There is no doubt that Skylight Press has a deep interest in ‘Sacred Earth’ mysteries, as evidenced by Alan Richardson’s geo-psychic novel On Winsley Hill, Margaret Randall’s array of sacred Landscapes in Something’s Wrong with the Cornfields, Hugh Fox’s internal jungle essence in Immortal Jaguar, Ella Young’s ‘Green World’ pangs felt in At the Gates of Dawn, Anthony Duncan’s old towne traceries in Faversham’s Dream, Mike Harris’s Welsh star-scapes in Awen, and the soon to be released Lud Heat by Iain Sinclair – a veritable champion of ‘psychogeography.’ But a wonderful example of old land-reading and ancient stone-mapping can be found closer to home with Skylight’s very own Rebsie Fairholm – our photographer, graphic artist and book designer extraordinaire! Of course Rebsie (under her nom de plume) has written a remarkable novel, In Different Skies, that dares to sift through the scarred trenches of the Loos and the Somme in Northern France, bringing to life the many resonances left therein. She is also the proprietor of the very excellent Cheltonia website, which provides an inspired and in depth look at the Regency period Spa town where Skylight Press is fortunate to reside – and a wonderful chronicler of folksongs that imbibe the spirit and history of the ancient land, as can be found in the various creations on her music website. Her most recent project is called Sulis Manoeuvre, and contains marvellously illustrated articles about Southwest corner of Britain where she lives and works. Here are some snippets of articles and photographs (click titles to see full versions)…
Crickley Hill is one of the most dramatic sites on the Cotswold ridge, overlooking the Severn Valley with a view which takes in the tower of Gloucester cathedral and the Malvern Hills beyond. On clear days you can gaze as far as the Black Mountains of Wales. Much of the Cotswold ridge undulates gracefully and is flat and level on top, hosting wide smooth fields of corn and ribbons of ancient coppiced woods, and Crickley Hill blends so seamlessly with its neighbour Shurdington Hill that you can walk from one to the other without noticing. On its other side however it has a steep, spectacular scarp plunging down into a green valley, and this is what made it so attractive as a site of human settlement, going back into the stone age.
An isolated flood-prone plateau between the sluggard River Severn and the eternal old track now baptised the A38. A long straight lane ending in a curl before it glances the river bank. A menagerie of wild beasts in stone and legend, and the oaken tracks of Kings. A place of orchard cottage dreams, of roses and lawns and white violets, demurely hosting two Saxon churches barely 100 yards apart.
Deerhurst crouches off the modern beaten track, a secret spot about equidistant between Tewkesbury and Cheltenham. It gets minimal through-traffic because its roads, so close to the unbridged River Severn, don’t really go anywhere. It’s mostly open meadows and flood plains these days, but its older name, Deorhurst, reveals a “grove of wild beasts”.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the truce between Edmund and Cnut took place on an eyot, or small river island near Deerhurst, called Ola’s Island – Olney or Alney. (Confusingly, there is an Alney island a few miles downstream, but that almost certainly isn’t it.) To this safe and secluded spot both kings were conveyed by fishing-boat. In his book Tewkesbury and Deerhurst, published over a century ago, Henri Massé cites the site as the place known locally as the Naight – and many other sources agree. The name is a clue, because the word “eyot” (pronounced the same as “eight”) readily morphs into “naight”. There is no obvious trace of this island at Deerhurst today. But it can still be found.
Follow me from the place where the road ends, by the gate of Odda’s Chapel. A footpath leads over a tiny stream and across a flat plain, lightly moated on both sides, a short way to the bank of the River Severn. The first landmark you see in this featureless plain is not the steely Severn, but this magnificent holey oak tree (with the Malverns lined up behind).
Notgrove long barrow was built with five internal chambers off a central passage, in common with many other barrows in what is called the Cotswold Severn group. It had a forecourt area at the eastern end and was structured all around with a double kerb of drystone walling. One thing that is quite unusual is that it was built on top of an earlier round barrow. In this instance there was a burial of a single individual: underneath the dome of the round barrow was the crouched skeleton of an old man. The body of a young girl had, at some later date, been placed on the top. The round barrow sits hidden in the centre of the long barrow immediately behind the furthest chamber. The passage and chambers of the long barrow contained disarticulated skeletons representing at least six people, with the jumbled bones of at least two more underneath the horned forecourt. It also had a possible standing stone on its north side.
A trippy skip through the medieval English imagination, as expressed in carvings on old churches and elsewhere, taking in the fretfully bizarre and bordering on the loony. This is the first of an occasional series.
Skylight Press will soon feature more works of this nature, including Martin Anderson’s Interlocutors of Paradise and Gordon Strong’s The Sacred Stone Circles of Stanton Drew.