Laleston Stones Trail

Laleston and Merthyr Mawr are planning a loop off the Wales Coast Path featuring their collection of Celtic crosses, later carvings and other heritage attractions. Yesterday the sun shone and it seemed like a good day for a walk … so Cara the Pilgrim Dog and I set off from Merthyr Mawr. The village is almost chocolate-box pretty with a little wedding-cake of a Victorian church. More on the carvings at and .

We walked alongside the park wall and up the lane towards Whitney Farm. The stile here, where the footpath leaves the lane at 879 784


needs waymarking and a bit of attention!


The puddle is probably the result of recent torrential rain but a lot of the gates and stiles have puddles and we may have to think about ways of dealing with this.

Good stiles and gates across the fields


though we may need some waymarking especially here at 877 789


where the line of the right of way on the map goes through two hedges but the path obviously goes through the gap.

Emerge on the Bridgend bypass at 877 793, turn right, cross the road and through a good sturdy gate at 878 792.Image

Clear waymarking needed here at 879 796


where the path goes back to the right, then it’s straight on to the Ffordd y Gyfraith at 881 796.

The Ffordd y Gyfraith is mostly very minor roads and tracks now, but in the Middle Ages it was one of the main roads through south Wales. The name means ‘The Road of the Law’. This was how soldiers and officials got from the western Vale of Glamorgan to the area around Llangynwyd. Llangynwyd was the Helmand Province of medieval Glamorgan (with my ancestors the Welsh lords of Afan as the Taliban). By the fifteenth century it was also famous for the carving of the Crucifixion on the rood screen of the church. Unusually, this may have depicted the two thieves as well as Christ. A medieval tombstone in the church at Laleston probably shows its design.


(this is John Rodger’s drawing of it, in 1911)

The Ffordd y Gyfraith crosses the main Bridgend road at 881799, at the east end of Laleston village. Almost buried in the roadside verge is the socketed base of a medieval wayside cross.


From here the road is very quiet, little more than a track


until you reach the crossroads at Cae’rheneglwys. Here another wayside cross base is completely overgrown with brambles.


The two stones in the field


are all that remains of the medieval church and village of Llangewydd. Two carved ‘Celtic’ crosses were found here and are now in the National Museum. There are some more plain standing stones in the hedge to the left of the photo. Unfortunately there is no possibility of public access to the field, but an interpretation board on the road will show what the church and settlement might have looked like.

So what happened to the settlement – in a word, the Cistercians. This reformed religious order spread from France across Europe in the early twelfth century, reaching Wales in 1131. Part of their ethos was that they wanted to farm their own land by the sweat of their brows. They preferred to settle on unused land and bring it under cultivation themselves. But there was very little unused land in England and Wales – and when they were given land which was already being farmed, they sometimes used a combination of persuasion and moral blackmail to remove the tenants. The Cistercian monks of Margam were given the land around Llangewydd in the middle of the twelfth century and within fifty years they had removed the church and the little settlement around it.

At Cae’rheneglwys you turn left on a slightly wider country road then keep straight on past the old village pound at 872 813.


To your right are the ruins of the monks’ farm buildings, now hidden behind a new house called The Grange. There should be another interpretation board here showing what the grange might have looked like. The road bends to the left – another sign of the power of the Cistercian order. They could expect that a major road like the Ffordd y Gyfraith could be diverted to pass round one of their granges.

Go back to the pound and take the footpath to the south. This area is marked as woodland on the map but it’s mostly scrub and bracken. Some of the heaps of tumbled stone are geological, but some may be the remains of Llangewydd Castle.




You need to be careful going through the wood. The right of way heads for a stile at the far right corner but most of the paths head for a gate in the south fence. The stile gets you out on ‘Roger’s Lane’ – actually a fast and busy road to Laleston and not really suitable for walking. I thought it might be possible to take the side road west to Haregrove Farm (another of Margam’s granges) and swing back across the fields, but the walk along the road wasn’t very inspiring and the footpaths across the fields weren’t stiled or waymarked. It would need a lot of work for not much benefit.

