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Reverend John Skinner

A few years back I wrote about the Reverend Skinner, not in particularly gushing terms, but his personality fascinated me, his Antiquarianism is what drew me, then today the vast list of his drawings and sketches at the British Museum has finally been set out in an index. All this along with his many journals was undertaken by foot and horseback, no TMA or computer to record his obsession, so though he may have been a miserable old git to live with he gets my full admiration for effort......

"years ago I read extracts from the Journal of a Somerset Rector 1803-1834 by John Skinner and came away with the impression that he was a miserable bad tempered creature. Reading his diary again does little to alter my first understanding of him, but on reading the book again, I have at least come to see why he was so miserable.

He was vicar of Camerton from 1800 to 1839 during this period he wrote his journals and during this time had to face a great deal of personal sorrow through the deaths of his immediate family and also as vicar at Camerton the deaths of his parishioners.

The village of Camerton is also famed in the archaeology record as being the site of a Roman settlement, and also having been mined for coal since Roman times, in fact the 'everlasting flame' on the altar of Sulis at Bath was said to have been fuelled by coal from here. Skinner also had a theory that Camerton was Camulondinum as well.

Yes, Skinner was an antiquarian, like Dean Merewether he would saunter out in summer, and with a few miners lay waste to any barrow that took his fancy. We decry this vandalism nowadays, but these 'heathen savages' whose bones occupied these barrows were to our nineteenth century religious zealots a great curiosity, perhaps at the back of their minds, a trickle of uncertainity had begun to emerge at their own faith in an invisible god...
At least their imagination ran riot as to thoughts of white robed Druids performing unspeakable ritual acts in the stone circles and they were fascinated by this 'other' world - like the later writers who were to collect folklore of the British scene, or to put it more simply the naive superstitious stories of giants and fairies that roamed England - our vicars were also absorbed by the paganism of earlier history, which in turn had drifted down through the centuries.

Paganism was still rife in the countryside.
Skinner was sensitive, nervous and irritable.. a cantankerous individual tormented by the social upheavals that were happening in the early nineteenth century. He had to contend with drunken miners in his own parish, 'fallen' women, and a poverty that we can scarcely comprehend today. This was no pretty quaint village with thatched cottages as depicted by later sentimental Victorians such as Allingham, this was life in the raw.

To put it in the words of Virginia Woolf who wrote an essay on the man,

"Behind him lay order and discipline and all the virtues of the heroic past, but directly he left his study he was faced with drunkenness and immorality; with indiscipline and irreligion; with Methodism and Roman Catholicism; with the Reform Bill and the Catholic Emancipation Act, with a mob clamouring for freedom, with the overthrow of all that was decent and established and right...."

Skinner's archaelogical exploits have drifted across my path the last few years, the most famous of course being Stoney Littleton Barrow, but also nearer to my home the Charmy Downs Bronze Age Barrows, now destroyed by a first World War airfield, the barrows followed a linear path on top of the Downs. Also Skinner excavated (or dug down to) the Ashen Hill barrows, a linear group of 8 barrows, very near to the group of the Priddy Nine Barrows, in fact these two groups make up a bronze age cemetery, not too far from the famous Priddy Circles.

All these eight barrows were investigated by the Reverend John Skinner in 1815, and all barrows produced one or more cremations. Some of these contained Early Bronze age urns and were covered with stone slabs (similar to Lansdown barrows cemetery). Three barrows had bronze daggers, one in a wooden sheaf. One barrow contained a rich burial which included beads and other objects of amber (maybe faience) and a miniature incense cup. (from Ann Woodward - British Barrows)........

