A Walk Among the Dark Age Spirits

With my big exam finally behind me, last weekend I was in dire need of some fresh air and a good walk. So with a gap in the seemingly endless rains, we took the opportunity of taking a long wander into the spiritual world of the Dark Ages around a small village with a big history.

Wootten Wawen in Warwickshire is a little historical haven, having been a homeland for people of the region since the late Bronze Age. Its haunting wildwood, lush pastures and meadows gave rise to an early society of scattered farmsteads linked together with a network of paths and a river, and all its ancient peoples have left their marks and mysteries in the landscape across the millennia.

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The ancient with the modern: the tumulus in the churchyard

Although not much is known about prehistoric religious systems, it’s widely agreed that there was a strong spiritual attachment with the land, and features such as woods and streams held particular significance as holy sites. The dead were also an important presence, being laid to rest in burial mounds called tumuli, one of which has been discovered in the churchyard at Wootton Wawen. The Romans tried to eliminate this form of nature worship, but after their departure in the early 5th Century the succeeding Saxon settlers revived the old practices and incorporated them into their own pagan beliefs. This village, nestled in the middle of an ancient holy site now called Austy Wood, had all the right features and ingredients to remain a prominent place throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. So we set out on a trip to investigate the area’s important early medieval sacred sites at a time when the new Christian religion was just arriving on our shores.

A path from the village centre took us out along an ancient embankment, part of an extensive  complex of Iron Age earthworks about which little is known, save its medieval nickname of Puck’s Dyke. Puck is a spirit name, and the Celts believed that many of their gods and spirits inhabited the landscape. They named places and things after them, and it seems this tradition may well have resurfaced in the Middle Ages.

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Pucks Dyke: part of the raised Iron Age earthworks

We soon came to a footbridge across the fast-flowing River Alne, a name corrupted from the original ‘Alwen’, meaning ‘white’ or ‘shining’, reflecting the sacred nature attributed to it by the ancient Britons. After crossing a few fields, we reached my favourite part of this walk: Austy Wood itself. Its ancient name was Horstow, meaning ‘hallowed place’, strongly suggesting that it was here that pre-Christian religious ceremonies took place. Without doubt there’s more than a hint of the mystical within its enchanted groves. The first Christian missionaries clearly realised this because they hijacked the woodland for the new faith, placing crosses around its then expansive boundaries and holding religious ceremonies in the ready-made holy site.

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The River Alne connected the old communities and farmsteads

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Admiring the whispering sacred groves 

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The way though the woods

Leaving the sanctuary of Horstow, we continued in the footsteps of medieval folk along a hollow way, a trackway running from Wootton Wawen to the outlying fields. Separated from the farmland by boundary hedges, these special paths have been gradually eroded by centuries of use until they are lower than the fields around them. For me, there’s something a little bit spellbinding about hollow ways, knowing that by wandering along them we’re leaving our own footprints to mingle with those of our medieval ancestors.

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In the footsteps of the ancestors: the medieval hollow way

Our pub stop was – for once – a softie break, owing to the wine consumed the night before by way of winding down after my exam (but don’t worry – we won’t make a habit of it!) and after a short break we headed back towards the village to the attractive church of St Peter. Inside, the Lady Chapel hosts a permanent exhibition called The Saxon Sanctury, covering the holy history of Wootton Wawen. The village’s curious name is derived from the name Wudu Tun – an ‘estate in the woods’, which was the manor of a Saxon thegn – or lord – called Wagen, until the Normans arrived. The first church here was founded in the early 700’s as part of a minster in the Saxon royal territory of Stoppingas, but it was no ordinary church. The original Minster of St Mary was the operations base for those missionaries who erected the crosses around Horstow woods. The black-cowled Benedictines also placed their crosses within the widespread communities of Stoppingas, where they preached the Word to the local Saxon heathens. Wudu Tun was at the centre of their target territory, and it was here that a wooden church was built, later to be reworked in stone. This remained the Mother church of a huge parish throughout the turbulent years of Viking raids and invasions, the old monastic community waning and giving way to control by the bishops of Worcester and the patronage of local thegns, the last of whom was Wagen.

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The pretty Church of St Peter in the heart of Wootton Wawen

There are many mysteries about what happened to Wagen after the Normans took over. One theory is that he fought and perished at Hastings, and another that he fled into exile. But whatever fate befell the last Saxon thegn of Wudu Tun, he’s immortalised in the name of this special little place in a landscape shaped by thousands of years of spiritual rites.

 

 

57 thoughts on “A Walk Among the Dark Age Spirits

  1. Very interesting.

    I, personally, don’t believe there was ever a “dark” age. I think that’s pro-Roman propaganda. 😉

    There’s a fascinating book you might enjoy with some solid scholarship behind it. I thought it was fascinating. The Discovery of Middle Earth, the author is Graham Robb.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Martha. I completely agree with you – the Dark Ages might sound good and intriguing, but really it’s a total misnomer. They were a capable and intelligent people, and they led good lives on the whole, which included lots of fun and feasting. I guess the term has stuck because we don’t know that much about them. A fascinating era though.
      Thanks also for the link to the book. It does look fascinating (love the title!) and I’m treating myself to a copy. 🙂
      Glad you enjoyed the walk and the history, Martha. 🙂

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  2. So interesting to learn of the spiritual connection to land and water. Also to learn the history of the area of Wootton Wawen and Wudu Tun – and to see t he pictures. They were really great. And I am especially glad you got to celebrate being done with your exam – job well done!

