Holyoke. The tree produced plentiful berries, which appeared to germinate quickly and easily—unlike other more temperamental species of thorn commonly used in hedges. Derby asked Dr. Holyoke about the tree and learned that it was Rhamnus catharticus, or buckthorn, a species long cultivated for the purgative qualities of its berries and bark. Syrup of buckthorn, advised Eliza Smith in The Compleat Housewife (Williamsburg 1742), provided “a good purge.” But no one, until Ezekiel Derby saw it growing in Dr. Holyoke’s garden, had thought to try buckthorn in hedges.

Buckthorn, Derby found, created a virtually indestructible hedge. He was so pleased with the results of his experiment that he began to publicize it in the agricultural journals. In 1832, John Lowell, the secretary of the Massachussets Agricultural Society, wrote: “We are indebted wholly, and entirely, to the experiments of Ezekiel Hersey Derby, Esq., for the possession of a plant, the buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), which, from ten years’ trial seems to afford every desirable quality for a healthy, beautiful, and effectual hedge." By the 1840s, farmers in the prairie states, where timber for rail fences was scarce, learned about buckthorn from the agricultural journals and began to send back east for seeds. The editor of The United Agriculturalist in Chicago obligingly acquired a large supply from Connecticut that he made available to his subscribers.

Buckthorn in a Minnesota woods.

To anyone in Minnesota who has walked through the woods in the late fall, this is a familiar sight. The qualities which Derby so admired in buckthorn, its easy propagation and indestructibility, have made it a plague on the native landscapes of Minnesota. The exotic buckthorn easily escaped from cultivation in hedges and invaded the woods and oak savanna, from which it is now nearly impossible to eradicate.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Accounts of Nineteenth-Century American Sightseers at Kenilworth Castle

Engraving from Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Rom Companion, November 5, 1859

In 1838, a travelling correspondent for the American Episcopal Observer described his first sight of Kenilworth Castle: “We saw immediately before us emerging from the trees the ivy-mantled ruins of this once princely mansion, meet emblem alike of the vanity and power of man, its ruined condition bearing witness of the folly of his efforts to render his name immortal, and its very existence, still defying the assaults of time, speaking of his power... Sic transit! is written in letters of light on every thing the eye rests upon.” Leicester’s gatehouse was occupied as a farmhouse, the medieval barn was still stocked with hay, and sheep grazed in the castle’s courtyard. Ragged little girls from the “straggling village” clustered around the main gate, approaching visitors with guidebooks that sold for a shilling. Melancholy rooks wheeled above the crumbling walls.

Nineteenth-century American visitors to Kenilworth arrived with their heads full of Sir Walter Scott’s descriptions of the pomp of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the castle in 1575. The contrast with the present ruined state of the castle was impressive, and presented a kind of moral spectacle. “Time has outwatched each warder,” wrote another American visitor in 1847, “and hung its mouldering hatchment over all who have lived and struggled here. As I behold in imagination the stern, severe Elizabeth, passing beneath yonder arch on her gallant steed, and princes and nobles of every degree pressing on her steps, and then turn to the deserted ruin, I involuntarily exclaim, ‘Ghosts are we all!’”

In 1844, an American named C. W. Thomson contributed a poem about the ruins of Kenilworth Castle to the literary magazine The Friend. The poet contrasted the pomp and pride of Queen Elizabeth’s reign with the ruins of the castle, which were a reminder that even the proud and powerful must die, and that “earthly gain” ultimately amounts to nothing:

Riches take wings and fly.
Fame, honour, grandeur, all must fade away—
But the redeemed, in life’s extremity,
Shall find in Christ their stay.

At the end of the nineteenth-century, Kenilworth Castle was so crowded with tourists that it became harder to yield to the melancholy moral romance of the place. An American “bohemian” on a tour of England in 1896 complained: “Scores of holiday-making visitors, who literally swarmed over every nook and cranny in the place, shortened our visit; and I was not able to reconstruct the home of poor ill-fated Amy Robsart out of the few scattered remnants that remain, nor able to dream of the love of Queen Bess for Leicester, with a horde of noisy sightseers rushing about.”

Kenilworth Castle from the southeast
November 29, 2006

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Her Majesty's Swans

Mute Swans in the Abbey Fields pond, Kenilworth (notice also the long shadows; this photograph was taken at noon).

