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Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland


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Beneath The Waves – An Article by Paul Harris

Ptolemy Cosmographia (Wikipedia)

Ptolemy Cosmographia (Wikipedia)

   Looking through some of my old ‘Prediction’ magazines I came across a fascinating historical article by Paul Harris. This article appeared in the June 1995 edition of the magazine and is all about the sunken lands, lost cities, kingdoms and islands (one of which has ‘perhaps’ given rise to the famous legend and, perhaps myth of Atlantis) which are reputed to lie around the coastline of the British Isles. I thought that other people might like to read this and so here it is “quoted” in full. The author says:

   “The coastline of Britain is constantly under attack from the sea with vast tracts of land having been lost over the centuries while medieval ports find themselves stranded inland by the action of longshore drift and estuarine silting. With this ever-changing scenario it is not surprising that many tales are told of one-time kingdoms, cities and islands now lost beneath the waves.”

   “One of the most extensive of these ‘lost lands’ would seem to be that reputed to lie under Cardigan Bay, Wales. Known as Cantrer Gwaelod, or Bottom Cantred, this land was said to be 40 miles in length, 20 in breadth, containing 16 cities and protected from the sea by a series of dykes.”

   “According to a tale told in the Welsh Triads, a dyke-keeper, being drunk, left open some sluice gates which inevitably led to the overwhelming of Cantre Gwaelod by the sea. It is now said that church bells can be heard tolling mournfully from their undersea locations at certain times and that, at low tide when the water is clear, buildings can be seen beneath the shallow sea.”

   “The Triads date the flood as ‘the time of Ambrosius.’ Since Ambrosius was the Celtic leader between about 460AD and 480AD, the flood must have occurred then. So what evidence exists to support the local belief and the Triad story?

   “Well, firstly, there are long pebble ridges that stretch out to sea here. They look like abandoned sea defences and are often assumed so to be. Also, there are megalithic remains in the shallower parts of Cardigan Bay.”

Submerged Forest Ceredigion Coast (photo credit: Richerman for Wikipedia)

Submerged Forest Ceredigion Coast (photo credit: Richerman for Wikipedia)

   “Indisputably then, there were islands off this coast during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods that have since been submerged, thus leaving the megalithic structures beneath the sea and indicating that the sea level has risen since then. Also, there are fossil remains of forests that must have existed in the warm period after the end of the last Ice Age. These are now only exposed at low tide.”

   “This raising of the sea level, though, affected the whole of Britain, not just Cardigan Bay, and certainly occurred prior to the ‘time of Ambrosius.’ It seems, therefore, that the indications of former land, now submerged, may have given rise to the legend of Cantrer Gwaelod, not the other way round. The Triads story may refer to the flooding of a small island elsewhere. Indeed, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the story of the island of Ker Is which, according to Celtic sources, sank off Brittany during the 6th century.”

   “So what of the sea defences? These apparently are natural formations. Indeed, it was not even suggested that they were submerged sea walls until the 17th century, according to folklore researcher and author, Jennifer Westwood.”

Lyonesse                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Land's End (Looking West) Photo Credit: Carcharoth (Commons) for Wikipedia

Land’s End (Looking West) Photo Credit: Carcharoth (Commons) for Wikipedia

   “Evidence is much stronger, however, for the fabled lost land of Lyonesse, no doubt the best known of our legendary sunken kingdoms. Its capital, the City of Lions, is said to have existed in the area of the Seven Stones, which lie seven miles west of Land’s End.”

   “Lyonesse itself supposedly extended from the Cornish peninsula to the Scilly Isles, contained many towns and villages and a total of 140 churches. The lost land also has a place in Arthurian legend; but did it ever exist?”

   “Certainly the Scilly Isles themselves were one island as recently as the period of the Roman occupation, there being reliable descriptions of the Silvram insulam or Scilly Isle in 240AD and by Suplicius Severus in about 400AD. Furthermore, the islands themselves show signs of inundation since the pre-Roman Iron Age, there being huts and walls from this period still visible in the shallow waters between the islands. This, with the Roman reports mentioned above and the Arthurian legend of Lyonesse, strongly suggest the existence of a lost land here at least into the 5th century.”

   “Perhaps the flood described in the Welsh Triads sank Lyonesse, too? Or did all these Celtic legends arise from just one event? Whatever, the timing of this particular submergence seems fairly clear. As for the depth of the submergence, investigations during the 1950s and 1960s put this as 14ft since the Iron Age.”

   “This is enough to link some of the Scillies together, particularly with the aid of sea defenses, but not enough to allow the area from the Scillies to Land’s End to be above sea level in its entirety, though parts such as the Seven Stones reef would be. To allow the whole of the legendary land of Lyonesse to be above sea level would require a drop of 60ft in ocean depth. The last time that this was the case was toward the end of the last Ice Age, some 9,000-10,000 years ago, perhaps stretching back into prehistory.”

East Coast                                                                                                                                                                                                

Plan Of Goodwin Sandbank (photo credit: Claus Ableiter for Wikipedia)

Plan Of Goodwin Sandbank (photo credit: Claus Ableiter for Wikipedia)

   “Moving around the coast to Kent, we come to the Straits of Dover and off the coast near Deal lie the Goodwin Sands, grave for upwards of 50,000 mariners over the centuries. At  low tide the sands can be exposed to such an extent that it is possible to land on them.”

    “Named after Earl Goodwin, the sands were once the island of Lomea, so tradition tells us. Apparently the Earl neglected to maintain the island’s sea defences and, in the ‘Martinmas Storm’ of 1099, it was overwhelmed and never reclaimed.”

    “Core samples taken from the Sands  show that the ‘island’ is basically only a sand bar  with a bedrock of chalk much deeper than sea level. However, in the past, the rivers Stour and Wantsum emptied much more silt into the sea near here, possibly leading to the sustenance of a much more pronounced sandbank than exists today. If this is so, there may be a basis to the legends.”

    “What is factual beyond doubt, however, is the constant erosion  of this coast by the sea to a quite spectacular degree. The Isle of Sheppey, on the North Kent coast, is eroding at an alarming rate. On the north coast of the island is the town of Minster. During the Middle Ages this was situated in the centre of the island! Further north, all along the coast of East Anglia, lonely, windswept clifftops overlook dark, choppy seas where once human activity took place and spectral church bells supposedly toll.”

 Dunwich                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Ruin of All Saints Church, Dunwich, 1904 postcard (Wikipedia)

Ruin of All Saints Church, Dunwich, 1904 postcard (Wikipedia)

   “One ‘lost city’ here is very well documented: Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast between Southwold and Sizewell. It was once a prosperous port situated on the River Blyth and became the capital of Saxon East Anglia reaching its peak during medieval times. But in January 1326 disaster struck. In one night three churches and over 400 houses were swept away in a great storm and one million tons of shingle and sand banked up across the harbor mouth, cutting off the River Blyth and diverting it northwards.”

