Saturday 22 September 2018

Looking for St Milburga

Hello, thanks for popping in, I'm so pleased to see you here.  I think I'm unravelling the tangled threads of all the blog posts I have swirling around in my head now, writing about Greyfriars last time helped to make the space the others needed to spread themselves out so that I could catch hold of the ends.  Today's post is about a road trip the Best Beloved and I took to find St Milburga, a trip I've wanted to do for years.  It's the ninth and final item on my Summer List - well not quite, as during the day we took the opportunity to visit another place which I shall share another time, but that wasn't on The List.  You might remember that there were sixteen items on The List, which seemed a reasonable number of things to do over the six week school holiday; it wasn't.  I didn't factor in our week's holiday, or five days at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, or the days of preparation for those adventures, and then The Mathematician's leaving date was brought forward, which took us by surprise and threw out some of my plans.  When the school holiday was over and I still had seven items left on The List I initially thought that I could carry on with them until the summer was over - today, the last day before tomorrow's equinox - but then I decided that I was quite happy with the nine things I have done.  Some of them have been places I have wanted to visit for a long time but never got round to before; I have read three novels which have been sitting on my shelf for more than ten years;  I have done things which I know make me happy.  My Summer List gave me a focus for the long school holiday, weeks which it would have been easy for me to drift through otherwise, especially now that my nest is empty.  The seven undone things can wait, and I shall make a list next summer, learning the lessons from this year.  So here, without further ado, is the last item I ticked off my Summer List.
9.  Finding St Milburga
Milburga was born in the seventh century AD when England was ruled by the Anglo Saxons and divided into kingdoms.  Her father was King Merewald of Magonset, a sub-kingdom of the Kingdom of Mercia which probably corresponds to the modern-day Diocese of Hereford and so includes South Shropshire (I know, it's confusing that church dioceses don't follow county boundaries even when they share a county name, but there you are); her mother was St Ermenburga and Milburga (or Mildburh or Milburgh) was the eldest of three daughters, all of whom became saints.  (Talk about high achievers!!)
In around about 680AD a nunnery was founded at Much Wenlock, funded by Milburga's father and her uncle, King Wulfhere of Mercia, and so the faithful and virtuous Milburga took the veil, eventually becoming Abbess.  The nunnery is said to have thrived as a beautiful and gentle place under her leadership, like Paradise, full of fruit, flowers and herbs, a real Heaven on Earth.  The saintly Milburga did not confine herself within this Eden but went out into the surrounding countryside to work with the people who lived there, organising evangelism and pastoral care in South Shropshire, and that is why I like her.  She wanted the world to be a better place and she walked the talk.  There are many stories about the miracles she performed.

One such story tells how she raised a dead child to life, another how she restored sight to the blind, another how she exercised power over birds so that they didn't damage the crops in the fields - after she died, her name was invoked to protect crops against birds.  In particular, there is a story about her preventing a flock of geese decimating a crop which you can find here.  (Honestly, I would hop over if I were you, it's a good read.)  Much later, pilgrims visiting her tomb would buy little geese made of lead as souvenirs.  I suppose it's all the usual kinds of saintly miracles, really.  Of course, as she was a fair princess, there are also the usual stories about her escaping the clutches of amorous young men and in one of those, she fled across the little River Corve, a tributary of the Teme, the waters swelling and rising behind her to hold back the potential suitor.  In another story Milburga was riding her white horse, being chased by men with nasty intentions when, a quarter of a mile away from Godstoke, she fell and gashed her head on a rock.  Some men who were sowing barley in the field opposite ran to help her but there was no water to revive her or bathe her wound, so her horse struck the rock with its hoof and a spring of water gushed out of it.  The men were then able to help Milburga and she blessed the spring and commanded it to flow forever.  She also commanded the barley seeds to grow and they did, pushing up green shoots immediately.  Milburga then told the men that if her nasty pursuers asked them if they had seen her, they should reply that she passed that way when they were sowing the barley.  (Wasn't that clever?  The pursuers would imagine that to have been weeks beforehand but the men wouldn't have had to lie.)  Milburga then mounted her horse and rode off, safely. By the time the nasty pursuers arrived that evening the barley had grown so much that the men were harvesting it and the nasty pursuers turned away.  Godstoke became known as Stoke St Milborough and the spring has been providing water for the village ever since, becoming known for its miraculous healing powers.