Last week, a Muslim man in Wales was jailed for killing and eating a mute swan. He explained that he had been fasting for Ramadan, and was desperately hungry. He was apprehended with blood on his shirt and white feathers in his beard. The officers making the arrest told him that all swans in Great Britain were the property of the Queen. He replied, "I hate the Queen. I hate this country." Actually, although the Queen claims right of ownership of "all unmarked mute swans in open water," she only exercises that right for certain stretches of the River Thames. Royal ownership of swans dates back to the 13th century, when swans were a favorite dish at royal banquets. Each year, in mid-July, the royal Swan Warden performs a census of swans on the Thames, in a ceremony known as the "swan upping." For the record, it is illegal to kill swans not because they belong to the Queen, but because they are protected as endangered species under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Link: The story of the swan-eating Muslim, from the BBC.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Fanny Trollope finds Americans a coarse and hypocritical lot, and nowhere do they exhibit more coarseness and hypocrisy than in the practice of religion. American religious fundamentalism appalls her—especially the orgiastic revival meetings, full of "beautiful young females" in the grips of religious ecstacy, swooning into the arms of opportunistic preachers. And yet Americans, she finds, are squeamish about uttering words like "corset." What a strange mixture of prudery and excess! In England, Trollope argues, the Anglican church is so much more tasteful. She writes:

My residence in the country [i.e., America] has shewn me that religious tyranny may be exerted very effectually without the aid of the government, in a way much more oppressive than the paying of tithe, and without obtaining any of the salutary decorum, which I presume no one will deny is the result of an established mode of worship.

Alan Bennett has observed that, in England, "whether or not one believes in God tends to be sidestepped. It's not quite in good taste. Someone said that the Church of England is so constituted that its members can really believe anything at all, but of course almost none of them do." Bennett's remark is quoted in anthropologist Kate Fox's book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Fox herself recalls observing a mother and daughter filling out a form in a doctor's waiting room:

The daughter asked, "Religion? What religion am I? We're not any religion, are we?" "No, we're not," replied her mother. "Just put C of E." "What's C of E?" asked the daughter. "Church of England." "Is that a religion?" "Yes, sort of. Well, no, not really—it's just what you put."

Fox goes on to quote the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, who described his church as "an elderly lady, who mutters away to herself in a corner, ignored most of the time." In contrast to the pharisaical American President, who proclaims his religion on the street corners, the British Prime Minister is careful to keep his religious beliefs private. Fox writes: "Our current Prime Minister is known to be a devout Christian, an affliction we tolerate in our usual grudgingly courteous fashion, but only because he has the good sense to keep extremely quiet about it."

As I've observed earlier in this blog, America's constitutional separation of church and state has given religion (specifically, Christianity) a much more potent political influence than it has in England. The established religion sits in a corner and mutters to itself. The disestablished religion shouts and bullies.

Part of this, I suppose, has to do with the English sense of taste and decorum, their national modesty (but not prudishness, as in refusing to say "corset"), which both Trollope (1830) and Fox (2004) remark upon. This can be observed even in the English attitude toward the names of their churches. About the abbreviation "C of E" for the Church of England, Fox writes: "we prefer to use this abbreviation whenever the word 'church' sounds a bit religious, and 'England' may seem a bit patriotic."

In England, the Congregationalists and Presbyterians came together in 1972 to form a new denomination called the United Reformed Church. At the time, there was much discussion about what the new church should be called. One of the members of the clergy involved in the process has written: "[One] name suggested was United Church of Christ, as in the United States of America, but that was felt to be perhaps a little too arrogant, making too strong a claim."

This modest attitude, as Fox and Trollope would point out, is typically English.
Fanny Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (Penguin Classics)
Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Christmas Season Begins

Friday evening marked the beginning of the Christmas season in Kenilworth, with the ceremonial lighting of the town's Christmas lights. A large section of the main shopping street, the Warwick Road, was blocked off and filled with people trying their luck at various tombolas. Tombola is an Italian word for a raffle in which numbers are pulled out of a drum (tombola is cognate with the English "tumble.") In an English tombola, numbered tickets (5 for £1) are drawn from a bucket; if the number on the ticket ends with a 0 or a 5, you win a corresponding donated prize. The money collected usually goes to a charity. With 20 tickets (£5), we managed to win four prizes, ranging from a small blue vase to a kitschy teddy bear figurine. The money went to the Kenilworth Netball Club (netball is a type of women's basketball popular in England). Then, at about 7:00 pm, the loud band and the light drizzle stopped, and the Mayor of Kenilworth, in full regalia, switched on the lights. The Christmas season has begun.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Domestic Manners of the Americans

Frances Trollope (1779-1863).