   “Dunwich died, its trade killed by this sudden lack of a harbour. The population declined as merchants moved away and its sea defences were neglected. By the mid 17th century the market place was awash and house after house, street after street, fell over the crumbling cliffs into the advancing sea. Now, all that remains is a church, a ruined priory, a pub and a few houses.”

Atland                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Map of Doggerland c8,000 BCE (photo credit: Max Naylor for Wikipedia)

Map of Doggerland c8,000 BCE (photo credit: Max Naylor for Wikipedia)

   “Travelling north eastwards across the North Sea brings us to the vicinity of the Dogger Bank, today the shallowest part of the sea between Britain and Scandinavia but at one time a large, populated island. Evidence for this has been found in the form of Mesolithic implements found in the material dredged from the Dogger Bank. The period during which a large island existed here would have been towards the close of the last Ice Age when the sea level was some 60-70ft lower than at present. However, there is a belief that a large island called Atland existed here until 2193BC when it was overwhelmed by tidal waves caused by volcanic activity.”

   “Atland is described in a mysterious book that appeared in London in 1876 called the Oera Linda Book and subtitled ‘from a manuscript of the 13th century.’ The original was in the Frisian language and told of Atland and its inhabitants, the disaster that overwhelmed them and the subsequent history of the survivors who, it is said, carried civilization across the world to, among other places, Egypt, Crete and Greece and were said to be the ancestors of the Celtic races.”

   “Experts thought the book a forgery dating back to about the 1730s. Certainly this is a distinct possibility, especially as some of the contents do not seem credible. For instance, the survivors of Atland did not found the civilization in Egypt; this was already well advanced by 2193BC. Also, why were only the Mediterranean countries settled by Atland survivors and not Britain, France and Holland which were much nearer? Furthermore, there has been no volcanic activity for many millions of years.”

Atlantis                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Athanasius Kircher's Atlantis Map (Mundus Subterraneus 1669) Wikipedia

Athanasius Kircher’s Atlantis Map (Mundus Subterraneus 1669) Wikipedia

   “None of this, however, prevented Robert Scrutton publishing the contents of the Oera Linda book in 1977 in his The Other Atlantis. Naturally parallels are drawn with Plato’s Atlantis which is thought to be the same place – after all the name is surely too similar to be coincidence? Maybe so but it is  equally likely to indicate a deliberate attempt to emulate the Atlantis account.”

   “Nevertheless, Scrutton draws attention to traditions of a major catastrophe of a flood-like nature in the northern hemisphere in times past, recorded in the Welsh Triads and, as we have seen earlier, there may be a basis of fact in those accounts.”

   “What is certain is that today’s sea level is higher than it was in the past and is still rising. Also, large tracts of land have been lost to the sea and, no doubt, given rise to many legendary stories around our coasts.”

   “What is also clear is that such disasters can happen at any time; the devastating East Coast floods of 1953 and 1978 are evidence of this. What has been may be again.”

[If you have found the above article interesting and would like to find out more about this particular topic, then please read the book ‘Lost Cities And Sunken Lands’ by Nigel Pennick, published by Capall Bann, 1997].

Sources:

Harris, Paul., ‘Beneath The Waves’ (article in Prediction magazine), June 1995, Volume 61, Number 6, Croydon, Surrey.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantre%27r_Gwaelod

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantre%27r_Gwaelod

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land%27s_End

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodwin_Sands

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunwich

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogger_Bank

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis

                                                                                                                                                                                      


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The Saxon Shore Forts Of South-East England And East Anglia

Map of The Saxon Shore Forts (Wikipedia)

Map of The Saxon Shore Forts (Wikipedia)

   There were originally 10 or possibly even 11 ‘Saxon Shore Forts’ (Litus Saxonicum) commanded by an officer with the title of ‘Comes litoris Saxonica per Britanniam’ or ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’. Most were built in the late third century though others have an earlier origin. Richborough incorporates older buildings, as does Reculver. Dover was already a militarised site. Nine are referred to in the Notitia Dignitatum, a military text from the late 4th early 5th century. A 10th fort may have existed at Walton Castle, near Felixstowe, but this has now been lost to the sea.

   The forts are all similar in that they are located near sea harbours or river estuaries, suggesting that their purpose was to prevent sea-borne invaders getting inland. Each could support a substantial garrison either infantry or sailors. All are of a similar structure – massive walls with bastions for mounting ballistae and surrounding ditches and, ramparts for extra protection.

    A parallel defence system contemporary with the Saxon Shore Forts the Litus Saxonicum exists on the other side of the Channel from Mardyck near Calais to the estuary of the Garonne. However this system is not as close knit with five of these forts not on navigable rivers. Rather the issue here seems to be the defence of key positions rather then a shoreline.

    From the north we have Brancaster (Branodunum) OS grid ref: TF 7821 4404 located between Burnham Market and Hunstanton, covering 6 ½ acres of standard trapezoidal shape, and with walls 9 foot thick of which nothing now remains above ground.

Mid-19th Century Illustration of Burgh Castle (Wikipedia).

Mid-19th Century Illustration of Burgh Castle (Wikipedia).

   Then Burgh Castle (possibly Gariannonum) OS grid ref: TG 4745 0461 is now well back from the sea with walls 11 foot in width and in places still 15 foot in height enclosing 5 acres. Three sides of the walls remain. Six bastions appear to have been added at a later date after the fort was constructed.

    Further south in Essex lies Bradwell (OS grid ref: TM 0313 0810) on the Blackwater Estuary (possibly Othona) with sections of 3 walls originally surviving, one with a bastion.

    On the Watsum River in Kent lies Reculver (Regullium) OS grid ref: TR 2274 6930 which was once on a broad waterway between the Isle of Thanet and the coast, but now sadly eroded by the sea. The walls of this fort were 8 feet thick surrounding an enclosure of standard Roman shape and protected by a ditch and earth rampart. Much has been lost to the sea. Also of note at Reculver are the ruins of a church founded about AD 669 by Egbert, King of Kent. There was a nave 37 feet long and a chancel with an apse. The towers, which remain, were added in the 12th Century.

Richborough Roman/Saxon Fort (photo credit: Midnightblueowl for Wikipedia).

Richborough Roman/Saxon Fort (photo credit: Midnightblueowl -Wikipedia).

   Richborough (Rutupiae) beside the river Stour at (OS grid ref: TR 3245 6018) has perhaps the most imposing remains, and the longest history. It is possible that this is where the Romans landed in AD43 under the command of Aulus Plautius. Defensive ditches have been found enclosing a large area. And 40 years later a marble monument in the form of a triumphal arch 82 feet tall with a façade of Italian granite was erected ‘possibly’ to commem-orate the event. The foundations remain. There is also evidence of occupation in the 2nd Century, when it seems to have been a civilian settlement with temples, an amphitheatre and a mansio (hotel). A fort with earth ramparts with triple ditches remains of which are extent dates from the second half of the third century with a stone walled fort of standard Roman shape and bastions replacing it soon after. At this time also the monument was converted into a look-out post. Finds from archaeological digs are housed in the site museum.