I am not sure when Milburga died as the sources I have read give conflicting years between 700 AD and 727 AD, although all agree that it was 23rd February.  She was buried near the altar of her abbey in Much Wenlock.  In 874 AD the abbey was destroyed by the invading Danes (Pillage and Plunder!), in 1050 it was restored but shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066 it was destroyed again.  A few years later it was rebuilt as a Cluniac priory and in 1101, during the course of the building work, Milburga's tomb was rediscovered.  It became a popular pilgrimage site but in 1547, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, her bones were burnt on a bonfire.  No more pilgrimages.

So one morning the Best Beloved and I set out for Stoke St Milborough on the slopes of the Brown Clee, Shropshire's largest hill.  We parked the car outside the lych gate and walked up through the churchyard to St Milburga's Church, one of only four in England which are dedicated to her.  This building has stood since the thirteenth century, although there was probably a church on this site before then, and it has been altered several times since.  The builders really didn't choose a good site: the earth is wet beneath, too unstable for the solid, stone walls, which have had to be strengthened and rebuilt.  However, I think it's pretty; I especially like the seventeenth century porch with its herringbone brickwork.

The door was not locked (hooray!) so we were able to go inside, where a list of rectors and vicars is displayed which shows an unbroken chain from 1272 AD to the 1980s.

 The roof of the nave was replaced in 1707.

The carving on this oak beam says
 CHURCH          1707       WARDDENS 
FRANSIS HARPAR                                                                      CARPENDAR        

The archway you can see in this photograph was built in the thirteenth century and within it, a modern door leads into the base of the tower where a small kitchen has been installed.  Churches may not have needed kitchens eight hundred years ago but they do now so that the congregation can enjoy tea and coffee after the services!  The water in the kitchen is piped there straight from St Milburga's Well.  Now, let's have a closer look at that modern door. -

Can you see the geese carved over the door?  They were the only sign of St Milburga that I could find.  I was very disappointed.  I had hoped to see her depicted in stained glass or an embroidered banner or something.  Apparently there are embroidered kneelers which tell her stories but they were not prominently displayed and I missed them.  To tell the truth, I felt a bit let down.  The Victorians imposed one of their common "restorations" in 1859, leading the writer Augustus Hare to comment that the church was "utterly ruined" and "now without interest", and in 1911 it was "rerestored", the Victorian oak floor being removed, the plaster stripped off and the old box pews, which were found nailed down underneath the nave seating, retrieved and refashioned into new choir stalls and panelling for the chancel and sanctuary.

So I left St Milburga's Church, feeling a bit flat at not having found her there, and we drove a little way up the hill to find her well.  There beside the road we found the gate, green from lack of sunlight, with a latch in the shape of a goose head.  A pump stood beside it, ivy stretching up towards the top.  I held the cup I had brought with me under the lion's mouth and turned the knob expectantly but no water gushed forth.  I felt a bit disappointed, again.

Through the gate and down the steps we found the well, which was first recorded in 1321.  I don't think it was always held in much respect: at one time, the villagers used to wash their clothes in it, beating them out on a flat stone beside it!  It was covered over in 1873 and again in 1906, and by 1945 the water was piped to six houses, but now it flows freely down the hill to join a stream at the bottom and anyone is able to enjoy it's "healing properties".  It does make you wonder about all those people enjoying tea and coffee at the church, doesn't it?  I wonder if they are all super-healthy!

 Can you read the name MILBURGA carved into the face of this stone?