There is a poignant passage in his journals regarding the Mendips, and it has to do with the death of his favourite daughter Laura at fourteen years old in May 1820. A few months later after her death he had ridden up to the Mendips in a solitary manner, and in his diary had written the following passage;

"I could not help thinking how differently this morning was to be spent by myself, an obscure imdividual, on the desolate heights of Mendip, and the Queen of these realms in the midst of her judges in the most splendid metropolis in the world. Yet when half the number of years have rolled away which these tumuli have witnessed how will every memorial, every trace, be forgotten of the agitation which now fills every breast; all the busy heads and aching hearts will be as quiet as those of the savage chieftains which have so long occupied these hillocks"

But there were happier times in his life, and in 1822 he describes riding out with a party of friends to Stanton Drew Circles;...
"When the country in the vicinity was covered with wood, and the white robed Druid stood in solemn silence, each one by his stone of power in the centre of this gloomy recess, the scene of course was more impressive"
The full horrors of death was an experience that he had to contend with as a vicar, as mentioned earlier. He lost his brother and two sisters to consumption in 1810, his wife must have also caught the infection for she was to become ill as well, in 1811 she gave birth to a daughter who died three months later of consumption. Then in 1812 his wife died. All this happened in a matter of short time, later on in life, after the death of Laura again to consumption, his son Joseph was also to die of the same illness.
In the village itself, death was commonplace, the coal mines were dangerous, men and children were occasionally killed by falling rock.

Drunkeness was also a killer, a woman died horribly by falling on the fire in her home. Men fell down shafts inebriated, and on one occasion a man walking through a hedge into what he thought of as a field, in actual fact plunged down into a quarry. Age and poverty were also great killers, the two linking together, no social service to put food on the table or clothes on their backs of the poor, they must in the end succumb to a miserable death, sometimes in the poor house, sometime under a hedge or a barn.

Skinner mental health seemed to deteriorate after 1839, his journals became less interesting, and one day in October, armed with a pistol he strode out of his house and shot himself in a nearby beech wood. The Coroner's verdict gives some idea of the state of his mind; According to one source Skinner seems to have shot himself in despair of his son's illness, again consumption, perhaps he could not face this death of his third child.

"The Rev. gentleman's health had been declining for sometime and his mind had latterly been very much affected. On Friday morning, in a state of derangement, he shot himself through the head with a pistol, and was dead in an instant."


Foel Drygarn - a favourite place

Foel Drygarn, Have been to this solitary fortress a couple of times, taking the path through the stone strewn field sheep watching warily, leaping the stream and yet have never written any field notes, probably because this area of Wales is so close to my heart.

Sat on high watching the sheep brought down from the hills with chad bikes and sheepdogs, once on Carn Meyn as we stood by the car three chad bikes and nine sheepdogs all from the same honey coloured family raced up the hill, the lazy dogs taking a very bumpy ride to the top. Then the flow of white sheep pouring down the hill almost like a Tibetan prayer scarf against the green turf.

This great ridge of rock at Carn Meyn then the break to the Foel Drygarn ridge reminds you that this grassland part of Wales rests ever so lightly on very rocky ground. An exuberant thrust of the rocks has forced its way upward, this is the 'Welsh Ridgeway,' traders and itinerants have wandered across this landscape from Ireland down to Stonehenge.

The first thing to strike you on gaining the height of Foel Drygarn is the verticality of the stones in the rocky outcrop that faces you, broken into decent sized stone, ideal for standing stone material in prehistoric times. N.P.Figgis describes it thus......This hillfort is thought to have originated in the Late Bronze Age, and to have continued, though not all the time, into Roman times, and that the three separate enclosures may represent three stages of expansion.

"The first enclosure, containing the cairns is surrounded by walls joining rocky prominences on the south and everywhere else by an impressive ditch and bank. The second enclosure, built in a crescent outside the first, is thought to be a response to the increase in the overall population in the Iron Age and is less substantial. The succeeding annexe lower and to the north-west, were thought to function as stock pens".

Now there is some questioning to the three cairns in taking up so much room in the middle of the hill fort, that they are not in fact Bronze age cairns but Iron Age look-outs, but I suspect this is just a red herring, and defensive needs being a priority sometime during the I/A people built a hillfort around these three rather unmovable large stone cairns.. Figgis reckons that Foel Drygarn was an important centre in Celtic times and that gifts were exchanged here; there have been a few scrappy finds of Llanmelin pottery, and a few pale green beads, but they were halved these beads as if such precious gifts were hard to come by, one had been glued even.

