09 August 2008

In the country

picture by Andrew Stawarz
Weary and footsore, we paused to rest at the very lip of the Cotswold escarpment.

The evening light had that dreamy, golden quality of a perfect English day, and we could see for miles. Far beneath us a real, live steam train crossed patchwork plains and centuries; and either Patagonian physics had spread to Gloucestershire, or the air was ozone clear for I could make out flocks of sheep grazing the slopes of the Malvern hills twenty miles away.

In the sixteenth century, so local legend has it, Thomas Cromwell sat just a few yards from our resting place and watched the righteous fires of the protestants consume Hailes Abbey where in happier time his friend Stephen Sagar had been Abbot.

Five hundred years on, in more peaceful times, we rested against a low gate set in a brand new, spanking-smart, dry stone wall. A Narnia-door to nowhere, at first glance the pointless gate merely connects two fields, but look sideways! ... it stands exactly at the mid-line between two newly planted avenues of trees that march from the field behind, two miles or more, down the escarpment, through the village of Wood Stanway, across a wood, all the way to the simply ludicrous but awesomely splendid Stanway Fountain, the largest gravity powered water jet in Europe.

The Stanway Estate was leased by Hailes Abbey to Richard Tracy in 1533, the very year of Henry VIII's divorce, with the writing on the wall for the Catholic Church in England. The Lessor was none other than our well connected Abbot Sagar who evidently understood not only the way the national wind was blowing, but also local politics, for when the Dissolution Act of 1536 was passed, who else was appointed head of the commission to dissolve Hailes Abbey but one Richard Tracy.

Sagar held out, negotiating terms, for three years, before he and his 21 monks finally acquiesced on Christmas Eve 1539.

The Abbey and its estates were eventually sold for a total of £539, and one can suppose that as both sitting tenant and vendor Tracy's purchase of the freehold of Stanway was on not unfavourable terms.... and that neither was Abbot Sagar disappointed with his pension of £100pa (His monks, you ask? ... £8). And now, get this, Stanway has remained in the Tracy family ever since. In these sort of deals is won possession of our green and pleasant land.

The last time we walked that way we were soaked to the skin, and it was miserable and misty.

Today it was just beautiful.

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