Part of the problem with the side roads is the amount of litter. It’s a bit different from Cardiff: our lanes are full of rubbish but it’s mostly junk food rubbish. I’ve noticed when walking in the area in the past that the country round Bridgend has much more fly-tipping, builders’ rubbish and general domestic rubbish complete with black bin bags.


This lot actually had a couple of pairs of shoes that could have gone to the charity shop.

We have even on occasions been grateful for the rubbish. I remember my old friend Derek Williams making a plaited cable out of a disembowelled sofa in order to drag a car out of the mud on an unusually random field trip along the Ffordd y Gyfraith back in 1997. But generally it’s unsightly and puts visitors off.

So my instinct is that the best thing to do at the junction with Roger’s Lane is to head back along the side road to Cae’rheneglwys and down the Ffordd y Gyfraith to 878 802 and follow the footpath (well gated and waymarked) across the fields to Laleston.

Laleston has a shop, a choice of pubs for lunch, the church and several other buildings of historical interest – and the well


about which I know nothing, but I’m sure my friends in the Welsh Holy Wells societies will have some ideas.

From Well Street, take the footpath past the school and between the school grounds and the playing fields. This is clearly well walked but leads back to the bypass. This is the one really dangerous bit of the walk. The path should go straight across the road, but it’s near a blind bend and very difficult to cross. We may have to advise walkers to go along the verge to the left until they get a clear view, then walk back on the other side.

The footpath to the south is intermittently waymarked and needs some maintenance but it’s easy to follow. Cara liked this moated stile.


At 873 787 the paths divide. Bear left and go round the east corner of Coed Cwintin to rejoin the track past Whitney Farm and return the way you came. We went right and along the west edge of the wood. No stiles or waymarks but gates and an attempt to deal with the puddles


The lane goes round Candleston Farm and turns south again. Where the tracks divide, take the left fork and go steeply downhill to a stream. At the next fork you can bear left and walk over the ridge to Ton Farm or keep right to walk along the stream (literally in places)


to Candleston Castle. We need to find out whether the flooding on the road is the result of heavy rain, or if there is an alternative path.



To your right are the soaring dunes of Merthyr Mawr Warren


and to your left is Candleston Castle



– really a fortified manor house, probably built in the fifteenth century. From the castle you can continue along the coast path to Porthcawl or return along the road to Merthyr Mawr and your start point.

It was a good day’s walk – about eight miles along the best route, with plenty of interest on the way. We need to do a bit of work on stiles and waymarks, write a guide leaflet and work on the interpretation boards. Watch this space.


posted in: Welsh History | 0

It’s Diwrnod Shw’mae – Shw’mae Day, How’sthings Day, the day when we can all try to use a bit of Welsh. Even those of us who have hardly any. For us, it’s the unhealing wound at the heart of our identity: we are Welsh but we can’t use our own language with any sense of confidence or security.

It seems somehow appropriate that on Diwrnod Shwmae I’m looking at the sixteenth-century Acts of Union with my Foundations of Modern Wales class. The Acts of Union have often been blamed for consigning the Welsh language to oblivion. That’s certainly what Huw Edwards said in The Story of Wales – the poor old werin bobl, forced to defend themselves in law courts where only English could be used.

But was it ever really like that? The Acts of Union were designed to appeal to and placate the Welsh. Henry VIII and his adviser Thomas Cromwell knew they had to keep the Welsh loyal, or Wales would be vulnerable to invasion from overseas. And the Acts certainly were popular. Some historians argue that, although there was clearly no enthusiasm for religious reform in Wales, the Welsh went along with the changes of the sixteenth century because they had gained so much from the Acts of Union and they didn’t want to go back to being a colonised people ruled by outsiders.

The Acts certainly said that English was to be the official language. You could ask what language the courts were held in before the Acts – when the Marcher Lords could be bothered to hold them, that is. Law French and bad Latin, probably – so English was no worse.

But as well as appealing to the Welsh, the Acts also had to be drafted to placate the English. This was statute law so it had to get through an all-English House of Lords and House of Commons, full of people who thought the Welsh were a bunch of dangerous bandits. The idea of law courts being allowed to use Welsh would be a bit like suggesting that law courts today could use sharia law.