I've begun reading one of the masterpieces of English snobbery toward Americans, Fanny Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Mrs. Trollope, the mother of novelist Anthony Trollope, travelled to America in 1827 with the intention of settling down at Nashoba, a utopian community in the Tennessee backwoods. She ended up settling in Cincinnati, where a series of disastrous business ventures left her bankrupt and forced her to return to England. Back home, she vented her spleen in a book that became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Dickens loved it, and after his own trip to the States was forced to concur with her low opinions of Americans. Even Mark Twain later agreed that Trollope's sharp eye had captured the uncouth nature of the America of his youth. She detested the American habit of spitting and of rushing through meals, and condemned the great American hypocrisy of permitting slavery in a self-proclaimed land of liberty. Nonetheless, she had her own peculiarly British prejudices; thus, sharing a steamboat with a group of Kentuckians from New Orleans to Memphis, she remarks: "Whatever their moral characteristics may be, these Kentuckians are a very noble-looking race of men; their average height considerably exceeds that of Europeans, and their countenances, excepting when disfigured by red hair, which is not unfrequent, extremely handsome."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Posted on Thursday, November 23
Happy John Donne Elected Canon of St. Paul's Day

John Donne.

On this date in 1621, while the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags were sitting down to the first Thanksgiving, nothing much special was happening in England. It was an ordinary day, much like today—unless you were the poet John Donne, who on this day was elected a canon of St. Paul's Cathedral.

In 1613, Donne wrote an epithalamion—a wedding ode—for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick, the Elector of Palatine. Elizabeth was the daughter of James I—the same Elizabeth who, as a little girl living at Coombe Abbey, was targeted by the Gunpowder Plotters as a possible puppet monarch. The wedding was on Valentine's Day—

Up then, fair phoenix bride, frustrate the sun ;
Thyself from thine affection
Takest warmth enough, and from thine eye
All lesser birds will take their jollity.
Up, up, fair bride, and call
Thy stars from out their several boxes, take
Thy rubies, pearls, and diamonds forth, and make
Thyself a constellation of them all ;
And by their blazing signify
That a great princess falls, but doth not die.
Be thou a new star, that to us portends
Ends of much wonder ; and be thou those ends.
Since thou dost this day in new glory shine,
May all men date records from this day, Valentine.

Elizabeth of Bohemia (notice the beautiful red hair).

Europe in 1621 was in the midst of a long period of religious warfare between Catholics and Protestants—the Thirty Years War. A year earlier, as the Mayflower was approaching Cape Cod, the Protestant Elector of Palatine, Frederick, was defeated by the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor at White M0untain, near Prague, putting an end to Frederick's hopes of a Protestant Bohemia.

The defeat took place on November 8, 1620. Three days later, the Pilgrims anchored off Cape Cod and signed the Mayflower Compact. On shore, they found the Wampanoag, their numbers already greatly diminished by an epidemic that had raged among them between 1614 and 1620. From a population of 12,000 in 1600, only about 2,000 survived to greet the arriving Pilgrims.

Elizabeth and Frederick, meanwhile, had fled to Protestant Holland—where, until July of that year, a group of English Puritans had been living in exile. In July, those exiled Puritans had left Leiden on the Speedwell to rendezvous with another ship, the Mayflower.

As Canon of St. Paul's, John Donne, who never published a poem in his lifetime, had a notable career as a preacher. On November 13, 1622, he preached a sermon to members of the Virginia Company who were about to set sail for the New World, where they exercised a monopoly on the sale of tobacco to England. Donne exhorted them:

There is a power rooted in nature, and a power rooted in grace: a power issuing out of the law of nature, and a power growing out of the Gospel. In the law of nature, and nations, a land never inhabited by any, or utterly derelicted, and immemorially abandoned by the former inhabitants, becomes theirs that will possess it.

