Friday, 4 September 2015

Walking St Berin's Land

Birinus (Dorchester Abbey)

Today is one of the feasts of St Birinus, who in the seventh century was sent from Rome to convert what Bede calls 'the most inland and remote regions of the English'. He ended up in the wilds of Wessex, in the area of the upper Thames valley we now call Oxfordshire, and there he persuaded king Cynegils to accept baptism, helped by the support of Oswald, king of Northumbria. The kings gave Birinus the 'city of Dorcic' - now Dorchester-on-Thames - for his episcopal see, and after his death he became a widely-commemorated saint. I wrote at some length about Birinus (who is also known as Berin, the unlatinized form of his name) and the development of his veneration at Dorchester in this post.

No longer a city or a bishopric, Dorchester is now a small, quiet, and very pretty village, with a beautiful abbey church to testify to its former importance. Its history in fact dates back many thousands of years before Birinus, with signs of inhabitation there from long before the Saxons came: here's a brief overview of its proliferation of Neolithic monuments, Bronze Age ditches, Iron Age forts, Roman camps, and early Saxon settlements. Long before Birinus made Dorchester a sacred Christian site, this landscape of distinctive hills and meeting rivers seems to have been a special place for many succeeding generations of inhabitants, and it's special to me too, for reasons I'll explain later on.

Birinus preaching (Dorchester Abbey)

Two years ago, on a sunny day at the end of August, I went on a walk to Dorchester. Usually when I go on such expeditions I take lots of photographs, with half an idea of blogging about them, and then I never get around to writing the blogpost. So it was in this case. I did write about a previous trip to Dorchester that same summer here, and I suppose the place and its history were on my mind. But it's pleasant to revisit the pictures and the memory of the day after an interval of time - so today come on a walk with me in St Berin's country, of two and two thousand years ago.

Dorchester is about eight miles south of Oxford, and I began my expedition by taking the short train journey from Oxford to Appleford. Appleford is a village with such an impossibly pretty name that you feel it must be made up, and its chief attraction, apart from its name and its useful railway station, is a fairly plain but somehow lovable church. The church has been open, empty, and welcoming every time I've passed that way; any church which is consistently open wins a place in the wanderer's heart!

On this day I didn't linger, though I did peek in to see how it was doing, and found it quiet and shadowed on that sunny Saturday morning.

Little Appleford, although medieval at its core, is a much-Victorianised church; so to walk from there to Dorchester is to walk back in time.

From Appleford my way lay eastwards, parallel for a while with the line of the Thames, until the river wound its way north and away from my path. The river and I were going to the same place, but the river takes a more circuitous route than the walker needs to.

Autumn was coming to the fields, which were dry and stubbly and golden, and interspersed by flashes of bright colour.

In the distance here you can see Didcot Power Station, which seems such a solid mass on the horizon, but in fact some of those towers have already been demolished since I was here two years ago. This is the kind of comment on earthly power and transience and change that an Anglo-Saxon poet would just have loved - 'eald enta geweorc', and all that.

It was places like Dorchester, we assume, which inspired Anglo-Saxon poets to talk about eald enta geweorc, 'the ancient work of giants' - Roman ruins or similar physical evidence of peoples past and gone, great in their day and yet vanished from the face of the earth. In places so powerfully imbued with a sense of their past inhabitants, it's difficult to know what metaphor to use to talk about them - those people who are unknown, and yet feel so close as to be almost within reach. Perhaps today we might talk about ghosts rather than giants; around Dorchester, conscious of the many archaeological discoveries which have been made in these fields, I find myself thinking about bodies and the earth - as if all the ground is one huge graveyard, made up of the bones and the flesh of the people who have lived and died here.

I was thinking about that two years ago (as you can tell from this post), in part because of a poem about this landscape - specifically, about the hills which you can just see in this picture, and which mark our ultimate destination:

Those are Wittenham Clumps, and that's where we're going. Their proper name is the Sinodun hills, apparently, but they have lots of names, and Wittenham Clumps is the one I know best. That summer I had been reading a lot of William Morris' poetry, including his poem inspired by a visit to Dorchester in August 1867:

In this sweet field high raised above the Thames
Beneath the trenched hill of Sinodun
Amidst sweet dreams of disembodied names
Abide the setting of the August sun,
Here where this long ridge tells of days now done;
This moveless wave wherewith the meadow heaves
Beneath its clover and its barley-sheaves.