In fact, like so much other legislation, that section of the Acts was never really implemented. We know that the courts used interpreters, and pretty soon Welsh-speaking judges were being appointed. Even the Council in the Marches could use Welsh, as the President for much of the mid-sixteenth century was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a man who was always happier in Welsh rather than English.

The Acts also led indirectly to one of the most important influences on the preservation of the Welsh language.  The religious changes of the sixteenth century meant that it was important to get the Bible translated into everyday language so that ordinary people could read it (or more likely have it read to them). Church services were also translated. As a result the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were translated into Welsh, and this meant that for most people Welsh became the language of religious worship. This preserved the language for centuries, but now it has become a bit of a problem: Welsh is in some people’s minds associated with the old ways of doing things and with the repressive aspects of Welsh chapel culture, so there is less enthusiasm for using the language.

We also missed a trick in the translation of the Bible. One thing that a lot of Welsh learners struggle with is mutations, the way that the first letter of so many words changes in different ways according to some really complicated rules. One of the things that makes it difficult to understand is that these changes go back to the old forms of the language. As the language has developed, the mutations have become fossilised so that it’s difficult to remember them. For many native Welsh speakers, they are one of the most important and distinctive things about their language, but for learners they are a constant source of anxiety.

The most famous of the Welsh translators of the Bible was William Morgan, who produced the translation of the whole Bible in 1588. But the first person to tackle the job was William Salesbury. Like Morgan, he came from the Conwy valley in north Wales (must have been something in the water). In 1552 he translated some of the set Bible readings from the Book of Common Prayer and published them as Kynniver Llith a Ban. He went on to work with Richard Davies on the translation of the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer, both published in 1567.

William Salesbury was a Renaissance humanist scholar. He was acutely aware that Welsh is much closer to Latin than English, and in some of his translations he used spellings that made this clear – eccles instead of eglwys for ecclesia, church, and so on. He also felt that mutations belonged in the Middle Ages and tried to get rid of them.

Then along came the traditionalist William Morgan and put them all back in – and we are still struggling with them.


Cathays Cemetery – ‘how green a place it is’

posted in: Graveyards | 0

I take my Art & Death group to Cathays every year (it’s my idea of a day off because Steve actually does the leading). Here we are listening to him (all the photos are Andrew Brown’s).


Cathays Cemetery was Wales’s first out-of-town municipal cemetery. When it was established in 1859, London had its ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries on the edge of the built-up area and Glasgow had its Necropolis, but many urban burials were still taking place in graveyards like the ‘tiny churchyard, pestiferous and obscene’ in which Lady Dedlock’s late lover was buried in Dickens’s Bleak House.

Nor was Cathays Cemetery only for the dead. Laid out as an arboretum with a wide range of trees and shrubs, the graves deliberately adorned with examples of sculpture and religious symbolism, it was a place for working-class self-education as well as fresh air and exercise, part of Cardiff’s network of ‘green lungs’.

So our visit there touched on a huge number of themes: trade and industry, the development of Cardiff as a social and cultural centre, perspectives on the commemoration of women and children, migration, the Catholic community, other faiths and religious groups, commemoration of war dead, the modern environmental movement …

Here we are debating the memorial to Solomon Andrews, entrepreneur and (possibly) philanthropist.


He established Cardiff’s leading tram company and built the Central Market. In his will he left money to provide everyone who came to his funeral with a suit or a coat. Of course, they came in their thousands – and all those who wanted one got a coat. We argued long and hard whether this was generosity or showiness. My own feeling is that it’s both – and that there is a lot to be said for conspicuous consumption that also benefits others. You get the same debate with medieval wills. All that money to the poor, in return for their prayers – of course, it was geared to a simple calculation of what would get your soul out of Purgatory. But at the same time, there is something refreshing about a society that actually values the prayers of the poor and thinks they have a hotline to God, just because they are poor and a bit smelly.

A bit of selfish philanthropy might have been handy during the Irish potato famine (not really a famine – there was plenty of food in Ireland but it was being exported, mainly to landlords in England). Here we are at the memorial to the victims of the ‘famine’ (better termed the Starvation).