"Little Virginia," Kenilworth (photographed in September)

Once across the Atlantic, the Virginia Company was soon nearly wiped out by the Powhatans. Relations between the English and the native peoples in Virginia had been sour since the first expeditions of Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1590s. On one of those expeditions, according to legend, Raleigh brought back to England a new vegetable he had discovered in the New World—the potato. Local legend has it that the first potatoes in England were planted here in Kenilworth, in a small area between the High Street and the castle still known as "Little Virginia."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Television Update

Lucy Griffiths (Maid Marion) and
Jonas Armstrong (Robin).

So far, the highlight of the fall television season has been the stylish four-part adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, which I mentioned in an earlier post. Since then, the "must-see t.v." has been the new 13-part Robin Hood, starring cheeky Jonas Armstrong as Robin, gleefully evil Keith Allen as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and luscious Lucy Griffiths as Maid Marion. Allen's Sheriff is my favorite bad guy since the Mayor on season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The other much-hyped new show is the Dr. Who spin-off, Torchwood. ("Torchwood" is an anagram of "Doctor Who.") It's pretty awful. Speaking of Buffy, the Torchwood producers need to hire Joss Wheedon to save their pretentious, humorless show. John Borrowman's character, mysterious past and all, is unappealing and uninteresting. The plots are full of holes. The writing is terrible.
William Shenstone (1714-1763)

Monday (November 13) was the birthday of the poet William Shenstone, born in Halesowen. His most famous poem was a long poem titled The Schoolmistress: An Imitation of Spenser. He is perhaps equally famous, though, for his role in the development of English landscape gardening. He turned his family estate in Halesowen, the Leasowes, into a showcase for the new eighteenth-century style of classically-inspired garden design. Especially famous in its day was "Virgil's Grove" at the Leasowes, a pastoral landscape featuring an obelisk meant to represent the tomb of the Roman poet Virgil. The Leasowes was so famous that Thomas Jefferson included it on his tour of English gardens in 1786—along with gardens of more enduring fame, like the gardens of Stowe and Blenheim. The photograph here is of the small arboretum near the main entrance of the Warkwickshire golf club, formerly the gardens of the nineteenth-century manor house Wootton Court. The lone ionic column, with its patina of green, is very much in the tradition of landscape gardening that began with William Shenstone in the eighteenth century. The light, when I took this picture, was absolutely perfect.

Here's a poem for the day by William Shenstone.

The Landskip

How pleas'd within my native bowers
Erewhile I pass'd the day!
Was ever scene so deck'd with flowers?
Were ever flowers so gay?

How sweetly smil'd the hill, the vale,
And all the landskip round!
The river gliding down the dale!
The hill with beeches crown'd!

But now, when urg'd by tender woes,
I speed to meet my dear,
That hill and stream my zeal oppose,
And check my fond career.

No more, since Daphne was my theme,
Their wonted charms I see:
That verdant hill, and silver stream,
Divide my love and me.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A November Walk with John Constable & Jane Austen

On our walk yesterday afternoon, Clara pointed out that the low November light was very much like the light in many of the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837). Did he do most of his painting in November, when the trees were yellow, green, and bare, and the low sun spread purple-gray shadows across the landscape? Here is Constable's Landscape with Boys Fishing (1813). Notice, first of all, the wooden lock, which looks exactly like the locks along the Grand Union Canal in Hatton. Then notice the November light and shadow. Compare it to the photograph below of Ashow church on a November day, at about 1:00 in the afternoon. Bluer sky (Constable was a connoisseur of clouds), but similar light, similar colors, similar shadows stretching from left to right.

This afternoon, I walked out into the low November sunlight, under slow-gathering rinse-water clouds that Constable could have painted on the sky. I was thinking about how I experience England both as a real and an imaginary place—a place so often transformed into paintings, poetry, and fiction. I had just read part of chapter 10 of Jane Austen's Persuasion, in which the heroine, Anne Elliot, goes on a potentially painful long walk with Captain Wentworth and the Musgrove sisters. It's November, and Anne tries to occupy her mind with poetical descriptions of autumn:

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations...

