Albion, ancient sites

Lunch, dollies and green lions…

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Rain stopped play. By the time we reached the cars after our visit to the White Horse at Uffington, any plans we had tentatively formed for walking to Wayland’s Smithy were washed away. Instead, we sought shelter, cider and lunch within the 16th century White Horse in Woolstone, where Thomas Hughes is said to have written ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays.’

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It is a pretty village, with chocolate box cottages, built mainly along a single narrow lane. There are several barrows close by, and a Roman villa with mosaic floors was once uncovered several skeletons, thought to be Saxon, were found in one of its corridors during the first excavation in 1884*. The villa was reburied after the second, in 1955 and no marker was left to show its position. A mystery still awaits future archaeologists, though a geophysical survey may have identified the site.

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Once dried and fed, we wandered up the hill in search of the little church of All Saints, passing cottages built of clunch, the local chalkstone. They must gleam on sunny days, but the damp air dims their surface. On the rooftops a menagerie of animals seems to chase through the village, placed there by the thatchers. The tradition of thatcher’s ‘dollies’ may once have been to deter birds… or a precaution against witchcraft.


The church stands at the end of the village, as many of the older ones do. A long, low building with a single bellcote, it seems to nestle right into the landscape as if shy of visitors. Yet it must have seen many in the eight hundred years it has stood there. It, too, is built mainly of clunch, on a foundation of sarsen.. the stone used in so many of the ancient circles. The doorway is stone and it was the twin dragons that terminate the curve of the Norman arch that first caught my eye, followed by the foliate capital on the pillar that reminded me of an Egyptian cobra.

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We tried the door, convinced it would be locked, but it swung gently open. Inside, the little church has a serene and quiet feel. White walls and deep, Norman lancets fill the whole place with a simple beauty. Opposite the door a Virgin and Child watch over those who enter. Beside us was the font, a decorated lead bowl,  probably shaped in the 1300s, standing upon a stone pillar that looks as if it was meant to be elsewhere.

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One wall was dominated by a large memorial carved to show the Stations of the Cross, but it was a simpler carving that caught my eye. A ‘corn dolly’ in the shape of a shepherd’s crook adorned the wall near the pulpit and beside it the chancel arch was finished with a Green Lion, with tendrils coming from its mouth and a foliate mane. Unusual. There are a number of theories as to why these green men and animals adorn our churches, from pagan symbols to depictions of the resurrection. The Lion was unusual though. I couldn’t recall having seen one in stone before.

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The Green Lion is curious. Regardless of any Christian symbolism or debate, it is indubitably an alchemical symbol. Physically it was used to signify ‘vitriol’, the sulphuric acid created by distilling the green crystals of iron sulphate. Not all alchemy is physical, though and the true quest to transmute base metal to gold has a deeper meaning. For some, the Green Lion symbolised the fierce energy of green Nature…”The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…” wrote Dylan Thomas.

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Another green creature of indeterminate species adorned the other end of the arch, whilst a third, more human and carved in wood, looked down from the beams of the gabled roof. Three Green ‘Men’, all unusual, in a sleepy village church. It seemed rather appropriate at the start of a Silent Eye weekend… given the theme for next year’s workshop and the suspense in which we are keeping our leader about ‘his’ fate as Gawain…

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So did the little sundial in the chancel window… a scratch dial** used to mark out the times of religious services long ago, and of which there are at least nine in this small church. We explored for a while, enjoying the calm cleanliness of the uncluttered space, before a glance at the time told us the afternoon was advancing and we should probably be on our way. After all, officially, the weekend had not yet begun and we still had some way to go before we reached our destination in Wiltshire.

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There was a final flourish though, which caused laughter and a few choice comments from our tormented leader. An imposing topiary Green Man… just the head… greeted us as we walked back to the car park. Even the gardeners seemed to be conspiring to ensure the discomfiture of next April’s ‘Gawain’.

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