It’s in four languages – Irish Gaelic, the Latin of their Catholic church, English (so those who were responsible can read it) and Welsh (to commemorate the very reluctant hospitality the Welsh gave the boat people of the nineteenth century, those who fled the famine). It is set in the heart of the Catholic section of the cemetery. Cathays was originally laid out with separate areas for Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Nonconformist burials. You can still see the Anglican and Nonconformist chapel near the entrance (in the background of the first photograph). There was a Catholic chapel, rather hidden inside the cemetery (which tells you a lot of what you need to know about Welsh attitudes to the Catholic church in the nineteenth century) but it was demolished because it had become derelict. The whole area round where the chapel was is a history in stone of Cardiff’s Irish Catholic community. You can see them becoming prosperous and more confident in their beliefs (it must have helped when Cardiff’s most powerful landowner, the massively wealthy Marquess of Bute, became a Catholic) but you can also see the plot in which the nuns of Nazareth House are buried. They came to Cardiff to care for the abjectly poor (really like the nuns who worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta) and they established hospitals, care homes and the famous Nazareth House orphanage. They were helped by a local athlete, ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll. You can also see his memorial in the Catholic section.

Steve is particularly interested in the war graves with their distinctive Portland stone and design – here we are looking at one.


They are scattered through the cemetery – here is one in the Catholic section – but cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


So you could be buried with your family or community but still have your military service recognised.

Lutyens’ design for the stones is superb – clear, tasteful, identifiable but with room for things like distinctive regimental badges and all the information – but his choice of materials was a disaster (almost as bad as his choice of reinforced concrete to build New Delhi). The stones have to be replaced on a regular basis. I have always wondered what happens to the old ones. Could you just discard them?

Here we are in pensive mood – I think this is when we were listening to the story of young Louisa Evans, killed in a ballooning accident when she was only 14.


When Tiny Tim dies near the end of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, his family arrange for him to be buried in one of the new out-of-town cemeteries. After Bob Cratchit has been to see the place, he says to his wife, ‘It would have done you good to see how green a place it is. But you’ll see it often. I promised him that I would walk there on a Sunday.’

Cathays was planned as a public open space, for education as well as exercise – and it still has something of that about it. The Friends of the Cemetery organise regular walks, exploring Cardiff’s history and encouraging people to take gentle exercise. Part of the cemetery has been set aside for biodiversity, and the grass and wild flowers are encouraged to grow.


Of course, it still has to be managed, or brambles and scrub would take over. We did have a discussion about how families would feel if they came back from far away to visit a grave and found it in what looks like a ‘neglected’ area of the cemetery. Me, I’d like the idea of my grave providing a refuge for dormice and slow-worms but there’s no accounting for tastes.

We’ll have a lot of these issues in sharper focus when we visit Thornhill cemetery and crematorium in a few week’s time.


Faith tourism, faith in tourism?

‘All these died in faith, before receiving any of the things that had been promised, but they saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognising that they were only strangers and pilgrims on earth’ (Hebrews 11: 13)

The irrepressible John Winton of the Churches Tourism Network Wales, having virtually invented church tourism for our nation, is launching his Faith Tourism Action Plan in St Asaph. Here are some amazing statistics. Churches are among our most popular tourist attractions – St David’s Cathedral gets 262,000 visitors a year and Brecon gets 120,000. Their motivations vary – they may be interested in old buildings, tracing their family connections or simply looking for somewhere free to get out of the rain. But on the international scene, faith tourism is big business. Pilgrimage to Compostela has a huge impact on the economy of northern Spain. Pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca contribute about $8 billion a year to the Saudi Arabian economy. It’s no wonder that VisitWales is keen to encourage John’s plans.

Part of this, of course, is the Galilee Project ( . Initially conceived as a way of providing a better display space for the early medieval carved stones at St Illtud’s Church, this is spiralling out with an ambitious plan for a pilgrimage route across south Wales, linking Llandaff, St Fagan’s (where the museum will be the new home of the collection of early medieval stones now in the National Museum in Cathays Park in Cardiff), Llancarfan (another early monastic site with some impressive late medieval wall paintings), Llanilltud itself, Merthyr Mawr and Laleston, and Margam.

