Friday, 27 December 2013

" A room, a room, I do presume" Mumming in the Vale

Today I went to the mumming play put on outside The Bear at Wantage. This particular production is a revival dating back to 1973, however, the text is based on one from nearby Steventon. There are a number of records of mumming plays from the Vale. The Historical Database of Folk Play Scripts lists one from Stanford-in-the –Vale and one from Childrey. The Stanford-in-the-Vale play was rather pleasingly published by the archaeologist Stuart Piggott, whose grandfather was a school master in Childrey, and first recorded by his father (Piggott 1929). He noted that the costume consisted of rags / ribbons, but not blacking up. The Childrey fragment is far shorter and has little additional information (ibid). The Steventon play which the current Wantage production is based on is not listed in the Historical Database as coming from Steventon, but rather is noted in a more general form as a “Mid-Berkshire” play. However, the on-line version of the Thomas Fairman Ordish manuscripts available via the wonderful EFDSS Full English archive make it clear that this was recorded in Steventon by Lieutenant-Colonel Barzillai Lowsley (RE) in 1888. It notes that in the Steventon play, the character usually known as Saint George is called the ‘Africky King’ – as it typical with mumming plays, the Wantage version renames this character and calls him King Alfred (reflecting local Wantage connections with Alfred).

Lowsley, B. 1888. A Glossary of Berkshire Words and Phrases English Dialect Society, London, Trubner, 1888, pp.17-22

Piggott, S. 1929. ‘Collectanea. Mummers' Plays from Berkshire, Derbyshire, Cumberland, and Isle of Man’ Folk-Lore, 40-3, 262-44

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Voices from the Vale

There was recently an article in the Daily Fail about an archive of sound recordings held in the British Library made by German researchers of British POWs whilst they were in captivity in prisoner of war camps.

Pleasingly it has one recording
of a man from the Vale of the White Horse - it is of a Charles Hall from Shrivenham (Born 1882) and recorded on the 5th September 1916. He is reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son (taken from Luke chapter XV, verse 11-32). We can assume he could read and he is probably using his best 'reading' voice and day-to-day he would have spoken less formally- but there are lovely moments when he colloquialises (is that a word?) the text- I particularly like the point at 0:16s in when he says 'young'un' and then corrects himself.

Hopefully if I can find the time, I'd like to find out what happened to Mr Hall after the war was over (assuming he survived the camp).



Tonight we feel the muffled peal
Hang on the village like a pall;
It overwhelms the towering elms -
That death-reminding dying fall
The very sky no longer high
Comes down with the reach of all.
Imprisoned in a cage of sound
Even the trivial seems profound

John Betjeman

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


Fieldnames from East Challow and Letcombe Regis

The Reevey;
The Harbour;
Thatcher’s Ground;
Green End;
Nineteen Acres;
Great Meadow;
Lower Fatting Ground;
Barn Corner;
Pease Close;
Great Eblands;
Brick kiln Ground;
Warman’s Close;
Upper Bottom;
Black pits;
Hanging Hill;

Source: East Challow and Letcombe Regis enclosure map 1801 from the excellent New Landscapes: Enclosure in Berkshire site, an absolute must for all landscape fetishists and map geeks

Picture: Copyright Andrew Smith and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Collecting in the Vale

I caught In Our Time yesterday with Dan Hicks and Richard Bradley talking about Victorian archaeologist, anthropologist and collector Augustus Pitt-Rivers which reminded me of the recent publication of a volume on the world archaeology collections in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Whilst focussing primarily on the overseas ethnographic collections, it also reviews the local collections. I was intrigued how relatively little from the region ended up in the museum, with the Vale being represented only by a few minor objects from Uffington and Sparsholt. I suspect though that the majority of archaeological material from Oxfordshire ended up in the Ashmolean- I’m not entirely clear how far the collections policy of the two institutions were harmonised, particularly in the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries. One of the things I need to do at some point is explore the Pitt-Rivers Museums excellent "The Other Within" proejct which reviewed their English ethnographic (as opposed to archaeological) holdings, with a view to getting my head round the material from the Vale. However, it got me thinking more widely about the history of collecting ethnographic material from the Vale. There are obviously a number of museums in the Vale, such as the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage, the Champs Chapel Museum at East Hendred and the Tom Brown School House museum in Uffington- though I know very little about their history and the development of their collections. One collection that I do know more about is the Lavinia Smith collection which is now in the wonderful Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. Lavinia Smith was American by birth but spent much of the first half of the 20th century living in East Hendred where she built up a collection of over 400 items connected to rural life in the village. There is a nice blog posting from MERL about it here. The picture is from the Lavinia Smith collection of images still held in East Hendred - reminds me of the shop window at the beginning of Bagpuss.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Time Team arrive!