    Dover (Dubris) OS grid ref: TR 3193 4133 lies buried under the modern town (Queen Street) and is more famous for its Pharos (lighthouse) explored elsewhere on this web site. The Fort dates from the 2nd Century – being reused later as part of the ‘Saxon Shore’ defence.

    Lympne (Portus Lemanis) lies on Romney Marsh (on private land) OS grid ref: TR 1170 3420 and is marked by a few walls tilted at odd angles and, an east gate. The fort appears ho have been constructed as an irregular pentagon rather than of the usual trapezoidal shape.

Pevensey Castle Roman Walls (photo credit: Mortimer - for Wikipedia).

Pevensey Castle Roman Walls (photo credit: MortimerCat – for Wikipedia).

   Pevensey (Anderida) OS grid ref: TQ 6388 0504 lies at the mouth of the River Ashbourne in Sussex. Excavations here have shown evidence of wooden buildings. Pevensey is unusual in that the walls defer from the usual square plan into an irregular oval enclosing some 10 acres. The 12-foot thick walls initially look Medieval, but are in fact largely Roman. Bastions were placed at intervals around the wall and still look very imposing today. Not only did the Normans reuse the castle building, a keep on the south eastern side, but it was again reused in the second world war; a pair of machine gun posts can be seen as can a ‘pillbox’ on top of one of the bastions.

    Porchester (Portus Adurni) in Hampshire. On Verne Hill overlooking Portland Harbour OS grid ref: SU 6242 0452, completes the group. Of a square shape the walls have gates on the west and east and a defensive ditch surrounding them. There were originally 20 bastions and 14 survive. Archaeological evidence shows that a high status Anglo Saxon residence was established later within the walls. Again the building seems to have impressed the Normans. They resurfaced the walls and built a keep in the northwest corner. Other buildings followed in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. In the Southwest corner there is also a large church – part of an Augustan Priory built in 1133.

    For most of the 19th and 20th Centuries two theories held sway over the reasons for the development of the Saxon Shore defences. The first was that they were there to control an existing settlement of Saxon migrants (there is some evidence of Saxon settlers in the archaeological records), the second to prevent Saxon marauders from plundering that part of the coast. Whilst this was probably the case with the second half of the 4th Century, it was not really the case with the 3rd Century, and archaeological evidence (coins) now suggests they were built in the late 3rd Century when the Saxons were presenting as troublesome pirates rather then invaders intent on plunder. It is more likely that they were established by the Gallic Emperor Cariusus – mentioned elsewhere on this website. It has also been suggested the forts were established to protect the supply of goods back and forth from and to the continent. All four theories may have merit at different times during the 3rd and 4th Centuries.

Antoninianus Carausius Coin (photo credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. - for Wikipedia).

Antoninianus Carausius Coin c 290 AD (photo credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. – for Wikipedia).

   Carausius reigned from 286 to 293. According to the 4th Century writer Eutropius Carausius was of Belgic origin, had joined the fleet and had rapidly risen through the ranks bringing him to the attention of the Tetrarch – the two emperors and their two assistant Caesars who ruled the Roman world. He was put in charge of dealing with the Saxon Pirates but allegations were made against him that he had been allowing the Saxons to continue their piratical activities apprehending them and seizing their loot for himself. Recalled and fearing the worst he set himself up as Emperor in Northern Gaul and Britain. This theory suggests the forts were built by Carausius to defend his territory against the might of Rome. But the Tetrarch’s resources were stretched and Cariusius was tolerated instead. In 293 the Tetrarchy recovered Northern Gaul weakening Carausius’ position and leading to his assassinated by his Chief Minister, Allectus. Constantius Chlorus took his time but recovered Britain for the Empire in 296/7; Allectus being defeated and killed near Farnham.

    Archaeological evidence shows that during the 4th Century the forts continued in use probably supplanted with a series of signal-stations, which could have provided warnings of incursions, using fire and smoke. When Rome withdrew from Britain at the beginning of the 5th Century the forts fell into disrepair. Internal buildings were mainly of wood so they disintegrated leaving just the walls as a reminder of what had been. 700 years later the walls were still standing and some of the forts were requisitioned by the Normans as defensive positions, as status symbols and, as accommodation for the elite of the new invaders.

Sources: Cottrell, Leonard., ‘The Roman Forts of the Saxon Shore’, HMSO, 1964.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxon_Shore

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richborough_Castle

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anderitum

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carausius


Weyland The Smith – An Article by David McGrory

Volundr (Weyland the Smith) - an illustration. (Wikipedia)

Volundr (Weyland the Smith) – an illustration. (Wikipedia)

   Looking through some of my old ‘Prediction’ magazines I came across an excellent historical article by David McGrory. This article appeared in the June 1995 edition of the magazine and is all about the mythical Norse god Weyland the Smith, also known as Volundr. I thought that other people might like to read this and so here it is “quoted” in full.  The author says:

   “By an ancient ridgeway that passes through the Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire, a Neolithic long barrow constructed at least 5,ooo years ago stands amid a circle of trees. The barrow with its large entry stones is known as Wayland’s Smithy, taking its name from the Teutonic demi-god, Weyland the Smith, also called Volund, for the first Saxons to see the mound thought it had been constructed by a god or giant”.

  “According to legend, anyone who passed this barrow with a horse that needed shoeing need only leave a silver coin then retreat; on his return, the coin would be gone and the horse shod. Similar tales are to be found in ancient Greek mythology concerning the classical smith god, Vulcan”.

Wayland Smith Long Barrow (photo credit: Msemmett for Wikipedia).

Wayland Smithy Long Barrow entrance (photo credit: Msemmett for Wikipedia).

   “Because the ‘smithy’ lay on the boundary of two Saxon estates it is the only ancient monument to be named on an Anglo-Saxon charter; dating to before the Norman Conquest, the conveyance charter referrs to the barrow as ‘Welandes Smiththan'”.

  “Teutonic beliefs brought here by the invading Saxons during the 5th century inform us that Weland was the youngest of three sons fathered by the demi-god Wade. As a child Weland was entrusted into the hands of dwarves who lived amid the metals in the mountains and taught him the magical art of the smith, thus he became skilled in forging, making weapons and jewellery”.

  “In his Iceland homeland Weyland spent much of his time out hunting with his two brothers. The three finally settled in a place called Ulfda where, one day, they saw three beautiful Valkyrier (nymphs) swimming naked in a lake, their ‘elf garments’ left lying on the shore. The brothers seized the magical clothes and the women who they took to be their wives”.