Part of the aim is to get rid of the unfortunate Anglicisation of the church’s name, Llantwit (St Twit – who he?) and re-popularise the Welsh version, Llanilltud. Seriously, we have deferred for too long to the English inability to pronounce our place names – they are part of the intangible charm of our heritage and we need to stop hiding them.

So John, Gareth Kiddie (the project’s business consultant) and I sat down with the maps to think about possible routes. Like most heritage footpath plans, this one is a balancing act: we need a good walk, on open and clear footpaths, that visits key sites and pushes the buttons of the potential funders.

John seems to treat me as a sort of enquire within upon everything to do with church history. Sometimes this means that he calls me in for things that I know nothing about: but when it comes to pilgrimage and footpaths I am on home turf. The biggest problem seemed to be the start. Llandaff Cathedral is in the middle of a built-up area. Who will want to walk for miles along busy roads before reaching the countryside? But Cardiff is famous for its ‘green lungs’, corridors of woodland and open space between the housing estates; and one of the biggest of these runs along the river. We might have to go north in order to go south … but north from Llandaff is the traditional pilgrimage route to Penrhys, one I’ve walked in the past as an alternative to our usual route from Llantarnam.

So it was that I put my boots on and collected Cara the pilgrim dog, and we made our way to the Taff bridge between the cathedral and Llandaff North.



The route up river from Llandaff starts well – you walk up the river bank from the cathedral, climb to the road for a few metres past the boat club then back to the river bank as far as the bridge. Keep on the west bank of the Taff and walk along Radyr Court Road, then when the road bears up to the left take the path along the river bank. Turn left under the railway line and walk up to the path through Radyr Woods then turn left past the playing fields of Radyr Comp to emerge at the roundabout where the Radyr road meets the Llantrisant Road.

Here it gets problematic. The footpath across the fields goes through the farmyard of Maes-y-llech – never a good idea. I had a nice chat with the farmer (he knows my cousins from the Vale). He admits he doesn’t like footpaths through his farm but accepts that it’s legal – but for a promoted path it might be better to re-route it. But here’s the real problem – he eventually said that the whole farm is scheduled for building under the latest local development plan. This explained some of his bitterness – his family have farmed there for generations but as tenants so the farm will be sold and they will be out on their ears. It’s dreadful for him, but it also means there isn’t much point in putting a lot of thought into a route that’s going to go round the back lanes of a housing development.

But there is an alternative. The footpath from Maes-y-llech cuts across the line of the disused railway from Fairwater to Llantrisant. After that, the footpath is clear up to the Pentrebane road. You have about 400m. on the road then there is a footpath across the field to a green lane that gets you into the new housing in St Fagans and the back gate of the Museum. So I walked back along the railway line.


It needs a bit of attention



(fallen trees, and one bridge has been demolished: there’s an easy scramble down the embankment and back up) and it isn’t actually a right of way but it has a waymark post for a promoted route half way along


and it gets you by a very pleasant route into the southern part of Danescourt. I re-walked it with my daughter Rachel and she approved.

So the suggested route is as follows: from the cathedral up the river to the bridge. About 100 m. along Radyr Court Road, go up the steps to your left. Walk along Highfields, turn down Greenwood Road, left along the Llantrisant Road to the roundabout. Down Tangmere Drive, along Grantham Close and into the park, bear right and you are on the old railway line. Follow this for about 1/2 mile until you are out of the trees, then after the pylon turn left and follow the footpath across the fields to the Pentrebane road and down the green lane to St Fagans.

Keen pilgrims would probably want to make a bit of a loop to the north to go past Radyr Court and St John’s Church. St John’s is the old parish church of Radyr, a simple building of rough stone with a huge old yew tree.  Radyr Court is now a pub but it was in the Middle Ages the home of the Mathew family. The women of the family were famous for looking after pilgrims on their way to Penrhys. According to the elegy written by Rhisiart ap Rhys to Elspeth Mathew,

Parlwr gan vwr niferoedd
I vels draw val osdri oedd

‘her parlour was to many invalids like a hostelry’. He also said that she sent a considerable weight of candles to Penrhys, but she never seems to have gone there herself. Perhaps she considered herself to have taken informal vows at Radyr and to be running a sort of maison Dieu, a hospice for pilgrims. This would make her something like Sister Anne Larkins, who runs the retreat house at Llantarnam and sets us off on our annual pilgrimage from Llantarnam to Penrhys with a blessing of water from a medieval stoup found in the abbey ruins.

