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Introduction

Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Abbotsbury Swannery

Abbotsbury, swans, Dorset, bit about BritainEver tried roast swan?  Perhaps a Double Cygnet Burger meal with fries and a Coke?

The Benedictine monks of St Peter’s monastery at Abbotsbury would have enjoyed a choice bit of swan.  The birds may have been one of the reasons a monastery was established there, around the year 1040, because swan would often feature at medieval banquets and the habitat around Abbotsbury is a magnet for these magnificent birds.  Chesil Beach, a natural bank of rocks and stones around 35 feet high and up to 150 yards wide, stretches some 10 miles from Abbotsbury to Portland and forms a shallow lagoon, the Fleet, between itself and the mainland.  This sheltered stretch of water has been described by the writer Clive Aslet as “looking like a huge larder” to your average swan, full of all the nice things that swans like to eat.  According to the RSPB, this includes potatoes; but other stuff too.

Incidentally, the Fleet was also used to test early versions of Barnes Wallis' famous bouncing bomb during World War Two; heaven knows how the aircraft managed to avoid serious accidents with all those birds drifting about.

Anyway - the monks were farming swans at Abbotsbury by at least 1393.  Then, in 1536, the monastery was dissolved by the orders of Henry VIII.  After this it was going cheap (yes, I thought swans hissed too) and was bought by Sir Giles Strangeways, who was responsible for the dissolution on behalf of the king and therefore probably had a head start on other potential buyers.  His descendents, the Fox-Strangeways, morphed into the Earldom of Ilchester in 1756 and continue to manage the swannery today as part of the enormous Ilchester Estate property company.
Abbotsbury, swannery, swans, Dorset, bit about Britain
Abbotsbury Swannery advertises itself as the only place in the world where you can walk through a colony of nesting Mute Swans.  I must say, they didn’t seem that mute when I went.  And, to be honest, I wasn’t that keen on going – partly because a swan bit me when I was a small boy, and they can be pretty scary; but the other reason was that I thought it would be boring.  Well, I was wrong.  Bird-lovers could probably spend all day there, but I found a couple of hours wandering around quite fascinating – there was always something to look at and I’d happily go back.  They have daily feeding at midday and 4pm – 600 swans all simultaneously aiming for those potatoes… And it’s not just swans – there’s wildfowl of all sorts.  As the Abbotsbury Swannery website  says, though – it’s a sanctuary; there are no cages so you do need to watch where you (and the kids) are walking.

By the way, apart from a few licensed places like Abbotsbury, the Crown has claimed ownership of all wild Mute Swans in England since 1186.  Presumably, that now applies to the UK as a whole.  The original idea was to protect the supply for royal feasts; I don’t know what the reason is now, but whatever it is it’s OK with me Ma’am.

Abbotsbury is in the County of Dorset, on the B3157 between Weymouth and Bridport.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Long Man of Wilmington

The Sussex village of Wilmington lies about 6 miles north west of Eastbourne.  Marked out on the side of nearby Windover Hill, just to the south of the village, there’s a 235’ high figure of a man.  No one knows who he is meant to represent, or how long he’s been there.

The Wilmington Giant could be prehistoric, Roman, Saxon – or much newer. We know he’s been there since at least 1710, because in that year a surveyor called John Rowley made a drawing of him.  It seems the figure in those days was an indentation in the grass, only able to be seen when the light was right, or after a snowfall.  In 1874, he was outlined in yellow bricks, replaced by concrete blocks in 1969 that are periodically painted white.  During the Second World War, the bricks were coloured green so that enemy bombers were unable to use the Long Man as a landmark.  Clever, eh?

You’ll find people who swear he’s an ancient fertility symbol, or a representation of an ancient war-god.  His head, apparently, was once shaped as though wearing a war helmet.  Or is he a gigantic hoax?  Some sort of memorial?  The fact is that we simply don’t know and, so, for the time being, the giant hides his mysterious identity and purpose.  You may think it’s a little surprising that there seems to be no reference to him earlier than 1710; but then, if he’d been made just before then, wouldn’t it have been hard to keep it a secret?  The ancients, after all, got up to all manner of things, including carving enormous figures on hillsides; so it’s quite possible that Wilmington’s Long Man has a long history.

In any event, our tall friend is a little special.  He may lack certain anatomical features enjoyed by his close relative, the Cerne Abbas Giant (though some believe the Victorians robbed him of it), but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth a brief visit if you happen to be passing – or as part of your research into large figures carved into the English landscape.

There are public footpaths if you want to get up close and personal – he’s not far from the South Downs Way.  Or you can be lazy and view it from a minor road between the A27 and the A259.  Apparently, there’s also a public car park just south of Wilmington Priory, with good views nearby.