  “All lived contentedly together for eight years, then the Valkyrier became bored with domesticity and one day fled with the brothers were out hunting . Discovering their loss, two of the brothers went in pursuit, leaving Weland behind tending his forge. Anticipating the wives’ return, Weland wrought three golden rings which he strung on a willow wand”.

  “One day, while Weland was out hunting, King Niduth of Sweden who was searching for a smith entered Weland’s empty hut, saw the golden rings and took one for his daughter, Baudvild. Weland returned that night and, while roasting a piece of bear meat, noticed that one of the rings was missing. This caused him great joy as he imagined that his wife had returned, so sat awaiting her arrival and soon feel asleep”.

  “But instead of his wife, King Niduth returned, had Weland seized and carried to the palace. Then, by the Queen’s command, Weland was hamstrung, placed on a small island and compelled to work for his royal couple. Not surprisingly, Weland sought revenge and a suitable opportunity soon arose”.

  “King Niduth’s two greedy sons approached Weland demanding to see the tresure and were told it was kept at his forge (Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire, was probably raided for treasure early in its history). Having seen the treasure, Weland told the brothers that if they returned the following morning he would give it to them”.

  “So they returned the next day and as they entered Weland slammed the door shut, decapitated them with one blow and buried their bodies. But the skulls he fashioned into silver-plated goblets for the King’s table; from their eyes he produced gems for the Queen; and the princess received a pearl necklace made from their teeth. Weland took further revenge on the princess who he raped when she came to him secretly to have repaired the golden ring given her by her father. As a result of this unwilling union a daughter was born who would herself become part of a later Teutonic mythology”.

  “Weland then escaped his island prison by taking flight, using a pair of magical wings he had wrought in metal. He landed on the palace wall, called the King and Queen forth and told them of the terrible fate of their two sons and the violation of their daughter. His revenge complete, Weland took to the air and was never seen on Earth again”.

  “His new role, apparently, was to act as armourer to the gods and our ancestors believed that Weland kept a doorway open into their world at Wayland’s Smithy; certainly there is some evidence of worship at this site”.

Source:

McGrory, David., ‘Weyland The Smith’ (article in Prediction magazine), June 1995 Volume 61 Number 6, Croydon, Surrey.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayland_the_Smith

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayland%27s_Smithy


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London’s River 1- From The Cotswolds To Teddington – by J. R. L. Anderson

Map of the River Thames (Cotswolds to Teddington).

Map of the River Thames (Cotswolds to Teddington).

Here quoted “in full” is the brilliant and very comprehensive article from ‘The Illustrated LONDON NEWS’ magazine of July 1971, written by J.R.L.Anderson. In the forward to the article we are told that: “The Upper Thames no longer carries commercial traffic, though it remains a fine inland waterway for pleasure cruising. In the first of a two-part article the author, who lives in the Thames, describes the non-tidal stretch of the river and recalls some of its history and two of its enigmas – the continuing controversy over its source and the origin of its name.”

    “The Thames is London’s river, but it would be more exact to say that London owes its existence to a geological freak, a little ridge of hard Corallian limestone near Oxford left by the Jurassic seas that covered most of southern England about 140 million years ago. This little ridge, noticeable enough in the days when people walked from Oxford to Cumnor, is taken by the motor car in its stride. You may, perhaps, have to change gear if you are held up by a lorry, but otherwise there is nothing to tell you that you are climbing a hill that changed the course of the Thames, and with it the course of English history.”

    “The Thames rises in the Cotswolds and flows easterly towards the North Sea. But for the Cumnor ridge it would have gone on flowing eastwards, trending a little north to skirt the Chilterns, and forming its estuary somewhere between Aldeburgh and Clacton. But for the Cumnor ridge, Ipswich or Colchester would have been the capital of England.”

    “The ridge checks the easterly flow of the Thames. To get round the ridge the river makes a great bend to the north and then turns south again, gathering the Cherwell at Oxford. Instead of flowing on east, it runs more nearly south – a little east of south – towards Reading. Just before its gets to Reading the Thames meets another barrier, the ridge of chalk forming the Berkshire Downs and the Chilterns. The river deals with this decisively, cutting a path for itself through what is called the Goring Gap. From here it returns to a generally easterly course to London and the sea.”

    “London came into being as a settlement at about the sea-tide coming into the river up the estuary, a good place for crossing the river. There were shallows where, at low tide and when the Thames itself was low, the river might be fordable, though the crossing on foot or on horseback would always have been risky. But it would have been easy enough by boat, a good place for a ferrypoint before the river widens into its estuary. A good place, too, for beaching larger craft bringing cargoes from the Continent, a snug haven after those vicious, short, steep seas of the passage  from Norway, Denmark or the Low Countries. So London came into being as the pulsing heart of England, with the Thames its artery.” 

    “For a river with so much history so long studied, the Thames still presents a surprising number of enigmas. No one has yet satisfactorily determined what its name means, or where it comes from. The Romans found it called (phonetically) “Tems”, and  latinised this into “Tamesis”. The “h” in the modern spelling is a ludicrous intrusion. It occurs in no very early charters, although it is occasionally to be found in late medieval documents as “Thamisa”. The silly “h” became fashionable in the seventeenth century when it was considered the thing to go in for “antiquities” – it is a fake. It has remained with us ever since.”

    “But what does “Tems” (or “Thames”) mean? It has no obvious root in the Celtic or Gallic tongues spoken in England before the Romans came. Dr Eilert Ekwall, author of the great Oxford Dictionary  of English Place-Names, suggests that it may derive ultimately from the Sanskrit “Tamasa”, meaning “dark”, perhaps through the Old Irish “Temen”, also meaning “dark”.  Some early people speaking in Indo-European language certainly came to Britain and they may have called the Thames “dark water” in their tongue. It is a singularly inappropriate name for the Thames as it has been these past 2,000 years, for it is a silver stream rather than a dark, brooding one. But when our remote ancestors came the Thames valley was thickly wooded, and the river under the trees may have seemed strikingly dark. No one knows. “Thames” may be a link with our first Indo-European forebears, or it may mean something completely different in some completely unknown tongue.”

    “I should like here to denounce another affectation in the name “Isis” occasionally presented as an alternative name  for the Thames above Oxford, and regrettably sanctioned as such by the Ordnance Survey. The “Isis” is a non-existent river, and the name was unheard of before the fourteenth century. Some unknown scribe seems to have conceived the idea that “Tamesis” was a compound of the names “Thame”, a tributary which joins the Thames just below Oxford, and an imaginary “Isis”. This is absurd. No one living by the Upper Thames has ever called the river anything but “Tems”, of which “Tamesis” is simply the latin form.  “Isis” has gratified some uncritical literary fancies, but it is as bogus as the “h” in “Thames”. That “h”, I fear, is too long established in orthodox spelling to be shifted now, but the map-makers ought surely to abandon “Isis”.” 