The family also claimed to be hereditary custodians of the skull of St Teilo. This famous relic was recently returned to the cathedral after some time in Australia. It is still shown occasionally to visitors and would probably be brought out for an organised group. The cathedral also has the effigy tombs of David Mathew, Sir William Mathew and his wife Jenet


with the famous ‘sleeping bedesman’.

So there are a lot of connections.


Pontypool – not quite what you expect of a Valleys town

posted in: Heritage (General) | 0

Excellent MA field trip to Pontypool, led by Steve.

For the full description, go to and click on newsletter 7.

Meanwhile, here are some photos: at the Gorsedd stones


heading intrepidly past the cows


to the Folly tower (actually a rebuild – the original was such a key landmark that it had to be demolished during WWII)


Back in the centre of town – how many listed buildings can you count?


The famous pop factory is lithology heaven, a crazy quilt of scraps of stone left over from other buildings


and the old Quaker meeting house and burial yard clearly ought to be listed (but isn’t)


all in all a pretty good day.


posted in: Uncategorized | 0

Why are we so mucky in south Wales?

As Steve and I work our way round Wales looking at tomb carvings and interesting bits of building stone, we are tasked by our daughter to photograph smoking-related litter. She works for AshWales’s Filter project and they are building up a map of smoking rubbish in Wales,-3.375893&spn=0.164281,0.468636&source=embed

You will see that most of the little flags are in the Cardiff area and up the valleys. The Filter team thought that was because they are based in Cardiff, and they have been trying to record smoking litter elsewhere in Wales. But it took me a lot of hard work to find the few photos I took around St Davids in August. Visits to Brecon and the Marches produced no photos at all. Likewise a trip to the Vale of Clwyd. Not just no smoking-related litter, very little litter at all. Meanwhile, the lanes and woods around Cardiff are full of it. I do a bit of freelance litter-picking in the woods above my house but I’ve given up on the roads – you can clear a section and a week later it’s as if you hadn’t bothered.

Why? It can’t be poverty and despair because Cardiff is one of the more prosperous areas of Wales. What is really sad is that we seem to have lost our pride. We used to have a saying about not messing on your own doorstep (well, we put it a bit stronger than that but you know what I mean). So much has got better in south Wales – the harshness of the chapel culture has been liberalised, there’s less male chauvinism – but along with the bathwater of patriarchy we seem to have chucked out the baby of our self-respect.

Most of the rubbish comes from what I would call junk food. Longwood Drive, off the Coryton roundabout where the M4 meets the A470, has several outlets (better not name names) and the volunteers from the Forest Farm conservation centre pick up at least a bin bag of rubbish A DAY there.

Shouldn’t the people whose logos are emblazoned over this unsightly mess be just the least bit concerned? After all, one burger is much like another, one cheap lager is much like another. So what they are selling is an image – ‘buy our product and be like these beautiful people strolling hand in hand into the golden sunset’ … but instead what they are saying is ‘Buy our product and be like these sad little souls whose idea of sensual  gratification is a six-pack of lager and a big packet of crisps, and whose idea of really wild iconoclastic behaviour is to chuck their rubbish in the nearest hedgerow’.

We need a way of getting the polluter to pay.

But we also need a way to get our self-respect back.

If the past is a foreign country, should you get its geography right?

posted in: Heritage (General) | 0

Hilary Mantel says that if you want to write historical novels and you include facts you should make sure that those facts are right. Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest has made it to the Booker longlist, thinks otherwise:

‘I’m not interested in that at all. I don’t want facts, I want to make things up and to dig deep into traditional storytelling to produce a tale that illustrates the subject matter I care about.’ (from an interview in the Guardian: )

Mantel also says we should not apply modern priorities to the people of the past – something some serious historians could usefully pay attention to. But here again Crace disagrees:

‘I’m not interested in anything else but foisting those sensibilities and writing books that concern the 21st-century. None of this is a critique of what Mantel does so perfectly. It is just to illustrate that for me it is a whole different ball game.’

