Littlecote House

A couple of weeks back, me and Rachel had a foray into Wiltshire just simply to experience the ebbing of May, and what a May we’ve had! They don’t call it the Merry month of May in the folk ballads for no reason! Now its June, we have to get accustomed to the usual dismal weather a British Summer brings us.

We started the walk from Ramsbury, one of the large villages you get in the South, with quaint thatched cottages, it seems like an insignificant place along the river Kennett but in the Anglo-Saxon period the Parish was an Episcopal See. It was made so by Archbishop Plegmund in 909 AD (which is a glorious Old English name, and needs to be re-popularised!) The Bishops of Ramsbury seemed to be very influential and at least four went on become Archbishops of Canterbury, including Sigeric the Serious….who doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to have a pint with!

The village used to be famous for having an enormous 250 year old Wych Elm in the village square, which was so big its branch tips touched the buildings on either side. Sadly this venerable old elm, which was first recorded in the 1700’s, died in the 1980’s and was eventually replaced with an oak, which I’m sure will have just as great longevity to be a thing of awe in the future.

The footpath from Ramsbury to Littlecote

Our walk took us through some resplendant English fields and woods, till we eventually got to our picnic destination in front of Littlecote House. It was in these fields and woods that British and American soldiers did their manouvres before being sent to the front during the Second World War. According to one of my youtube subscribers you can still see graffiti carved on trees by these bored recruits, so I’ll have to hunt these down, the next time I go.

Littlecote Estate held host to the 48th South Midlands Division, 42nd East Lancashires’, 6th Armoured, 2nd Armoured Brigade, 34th Armoured Tank Brigade and the 2nd Independant Parachute Regiment. Finally the House held host to the American 101st Airborne Division just before D-Day, who of course are famous not only for their acts of valour but for being represented in the TV show “Band of Brothers”.

As we paced down the path Rachel exclaimed ‘Look a deer!’ but as we intrepidly approached the buck it became apparent,that it was a cunningly made statue woven from briars, and I found myself wondering if I was inheriting the family blindness that cost my Grandad his navigational role in the RAF! The woven buck stood guard beneath an old oak tree which afforded shade from the merciless heat and we had a lovely view of the House which had been on this site since at least 1415 when a nobleman William Darrell married the heiress of these lands Elizabeth De Calstone. 1415 a great year for England, when Henry V brought the pride of French Chivalry to its knees with the humble archer on the fields of Agincourt.

Big historical events often happen on the 15th year of a century have you noticed? 1015 – Cnuts invasion of England. 1215 – Magna Carta 1315 – Great Famine 1415 – Agincourt. 1715 – Jacobite Rebellion. 1815 – Waterloo. I don’t know maybe its just coincidence, nothing much happened in 2015….maybe I should look at the 20’s, see if there’s a common pattern for world disasters?

I love a good ghost story, and before I went out on the walk I read with relish the creepy tale of Wild William Darrell, which I began to tell Rachel.

The story goes that William Darrell summoned a midwife named Mother Barnes to the Hall blindfolded, where she found a woman in labour, when she assisted in the birth “a man in velvet” presumably William Darrell threw the newborn and cast it into the fire. It is presumed that the lady in Labour was Lady Hungerford, as William Darrell had been put in prison around that time for an adulterous relationship with her. It is likely, based on Mother Barnes’ account that the cruel act was to hide their adulterous affair.

Since that time, William Darrell was believed to be cursed, his luck was ailing and he was in financial straits, he had to mortgage the house to John Popham and spent time in Debtors prison in London. On a visit to Littlecote in 1589 he was out hunting on horse in the grounds when a spectral babe materialised in front of his horse, the poor beast struck with terror reared up throwing Wild William Darrell off to the ground where his injury was so great, he perished on the spot. The house is believed to be haunted by the spectral figure of a lady, thought to be Anne Hungerford sobbing in grief for her murdered child, and the cries of a wailing baby can still be heard in the wainscoted upper chambers. As for Wild William, he haunts the grounds in penitence, sometimes at the church, sometimes at the style and sometimes riding across the lawn. It is all remembered in an old rhyme:

And fame reports, the lady comes
With babe of fire at dead of night,
But harmless to the innocent-
They come to see that all is right.