Today's episode of Time Team follows on really nicely from my last post. The site they explored is only about 3km due north of the Didcot Great Western site I mentioned in my previous posting. However, the Time Team site is located down on the sands and gravels of the Thames terraces just to the south of Abingdon. In this case there are fantastic cropmarks of the site itself and its immediate hinterland. This image shows the site in its context- it's easy to pick out the RB cropmarks shown on TT as well as prehistoric and AS features to the south-east; the whole area is also braided with palaeochannels. I do like TT but it is not always very good on context- I *think* they were saying that the site was not near (m)any other villas, which is odd as it's just down the road from Barton Court Farm- also close to a decent town at Dorchester-on-Thames and only about 3 1/2 miles from the big complex at Marcham/Frilford. They also got a bit bogged down in the whole "what is a villa?" debate- making a good stab of exploring the complexities and then getting a bit caught up in a discussion about whether it was a high-status residence OR a centre for agrarian production. Louise Revell commented in passing that the villas were the homes of the members of the urban council (curia) - is that really what we think? I know it's likely that some owners were members of the curia, but surely not all. To be fair to her, the way this kind of tv interview gets edited, the original message doesn't always come out clearly. The other issue that came to mind watching this was a reminder of how incredibly dense the known RB landscapes (or indeed the landscapes of any early period) are in this part of the Middle/Upper Thames valley. I've always rather taken it for granted having grown up relatively locally- but the more time I spend away the more I realise how unusual the surviving resource is; probably more prehistoric/RB/AS sites in a 10km x 10km block centred on Sutton Courtenay than in all of County Durham... NB; just noticed that for some reason the North Star in Steventon was thanked in the credits - despite there being no obvious on-screen carousing!

Friday, 15 February 2013

Archaeology at Didcot

Some nice news reports (here and here) of the extensive range of archaeologiacl features found at Didcot by OA as part of development-control work. There is an interesting range of prehistoric and IA/RB material as well as a little AS evidence. The site seems to lie on the slightly elevated Gault and greensand that skirt the southern edge of the Vale, and is, I think, one of the first extensive open-plan interventions on that kind of landscape. As such, it compliments rather nicely the far more extensively recorded prehistoric, IA/RB, AS landscapes that survive (primarily as cropmarks) on the gravels of the Thames around Abingdon and Dorchester.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Disc brooch

Today's little treasure is a rather splendid 7th century garnet inlaid composite disc brooch found by a metal detectorist in West Hanney (PAS description here). This is one of three similar brooches from the Vale, including one found at Milton and one at Abingdon. The example from Milton (now in the V&A) is in much better nick and gives a better impression of what the West Hanney one would have looked like. These things are always flagged up as Kentish, but given the sheer quantity of garnet inlaid material being reported through the PAS, I'm not sure we can sustain the automatic assumption that anything containing garnet is from Kent.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Broad Gauge

Photo of a fence post at Steventon - this is one a number along this field boundary that re-use stretches of broad-gauge rail. The village was of some importance in the early years of the GWR. It was the main station for Oxford until 1844 when a line from Didcot was built. It was also briefly the location of the headquarters of the GWR (between July 1842 and January 1843). The GWR replaced their broad guage tracks in 1892 when over 170 miles of mainline were converted to narrow gauge in just over two days!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Montis Albequini Conspectus

A nice view of White Horse Hill (or Monti Albequini if we want to be all Latinate about it)dating to c1738. This is an image from Francis Wise's Francis Wise's 'A letter to Dr Mead concerning some antiquities in Berkshire', published by Thomas Wood in Oxford, in which he argued that the horse was created to commemorate the victory of Alfred over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. You can find the full text here as a Google Book- which pleasingly appears to have scanned Stuart Piggott's personal copy - Piggott has strong Vale links as his grandfather was a schoolmaster in Childrey and he retired to West Challow