Across the gap made by our English hinds
Amidst the Roman's handiwork, behold
Far off the long-roofed church; the shepherd binds
The withy round the hurdles of his fold;
Down in the foss the river fed of old,
That through the long lapse of time has grown to be
The little grassy valley that you see.

Rest here awhile, not yet the eve is still,
The bees are wandering yet, and you may hear
The barley mowers on the trenched hill,
The sheep-bells, and the restless changing weir,
All little sounds made musical and clear
Beneath the sky that burning August gives,
While yet the thought of glorious Summer lives.

Ah, love! such happy days, such days as these,
Must we still waste them, craving for the best,
Like lovers o’er the painted images
Of those who once their yearning hearts have blessed?
Have we been happy on our day of rest?
Thine eyes say "yes," but if it came again,
Perchance its ending would not seem so vain.

This gains from being read in conjunction with May Morris' recollection of the visit which inspired her father's poem:

To the wanderer over the Downs, the two hillocks may be landmark and companion for many solitary hours of wayfaring across the wide sweeps that fade from gold to distant blue. In a first stanza, which was struck out, the place lives again to anyone who knows it well... Thus have I seen it, the corn-land mellow under the burning August sun, on cross-country travelling from London to our Kelmscott home. But the first time we youngsters saw Sinodun Hill was on a delightful river-journey we made from the house in Hammersmith up the Thames to Kelmscott. For some reason, we had not much time at Dorchester, but I remember that my father insisted on us children going up to see the entrenchments - and eager enough were we to fill in the long and happy days with any new delight. The passionate interest he took in these things impressed itself on us, and the strangeness of that first sight of the ancient earthworks, linked with the simple explanation given us of what they meant, will always hang about the picture my mind retains of them. It was already twilight as we clambered over the rough grass, and back to the river and our company: the colour had gone out of the world, and as I look back trying to live again the impressions of the evening, something of the ancient people seems to have lingered in the hushed uncertain evening time, and the momentary oppression and melancholy of it come over me once more as I write.

'Landmark and companion' they were for me that day, better than any map - I could see them before I left Appleford, and from much further away. Dorchester lies beneath those hills, and it must be the unmistakable hills, in part, which have contributed to the special character of this landscape.

But we'll get to that in a bit. First our path takes us to another village, Long Wittenham, where we find the river again.

I stopped here a while, and thought I saw a kingfisher, and did see a cheery man with a dog. (Isn't it funny how you remember such things, two years later?) This is the Thames, which meets the Thame at Dorchester, so that the village is surrounded on three sides by water, guarded by rivers as well as by hills. Legend says that Birinus baptised King Cynegils in the River Thame, which runs right by the abbey - a natural piece of folklore, or perhaps even the truth.

When Birinus died he was buried at Dorchester, but before long his relics were taken to Winchester, which was to surpass Dorchester as the chief city of Wessex and the seat of its bishops. Today's feast commemorates the translation of his relics at Winchester in 980, under the direction of Bishop Æthelwold (who most often features on this blog for his glorious Benedictional). As Bishop of Winchester Æthelwold did much to promote the veneration of his half-forgotten predecessors, but for some reason one of the saints he translated, Swithun, is much better known than any other, including Birinus. But it occurs to me that Æthelwold, who had been for a while abbot of Abingdon, had himself lived not far from Dorchester and the area associated with St Berin. Æthelwold was a vigorous and productive and busy abbot of Abingdon (he was vigorous and productive in everything he did!); I wonder if his business ever brought him down the river from Abingdon to Dorchester.

From the riverside, I walked into Long Wittenham. It was completely deserted; I think everyone was still in bed.

The peaceful churchyard reminded me of the many Anglo-Saxon burials which have been found around Long Wittenham, yielding objects such as might have belonged to the people to whom St Berin preached. (This is my favourite.) All those bodies, sleeping in the earth.

When I came to the church there were some women putting out flowers for a wedding, but they let me sneak inside. The treasure of the church is its font, which is Norman, made of lead, and decorated with swirls and squiggles and bishops:

The river was good enough for St Berin, but I suppose a font is more practical for everyday use.

The little bishops are remarkably well-preserved; apparently the font was hidden in a wooden casing during the Civil War, to prevent it being melted down for bullets, and it was then forgotten about until 1839. It saved the swirls and bishops.

Coming out of Long Wittenham again, you hardly need to follow a path or a road: head for the hills.

At the foot of the hills lies the village of Little Wittenham, but this church was locked, so I can't show you any of it.

So we cross the river, under the shadow of the hills, at Day's Lock.

Now we can see Dorchester across the fields - 'far off the long-roofed church...'