I still didn't feel that I had really come close to finding Milburga, so we got back into the car and drove through the beautiful Shropshire countryside to Much Wenlock.  The road took us through the Corvedale, the broadest valley in the Shropshire Hills, and although we were too far away from the river to see it, I couldn't help but think of Milburga riding across the fields, escaping her would-be suitor.  Arriving late in the afternoon, we parked beside the ruined Wenlock Priory and made our way into the site (it's managed by English Heritage and there is a charge).  We have been here many times before and it is a special place, so quiet that you don't realise that you are right in the town.  There is a plant nursery on the site of the old monk's garden and a woman who works there once told me that the monks chose wisely because the temperature there is always one degree warmer than it is in the rest of the town.  The sun peeped out so we found a shady bench to sit on while we ate our ice creams and as we sat there I realised that I had found St Milburga at last.  I was quite sure that I could feel not quite her presence, but the essence of her in that peaceful, beautiful place.

 So, the summer is almost over.  It's been good, very good, autumn has always been my favourite season but this year I think I have fallen in love with summer, but I am ready to bid farewell.  Autumn begins tomorrow - and Strictly Come Dancing begins tonight!

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Sunday 16 September 2018


Hello, thanks for calling in.  I'm sorry, I meant to be back here sooner, I seem to have quite a lot to share with you but it's all tangled up in my head and I can't unravel all the threads.  I think I'm a bit out of sorts.  I know I need to finish off my summer list posts but I can't get to them yet.  I think I need to tell this story first.
Opposite the church which I used to attend there stood a bungalow.  It was large, built of dark grey brick and looked sombre and imposing, standing on top of a mound like a Norman motte, tall hedges surrounding its large, well-kept garden.  I knew the elderly widow who lived there as I saw her in church with her cousin twice a week until she became too frail to attend, when I used to visit her in the bungalow.  I would share Holy Communion with her, setting out the vessels on the pristine, white tea towel which she would place on the dining table for that purpose and she would give me the little square brown envelopes, each with a date stamped on the front, into which she had carefully placed the coins which were her weekly offering.
She told me how she and her husband were married in the church a few years after the end of the Second World War and when we had a wedding fair at the church, she lent me her wedding photograph and her wedding dress to display, a tiny dress with a halter neck which her mother had shortened so that she could wear it to her employer's Yule Ball, but by the time Christmas came, she had put on so much weight that it no longer fitted her.  She told me how her husband had bought the land on which the bungalow stood in the 1950s from a woman who kept chickens there and how he had built the bungalow himself, from foundations to roof tiles.  When I asked her how long it had taken him to build it she said, "Eighteen months, and he always said that it took his youth!"  She told me that he called their new home Greyfriars because it was built of grey bricks and it was near the church.
The last time I saw her was at the funeral of her cousin's husband.  Her son and his wife brought her across to the church in a wheelchair which she insisted on leaving at the door so that she could walk down the aisle, slowly and purposefully, supported on each side.  She didn't recognise me.  "Is it Helen?"  she asked.  No, I am not Helen.
Last week I drove past the church and as I looked to the other side of the road, I noticed that Greyfriars has been demolished; I felt sad.
See you soon. 
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x 

Tuesday 4 September 2018

Summer List Week Five - Following in the Footsteps of Wilfred Owen

Hello, thank you for calling in, it's lovely to see you here.  Thank you especially for your empathetic comments on my last post; I keep walking into The Mathematician's (almost) empty bedroom, feeling the silence and having a little think about her.  I'll be OK - and yes, thank goodness for modern technology which enabled her to give us a laptop tour around her new flat over the weekend.  

I'm sorry I've neglected you - we spent the bank holiday weekend at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, came home on Tuesday afternoon, unpacked the car and were pooped!  I was ill in bed for the next day or two but recovered in time to travel south at the weekend to celebrate a nephew's eighteenth birthday.  I've had a lovely time (apart from the ill in bed bit, obviously).

During the week leading up to the Folk Festival I ticked a few more things off my Summer List.  One of them was this:

7.  Read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy

There are three novels contained in this volume, written in rather small print!  In fact I began the first, Regeneration, a week before the school holidays started but I finished it and read the other two during the holiday weeks.  They are set during the months July 1917 to November 1918 and are about the psychological effects of the First World War on young army officers.  The third book, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995 and here's an extract which moved me to tears.