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  3. This walk seems like the perfect antidote to your stress of last week, and a perfect example of how much pleasure people can get away from the madding crowd.
    Perfectly written again with some evocative photos to go with the story. Thanks for taking us along to Wootton Wawen with you.

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    • Oh definitely, Malc, getting away from the madding crowd is always good for stress relief. Thanks for your lovely comments, as always, and for joining me in Wootton Wawen. I’m really glad you enjoyed the walk. It was good to reconnect with the Middle Ages – however briefly! 🙂

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    • I agree, Amy, it says something about a site that’s been sacred for millennia. Makes you wonder, really…

      I think the exam went OK thanks, although most of it is a bit of a blur. I did, however, actually enjoy the higher Latin translation, which was a really lovely story about pirates. So, of course I came straight home afterwards and told it to my pirate-loving budding maritime historian daughter. So I guess if I could retell it at least that part of the exam must have gone fairly well… I’ve got to wait until nearing the end of July before I get the results now, and by that time I’ll be doing the Welsh wander. Fingers crossed for then. Thanks for asking, Amy, and I’m so glad you enjoyed this wind-down walk with the Saxons. 🙂

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      • So, now the real fun begins, waiting…
        I would tend to think that if you could come home and retell parts of it, that your results are going to be good. Will you be able to check your results while in Wales and will you?
        Sacred sites like that are, to me, a sign that we have more in common than we often like to admit. I think there are a lot of common themes that run through most religions and I think it would be really helpful it people would focus on that instead of the differences.

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      • Thanks, Amy. I would hope a retelling indicates I’ve done OK in at least one question. Good question about the results. I will be able to check, providing I can get a decent internet connection, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to bring myself to have a look! 🙂
        That’s a very good point about sacred sites and common threads in religion, and I agree with you completely. 🙂

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  4. A fascinating walk, Alli. Thorouighly enjoyed it. And, as someone has already said, a good wind-down from the exams – along with the previous night’s wine, of course… Love holloways – they always give me pause for thought. Or should that be hoofs?

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    • Hoofs as well, I’m sure! Very good 😉 They are pretty special. The walk was, indeed, a much needed tonic – as was the wine! Thanks for your kind comments, Mike, and I’m so pleased you enjoyed the walk. I do often feel as though my blogging friends are there with me on these long historical wanderings. 🙂

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    • I get the gist, Albert, so thank you for your kind comment! Very appropriate! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the walk, and yes, the past and the tranquillity of the countryside combined are without doubt a great way to shed the stress. Thanks for coming along and sharing it with me… 🙂

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    • Yes it is, John. I’ve heard many scholars say the same thing – we’ll never really know exactly what they did, and why. We can only examine the evidence they left behind and come up with theories. But I think in a way, it adds to the mystique and magic of the far-distant past. 🙂

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  5. I don’t walk far these days so it is a real treat to be able to join you via your beautiful descriptive writing and atmospheric photographs. Thankyou.

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    • Thanks Carol. You’re right, of course, I won’t find out the result until nearly the end of July, by which time I’ll be in Wales doing the big Welsh Castle Wander. Hopefully that’ll be a good distraction, but in the meantime it was a lovely church, indeed. I’m planning on keeping many more distractions like this… 🙂

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    • …by the way, yes, it was just for this year. Two more modules then I’ll be off to York to do the MA. At least this was the last exam I’ll have to do… 🙂

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  6. Lovely post, Alli. The woods are beautiful and your walk was a much deserved break from all your hard work! It’s a spiritual moment in its own right to be in a place like that, past and present becoming one.

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    • That’s exactly how I feel, Wendy. It’s a real tonic after all the hard slog. Thanks for reading, and I’m so glad you enjoyed our walk. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Sue. That’s very kind – it was gruelling but I survived. Fingers crossed for the results. I thought of you while we were there because I felt it would be a place that would interest you. It’s worth a visit if you’re anywhere in the area, and the exhibition in the church is great. 🙂 ❤

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      • I daren’t even think of going anywhere at the moment…a week away and everything has piled up all over the place 😉
        As to the results… I am very sure you will be fine. 🙂

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      • Thank you, Sue. I really hope so.
        And yes, no-one can go away for long these days. I can’t imagine what’ll be waiting for me after three weeks in North Wales this summer!
        Dare I ask how the building work is going? 🙂

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      • It’s not the norm for me either. I’m only having three weeks away because of my castle wander – I’d never have that long away normally. Hopefully it’ll be a good old castle quest. 🙂 I’m hoping for a fortnight in Northumberland next year though. Fingers crossed for the progress of the building work. ❤ 🙂

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