I walked as far as Old Milverton, where I wandered a while through the overgrown churchyard until I found this stone, marking the grave of a woman named Anne Elliott.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Castle Walk

Here are some photographs to give you some sense of our usual walk between Kenilworth Castle and Chase Lane—a walk of between 4 and 5 miles door-to-door, depending on the route we take from our house to the official start of the walk at the castle.

The start of the walk at the kissing gate just south of the castle walls

The way marker on Purlieu Lane

The return to the castle

The footpath along the west side of the castle
(Note: the double tracks are not made by wheels, but by people walking side by side)
Remembrance Day, November 11

The War Memorial, Kenilworth
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Conwy Mussels

Today was market day in Kenilworth. I decided to be adventurous and buy three pounds of mussels—famous Conwy mussels from the north coast of Wales. The mussels cost £1.13 a pound at the Kenilworth fishmonger's, and required quite a bit of effort to debeard, debarnacle and scrub. It was well worth the effort. I steamed the mussels in coconut milk, using a recipe adapted from the American public radio program The Splendid Table (I substituted some prepared korma curry paste for the homemade masala, and added a little fresh lime juice during the cooking). The mussels were delicious with some crusty bread, a simple salad, and a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Will, however, complained that several of his mussels were filled with grit. On closer examination, the grit turned out to be tiny pearls, the size of cake decorating sprinkles.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Thanks to my mother-in-law's thoughtful and useful birthday gift, I can now tell you that Clara and I walked 9.6 miles to Hatton and back on Saturday. The gift was this useful gadget—a map measurer:

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


There is a paragraph in the Wikipedia article on Kenilworth that I find amusing:

Despite Kenilworth's huge historical importance it is now stereotyped as dull and suburban as a result of its high elderly population, somewhat dated appearance and middle-class label, However, the town is soon to undergo a £multi-million facelift as its central retail areas have been criticized for being too retrospective and for attracting too many thrift shops and downmarket stores. The scheme boasts increased shop sizes, contemporary looks rivaling neighbouring cities/towns and a brand new Waitrose supermarket. There are also plans to renovate the existing youth centre and library buildings.

The article goes on to cite social problems that Kenilworth has in common with other smaller English towns, such as underage drinking and "dogging" (public sex in local nature preserves).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Henley-in-Arden and a Walk to Hatton Updated

The Elizabethan Guild Hall in Henley-in-Arden (current home of the public library)

This morning, Will had a cross country meet at Henley-in-Arden High School. Henley-in-Arden is a picturesque village about seven miles northwest of Stratford-on-Avon; as the name implies, it was once in the middle of the historic Forest of Arden. Henley is noted for possessing one of the few surviving market crosses (15th century), although only the shaft of the cross remains. The village also has a fine Norman church (St. John the Baptist) and, next door, an Elizabethan guild hall, which now houses the public library. The Guild Hall is owned by the local court leet, a medieval institution presided over by the lord of the manor. In 1990, the American lumber magnate Joseph Hardy, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, purchased the title of lord of the manor of Henley.

In the afternoon, Clara and I left the boys at home to instant message their friends and walked to Hatton for lunch at the Waterman and a brief walk along the Grand Union Canal. The pub was offering specials to celebrate National Sausage Week (October 30-November 5), and with my pint of Arkwright's I had a lovely plate of pork and ginger sausages with creamed potatoes and coconut milk gravy. On the walk home, I took this picture with Warwick, and the tower of St. Mary's church, in the distance. From this photograph, you can see, first of all, how green Warwickshire still is on the 4th of November, especially with the shoots of winter wheat in the fields. You can also see how long the shadows are, even at 2:30 in the afternooon. We walked due south from 11:30 am until 1:00 pm, and the low sun was directly in our eyes the entire time.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kenilworth School and Sports College

The Upper School

In the British school system, students in year 9 (8th grade) choose the subjects they will study for GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The tests are taken in year 11 (when students are sixteen), after which education is no longer compulsory. Most students take GCSEs in English, Maths, and Science, and most British employers prefer to recruit workers with five good GCSEs. (The tests are graded on a scale, from best to worse, of A* to G.) Because he is in year 10, Will is taking GCSE courses, but he will not be required to take the actual examinations—although his music teacher has asked him to consider taking the Music GCSE a year early.