I haven’t read Harvest (and let’s be honest I’m unlikely to). Apparently it’s set in an unnamed English village, an indeterminate number of centuries ago, at the moment when peasant farmers were forced off the land to make room for sheep. The narrative mentions post-horses and plague is a threat. A surveyor draws maps. We seem to be in the seventeenth century.

Crace was inspired by noticing for the first time some fields around Watford Gap:  ‘I noticed that the surrounding fields were full of ridge and furrow. As a Midlander and a big walker I’d always loved ridge and furrow fields, the plough-marked land as it was when it was enclosed. It is the landscape giving you a story of lives that ended with the arrival of sheep.’

The problem is that it probably wasn’t like that at all: the whole business of depopulation and enclosure is much more complex and very few villages were removed to make room for sheep. Crace’s ridge and furrow could have survived until the eighteenth or even the early nineteenth century, when enclosure of common land took place to facilitate commercial farming. You’d have to go to the County Record Office, look at estate papers and enclosure awards … and that might spoil the whole story.

So does it matter? It’s clearly a powerful and well-written book. Crace’s other concern was the parallels between his story and the eviction of indigenous people by soya barons in south America, and he uses his historical narrative for a powerful modern critique.

But should we call it a historical novel when he clearly isn’t at all concerned with history?

These issues are trending on Twitter with the broadcasting of the final episode of The White Queen. Of course, we didn’t expect them to get the Welsh contribution to Bosworth right. Too much to hope for. But apparently they didn’t get the Stanley contribution either – and my friend Philip Beddows (of Teulu Elystan Glodrydd – tweets as @Fferllys) spotted one of Henry Tudur’s men in Richard III’s colours and carrying the badge of the white boar. Now, this could have been a radical new insight into battlefield tactics – but it’s much more likely to have been a mix-up in the wardrobe pantechnicon. Badges and colours were specifically supposed to have prevented that sort of confusion!

Rise up Women who Weren’t Born Yesterday (again)

posted in: Heritage (General) | 0

Does my 30 seconds of fame on Countryfile qualify me to speak about the problems of academic women in the media?

Of course, if you are a female academic of a Certain Age, you aren’t cutting it in the media these days if you aren’t getting at least a dozen abusive tweets a day … what is it with these guys? Are they threatening to rape us because we are so gorgeous that they are helpless with lust – OK, that can’t be it – so they are threatening us with rape as a punishment for being uppity, mouthy women who have the nerve to get paid for being on the telly. So sex with them is going to be so nasty that the mere threat of it will have us slinking off to clean behind the fridge. Are they really saying their technique is so bad that their embraces are the stuff of our worst nightmares?

And that’s not the only problem we face – and some of them are worth a bit more thought. ‘Blimey’, a colleague said about my Countryfile appearance, ‘sneeze and you missed it … a 10 minute interview cut down to 30 seconds, if that, with a jokey anecdote about medieval monks getting p*ssed (snigger, snigger)’. It seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we try to be accessible we are accused of trivialising but if we go for the difficult stuff we are elitist. (I was called elitist once, by a  man at the Heritage Lottery Fund. It still rankles.)

I suppose I can claim to be able to speak about these issues. I’ve been doing bits and pieces in the media for about 20 years now, ever since the first flurry of coverage of our Penrhys pilgrimage project. News interviews, several appearances with Trevor Fishlock and a whole radio series with him. Three television programmes with Huw Edwards off of the news, though I have yet to meet him; a programme with Iolo Williams – didn’t actually meet him either; but I did met Robert Beckford, Eddie Butler and Mal Pope, and I’m at the end of this one with Terry Jones .

And my hair is grey and I don’t wear makeup, never mind Botox. I haven’t yet made it to the dizzy heights of my own series, but you never know.

