A series of high-voltage political shocks in 2016 have little on the tumultuous events of 1,000 years ago, when triumphant Viking invaders held Warwickshire in their grip.
Having scythed through the county in early 1016, the Danish ruler Cnut the Great spent the following years consolidating his power throughout most of what is now England.
Successful military campaigns against the Vikings by the talismanic leader Aethelflaeda, daughter of King Alfred, would have been a fast-receding memory by this stage.
The Lady of the Mercians is said to have laid the earthen foundations of Warwick Castle in 914, the town being created as one of her defensive ‘burghs’.
Today, a plaque near the castle and a comic book-style portrayal on the wall in a coffee shop put a civic gloss on her achievements.
But the Warrior Princess’s hilltop fortifications, said to have been pivotal in a wider territorial defence against Viking incursions, would not provide a safe haven forever.
William Field’s historical account of Warwick and Leamington puts it succinctly:
“Warwick enjoyed long and uninterrupted repose: till it was doomed once more to sustain dreadful injuries, from the incursions of the Danes, under Canute, in the year 1016.”
When the Danes rampaged through Warwickshire, the rampart would have been no shield for the Saxon earls and everyday folk who most likely gathered there for safety.
Graham Sutherland’s ‘Bloody British History’ book about Warwick imagines a typical Viking attack:
“When the raiders arrived, nobody was spared. The men would be slain and their women raped and carried off. Any child who survived would be carried off as well.
“Their livestock was either taken or slaughtered, along with anything else that could loosely be considered as having value. The raiders would leave a smoke-covered scene of havoc, slaughter and total desolation.”
Cnut’s subjugation of Warwickshire took place in this prism of charred earth. His army “harried, burnt and slew throughout the county”, according to A History of The County of Warwick.
Ominously, the Danes were accompanied by the treacherous Edric Streona, who had switched sides. Cnut appointed Edric alderman of Mercia in 1007 but had his puppet ruler slain 10 years later.
The new king’s rule seems to have been absolute in 1017, having taken over most of England and defeated his cultured foe, Aethelred the Unready.
The Viking ruler drove potential threats into exile, including the former Anglo-Saxon king’s son Eadwig, who is thought to have been killed soon after.
Cnut also married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, having ordered her “to be fetched as his wife”, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. However, she appears to have manoeuvred herself into a position of power and influence during her husband’s reign.
“The survivors would then be faced with the soul-destroying task of burying their dead and starting to rebuild their lives”
Warwick, which is thought to have been destroyed by raiders up to six times in its history, quickly adjusted to this new order and again became a prominent town.
The suffering of ordinary people along the way, however, is likely to have been as acute as it is undocumented.
Sutherland draws a picture of life in the aftermath after a Viking raid:
“The survivors would then be faced with the soul-destroying task of burying their dead and starting to rebuild their lives.
“Not all of them could cope with such tragedy: many left the area after an attack.”
Cnut was so comfortable in his position that by 1008 he had collected a ‘tribute’ of £82,500 and disbanded his army, leaving only 40 ships, according to Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan in The Anglo-Saxon World.
Houses sprang up in Warwick as it recovered from the invasion, and most historical accounts of the county move swiftly on to 1066 and Norman times.
A thousand years on, the savagery and heroism of the Dark Ages have become central riffs in television dramas Game of Thrones and The Last Kingdom.
History shows Warwickshire had a Viking-size fleet of both in times when lasting peace was as hard as a dragon’s tongue to find.
Review: The Tempest at the RSC. Dir. Gregory Doran
The jaw of the 14-year-old next to me dropped during the spectacular sea storm scene at the start of this magnificent production. And although much praise has rightly been given to Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, the use of digital technology was absolutely magical and well suited to the play. Consequently all ages seemed gripped by a production which fused technological and human elements.
The many good performances ranged from Joe Dixon’s Caliban to Ariel, played adeptly by the swift-footed Mark Quartly, whose computer-generated image floated at will around the stage The comic elements were very strong, with a particularly effective Trinculo and Stephano, the latter played with some Indian inflection by Tony Jayawardena .
The teasing out of the complexities of Russell Beale’s Prospero proved the highlight, and was done with concision and clarity. It’s a reflective and persuasive portrayal as Prospero develops towards rejection of his magic and trickery in favour of mercy and forgiveness.
However, as a one off (and maybe it should only be a one off), the absorbing staging and visual spectacle was what made this production unforgettable. Not only for seasoned theatre-goers but also, to be sure, the young ones alongside.
Hill Close Gardens in Warwick is home to cherished plots once tended by Victorian traders and apple trees blessed with songs and wine.
BENJAMIN Chadband had organic gardening and food miles sewn up long before the concepts were plastered onto supermarket labels.
The Victorian confectioner and pork pie maker had a plot near his town centre shop that provided a retreat from the counter and meat for his customers. His slice of the communal hedged leisure garden, which was built on a gentle hill, had a summer-house, cucumber frame and an abundance of apple, quince and pea trees. Sties housed pigs destined for the pies and sausages a few minutes’ walk away at 12 Swan Street.
