Medieval painted churches in England and Wales

England and Wales are full of beautiful medieval churches. From the famous like Christ Church cathedral to the lesser-known like Dorchester Abbey, they offer breathtaking architecture and decoration, and since many are free, they make good budget travel destinations.

Some even preserve fragile paintings from the Middle Ages, like this one photographed by Roger Rosewell, author of Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches. This is a thorough and richly illustrated guide to an art form many travelers know little about. He takes us through the history of these paintings and their sometimes obscure meanings, and delves into how they were seen by their contemporaries.

The above illustration shows the “Harrowing of Hell” and was painted in the late 15th century at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pickering, Yorkshire. It’s a scene from The Gospel of Nicodemus, when between Christ’s burial and the third day, God undid Christ’s death and Christ released Adam, Eve, and other righteous souls from Hell. If you haven’t heard of this gospel, it’s because it’s one of the many books that didn’t make it into the final standard version of the Bible we know today. Scenes from this book and many other so-called Apocryphal texts were well-known to medieval Christians, though.

Other subjects include the Virgin Mary, the lives of saints, the Doom or final judgement, and the Warning to Blasphemers–a grisly scene in which those who have taken the Lord’s name in vain are shown tearing apart his body.

Rosewell also looks at the patrons who commissioned the work and the painters themselves, telling us a lot about medieval society. Interestingly, it appears some of the painters were women, yet little is known about any church painters, male or female. There’s also a handy gazetteer and subject guide to help you locate any church paintings along your trip itinerary.

I only have two minor criticisms of this work. Firstly, while Rosewell explains Christian iconography very well, sometimes he leaves architectural terms undefined. Despite having written two books on medieval history, I had to look up “soffit” and “voussoir”! Also, while many of the photos are lovely, some have less than ideal lighting and look like simple snapshots. Granted, many medieval wall paintings are so faded it’s virtually impossible to get good photos of them, yet I feel a bit more effort would have enhanced these photos considerably.

All in all, I highly recommend Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches to anyone interested in the Middle Ages, art, or travel in England in Wales. It’s the perfect mixture of art, history, and guidebook, something I wish the travel industry would give us more of.


Woman killed by cows serves as warning to walkers

A woman has been trampled and killed by cows yesterday on the outskirts of Cardiff, Wales, the South Wales Echo reports.

Marilyn Duffy, 61, was walking her dog through a farmer’s field. It’s believed the cows were frightened by the dog and attacked. Cows are calving at this time of year and can become easily frightened by dogs or even lone people. Farmers say it’s best to give cows a wide berth and if they come at you and your dog to let your dog go. The cows will generally chase after the dog and the dog can easily get away.

Since many public footpaths in the UK pass through farmers’ fields, this incident serves as a warning for walkers planning on enjoying the countryside.

I myself was nearly attacked by cows. While hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Path two years ago, the path took me over a stile into a field and up a low rise. When I get to the top I saw a large herd of cows and their calves standing not twenty yards away. The rise had hidden them from view until I was almost upon them.

The biggest one started bawling with a noise that sounded like a mixture of a moo and a roar. I backed away as the cows lined up between me and the calves. More of the herd started mooing angrily and cows from other parts of the field started converging on me. I moved quickly but calmly away, which is the best thing to do with an angry animal that isn’t actually attacking. They held their ground, still braying, and the rest of the herd joined them to make a long line facing me. Even after I got a couple of hundred yards away they still turned their line to face me as I went the long way around the field. If they had moved closer, I would have hopped the fence, even though it had barbed wire on it.

At the other end of the field was another stile with a sign saying, “COWS WITH CALVES. ENTER WITH CAUTION”. Farmers are supposed to put up signs like this, but they’re supposed to put them up on all entrances to their fields. It’s not clear from the news reports if the field where Marilyn Duffy was killed had warning signs.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Tomb of Stonehenge builder found?

A prehistoric tomb discovered in Wales may be the grave of one of the builders of Stonehenge.

Archaeologists found the tomb at the Carn Menyn site in Wales, generally thought to be the quarry for the so-called “bluestones” used for the inner circle of Stonehenge in 2300 BC.

The tomb is a passage grave, a cigar-shaped enclosure of stone that was once covered in earth. The tomb is in ruins and was looted in antiquity. Some organic material has been found and this will be carbon dated. Passage graves were common for elite members of society in the Neolithic.

The tomb was set atop a henge, a circular ditch and embankment that had a pair of bluestones are set upright at one end, reminiscent of the pairs of bluestones at Stonehenge.

It’s a mystery why the builders of Stonehenge would choose to drag stones weighing two to four tons more than 150 miles. One of the archaeologists investigating the site suggests that Carn Menyn, shown to the right, had religious significance because of the many natural springs in the area. The presence of the henge and tomb suggest the place did indeed have religious and cultural importance.

The excavation continues.

[Photo of Stonehenge courtesy Bernard Gagnon. Photo of bluestones courtesy Geograph]

Oldest cave art in UK discovered and vandalized

A design of a reindeer hidden in the back of a Welsh cave may be the oldest cave art in the UK, archaeologists say. Sadly, it’s been vandalized.

Unlike the more familiar cave paintings of France and Spain, the reindeer is scratched into the rock instead of being painted, like this horse from the Scottish cave of East Weymss courtesy Europe a la Carte. No photo of the reindeer has been released for public use, but you can see it in this BBC video. Incised designs are common in Paleolithic art, but are less known to the general public because they’re not as impressive as the giant paintings of caves like Lascaux and Altamira.

Archaeologists date the carving to about 12,500 years ago, a time when prehistoric hunter gatherers stalked reindeer and wholly mammoth across an Ice Age landscape.

It was discovered last September but its location kept a secret as the team studied it. Unfortunately, someone found out about the discovery and tried to scrape the carving away. Instead of it potentially becoming a tourist destination, now it will probably be gated over. Yet another example of one idiot ruining it for the rest of us.

United Kingdom: 3G service survey crowdsourced

This morning, the BBC released a survey regarding the reach of 3G service across the United Kingdom. The BBC obtained its data the newfangled way, via crowdsourcing. In July, almost 45,000 people downloaded an Android app that allowed their mobile phones to be tracked for the survey.

And the outcome of the survey? The BBC found that about three-quarters of the time people in the UK appear to be able to access 3G coverage, though “notspots” (where users can access much slower 2G service) exist in many places. These notspots include a surprising number of areas within central London. There are also wide swaths of the country where no data came back from the crowdsourcing phone users.

The BBC’s multimedia survey allows readers to check coverage in their home postcodes. I found my own postcode (E2) to be generally well blanketed with 3G coverage, though not without its 3G-lacking pieces of the map.

The survey also points out that the country’s roads and railways are also undersaturated, with notably bad service along some heavily-used highways and train routes.

The BBC mentions the research of a startup called OpenSignalMaps, which has carried out a similar survey. OpenSignalMaps found that 3G is accessed just 58 percent of the time by users in the UK; furthermore, they have located 22,000 mostly rural places in the UK with no 3G service. Gwynedd in north Wales and Cumbria in northwest England are especially lacking in 3G service.

[Image: Flickr | William Hook]