All these programmes have involved some sense of compromise. Academics tend to think in 1-hour lectures and 20-minute conference papers. We want to be able to say ‘On the one hand this … on the other hand that … what we really need is at least 5 more years’ research and a big conference’. Instead of which you have 2 minutes to make your point, you spend most of the afternoon walking up and down a hill while the camera crew faffs around with the big jib, and your brilliant insights get cut in favour of a few jokey references to medieval beer drinking.

So is it worth it? Well, of course, it does impress the management. You can write learned papers until your hand drops off, but when I was in Towns of Wales with Eddie Butler I had pro-vice chancellors queuing up to tell me how great it was. And it is actually fun. I have colleagues who pretend to be blasé and bored by it all, but there is something very satisfying in being treated as an expert. It’s a balancing act  – you get more time to make serious points in programmes like The Real Patron Saints, but you get more people  actually looking at you on Countryfile. And ultimately this is what we owe to the people who pay our wages. If we can’t communicate with the widest possible audience, we probably haven’t understood our subject properly ourselves.

Mind you, I still think this one  goes too far. It’s not so much the fake costumes and the fact that the medieval pilgrims are singing a 17th century hymn to a tune collected in the early 20th century by Vaughan Williams. It’s the assumption that pilgrims are all about fake medieeval recreation. Apparently you can’t be a pilgrim in hi-tec boots and Goretex: you have to dress up in a robe and sing strange songs.

More about pilgrimage next week – time we finalised arrangements for this autumn’s trek to Penrhys … monastic robes optional!

Inhabiting the past

posted in: Heritage (General) | 0

Off to the National History Museum at St Fagans, ostensibly  to talk about the Welsh background to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. My plan was to challenge some traditional ideas about Cromwell and the Acts of Union and to look at the family and career of his colleague in Wolsey’s household, Robert ap Rhys of Ysbyty Ifan (more on him at ). But the group I was talking to was much more interested in the question of why we read historical fiction and on the relationship between novel and history.

I had to admit that I don’t read much historical fiction – it’s difficult when you keep spotting the mistakes. Mind you, I’ve never encountered anything as bad as the romantic novel set in early 19th century India (probably best not to name the author) in which a colleague of mine from the British Library found six major errors on page 1. I find historical detective fiction easier to cope with, but even there you can have problems. I had to give up on the Shardlake novels after two of them had major inaccuracies that actually affected the plot and took you off in quite the wrong direction. Should this matter in a work of fiction – well, yes, if it affects the credibility of the plot, I think it does.

But as a sixteenth-century historian I then had to say that I found Wolf Hall very good. I can’t fault Hilary Mantel on her research. I don’t see the late medieval church the way she does, though – or does she? We see it through Cromwell’s eyes, and it is part of her skill as a novelist that she persuades you into his viewpoint. In Wolf Hall, too, she is trying to build sympathy for Cromwell and his ideals, so that when he has to do much nastier things in Bring Up the Bodies we are carried along with his ultimate vision.

There’s an interesting podcast with Hilary Mantel herself talking about all this at . She does say that she wasn’t trying to rehabilitate Cromwell, but that she relished his company.

We went on to look at the church, where the texts on the walls are nearly finished. This gives another slant again on the late medieval church – the depth and richness of spiritual life for the ordinary parishioner. The liturgical reconstruction project we did there a couple of years ago was relevant to one of the key problems in writing historical fiction. Unless you are writing a very post-modernist novel, you can’t have gaps – and there are so many gaps in our historical knowledge. Often they are in the details of everyday life, the things that are so commonplace they never get recorded. We have the same problems in understanding medieval religion, and this was one of the things the Experience of Worship project was designed to help with. We know that the celebration of the Mass needed an incense boat, holy water sprinkler, jug and basin for the priest’s hand-washing, pax, etc, etc – but what exactly did you do with them, and where did you put them when you weren’t using them? And we know that the priest had helpers – but for a chantry mass in a small parish church, how many helpers, and how would they be dressed, and what would they actually be doing? All these things are part of the texture of everyday lives – so somehow the historical novelist has to fill in that cross-hatching because the historians can’t commit themselves.