Essential Wessex: The Baptism of Cynegils

Lo, I shall tell you the truest of visions, a dream that I dreamt in the dead of night while people reposed in peaceful sleep. I seemed to see the sacred tree, lifted on high in a halo of light, the brightest of beams; that beacon was wholly gorgeous with gold; glorious gems stood fair at the foot; and five were assembled, at the crossing of the arms. The angels of God looked on.... - The Dream of the Rood

St Berin, often Latinised as Birinus (c600-650), was a Frankish missionary venerated in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches as "the Apostle of Wessex". He baptised Cynegils, the first Christian king of the Gewissae, near his "capital" at Dorchester-on-Thames.

Conversion to Christianity at the time was about more than the state of the king's soul. It meant joining a growing commonwealth of nations instead of looking inwards. It also boosted the transition from an oral to a written culture - a boon to historians, who now have textual as well as archaeological evidence to work from.

Written records also kickstarted a trend for royal genealogies which uncovered (or invented) connections between kingdoms and royal families. Berin and Cynegils could therefore be said to have helped turn the Gewissae from an isolated war-band to a European nation.

Essential Wessex: Aerial Archaeology

The use of aerial images in archaeology has its origins in the 1920s. One of its pioneers was O G S Crawford, who was born in India, but spent much of his life in Hampshire and studied geography at Oxford.

During the First World War, Crawford had served as a photographer in the trenches, and as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps, forerunner of the RAF, where he took photographs as part of reconnaissance missions.

Crawford became interested in the application of aerial photography to archaeology. He produced two booklets of aerial photographs for the Ordnance Survey in 1924 and 1929. H G Wells named a survey aeroplane Crawford in his honour in his 1939 novel The Shape of Things to Come.

Crawford used RAF aerial photography to determine the length of the Avenue at Stonehenge, and in 1924, conducted an archaeological survey of much of Wessex, financed by the marmalade magnate Alexander Keiller.

He later entered into a public feud with Alfred Watkins after he refused to publish an advert for Watkins' book The Old Straight Track in his journal Antiquity, dismissing belief in ley lines as "crankery".

By the time of his death, he had acquired a near-legendary reputation among archaeologists, though somewhat tarnished by his becoming an apologist for Stalin's USSR.

Essential Wessex: Winchester Road Protests

Wessex's natural environment, particularly in its overdeveloped eastern half, is under constant pressure from new construction. Beginning in the 1970s but peaking in the 1990s, this has led to direct action to protect it, mainly (though not exclusively) centred on protests against new road building in the area of the region's historic capital, Winchester.

The first of these came in 1976, when the M3 Action Group, with help from veteran anti-roads protester John Tyme, author of Motorways vs Democracy, successfully fought off a plan to extend the M3 across the water meadows near St Catherine's Hill. Unfortunately, the victory was temporary, as the extention later cast a scar across the landscape at Twyford Down, despite vigorous local opposition. Protestors were brutally evicted by police and security guards on 9th December 1992, known as Yellow Wednesday from the hi-vis outfits worn by the guards. Protestor Paul Kingsnorth later successfully sued the police for using unreasonable force.

Winchester is also the origin point of the A34, whose Newbury Bypass, 20 miles away, was the site of another protest in 1996. Since then, traffic levels on the A34 have continued to increase, suggesting that any benefits arising from the destruction of the Wessex countryside are temporary at best.

Essential Wessex: Sir John Popham

Sr John Popham (1531-1607) was a notorious hanging judge who also served as MP for Lyme Regis and then Bristol, and as speaker of the House of Commons. He was noted for his harsh sentences, particularly towards thieves.

In 1595, Popham was appointed Lord Chief Justice, a position he held until his death 12 years later. In this capacity, he presided over the trials of Guy Fawkes and the other Gunpowder Plotters, of Mary Queen of Scots, and of Sir Walter Raleigh when he was arrested for treason in 1603 for his part in the Main Plot against James I.

Popham was the main funder of the Popham Colony in Wabenakik, North America, near the present-day town of Phippsburg, Maine. His nephew George was the president of the colony, and several sites in the area still bear the Popham name to this day.

He lies buried at St John the Baptist Church in Wellington, where there is an 18-foot, free-standing monument to him (see photo above). He was the owner of Wellington House, and also Littlecote House in Berkshire, which became the family seat after Wellington House was destroyed in the Civil War.

Essential Wessex: Wessex and Brittany

Links between Wessex and Brittany go back at least as far as the post-Roman period. The Bretons are thought to be the descendants of Brythonic-speaking emigrants from the kingdom of Dumnonia, covering modern-day Kernow and parts of western Wessex. One of its provinces was named Domnonea, after the British kingdom, though there was a separate province named Kernev, indicating a distinction between Devon and Kernow even then. Further evidence points to a possible second emigration of Britons as the western border of Wessex moved from the Parrett to the Tamar. Athelstan expelled the Britons from Exeter in 928, though the area where they had previously lived continued to be referred to as the "British Quarter" until as late as the 17th century. Until recently, the main bus station in Plymouth was known as Bretonside, a name retained for the new mixed-use development being built on its former site. There is also a Briton (originally Breton) Street in Southampton.

In the 16th century, serge cloth was exported to Brittany from Exeter in exchange for Breton linen, while during the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a thriving trade in Breton sea salt through many Wessex ports.

Today, ferries sail to Brittany from Plymouth, Weymouth and Portsmouth, while Eastern Airways flies between Southampton and Nantes.