At the Kenilworth School, French is a requirement through year 8, and Peter is taking both French and Spanish. Will is taking French. Two years ago, the government dropped the nation-wide foreign language requirement, and enrollments in French and German (the two most commonly studied languages) abruptly declined. Critics are concerned that without knowledge of modern foreign languages, the British will become further isolated from the rest of Europe and Britain will be put at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. The British, like the Americans, like to talk about "the knowledge-based economy," and to speak of education as if its only purpose were to boost "competitiveness." Supporters of the government's decision to drop languages have done what most Americans would do: drawn attention to test scores. With fewer students now taking languages for GCSE qualification, test scores have risen dramatically.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Old cottages in the village of Ashow

The village of Ashow, just east of Kenilworth, is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) as Asceshot, possibly meaning “ash hill.” Ashow lay then, as it does now, along the north bank of the River Avon. Across the Avon from Ashow, at the time of the Domesday Book, lay the village of Bericote. Ashow was a larger community, with two mills to Bericote’s one, nine villeins to Bericote’s four, and four ploughs to Bericote’s two. Ashow also had the local church, the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, which was connected to the priory in Kenilworth.

In this photograph, you can see four different stages in the architectural history of the Ashow church. At the back of the church (far right) is the early twelfth-century, Norman chancel, constructed of local red sandstone. Above where the chancel meets the nave, you can see mid-twentieth century wooden shingles. The lighter color stone on the south side of the nave is an eighteenth-century addition to reinforce the Norman nave. The square tower dates to the fifteenth century.

The medieval village of Bericote no longer exists. Looking at an Ordnance Survey map of Warwickshire (for example, OS 205, which covers the area around Stratford-on-Avon) you will see marked in Gothic print the sites of other medieval towns, now abandoned and virtually obliterated from the landscape. “Medieval village of Thornton (site of).” “Medieval Village of Compton Scorpion (site of).” What happened to them? Why did Bericote disappear?

One possible explanation is that Bericote was wiped out by the Black Death, which caused widespread depopulation of the English countryside in the middle of the fourteenth century. The plague hit especially hard in 1348-49, and again in 1361. It’s interesting to note that here in Kenilworth, the church of St. Nicholas went through fourteen different vicars in the fourteenth century—three vicars in the year 1349 alone, and eight in the twenty years between 1341 and 1361. This is another indication of the high mortality rate in the fourteenth century.

Bericote, however, seems to have held on until the middle of the sixteenth century, when it was probably done in by land enclosure. Ashow—larger and more prosperous—was not enclosed until the middle of the seventeenth century, and managed to survive. A local historian in Ashow explains the process and the effects of enclosure on the village:

Agriculture and society in Ashow were transformed in the seventeenth century with the enclosure of the common fields and meadows. After several centuries of operation, the medieval practice of strip farming was finally abandoned, probably around 1647, with the division of the land into individual units. The new fields were bounded by hedges and each was rented and worked separately by the tenant farmers. Rights in common to the woods and meadows were withdrawn. With the ending of strip farming, a system of community endeavour and co-operation was replaced by one of individual enterprise. Enclosure represents the biggest single change in the history of agriculture in the parish.

In the Middle Ages, villagers farmed strips of land in communal open fields surrounding the village, using the ridge and furrow method of cultivation. The traces of these medieval ridges and furrows can be seen in this field, outside Brinklow. You can also see in this photograph one of the reasons that the medieval open field system came to an end: sheep. As livestock farming, particularly sheep, became more extensive and profitable, there was increasing pressure from wealthy landowners to enclose the common land for grazing. The process began in the twelfth century, but actually slowed a little in the fourteenth as the plague depopulated the countryside and reduced competition for land. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, enclosure sped up again. Entire communities, like Bericote, disappeared as their inhabitants, mostly small tenant farmers, found that they couldn’t afford to rent the newly enclosed land. Enclosure resulted in the pattern of individual hedge-bordered fields so characteristic of the Warwickshire landscape today.

Halloween update. We had three groups of trick-or-treaters come to our door last night. We were also visited by the Kenilworth Youth for Christ, who were handing out blessings rather than asking for treats. "We don't believe in Halloween," the youth group leader told me. "We believe in the Light, not the darkness." This morning, I saw one roll of toilet paper draped in a hedge, and I passed a group of old people discussing the ways in which they eluded the trick-or-treaters who came to their doors.