Monday, June 4, 2012

Beltingham Church Yard

When digging at Vindolanda we get the weekends off to rest up.  Oh, and there is the occasional rain out as well.  So it is good to have a few local side trips on tap for the days when the shovels are idle.  And perhaps rusting.

This year I went over to Beltingham, a quaint village about 3 miles from Vindolanda, and had a look about the place.  It is surprising just how much history is jammed into one little church yard.

The church is from the mid 1500s, although some elements of it are felt to go back to the 1200s.  It is said to be the finest example in the UK of a "Perpendicular style" church of this era.
But it is the church yard that I found fascinating.  Lets start with the yews.

There are three huge, gnarled yew trees in the yard, the oldest of which likely predates the church and is perhaps a thousand years old.  In a rather lengthy discussion of this tree it is speculated that, yews being sacred to druidic sorts, it indicates a far longer history of worship on this site.

The eldest yew looks, for all practical purposes, to be an Ent from Tolkein!

The longevity of yews appears to be due to their continuous cycle of dying off and regenerating.  So you see old and new segments of the tree....held together with some gnarly chains and bands.

The tree is such a tangled mess of primeval foliage that it is hard to even get a picture that captures it right.

Welcome to Fangorn Forest.

But if you keep looking you find something that makes a thousand year old yew tree look like a tender young sapling.  Over on the other side of the church...

This is the remaining stub of a weathered Saxon cross, circa 680 AD.  If-and there is some debate on this point-it was not brought in from elsewhere, it would indicate a place of worship going back almost to Roman times.

And speaking of Roman, the plinth, or stone base for this cross was found to be made up of two Roman altars!

They are now in a museum at Newcastle, but the inscriptions read:


Which translates to:

"[...] the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, Severus Alexander's own,¹ devoted to his divinity, restored this gateway together with its towers from ground-level, under Claudius Xenophon,² pro-praetorian legate of our emperor in Britannia Inferior, under the direction of [...]"

This reference to the Fourth Cohort of Gauls is pretty clear evidence that the altar was hauled over from Vindolanda, but of course gives no clue as to when.

The second altar reads:

V• S • L • M
This translates to:

"To the goddess Satiada,¹
the Council of the Textoverdi²
willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow."

This goddess is pretty much unknown beyond this inscription, and there is no certainty as to who the Textoverdi were.  Perhaps a minor tribe, it has even been suggested that Vindolanda was their civitas capital.

There is a story about these altars. 

The earliest excavator of the Vindolanda site-albeit in the casual fashion of 19th century antiquaries-was a Reverand Hedley.  Apparently while supervising excavations in 1835, Hedley "caught a death-chill while overlooking one day the excavation of a fine vessel". Evidently rainy days on the site are not a new phemomenom.  He was buried at Beltingham church yard, and as a gesture in recognition of Hedley's interests the local vicar moved the Roman altars, setting one on either side of Hedley's tomb.  In this fashion Hedley's grave was said to have been "consecrated by a cross at its foot and an interesting relic of roman piety on either side of it."

All the grave stones in Beltingham church yard are badly weathered, but if we assume the "ancient cross" in question was the Saxon example, I suspect this is Hedley's tomb:
It certainly looks to have been done in the style of a Roman tomb.  The picture of the Saxon cross shows it in the background, so the orientation looks about right.  One account I read indicated that the tomb was protected by an iron railing, but much can change in 150 years, and I saw no such enclosure anywhere in the church yard.  You may observe that there are no longer Roman altars on either side.  A new vicar came along, replacing the prior one who was a friend of Hedley.  The altars were donated to the Society of Antiquaries in Newcastle in 1858.

If you are planning a walking visit, here's how to get there.  Start at the pub in Bardon Mills.  After an appropriate stay, walk east out of town past the War Memorial.  Soon after that you will cross the South Tyne on the foot bridge.  Then take the road east about a mile until it climbs a gentle hill to Beltingham.  It is difficult to get lost in this micro village, the church is right on the tiny village green.

Beltingham is a small village, but keep an eye out for the nice Georgian house that seems to be rented out for group stays, and for the much remodeled "bastle house" that recalls earlier, less peaceful times.

A bit more on Beltingham coming up on Wednesday and Friday.  Lepers, sarcastic last words and a possible inter-dimensional portal?

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