Essential Wessex: Domestic Pig Breeds

Wessex is home to many breeds of domestic pig. Some of the most prominent are as follows.

The Berkshire Pig (illustrated) is one of the oldest breeds of domestic pig in Britain, and the first to have pedigrees recorded in herd books (a development which occurred much later than it did for other species of livestock, due to pigs being seen as a peasant's animal). It originated around Reading in the early 18th century, when native breeds were crossed with imported pigs from East Asia.

The Gloucestershire Old Spot is called "old" because it has been around since time immemorial. Its meat is geographically protected, due to traders fraudulently mislabelling the meat of other breeds as GOS meat.

The Hampshire Hog actually originated around the Scottish border. but was exported to North America from Hampshire. It is so identified with the county that its inhabitants are referred to as Hampshire Hogs.

Closely related to the Berkshire pig is the Oxford Sandy and Black. This breed was on the verge of extinction in 1985, when a Breed Society was formed. Thanks to the Society's efforts, numbers are on the increase, though it is still among the rarest of breeds. It is sometimes nicknamed the Plum Pudding, because of its distinctive colouring,

Finally, the Wessex Saddleback is now extinct in the United Kingdom, though it survives in Australia and New Zealand. It was traditionally farmed for bacon and ham,

Essential Wessex: Feral Ponies

Wessex is home to many breeds of feral pony, on Exmoor, Dartmoor, Lundy and in the New Forest.

Ponies have existed in the New Forest since the end of the last Ice Age. Currently, all New Forest ponies are owned collectively by the Foresters who have right of pasture over common land. The Court of Verderers appoints five Agisters to look after the ponies, each covering a different area of the Forest.

New Forest ponies formed the basis of the breeding stock for Lundy Ponies in the 1920s., crossed with a Welsh Mountain stallion. Exmoor or Dartmoor ponies would have been closer geographically, but the owner of the Island at the time, Martin Coles Harman, wanted a larger breed, able to cope with the relatively harsh conditions on Lundy.

Fossil remains of Exmoor ponies have been found dating back to around 50,000 BC. They are smaller than New Forest or Lundy ponies, but are agile and sturdy. They were used as pit ponies in the past.

Finally, Dartmoor ponies were also used by tin miners, and make excellent foundation stock for riding ponies. Their numbers are in steep decline, however, from around 5000 in 1900 to 800 today. The Dartmoor Pony Society and the Duchy of Cornwall are currently engaged in a breeding programme to try and reverse this trend.

Essential Wessex: Wessex Culture

Wessex culture in this context does not mean the wider sense of anything to do with the region's history, heritage or arts scene. Rather, it refers to the early Bronze Age culture of what would later become Wessex.

The term was coined in 1937 by the Hampshire-born archaeologist Stuart Piggott, in an influential paper for the Prehistoric Society entitled The Early Bronze Age in Wessex. Piggott was best known for his part in the excavations at Sutton Hoo, and was portrayed by Ben Chaplin in the Netflix film The Dig.

Wessex culture was characterised by burials in richly-furnished barrows, decorated with gold, copper and amber. It is related to the Hilversum culture of the Low Countries. It is usually subdivided into two phases, from c2000-1650 BC, closely associated with the building of Stonehenge, and from c1650-1400 BC, though this subdivision has been questioned. In the early stages of prehistoric studies, it had been thought that the Wessex culture constituted a distinct material culture, but nowadays, it is believed more to refer to an elite social class.

Regardless of changes in archaeological thought, the prehistoric landscape of Wessex is one of the region's most distinctive features, and was the inspiration for Tolkien's Barrow-Downs.

Essential Wessex: TheTolpuddle Martyrs

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We will, we will, we will be free
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After the Swing Riots (which will be the subject of their own article in due course) led to violent reprisals against the perpetrators, conditions for agricultural labourers in Wessex and elsewhere only got worse. Pay continued to decline in real terms, while expenses did not; a situation that many today will recognise. The peasantry needed to find less confrontational ways to press their grievances.

In the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset, workers formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers in order to band together in protest at their starvation wages. An oath was administered at the home of Thomas Standfield, in front of a picture of skeleton. Officialy, this was a symbol of mortality, but it also served as a veiled threat to oathbreakers.

In 1834, members of the Society were arrested on a trumped-up charge of administering an unlawful oath, and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania. The burgeoning trade union movement organised nationwide protests, and on 14th March 1836, the martyrs were granted full pardons.

This was the first major victory for the unions, and led to great advances in workers' rights that have repercussions to this day. You could say that weekends, paid sick leave and the minimum wage all have their origins in Wessex.

Essential Wessex: Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth (c1095-c1155) may bear the name of a Welsh town, but his best-known work, the History of the Kings of Britain was composed at Oxford Castle, where he appears to have been a secular canon at St George's College. This largely fictitious "history" contains, among other things, the myth of the founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy. who supposedly landed at Totnes and went on to found the towns of Winchester and Shaftesbury.

Winchester was also mentioned in The Prophecies of Merlin, an earlier work whose text was incorporated into the History. It was said to be the site of a spring that would break forth into three rivulets which would divide the island of Britain into three parts. The well-known prophecy of the battle between red and white dragons is probably the origin of the red dragon on the Welsh flag and the white dragon flag used by some English nationalist groups.

And on the subject of dragons, book 8 of the History tells how Uther Pendragon, after a victory in battle, ordered two gold dragons to be made, one of which he kept, and the other placed in Winchester Cathedral. This story may be related to the wyvern flag of Wessex in some way.

Geoffrey helped codify much of the Matter of Britain. He may have been worthless as a historian, but as a mythmaker, he was arguably on a par with Homer.