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Abingdon Morris

Thought I’d kick this off with Abingdon Morris, who I saw dancing out in Steventon on New Year’s day. The Vale is in the heart of traditional Morris country. Although the 20th century saw a massive revival (or even reinvention) of the Morris tradition, there are only four sides that have a more or less genuine claim to be inheritors of an unbroken local tradition, of which three (Abingdon; Bampton; Headington Quarry) are in the immediate vicinity of the Vale. In Abingdon’s case, the first records go back to at least the 18th century. They were recorded by Mary Neal, a key figure in the early Morris revival (and pleasingly for me, involved in the wonderfully odd Kibbo Kift Kindred). There is a letter recording her requesting some dancers from Abingdon to go to London to teach the dance to eager learners. The Abingdon Traditional Morris have some idiosyncracies- they don’t do stick dances unlike other sides in the Cotswold tradition. They are also always accompanied by a set of regalia- including the Horns, the Mayor’s sash and cup or chalice. These are mainly connected with the tradition of the election Mayor of Ock Street, which I’ll blog about at some point. The horns in the photos are the ones they dance out with- the originals are probably of 18th century date and have their origin in a town game (Seemingly akin to the surviving Haxey Hood) and part of a wider tradition of mock mayors. I’m getting increasingly interested in the survival of this kind of regalia in folk traditions- might be nice to pull together a project looking at it at some point in the future. I’ll blog more about the Mayor of Ock Street in the future as I’m hoping to get to this years ceremony. For about this have a look at the Roud, S. 2006. The English Year, Penguin (pp.215-17) and Chandler, K. 1993. ‘The Abingdon Morris and the Election of the Mayor of Ock Street’ in Buckland, T. and Wood, J. (eds) 1993, Aspects of British Calendar Customs Sheffield, pp. 119-36

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Vale of the White Horse

Another day, another blog. Unlike my other blog, Outlandish Knight, which is an opportunity for me to randomly witter about everything under the sun (although it mainly seems to be about morris dancing and archaeology), the idea of this blog is a chance for me to focus on one particular area. I want to focus on a small area of countryside in central southern England, the Vale of the White Horse and its hinterland (the Berkshire Downs to the south and a limestone to the north, which seperates it from the Upper Thames Valley). Essentially, I’m looking at the valley and watershed of the Ock, a small river that joins the Thames at Abingdon. Historically this area constituted the northern marches of Berkshire, it has for most of my lifetime, been part of Oxfordshire. I’ve briefly explored the personal resonances this area has for me previously, so it is perhaps not surprising that I want to revisit it more extensively. My first inclination was, as a university lecturer, to develop some kind of structured academic research project that encompassed the Vale. However, on reflection I’ve shied away from this approach. This is for a number of reasons. Putting aside the inevitable pressures on my time, I struggled to frame a project that encompassed all the facets of the area I was interested in (including but not limited to prehistoric landscapes; Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash; early medieval Wessex; Goosey, Baulking and Denchworth; medieval churches, the 19th century industrialisation of agriculture; Morris dancing and mumming; place-names; Didcot power station; John Betjeman; lardy cake; bun throwing and the venerable pastime of Aunt Sally). Secondly, I wanted to avoid the strictures of constructing and presenting the material in a traditional format. Instead, I wanted to pull together something that was more impressionistic, more fluid and more deliberately ‘bitty’. In some senses, this chimes quite nicely with current conceptual developments in historical, geographical and landscape writing – I’m particularly thinking of the chorographic turn and the rise of psychogeography. Or to view it in a slightly more reactionary way, sometimes I just want to be an antiquarian rather than archaeologist. So, what can we expect on this blog? I’m not entirely sure yet; hopefully a rough-and-ready collage cum commonplace book focussing on the Vale with words, photos and probably some sounds (if I can work out the technical implications). There are some things I already know I want to write about, but I am also open to serendipity. Needless to say, there will be Morris dancing (you have been warned).
“… From this wide vale, where all our married lives We two have lived, we now are whirled away Momently clinging to the things we knew— Friends, footpaths, hedges, house and animals— Till, borne along like twigs and bits of straw, We sink below the sliding stream of time.” On Leaving Wantage – John Betjeman (1972)