   

Seven Springs on the River Churcn (photo by David Stowell - for Geograph)

Seven Springs on the River Churn (photo by David Stowell – for Geograph)

    “Another enigma of the Thames is that its source – in well-surveyed, civilized England! – remains in dispute. The Ordnance Survey accepts the source as a spring (commonly dry in summer) at Trewsbury Mead, about 3½ miles SW of Cirencester and just to the N of the old Roman road (Fosse Way) between Cirencester and Tetbury. This is accepted, too, by the Thames Conservators, the official body responsible for the river, and the site has been adorned by them with a statue of a river god (Old Father Thames?) that once lived in the old Crystal Palace. But there is a rival source, about 11 miles farther north at Seven Springs, near Coberley, on the outskirts of Cheltenham. Here there is a better spring, in a dell with water in it, and a Latin inscription on a stone, recording:

            Hic Tuus,  O Tamesine Pater,  Septemgeminus Fons,  (Here, O Father Thames, is thy sevenfold source).

    “The matter was even discussed in Parliament (in 1937), when the supporters of Seven Springs tried to get a ruling giving official recognition to their source. Mr Chamberlain’s Government was unmoved, sticking to Trewsbury Mead, and arguing that the river which rises at Seven Springs is not the Thames, but the Churn. The Churn, howver, is a tributary of the Thames, which it joins at Cricklade. Its source is farther from the sea than Trewsbury Mead: should it be regarded as the main river down to Cricklade, and the stream from Trewsbury Mead as a tributary? This is like the arguments that go on about the Mississippi and the Missouri; it will never be settled.”

    “The Thames has always been navigable, though not always easily, from the sea to Lechlade, and at times, when barge-traffic was important, as far as Cricklade. Until the coming of railways the Thames was the main route for merchandise from London to Windsor, Maidenhead, Reading, Wallingford, Abingdon, Oxford, Lechlade and Cricklade, and for the products, mostly agricultural, of Oxfordshire and Berkshire sent to market in London. Cheeses from the Vale of the White Horse, shipped by river, helped to feed London before the Conquest. Until the Angevin kings stopped the trade (because they wanted revenue from the vineyards in France) there was a considerable river trade in wine from Abingdon and Reading. It was not the climate but politics that put an end to grape-growing in the Thames valley – an end, that is, commercially, for grapes can still be grown well by the Thames and I have drunk an excellent light wine from grapes grown near Pangbourne. Cotswald stone for building the first St Paul’s Cathedral was brought by the Thames to London, and Sir Christopher Wren  turned again to Burford for stone and to the Thames for transport when he built the present St Paul’s. By Wren’s day, however, Portland stone  by sea was cheaper than Burford stone brought to London by river, so he used Burford stone only for parts of his cathedral, where he wanted its special qualities.”

    “Had railways been invented a few decades later a splendid system of canals, based on the Thames, would have linked London to Bristol and the Midlands : there might even have been a ship canal from the Bristol Avon to the Thames. The canals exist but the railways killed them before they could be developed for modern traffic. It is no use crying over spilt canal-water, but one can still be angry that so much of it remains spilt. Many people hold that these canals could – and should – be restored and modernized, to the great relief of overcrowded roads.”

“If commercial traffic has gone from the Upper Thames it remains one of the finest inland waterways in Europe for pleasure cruising. The Conservancy maintains a dredged channel for 124 miles of non-tidal river from Teddington to Lechlade, and the channel is being extended to take small cruisers well above Lechlade. All locks on the Thames are manned, and most of them now are power-operated. There are fleets of cruising craft for hire or charter, and good facilities for privately-owned boats. From the Thames, too, you can get on to the Oxford Canal, a beautiful eighteenth-century waterway, and thence to the canal network of the Midlands – wonderful territory for inland cruising. Many of the old canals are still navigable by small boats, though you may have to work the locks yourself. But this is good exercise for a crew of strong sons and daughters, while the skipper goes off to replenish  stores. If you time your arrival rightly at the right places, stores replenishment can be indeed a congenial task.”

The River Thames at Wallingford Bridge (photo credit: Roger Templeman - for Geograph).

The Thames at Wallingford Bridge (photo credit: Roger Templeman – for Geograph).

    “But you need a lifetime properly to explore the Thames itself, and its magic hinterland. It is good to travel by boat, but you need not, for all the Thames-side towns and villages can be reached by car, though you will want a good map, and will have to make considerable detours as the river winds. The centuries unfold with particular vividness as you make your way along the river, if you go with a map to a library beforehand and work out the meanings of the place-names on your route. The Thames is a boundary as well as a highway. It brought prehistoric man to the good upland country where he could flourish, and protected his little settlements. Later it brought  the early Saxons  to the heart of their kingdom of Wessex – Hinksey, now part of modern Oxford and once an island in the river marshes, means “Hengist’s Island”, commemorating a very early Saxon name. The Thames bounded the ancient kingdom of Wessex, and when it was beset by enemies the river line held. King Alfred and his sons took particular care to guard the crossings at Cricklade, Oxford and Wallingford, and the invading Danes were checked by the Thames. Later it was the dividing line in the south of England between the area where the old Saxon laws prevailed and the Danelaw, where Viking traditions were recognized.”

    “William the Conqueror secured his hold on England by holding the Thames. His great castles at London, Windsor, Wallingford and Oxford not only controlled the river but dominated the routes leading to and from places where it could be crossed. The wars between Stephen and Matilda were fundamentally struggles to control these castles, and it was Stephen’s final failure to take Wallingford Castle, which held out for Matilda, that ended the war in the treaty securing the succession  of the throne of England to Matilda’s son, afterwards Henry II. It was through Henry II that the blood of the old Saxon Royal House was restored to the English throne, a link that has never since been wholly severed, save in the interregnum of the Cromwellian Commonwealth (1649-60). Thus it can be held with truth that it was the defense of the Thames at Wallingford in the twelfth century that not only gave England one of her greatest monarchs in Henry II but ensured that a descendant of Egbert, king of Wessex in the ninth century and the first ruler to style himself “King of the English”, occupies the throne of England still, in our present sovereign Queen Elizabeth II.”

The River Thames above Teddington (photo credit: Philip Halling - for Geograph).

River Thames above Teddington (photo credit: Philip Halling – for Geograph).

    “At Teddington the Thames meets the tide from its estuary and begins to mingle with the sea. Above Teddington the Thames is an inland waterway: below, it starts to have an ocean feel about it. One of the lost hopes of the first post-war Labour government was a plan to establish a Thames-side Walk, all the way from London to the source. That went the way of many dreams of a brave new world. It would be nice to revive it, but such a riverside walk would be expensive to construct, for what was once the towpath has often vanished in the encroachments of houses and gardens, particularly near London. On the upper river there is still a good deal of towpath, but there are awkward gaps that would require long detours or expensive bridging to restore a walk along the river’s length. One day, perhaps……..”