Whilst Darrell’s wretched spirit, ‘tis said,
As if in magic circle bound,
Oft by benighted rustics seen,
The fatal spot to wander round

Littlecote is reputedly the third most haunted property in England, with a number of residential ghosts.

“Its too beautiful to be haunted” another of my youtube subscribers said. And indeed he’s right, Littlecote is a gorgeous Elizabethan mansion constructed from four phases of stately dwellings. There was probably some form of medieval manor house here since the 1200’s as this was the seat of the Calstones before the Darrells married into the property. The fabric of the Darrell’s new manor house built in 1415 is still fossilised within the property. George Darrell converted the house into a Tudor Manor House, and traces of this can still be seen from the Western lawn with its atypical Tudor Chimneys.

Jane Seymour was related to the Darrells and Littlecote was the setting for her romance with that most famous King – Henry VIII. Henry was like one of those best mates who has his girlfriends round at your house-share all the time, you can’t help having awkward moments bumping into him whilst he canoodles with his next floozy; he seemed to have courted one of his wives in nearly every stately home in the South! Luckily Littlecote has quite a strong claim to be the place Henry met his favourite wife here in 1536, notably the one who gave him his son. To celebrate this historical event the Popham’s commissioned a stained glass window of the lovers.

A view of the earlier Tudor facade of the house.

When my Dad visited Littlecote House as lad probably around the 1960’s the house was open to the public and with his photographic memory for all things military history he thought he remembered seeing an impressive collection of Civil War Armour but couldn’t remember whether it was exactly Littlecote. When he asked me to confirm that was right, I had no idea given the fact its Lockdown and its now a hotel so no longer open to the public.

However, I’ve rooted out the story. The house under the Pophams was greatly renovated in Elizabethan times to give us the facade we have today. Alexander Popham fought for Parliament in the English Civil War and used his house as a garrison for his own private regiment, like a lot of Civil war Captains. At the end of the conflict he bought a collection of armour, swords and muskets brand new only for the war to end.

Alexander kept the militaria in the house however and went on to become a Royalist even entertaining Charles II, whose Father Popham had fought against! Did the jovial Charles II see the Round Head helmets hanging in the great Hall or were they secreted away from sight?

The Collection is the most complete armouries in the country but was almost lost to dispersal in the 1980’s so the Royal Armouries’ bought the collection and on the House’s conversion into a Hotel the whole collection was moved up North to my birth county of Yorkshire – it is now housed in the Leeds Royal Armouries so is the only interior part of Littlecote still on show to the general public.

As I sat in that field looking on at Littlecote House and musing about its rich history, I felt sad that a place so rich with heritage should be used by the entitled few as accommodation, and that families couldn’t enjoy the rooms and learn. Hopefully when we live in more enlightened times Littlecote House will be returned to public enjoyment.

I have still got to discuss the amazing mosaic in the grounds, but I will have to leave that for another time!

Exploring the Yorkshire Wolds Part 1. – Prehistoric Monuments.

A guide to prehistoric monuments you can see in the Yorkshire Wolds

In Great Britain we are spoilt to death when it comes to Heritage, we have Castles, Roman Villas, old industrial buildings and prehistoric monuments aplenty, though a lot of it has been buried by foul development of the modern world. There are however certain “magical” parts of the country which are seemingly not ruined by development. These places are blessed with winding country roads, unique historic churches and obscure monuments. One such area is the Yorkshire Wolds in East Yorkshire.

Wharram Percy, one of England’s most archaeologically explored Deserted Medieval Village.

Many historical tourists to Yorkshire miss out on the quaint Yorkshire Wolds, often they are drawn into the glamour of the City of York with its viking Centre, impressive medieval walls and minster, but drive out of the City to the East and over the Howardian Hills you will arrive into the agricultural rolling Yorkshire wolds…. ahhhh. Away from the hustle, and rat race you are now sliding towards the German ocean through winding roads and fields.

You will find when you are exploring the Wolds that it is authentically agricultural, not as many chocolate box villages but practical farming Communities, the Wolds is a topsy turvy farming landscape as it is in a bowl so agriculture is more suitable on the uplands whilst animals are put to pasture in the lowlands.