Mr Chadband achieved a degree of fame when his surname was noted by Charles Dickens on a visit to Warwick, possibly when he passed or visited the ‘celebrated pork pie establishment’, and used for a character in his novel Bleak House. The trader took up the lease in 1870, buying the freehold three years later as he cemented his place among the townsfolk who lacked gardens but needed an escape in an era of industrialisation that quickened the pace of life even in a Warwickshire market town.
The plot remained in the family until 1958 and in more recent times was rejuvenated by the late George Mills, a prize-winning grower and one of the saviours of Hill Close Gardens who helped save the site from the bulldozers. Thanks largely to the efforts of Mr Mills, the renewed patch has the distinction of being the only one on the site in continuous use since Victorian times.
I first stepped inside the gardens wanting a breather from my stuffy office, re-adjusting my eyes after long hours staring into computer monitors. Each time I returned I stripped away a new layer of detail, until I discovered the story of the pork butcher and his fertile growing patch. Most recently, I joined the wassailing evening, sipping mulled wine and singing carols before taking part in the ancient practice. Spirited along by a choir, Morris dancers and a folk group, we tied pieces of toast to an apple tree and poured wine into its roots to ensure a healthy crop.
Little bigger than a couple of football pitches, the clutch of ‘detached’ gardens came so close to being demolished that at one point a bulldozer was on site devouring the soil. Reopened in 2007, an exceptional level of detail can be found in plots still walled, fenced or hedged in around their original square borders.
The concerted restoration drive has resulted in a deep trove of plant life and social history
In summer venerable apple trees – survivors from Victorian times including a Laxton’s Superb developed around a decade after Mr Chadband took up his plot – give way to jostling flower beds and rising green stalks. Bees hum amid the lavender and apples tumble into old pig sties. The concerted restoration drive has resulted in a deep trove of plant life and social history, with some of the rusted Victoriana on display having been literally pulled from the earth.
Each month notes are provided to identify plants such as purple Dierama, also known as angel’s fishing rod, and Miss Willmot’s ghost – named after the flower’s champion who secretly scattered the seeds in other people’s gardens. One plot has a faint Middle-earth feel, with withered, overhanging branches, carved wood furniture and an elevated summer-house. Elsewhere, features including a flowerpot man in a scarf and a sundial lie amid greenhouses and variously blossoming flower beds. The summer houses unlock the hillside views, tools and comforts of Mr Chadband’s age, right down to the decorative seashells and teapots resting patiently on fireplaces.
The staff and volunteer team has researched and added histories of the plots and you can take a look at the photographs and timelines with tea and cake in the cafe.
Mr Chadband’s former plot has a potting shed with information about the history of the garden, while outside in the warmer months visitors stroll amid strawberry patches, African marigolds, climbing French beans, yellow scallop squash and blackcurrant Wellington. The pork pie shop closed in 2006 but, in one humble corner of Warwickshire at least, his legacy will remain for some time to come.
*Hill Close Gardens is closed over the festive period until the new year.
As the overhanging cloud and mist begins to lift from the skies above the runways, the Touchdown cafe is a hub of activity.
A group of motorcyclists queue for their pit-stop refreshments while families of virtually every age park up with smiles and English breakfasts.
With barely an empty seat, the scene says everything about why Wellesbourne Moutford Airfield must remain just that – an airfield.
For many the tarmac strips, hangars and runway-side cabins are the first step into the world of aviation. For others, such as the bikers, it is a stop-off on journeys often spanning many hundreds of miles. For all, it is a window on the world of flight.
A newly-refurbished museum which remembers World War Two aircrews provides insights into times when getting airborne took on a much more pressing urgency.
A small but dedicated band of volunteers exhibit static aircraft and artefacts including medals belonging to servicemen who lost their lives during active service.
The museum has been part of the airfield for more than 30 years and honours the men of 22 Operational Training Unit, which consisted of mainly Commonwealth servicemen who were stationed at the base when it belonged to the RAF.
Nursing a cup of £1 tea in the cafe, it seems inconceivable that all this is under threat. The jolly hum of conversation continues all morning. Bulldozers seem a distant concept.
Yet plans to turn the airfield into a housing development – currently subject to legal wranglings and negotiations – could spell the end for the current tenants.
Out on the cafe’s terrace flying enthusiasts young and old watch the light aircraft come and go. Some get even closer, climbing in for lessons or to take the controls.
They are scenes that could well be consigned to the mists of time.
Review: Seven Acts of Mercy (Anders Lustgarten) at the RSC
A strong production draws together 17th century Naples and 21st century Bootle in an outspoken and direct piece on greed and exclusion, as relevant today as ever.
The story follows part of the life of Caravaggio interspersed with the lives of present day teenager Mickey, living with his grandad Leon and, with the latter, exploring life on the margins: the food bank, the bedroom tax and dubious regeneration schemes.
Both then and now the experience of the outsider is shown with the accompanying struggle for meaning and dignity. The play is leavened with the art shown from a book by Leon to his grandson and by Caravaggio’s work, particularly the title piece.
The Seven Acts form Leon’s principles and are unveiled as the play develops.
Appropriately well lit, the acting and staging are superb.