   “Meanwhile, there is enough access to the Thames to give infinite pleasure in return for very little trouble. Below Henley the towns become more and more suburban, but the river remains beautiful, with magic reaches by Kingston and Hampton Court. The best sailing reach on the whole river is the stretch from Marlow to Bourne End. From Reading to Oxford towns and built-up areas are fewer. Abingdon is the most considerable town and still retains patches of medieval beauty in spite of some horrible commercial development. Wallingford is a gracious little place – its size does not match its  history. Above Oxford there is next to nothing but water-meadows and peace. A week on a boat proceeding gently from Oxford to Lechlade is to be transported in time as well as space, to a world remote from motor roads, where the landscape has changed little since Parliament men and the Royalist troops fought over bridges in the Civil War, when Charles I made his capital at Oxford.”

    “The centuries sit lightly on the Upper Thames. Yet it is always London’s river, feeling the force of social and technological change pulsing out of London in many subtle ways, some hurtful, some making for its betterment. I shall discuss these in the August issue of the ILN, and describe what I call the ocean-Thames, whose ships go out to the farthest seas of the world by that nursery of seamen the Thames Estuary,” so says the author of this magazine article J. R. L. Anderson back in 1971.

Sources:

Anderson, J. R. L., ‘London’s River 1 – From The Costwolds To Teddington,’ The Illustrated LONDON NEWS, Vol 259, No 6876, Holborn Hall, 100 Grays Inn Road, London WC1. July 1971.

http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2929575   © Copyright David Stowell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2813784   © Copyright Roger Templeman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2592231   © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

                                                                                                     


Great Sphinx, Giza, Egypt

Great Sphinx at Giza, Lower Egypt.

Great Sphinx at Giza, Lower Egypt.

Latitude 29.975350. Longitude 31.137500. Ancient site at Giza in Lower Egypt, 12 miles south-west of Cairo. The ‘Great Sphinx’, also known as ‘the Sphinx of Hamaldis’, whilst during the time of the ‘New Kingdom’ it was called ‘Horus of the Horizon’ and, in modern Egyptian Arabic ‘the Terrifying One’ – (Wikipedia). It stands just 200 metres from the Pyramid of Khafra, and is known to the local inhabitants as ‘the guardian of the Giza necropolis’. The nose of the sphinx was apparently chopped off back in the 7th century AD and, not as many historians had once thought, by the cannons of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1798, but I suppose that made for a good story!

Giza Image 9627 (photo by Thebrookelynway for Wikipedia)

Giza Image 9627 (photo by Thebrookelyn-way   for Wikipedia)

The great sphinx dates from the 4th dynasty of the pharaohs (2,575-2,467 BC) and is thought to represent Khafra, who ruled between 2,558-2,532 BC). However, some historians now think the statue might date from the New Kingdom (1,570-1,070 BC), according to author Cathal Coyle in his “very concise” article ‘Famous Landmarks’ in the magazine ‘Ireland’s Own’.  This gigantic crouching limestone monument, located on the western bank of the river Nile, is 66 feet high, 63 feet wide and 220 feet in length; and has the body of a lion and the head of a human, possibly Khafra, but there is no certainty about that.

   Author Cathal Coyle in his magazine article says that: “When Khafre came to power during the 4th Dynasty, he constructed the Great Sphinx by  using limestone core blocks weighing hundreds of tons in his temples. His craftsmen also created more than 200 statues; 22 of these were at least three times life size.”

   Coyle goes on to say: “Representative of two Egyptian gods – the pharaoh god and the lion god, the sphinx combines the body of a crouching lion with the head of a human. In ancient times, it is thought that the face and body were painted dark red and the head cloth was yellow with blue stripes.” There are said “still” to be traces of this red paint on the head of the sphinx, especially ‘it is said’ near one of the ears.

   “Although there has been great speculation about the nose of the Great Sphinx, it is not actually known what happened to it. The drawings made by European travelers of the 16th and 17 centuries to Giza show the sphinx’s face complete with a nose.”

   “By the time of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in the early 19th century, the nose was missing. One possible suggestion is that the face of the sphinx was the victim of target practice by the French army! Some scholars also believe that the sphinx originally had a beard. Pieces of the beard discovered by excavation are in the British Museum in London.”

   “Much controversy has surrounded the Great Sphinx, including whether or not it was actually carved as late as the 4th Dynasty. An accumulating body of evidence, both archaeological and geological, indicates that the Sphinx is far older than this – and was only restored by Khafre duting his reign.”

   Cathal Coyle goes on to add that: “Some  archaeologists have also suggested that it was a memorial to a Pharaoh, but other scholars believe the Sphinx functioned as an astronomical observation device that marked the position of the rising sun on the day of the spring equinox. Later Egyptian rulers worshipped it as an aspect of the sun god, calling it Hors-Em-Akhet or ‘Horus of the Horizon.”

   “What saved the Great Sphinx from complete destruction is the fact that it had been submerged beneath the desert sand for most of its existence.”

   “Between 1816 and 1858, a series of adventurers, including Giovanni Caviglia and Gaston Maspero, attempted to clear the sand from around the body of the Sphinx but were each forced to abandon the project due to the enormous amount of sand. Finally, between 1925 and 1936, the French engineer Emil Baraize was successful in clearing the sand to reveal the base of the Sphinx.”

   “Repairs to the Sphinx have been made over the centuries by the Pharaohs Tuthmosis IV and Ramesses II, and also during the Roman era. In the 1980’s, during a six-year period, more than 2000 limestone blocks were added to the body of the Sphinx and various chemicals were injected in the hopes of preventing the deterioration. This treatment was not successful and sadly contributed to further deterioration. The Great Sphinx at Giza continues to deteriorate because of the humidity and the ever-increasing smog from nearby Cairo.”

   Author Cathal Coyle concludes his article by saying that: “The focus appears to be on preservation rather than further explorations; but towards the end of 2010 during routine excavation work in the area of the monument, Egyptian archaeologists discovered large sections of mudbrick walls which were part of a larger wall which stretched for 132 metres around the Great Sphinx.”

Sources:

Coyle, Cathal., Famous Landmarks, Ireland’s Own, (various dates), Wexford, Ireland.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Sphinx_of_Giza

 

 


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The Old Frontier (Hadrian’s Wall), Scottish Borders, United Kingdom

A section of Hadrian's Wall (photo by Moldovian1 for Wikipedia)

A section of Hadrian’s Wall (photo by Moldovian1 for Wikipedia)

In the Autumn 2008 edition of the magazine ‘Beautiful Britain’ there is an excellent article by the author Jock McKinnon called ‘The Old Frontier’. In this article the author tours Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman frontier that stretches from the Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west, a distance of 80 Roman miles (73 normal British miles!), and he uncovers the history behind the Roman wall and its stones. Here I have “quoted” in full the article which appears in the magazine. Hadrian’s Wall (Latin: Vallum Aelium), also called the Roman Wall, Picts’ Wall, or Vallum Hadriani, was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, according to Wikipedia.