Prehistoric Wolds in a nutshell

The East Riding of Yorkshire has an abundance of archaeology dating to the Paleolithic when no doubt Early man fished the rivers using antler spear tips. Not quite in the Wolds but in the Vale of Pickering was found the hyena cave, a prehistoric cave filled with hyena, rhinocerous and elk skeletons which gives a snapshot of what early Yorkshire was like 121,000 years ago. In the Mesolithic (10,000 years ago) peoples would have migrated following herds of red deer, or tracking seal colonies stopping off at Seasonal hunting sites. As hundreds of years passed they began to settle in the fertile plains of the wolds to begin early agriculture. In the Neolithic (roughly 3500 BC) and settlement was more common many cursuses have been identified including the Rudston, Beacon, Breeze, Glebe Farm and Argham causeways which are believed to be Neolithic ritual causeways connecting religious pilgrimage routes as well as building some of early long barrows, Fordon and Kilham long barrows date to 3700 BC. In the bronze age older monuments were seemingly still honoured and hundreds of bronze age barrows were built to accommodate the dead.

The Wolds Valley is dominated by the “Gypsey Race” a Winterbourne stream, meaning a stream that only flows during times of rainfall. This strange appearance of the stream at certain times of year must have been important to prehistoric farming communities as it is along its banks that you find the best monuments that prehistory can offer.

The Yorkshire Wolds has some of the best Iron Age Archaeology in the country with hundreds of box, bowl and round barrows. It was here that the Arras Culture thrived, a people who took pride in militaristic burial practices in chariots, the most famous is the Wetwang burial and the Queens Burial which can be seen in the British museum, others can be seen in the Yorkshire museum. The Ferriby Boats were also found in East Yorkshire, possibly the oldest log boats in the country which are thought to have aided Baltic trade in the Humber estuary transporting jet, amber and pottery into the mainland.

Map showing Prehistoric Barrows in East Yorksire, Hull and East Riding Museum.

What to see.

It is thought that the Wolds has over 1400 Bronze age – Iron Age burial mounds and some of the finest follow the Gypsey Race which must have been of great Spiritual importance, these monuments can however be quite hard to find, many of them are on Private land so require viewing from a distance if you can’t find permission. So here’s the list of some of best prehistoric monuments of the Yorkshire Wolds!

  1. Duggleby Howe

On private land, can be seen from the road.

Duggleby Howe

Duggleby Howe is the largest burial mound to be found in the Yorkshire Wolds and also revealed the most stunning finds. It was excavated in the 19th Century by an early archaeologist by the name of J.R.Mortimer. They discovered that the mound had been used for burials for centuries with evidence of an original bronze age inhumation (non-cremated burial) of a high status individual, in the Iron Age over 30 cremations were inserted into the mound and it is believed that Anglo-Saxon settlers used the site based off some Early medieval finds on the site. The evidence points to a monument which has had special significance to a succession of settlers throughout the centuries as a place of burial and even been appropriated by other cultures after the original meaning was lost. The exacavated treasures can be found in the Hull and East Riding museum.

2. Willy Howe

On private land can be seen up a track from the road.

Willies Howe is a prehistoric Round Barrow which can be found on private land at a model aircraft flying range near Wold Newton. Willies Howe was excavated a number of times by antiquarians but only a shallow burial was found and sadly the excavation was not recorded very well. There was evidence of a ramp and some historians have wondered whether it was used as a “Thing” (an early medieval meeting place) in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian periods. It is one of the few prehistoric monuments mentioned in a medieval Chronicle with an attached legend. The Chronicler William of Newburgh, writing in the Priory of Newburgh near Bridlington wrote in the 12th Century:

There is a village…near which those famous waters, commonly called Gipse, spring from the ground… A certain rustic belonging to the village, going to see his friend, who resided in the neighboring hamlet, was returning, a little intoxicated, late at night; when, behold, he heard…the voice of singing and revelling on an adjacent hillock, which I have often seen, and which is distance from the village only a few furlongs. Wondering who could be thus disturbing the silence of midnight with noisy mirth, he was anxious to investigate the matter more closely; and perceiving in the side of the hill an open door, he approached, and, looking in, he beheld a house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet. One of the attendants, perceiving him standing at the door, offered him a cup: accepting it, he wisely forebore to drink; but, pouring out the contents, and retaining the vessel, he quickly departed. A tumult arose among the company, on account of the stolen cup, and the guests pursued him; but he escaped by the fleetness of his steed, and reached the village with his extraordinary prize.” – William De Newburgh, “Historia Regum Anglicarum” (1196-98)

The legend must be of great antiquity, and given that William wrote that he heard the tale in his childhood adds to how old the legend must be.