I won't take you across those fields on this occasion; I've been to Dorchester so many times that on that day just to be within sight of it was enough. (The journey is the point, not the destination!) For pictures of the church and village, I refer you to my other posts on Birinus or the abbey's website. I won't take you up Wittenham Clumps, either, because my energy didn't extend quite that far. But
here's the view from the other side:

So we turn and wander back.

Rich as this landscape is in historical memories, for me its associations are not purely academic. I was an honorary child of Oxfordshire long before I was a 'clerk of Oxford'; I grew up in East Kent, but one side of my family comes from this part of Oxfordshire, and my life at the university has always been paralleled by a personal connection with the county. (In Oxford terms, I've always felt more 'town' than 'gown'.) When my family settled in this area they came first not to ancient Dorchester but to its very modern neighbour, the new village of Berinsfield. Berinsfield was built in the 1950s on an old airforce base, to rehouse people like my family who had been living in temporary huts, and by a stroke of inspiration it was named for St Berin - and so it sounds as if it had been there forever, although it's less than a century old. From Berinsfield my family moved to Dorchester, then to the suburbs of Oxford, but it's Dorchester they speak of as home. As a result - although it's never been my home - it's special to me. If Dorchester was, as the experts say, a ceremonial landscape in the Neolithic period, a place where people gathered for special occasions, well, so it is for us: it's been the scene of family parties, weddings, and funerals, and its landscape of hills and roads and rivers is populated for me by second-hand memories, the backdrop of often-repeated family stories which took place here long before I was born.

Before that, just beyond living memory, my ancestors on that side of the family ranged more widely over this area: they were Romany gypsies, who travelled around Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, never staying in one place very long but rarely to be found more than a few miles away from the Chilterns. I don't know any more about them than I can, with great effort, put together from written records, but I often think of them when I'm wandering around Oxfordshire. When I walk through a landscape like this I'm constantly thinking about history, poetry, place-names, maps; their experience of the place must have been so very different, but I can only imagine how. I can't begin to guess how they would have described the landscape they inhabited, how intimately they must have known it - the stories they knew about it, the language they used to talk about it. Their own names are utterly strange to me, exotic, even though I half share them: they have the same ordinary surname as me, but where I have a first name which wouldn't make you think twice, they were called things like Comfort, Lematina, Florabella, Sylvanus. All I know of them are these names and tiny snapshots of their lives, captured when they happened to meet a census-taker in a country lane, or found themselves in trouble with the law. Most of them were illiterate; I know my grandfather was, which makes my own book-filled life seem a particularly odd turn of family history. (You may now begin to understand why I have such an acute case of imposter syndrome when it comes to identifying myself as an academic!) It feels impertinent to try and imagine their experience of this kind of landscape, still less to romanticise it - but I can't help doing a little of both, however much I try.

Forgive this excursion into family history, but it's as much an important part of this place to me as St Berin or anything else. And of course this day, two years ago now, is also part of my own history; I was happy and excited on the day I took these pictures, partly because I was about to begin a new job, which has now just come to an end. The turn of two years can make a great difference in one person's life, but it probably hasn't made much difference to the landscape - if you took this same path tomorrow, everything would look the same (except the towers of Didcot Power Station!). It's pleasant and comforting to set my two years against the decades of family history, the centuries which take us back to St Berin, the thousands of years which have shaped this landscape.

Back at Appleford, I stopped in the churchyard for a while before going to catch my train. It was very quiet, very sunny, and full of autumn.


Allouette said...

Once again I have to say 'thank you'. I don't know the area around Dorchester as much as I would like but your description and photos brought the atmosphere of the countryside back to me vividly. I take very similar photos: plants and church features. I often wonder what connects these, the explanation I come up with is a link to the past: the flora and fauna would have been there also when the churches and abbeys were built and decorated.

Harold Rennie said...

First and foremost, I, too, wish to say thank you for the excellent writing, interesting topics, fine photos and the sharing of what delights the heart. Didcot Power Station was at the end of the bus line that I used to take from my school in Abingdon to the village of Steventon, where my family lived in 1970-71. I do not think that we ever walked in that particular area, but we took very similar walks, with my father stopping to look at every brook and stream and tributary of the Thames. One experience that we do share is that of finishing one job without an immediate prospect of another. It has happened to me more than once, and I certainly understand the need to go back to places and things that previously inspired me, and to tie up loose end and unfinished business (like writing a blog piece from a place you visited two years ago). I hope that the writing of this most recent piece lifted your spirits slightly. I know that it lifted mine. Wishing you all the best...