Welsh landscape is often remote and wild even today, but the sense of power and grandeur in the Carn Meyn range is still there, if people worshipped anything you can feel it in the magnificent craggy summits. Later Iron Age or 'Celtic' world saw them in perhaps a different light, but the 'otherworld' lies heavy in the scenery, water seeps from the earth in springs everywhere, under stone so that you can hear its quiet trickle but no visible signs.

There is a prehistoric story round here in the wider landscape, where monuments lie scattered here and there and it is well to read 'Prehistoric Preseli' by N.P.Figgis to realise that interpretation of how monuments relate to each other are waiting to be discovered and revealed by archaeology, it is still unexplored!


Three Cromlechs in Pembrokeshire

Three cromlechs, I know them so well, Wales is in my blood, its greyness, rain, soft winds and birds are part of the patchwork of my life. The empty roads, winding lanes that have no signposts, softly rounded mountains of the south west, the sheep blending with the stones, soft green mosses and dark bogs of squelchy mud, tumbling sparkling clean rivers and the marvellous blue of the sea with the great crouched rocks that always reminds me of reclining lions heading out into the deep.

This time Carreg Samson, Carreg Coetan Arthur and Pentre Ifan is all we can manage in the day, a brief flirtation with the Presceli mountains and a determination to look at the landscape to see why these three great cromlechs are situated where they are.

Everyone knows the walk down past the Longhouse farmhouse to Carreg Samson, this time a field full of young bullocks and sheep greet us, the field is covered in muck, even the cromlech itself has a brown oozing pond surrounding it, the day to day world of the traditional Welsh farmstead continuing through the millenia. Julian Cope's words "and the cromlech is an ancient stone rhinoceros, caught mid-charge in one instant and destined to remain here forever' is apt.

Its bulk, its size, is an extraordinary testament to human 'oneupmanship'. Aesthetically we modern humans find these great stone barrows pleasing, and yet the people who put them up may have had different ideas, the stones may have been chosen for their 'prettyiness', the white quartz flecked through the great stones, or religious connotations. Somewhere I read, that the great capstones may have already been lying in a particular spot and this is the reason we find them where they are.

Carreg Samson looks out to sea, to the little island that stands so close to the shore, if we concentrate on the peaks on Strumble head, then Garn Fawr, Garn Gilfach and Garn Wnda are the ones that dominate the landscape, all having some evidence of Neolithic ritual, according to Geo.Nash/Geo.Children's book. One of my theories is that the people who built these cromlechs came from Ireland and got homesick, or at least when they built their burial chambers it was with an ancestral longing in their hearts to return to the homeland! Whatever, Carreg Samson is the second greatest megalithic monument to Pentre Ifan's famed beauty.

Before I tackle that creature, first of all Carreg Coetan Arthur just outside Newport, a small perfect mushroom of a capstone, stained a beautiful bronze by the lichen on the seaward side. It stands in its little garden protected by the bungalows that have grown up alongside. I am quite pleased with its suburban setting for the simple reason that IT IS protected by the presence of people. You can sit on the little stone wall and contemplate its upturned capstone which only catches two of the four stones supposed to be holding it up. It's unusual in the fact that it is a lowland cromlech situated near the estuary and has been described as a Portal dolmen, which N.P.Figgis says in his book is not so, recent excavations have shown that there was no 'H' shaped three stones at the front like Pentre Ifan, so it never had a portal stone. Apparently the stones might go down another metre into the earth due to the build up of plough soil. It seems that there might have been other uses to this dolmen, there were cremated bone powder found in several places, under one of the sockets of an upright the cremated dust was dated at about 2700 bc. It's dominating peak is Carn Ingli, and of course it follows the same legend of stone throwing from the top, as St.Samson did with his little finger at Carreg Samson.

Pentre Ifan; Here comes my anti-social moan, why oh why does it go onto the tourist trail of brown signs. Okay its easy to find amongst the welter of lanes but then what happens? everyone goes there, whilst we were there a continuous stream of cars pulled up, visited, jumped up and down on the stones if they were children, took photos and then left. Suddenly I saw this beautiful monument threatened by over exposure (witness Stonehenge and Avebury). I know Wales needs tourists and money but surely it would be better to leave Pentre Ifan in the backwater of peace and quiet.