3. Wold Newton Barrow

Apologies that I have no photo of this one, though I do have some limited video footage!

Nearby following the stream to the village of Wold Newton you can also see Wold Newton Barrow, but again this is on private land however you can just about quite see it from the fence. This is in fact a bowl barrow, it was excavated by J.R. Mortimer who wrote that the original inhumations were buried on a wooden platform, he suggests that the bodies were possibly left to decompose like a sky burial. Fanciful as this is, its an attractive idea and its a shame modern archaeologists couldn’t have got to it first. Interestingly the barrow had a more unusual usage in later periods, it lies next to lane called “Butt lane” this is because in the Middle Ages the barrow was used as an archery butt for those practicing with longbows on Sundays in the 14th-15th Centuries (as we all know Henry V and Henry VIII made proclamations that archery should be practiced weekly).

Apparently in Wold Newton the Gypsey Race doesn’t flow regularly and only appears every several years, when I visited it was in full spate which meant the fields around the barrow were waterlogged and flooded, the author of stone circles.org writes that they believed there was a trench around the barrow which may have been intended to flood in prehistoric times, if this were the case, perhaps I witnessed such an event.

4. Rudston Monolith

Accessible in All Saints Church, graveyard.

Rudston has one of the richest for archaeology in the country, with evidence of Iron Age Round houses, a Roman Villa, a beautiful Norman church and the jewel in the crown – the Rudston Monolith. The Monolith at 7.6 metres high is the tallest Lower Neolithic standing stone in the country rising just above the gable of All Saints Church. To raise such a monument in the Neolithic would have been such a feat. Some believe that the monolith was once part of a larger stone circle similar to Avebury and the archaeological study of the landscape has revealed the possible curcuses (ceremonial ritual causeways) that it was part of. William Stukeley the Tudor antiquarian excavated the monument and stated he found hundreds of skulls and believed the monument to be a place of druidic sacrifice. (Though as the stone stands in a graveyard that has been used since Anglo-Saxon times its not surprising!) A very similar monument is “The Devils Arrows” near Boroughbridge.

5. Garrowby Bowl Barrows

On private land, can be seen from the road.

The Yorkshire Wolds has various Bronze Age Cemeteries including the Painsthorpe barrows. The Garrowby Bowl burials are a collection of 18 burial mounds which were built along an ancient trackway linking the Derwent Valley with the Wolds, this would have led travellers through this very ceremonial landscape celebrating the ancestors. Many have been destroyed by agriculture and most are on private land.Three can be seen on private land, the easiest to see is in the grounds of South Wold Farm and others in fields alongside the A166. It seems that the barrows have not be excavated.

6. Danes Dyke

Accessible from Danes Dyke Nature Reserve Carpark.

Right on the East Coast below Bridlington is the famous Danes Dyke a monumental earthwork system constructed in the Bronze age. The ditches may have been defensive and worked much like an early hillfort enclosing an area of 5 miles possibly protecting a significant settlement, there is however not yet evidence of occupation but I’m sure archaeologists will eventually find something. You can walk along the dyke from the RSPB Nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs or the Danes Dyke Nature Reserve near Flamborough.

7. Hull and East Riding Museum

The Museum in Hull is well worth a visit if you’re really into your prehistoric archaeology. It has an amazing array of artefacts collected by the antiquarian J.R. Mortimer you can see strange votive figurines on a boat dating to the Iron Age, chalk deities possibly associated with the Iron Age Parisi tribe and Chariot burials of the Arras Culture, iron age burials which have been “ritually killed” after death with spears and the Ferriby Boats. The museum also has an amazing iron age experience walk-through with round houses and wax models of tartan clothed iron age peoples on chariots, smelting on bloomer furnaces and hanging head trophies on their round houses, its a bit dated but awesome!

I hope you enjoyed this little guide and its given you a few tips of places to discover when lockdown is over. If you liked this page please give it a *like* and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to email or leave a comment. All the best – Martin. 13/04/2020 AD