   “Standing on the stretch of Hadrian’s Wall west of the remains of Housteads Roman fort, it is still possible to imagine a Roman sentry shivering in the cold. Squinting into the distant landscape, he must have wondered what on earth he was doing in such a ‘gods-forsaken’ place, so far from the centre of his ‘civilized’ world. It is an image that has been handed down to British schoolchildren for generations. But who really were the people who built and guarded the Wall? And why was it built? The answers, if they exist at all, lie buried in ancient records as well as in the stones and soil around the Wall.”

   “The story begins with just one line of Hadrian’s biography, which describes the Emperor as ‘the first to build a wall, 80 [Roman] miles long, to separate the Romans from the barbarians’. In 117 AD, Hadrian succeeded the Emperor Trajan, whose conquests had stretched the Roman empire to its furthest reaches, from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in the south-east to Scotland in the north-west. It was clear to Hadrian, however, that the empire had just reached its limits. With military resources and communications stretched to their maximum, Hadrian decided to consolidate Roman hegemony by withdrawing wherever necessary to manageable borders. He knew it was more important to be able to control what the empire had conquered rather than attempt to stretch its frontiers further. And so he began a tour of the empire, including Britain, to see the problems for himself.”

McKinnon goes on to say: “Although much of Britain had been subjugated, and revolts by local tribes – such as Boudicca’s – had been brutally put down, it was clear that there was still trouble ‘up north’ caused by ‘insurgents’, to use a modern term, from the northern tribes. Although we do not know the nature of such warfare – no detailed accounts of the fighting exist – we do know that the building of the Wall began immediately after, or even during, Hadrian’s visit to the province, from 122 AD onwards.”

Section of Hadrian's Wall (photo by Velela - for Wikipedia)

Section of Hadrian’s Wall (photo by Velela – for Wikipedia)

    “Stretching 73 miles from Wallsend on the Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west, the Wall and its forts were built from locally quarried stone and made good use of natural features such as Whin Sill, a lengthy rocky outcrop forming a north-facing cliff. A long line of forts also stretched west, down the coast of Cumbria. Wall inscriptions show that construction was mostly undertaken by troops from three legions, one of which – the Six Victrix – had come to Britain with Hadrian himself. The construction project may well have served the additional purposes of keeping the troops occupied and boosting competition and morale, as well as indicating to the locals that the Romans were deadly serious about imposing their will on the region.”

   “Conceived as a wall up to 15 ft high and 10ft thick, with a forward ditch to make attack more difficult, the design was changed before completion, with later sections adopting a much thinner width, in places only 7ft thick. It is not known why there was this change of plan; perhaps it was to make more efficient use of the materials, or simply to speed up construction. Either way, it suggests that the need for the barrier was pressing. Indeed, it is believed that territory to the south of the Wall was just as troublesome at the time.”

  “The Wall was therefore more than a defensive barrier to keep out northern raiders. In certain spots along the route of the Wall, such as at Heddon alongside the B6318, you can still make out large earthworks. Known as the ‘vallum’, these works consisted of a flat-bottomed ditch south of the Wall, about 20ft wide and deep, flanked on either side by mounds 20ft wide and 10ft high. The vallum often diverts around the forts, showing that it was built around the same time. Crossings were built opposite the forts, through the ramparts and across the ditch, with a gate. This indicates that the system of earthworks was used to control the flow of traffic through the Wall.  So it seems that another purpose of the Wall was quite literally to divide and rule, and to control the cross-country movement of people and goods.”

The author asks: “So what do we know about the soldiers who manned the Wall? From inscriptions on the Wall and at nearby forts, it is clear that, although the legions – which consisted of men with Roman citizenship – helped with the construction of the Wall, and fought in the area, often manning forts to the north and south of the Wall, they did not form its main garrison. This was the job of auxiliaries – infantry and cavalry units of non-citizens recruited from all around the Roman empire. Amongst the remains of the fort at Chesters is a stone reused as a step on which in inscribed the name of the First Cohort of Dalmations, infantrymen originally from the region which is now Croatia. Other inscriptions record the presence of troop units from France and Germany.”

   “Chesters is a good place to begin to take in the skill of the military engineers. Because of the layout of the site, the fort is difficult to imagine, but the bath-house, with walls still reaching up to 10ft high, and the monumental foundations of the bridge that carried the Wall and traffic across the Tyne, are impressive. Also worth a visit is the small museum, which contains many of the most important inscriptions found along the Wall.”

   “Chesters was one of a series of large forts that were constructed every six to eight miles along the Wall, sometimes after its construction, to house troops. These were in addition to the much smaller milecastles, which were built  into the south side of the Wall once every Roman mile, and turrets. The purpose of the turrets and milecastles was to provide look-outs and to aid communication from fort to fort.”

   “Housesteads was another large fort and its remains are imposing even today. It occupies a commanding position, on a south-facing slope, with its north side abutting the Wall and overlooking Whin Sill. Here it is possible to see the remains of gates, granaries, a headquarters building and the commanding officer’s house.”

Hadrian's Wall from Housesteads Fort (photo by Jamesflomonosoff - for Wikipedia)

Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Fort (photo by Jamesflomonosoff – for Wikipedia)

   “There are still also visible remains of cultivation terraces outside the walls of Housesteads, and excavations have revealed the streets, workshops and shops that clustered around the forts of Chesters and Vindolanda. Local tradesmen would have supplied the armed forces and the expanding local civilian economy that would have gravitated towards the troops and military to serve their various needs.”

   “Amongst the most remarkable finds from Hadrian’s Wall are the famous tablets of Vindolanda. Painstaking archeology has pieced together fragments of military records and personal letters which were inscribed on the wooden tablets at the fort and then discarded, left to decay in wet, clay soil. Fortunately for us, they were miraculously preserved by the anaerobic conditions, and the retrieved texts now provide tantalizing glimpses of the everyday.”

The author, Jock McKinnon, in his article makes mention of the other Roman frontier, the Antonine Wall, about 100 miles to the north. He says of this: “Another frontier, this time of earth banks, ditches and wooden palisades, was built about 100 miles further north 20 years later, during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus. The purpose of this second barrier may have been to create a controllable ‘neutral zone’ to Hadrian’s Wall further south, indicating that there was still a threat from unrest, but it would have doubled the military forces needed to patrol both frontiers and the region and it was abandoned by about 170 AD.”