A model closed portal dolmen that is how Nash describes it, a closing down of its religious function or its burial function, whatever? Its classic, gorgeous 'flying' slender capstone tilting towards the Afon Nyer valley. Stones and sheep hardly distinguishable from each other, the grass softly mounding the stones underneath. This is rocky country, deceptively beautiful and green, look to the ridge above and you will see three stone crags, I think the ridge is called Carnedd Meibion Owen. For me the three stone outcrops reminded me of the 'gorsedd' crags that you often find near to the many cromlechs on this particular part of the Pembrokeshire coast.

Figgis gives an early probable date of 4000 bc, and its interesting in the three interpretations that are given (and too long to go into) but it seems that there was an early single standing stone, and then the later burial mound with forecourt and covering of soil.

And we found Brynberian, why was it so difficult three years ago when I drove past on a cold morning that falcon (not sure what great bird it was) sitting on the fence, each time he turned his head to watch me as I went back and forth along the lane! Though this time I did'nt go looking for the water monster (Bedd y Afanc) grave in the bog, basically because we had a great storm the night before and lots of rain but one day I mean to visit...

Monuments in the Landscape series; Neolithic Sites, Pembs. George Children and George Nash
Prehistoric Preseli - N.P.Figgis
The Modern Antiquarian - Julian Cope


Redeeming 'Chalk Giants'

This is an old blog which is rather relevant to giants, (under discussion at the moment) and a bit of history along the way.

The following poem comes from a book called "Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant" by Jeremy Hooker, the giant in question being of course the Cerne Abbas one in Dorset. Its only a small book of reminiscences by the giant brooding on his hill, it seems rather funny this thinly cut effigy scored into the chalk talking to himself as history goes by but it appeals to a sense of fun. The following poem reminded me of Snyders wide falling of words as he traces the evolution of the landscape and history in his native America. Here in this country our smaller landscapes also capture in miniature the faint traces of history, its is like turning the pages of an old book, the words are all but faded but now and then a word will be revealed, and so it is with history on the landscape a faint echo still to be found.

A memorial of its origins, chalk in barns and churches
moulders in rain and damp; petrified creatures swim in
in its depths.

It is domestic, with the homeliness of an ancient
hearth exposed to the weather, pale with the ash of
countless primeval fires . Here the plough grates on an
urnfield, the green plover stands with crest erect on a
royal mound.

Chalk is the moon's stone; the skeleton is native to its
soil. It looks anaemic, but has submerged the type-sites
of successive cultures. Stone, bronze, iron; all are assimilated to its nature;
and the hill-forts follow its curves.

These, surely, are the works of giants; temples
re-dedicated to the sky-god, spires fashioned for the
lords of bowmen;

Spoils of the worn idol, squat Venus of the mines.

Druids leave their shops in the midsummer solstice;
neophytes tread an antic measure to the antlered god.
Men who tresspass are soon absorbed, horns laid beside
them in the ground. The burnt-out tank waits beside
the barrow.

The god is a graffito carved on the belly of the chalk,
his savage gesture subdued by the stuff of his creation.
He is taken up like a gaunt white doll by the round hills,
wrapped around by the long pale hair of the fields

Historically there is no evidence of the date of when the Cerne Abbas giant was originally scratched into the chalk, some would say that like the great white Uffington Horse he belongs to an iron age and is a tribal emblem, Hooker says that just as the 'beaked ' Uffington Horse-Goddess is similar to the horses on Durotriges (dwellers by the water) coins, the giant's depiction can also be found on similar coins.

If as Hooker says, he comes from this time than he must be Helith - "In which district the god Helith was once worshipped" This comes form an old document, and is part of his legend. Helith, an iron age god who takes his name from Hercules. Romano-Britains would have adopted and changed the old roman god to fit their own religion.

Augustine's mission in 601 AD seemed to have renamed him as Cerno El, the pagan saxons renaming him as Heil. But apparently during the saxon period he shared his valley with another god whose neophytes purified the waters that had long been sacred. This reminds me of Silbury with the water and springs that surround her, but of course we have no gods names for her that have travelled down through history which is sad.
But to conclude, here is Hooker's meaning for the words Helith.