  On the edge of the canal the Manchesters lie, eyes still open, limbs not yet decently 
  arranged, for the stretcher-bearers have departed with the last of the wounded, and 
  the dead are left alone.  The battle has withdrawn from them; the bridge they 
  succeeded in building was destroyed by a single shell...
  The sun has risen.  The first shaft strikes the water and creeps towards them along
  the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, lending a
  rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that
  can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the
  distant fields. 

This tome has sat on my To Be Read bookshelf for several years, waiting for me to be ready to tackle it because its contents are quite meaty (the pencil marks inside show that it cost 50p in a charity shop).  In the last months leading up to the centenary of the Armistice, it was a good choice.  

8.  A Wilfred Owen Road Trip
The poet Wilfred Owen  appears as a minor character in Regeneration and The Ghost Road and I think I have told you before that for many years, his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est was my favourite (it is also, of course, the poem which I have read aloud when I have visited the Poppies sculptures).  In June I attended an illustrated talk about Owen's life and although I knew that he was born in Oswestry in Shropshire, I hadn't realised until then that he lived in Shrewsbury with his family when he was young.  The speaker told us that on summer Sunday evenings they would walk through Monkmoor Meadows to the River Severn where they would use the hand ferry to cross the river to Uffington Church in time to attend Evensong.  I had a mind to go and find the house and then visit the church and although the hand ferry is long gone, I hoped to find its traces.  I should say that I really wasn't bothered about walking through the meadows, firstly because they pass under the busy A49 with its noisy traffic, and secondly because they are next to a sewage works with its attendant smells!  So, on a lovely sunny day we set off to find 69 Monkmoor Road.  The house was newly built when the Owen family moved in in 1910 and Wilfred's father, Tom, named it Mahim after the Mahim Railway Station in Mumbai (then Bombay) where he had worked for four years before he was married.  Wilfred's bedroom was the attic room.

Hmm. 1910-1918.  Those dates were a disappointment to me because they meant that Wilfred was seventeen years old when they moved here, not the child I had imagined.  In the autumn of 1911 he went to Dunsden in Oxfordshire to work as a lay assistant to the vicar, returning home to Shrewsbury in 1913 before moving to France later that year to work as a language tutor.  He remained in France for the next two years before joining the British Army in 1915 and he was killed in action in 1918 so really, he didn't "live" at Mahim for very long at all.

We got back in the car and drove the short distance to Uffington where, to my enormous disappointment, the church was locked, and you know how much I like to visit a church. However, we walked down the path behind the church and found ourselves in a rather lovely churchyard where we discovered that we were right on the riverbank. The Best Beloved went to investigate and found the steps which we reckon led down the banks to the ferry.  I sat on a bench in the sunshine and imagined Wilfred arriving with his parents and three siblings.  It was a lovely, peaceful spot.  Then I remembered that the church bells were ringing to announce the Armistice on 11th November 1918 when Tom and Susan Owen received the telegram which gave them the news that Wilfred had been killed one week earlier.

A few miles away from Shrewsbury lie the remains of a city which the Romans called Viroconium or Uriconium and which we call Wroxeter.  It was the fourth largest Roman city in Britain, having a population of about 15,000 at its peak, and what remains is substantial - the wall traditionally known as the "Old Work" is the largest free-standing Roman ruin in Britain.  Wilfred used to cycle there, sometimes with his brother or with a friend, sometimes by himself, to have a look at the archaeological excavations which were going on there, or to dig about for ancient remains himself.  In the summer of 1913, after he had come home from Dunsden and before he went to work in France, he wrote Uriconium, An Ode which is regarded by some as his first war poem.  The Best Beloved and I drove there from Uffington and although we have visited many times before, this was the first time I had visited with Wilfred alongside me.

Since our road trip I have discovered that there is a walking trail around Shrewsbury which includes other houses which the Owen family lived in before they moved to Mahim.  I really enjoyed walking with Wilfred, although I felt the poignancy of what I knew was coming, so I feel another trip coming on.

I did manage to tick another item off my summer list during that week, but I'll tell you about that next time.  I'd like Wilfred to be the star of this post.

See you soon.

Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x