   “Hadrian’s Wall itself was finally abandoned much later, not until the late fourth century, although finds at Birdoswald fort show that it continued to be used by a community, probably as a defensive enclosure, into the fifth or six centuries, long after the Romans and Hadrian had become a distant memory. Subsequently, much of the stonework was dismantled and reused for building work, and it’s only the remote stretches of the Wall and forts that can be seen today.”

   “It is sobering today to stand on the Wall, where that imagined soldier once stood, knowing that although it was obviously important at the time to emperors, their troops and local people – whether they supported it, hated it, or earned money as a result of it – it really matters little now whether the Wall was successful or not. All the time, money and manpower spent to quell a distant province proved fruitless. Except, that is,  for what the Wall can still tell us about our distant past.”

Sources:

McKinnon, Jock., The Old Frontier, Beautiful Britain, Vol 3 Number 3 Autumn 2008, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, 2008.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian’s_Wall

http://www.hadrians-wall.org

 

 

 

 


Kilmalkedar Monastic Site, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, Southern Ireland

Kilmalkedar Church, Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kilmalkedar Church, Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Irish grid reference: Q 4030 0620. Just off the R559 Cois Farraige (or the Carrig) road to the east of Murreagh on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, stands the 7th century Kilmalkedar Monastic Site, also known as Cill Malcheadair. Here we find a small 12th century roofless Romanesque church, a rare Dark Age sundial, an Ogham and Latin inscribed stone and some cross-inscribed slabs, one of which is called ‘the Alphabet Stone’ and, there are some pre-Christian holed ‘balaun’ stones, holy wells and early medieval grave-markers – in what is a ‘very’ beautiful and holy setting in the far south-west of County Kerry, some 5 miles north-west of Dingle on the R559 road.

The first church and a monastery, were established here at Kilmalkedar in c 600 AD by St Maolcethair (Maolcedar), the son of an Irish king (of Ulster). A building called ‘St Brendan’s House’, actually an oratory, can also be found here and, close by the pilgrims’ road (Cosan na Naomh) leads on to Mount Brandon from where St Brendan departed for foreign lands in the mid 6th century. About 1 mile to the south-west of Kilmalkedar is the famous boat-shaped building known as ‘the Gallarus Oratory’, which dates maybe from the 8th century. The Celtic monastery of Kilmalkedar is known from history to have been a renowned school of learning during the early medieval period.

The ancient roofless Romanesque chapel dates from the mid-12th century, though there was obviously an earlier religious building on this site, maybe dating back to the Dark Ages when both St Brendan and, later St Maolcethair were in residence here. There are a number of very beautiful architectural features in the church. It consists of a chancel and nave – the chancel measures roughly 6 metres by 5 metres – while the nave is roughly 8 metres by 9 metres. The church is said to resemble the more famous Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, County Tipperary.

In the excellent article ‘Marking The Passage Of Time’ by Patrick O’Sullivan for the Ireland’s Own magazine we are informed that the church was: “built in the Romanesque style of the twelfth century, typical features being the round headed doorway and the high pitched gables”. But there are a number of other features too including the barrel-vaulting and a lower section of the corbelled stone roof, and some carved window surrounds have survived. The chancel dates from 1200; and the west doorway has a ‘tympanum’ with carved stone head. O’Sullivan in his article goes on to say: “The original roof of the church has long since given way but the East Window, known locally as Cno na Snaithaide, the eye of the needle, still remains. It has long been the tradition for pilgrims to pass through the window nine times, especially at Eastertime, when it was believed that doing so would grant them the promise of eternal life”.

Standing in the chancel is the famous ‘Alphabet Stone’, dating probably from the 6th century AD, which is 4 feet high, but is broken at the top. On its west face the Latin alphabet and an earlier inscription DNI which is probably ‘domini’. The north face has a thin, damaged cross while the south face has an equally thin Latin cross with scrolled ends. And outside in the graveyard a 6 foot high slender Ogham stone with a little round hole at the top. The Latin inscription on this is: ANM MAILE INBIR MACI BROCANN which is translated as: ‘In the name of Mael Unbir, son of Brocan’, and on the opposite side (along the edge) is the Ogham notch inscription reading the same. This stone is thought to date from the 5th or 6th century AD.

Kilmalkedar Sundial Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kilmalkedar Sundial Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in the churchyard is a 4 foot high rectangular shaped stone with sundial markings beautifully carved onto it. O’Sullivan says of this: “The beautiful sundial is marked with segments which correspond to the divisions of the monastic day”. He goes on to say: “The northwest face meanwhile is decorated with a cross of arcs, the later now thought to be a symbol of pilgrimage, as it appears on many stones associated with early pilgrimage routes”. And further he says: “While the lines on the Kilmalkedar sundial end in half moons, or semi circles, other examples have lines that end in three pronged forks. There are two decorative fret motifs at the top of the shaft of the Kilmalkedar sundial, everything about it evocative of an age when the pilgrims made their way to the holy mountain. It is the easiest thing in the world to picture some of them stopping by the sundial, telling the time of day from the way in which its face was shadowed by the sun”, he says.

There are a number of interesting early Medieval grave-markers set among the more modern gravestones, these may indicate where monks from the monastery were buried between the 8th-12th century. Also, there are two holy wells – one for St Maolcedir, founder of the monastery here, and the other belongs to St Brendan whose ruined, roofless oratory (St Brendan’s House) stands 50 metres to the north. St Brendan’s holy well is located at the south-east side of his two-roomed oratory.

Also in the churchyard, a hefty and tall slab-cross with a thin (unfinished) cross carved onto it, and a number of early medieval grave-markers in the form of crosses, including a small T-shaped tau cross. These probably mark the graves of the monks who lived at the monastery between the 8th-12th centuries AD.

Some 50 metres to the north, near St Brendans House, there are two pre-Christian balaun stones with several depressions or bowl-like holes in them – though what these were originally used for is uncertain, maybe milk, or some other substance was placed in the holes as a kind of fertility aid, or for healing purposes? During the early Christian period these holes may have been used by missionaries for holy water and, subsequently baptism of the local people. Close by is the pilgrims road (Saint’s Road) which leads from Kilmalkedar to Brandon Mountain from where legend says St Brendan the Navigator sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on his long journey to other lands back in the mid-6th century AD, according to Katharine Scherman in her delightful book ‘The Flowering of Ireland’.

Sources:

Bord, Janet & Colin., Mysterious Britain, Paladin Books, London, 1974.

http://www.irelandtravelkit.com/irish-romanesque-church-kilmalkedar-county-Kerry/

http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/kerry/kilmalkedar/kilmalkedar.html

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilmalkedar

O’Sullivan, Patrick., ‘Marking The Passage Of Time’, Ireland’s Own, (Various Dates), Wexford, Ireland.

Scherman, Katharine., The Flowering of Ireland, Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1981.

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