"Helith; that is holy stone - or a corruption of Helios, maybe the sun. A sunstone, pediment in earth. The ground is dense with holy names; Elwood, Elston hill, Elwell, Yelcombe (y l cwm). Was there a standing stone on Elston Hill before Helith was fleshed out below the Trendle: Where beth they, beforen us weren? Make your enquiry of the dust, I make no enquiry there. Give me a living name"


Sub-megalithics in West Wales (or not?)

The term sub-megalithic or earth-fast was coined by Glyn Daniels and to quote him;

"What we have called the 'sub-megalithic' tombs, however, are in a different category. The essential constructional pecularity of these tombs is that the capstone instead of resting on two orthostats and appearing roughly level, has one end resting on the ground-the whole monument being triangle in section. For this strange and fairly rare kind of monument, which exists in Western France, Wales and Ireland - many names have been suggested such as primary, earth-fast,demi-dolmen or half-dolmen".......

There is a small group of sub-megalithic or earth-fast cromlechs to be found in Pembrokeshire and further afield. They are simply designed with the capstone normally supported by one or several orthostats with the back of the capstone resting on the earth or a ledge, they are very low to the ground the underlying ground having been dug or excavated out and the capstones raised on small uprights.

Garn Gilfach; Strumble Head( at Llanwnda backs on to a rock face, and the tomb itself is cut into the underlying rock but is supported by four uprights. Apparently it has an impressive view overlooking the lowlands to the south and west and St.David Head.

Garn Wen; Strumble Head( has a similar set of four earth-fast cromlechs, set low amongst verdant vegetation and overlooked by houses, these cromlechs are not very prepossessing. But again large low capstones supported by uprights and backing onto the ridge called Garn Wen with views out to the sea, the landscape setting would have been perfect.

Garnwynda; Strumble Head
Further along the coast and there is the single cromlech called Garnwynda. ( Set against the rock face, it is rather 'hidden' and this feature is probably one of the strange things about this type of cromlech. It has only one upright supporting its large capstone, and according to Nash/Children is the only tomb of this type not to have intervisibilty with other tombs, though again it faces out to sea and commands a fine view. An excavation revealed evidence of a cremation dating it probably to late Neolithic early Bronze Age.

Carn Llidi;
But it is the St.David's Head group that is intriguing, for we have three earth-fast cromlechs showing that it is not necessary to alway have the tomb against a rock face. Two cromlechs are to be found up on Carn Llidi, one facing you as you approach the old gun emplacements has its capstone resting on the earth, whilst the tomb behind against the rock face, seems to have had the capstone slip from the rock ledge behind, this is what Daniel believes, and it looks fairly obvious.

Coetan Arthur;( which is the third, a splendid tomb set amidst a jumble of rocks just under the promontory fort at the the tip of St.David's Head. There is a puzzle here, for it may not necessarily be an earth-fast tomb, for according to Nash/Children there are another two uprights lying on the ground not too far away and these could have supported the back of the tomb. It faces inland and looks up towards the valley. One fact about these particular type of tombs is whether they were covered with a mound, it seems unlikely given their locations and the thin soil on the rocky outcrops, Daniels has said that the tombs "were probably originally surrounded by a low accumulation of stones sufficient to ensure that the chambers were efficient burial vaults and that they were not disturbed by beasts of prey".

Why 'hidden', there are an interesting set of tombs called the Morfa Bycham A,B,C, & D, set amongst rocky debris and well hidden by merging into the surrounding landscape, a trait that can be seen at some of the above tombs. What does this tell us? Nash is of the opinion that they were deliberately concealed for ritual reason, only those with special knowledge would be able to find them, though it seems to me that should any hostile people come in from the sea, after all Ireland is just over the water, they were concealed from any hostile act, something we see much later in the history of Britain.

The Megalith Builders of Western Europe - Glyn Daniels;
Neolithic Sites of Cardiganshire, Carmathenshire & Pembrokeshire - Geo.Children and Geo.Nash

p.s The Devil's Quoit at Manorbier has the classic earth-fast' credentials, being on the same coastline as the others and overlooking the sea on a steep hill, though whether it has a fallen third orthostat needs to be considered.
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