Essential Wessex: The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was a man-o-war in Henry VIII’s navy, built in Portsmouth in 1510 and launched the following year. Henry was preparing for war against France, and the building of the Mary Rose and her sister ship, the Peter Pomegranate, arguably laid the foundations for the birth of the Royal Navy as we know it.

The Admiral of the Fleet, Edward Howard, chose the Mary Rose, rather than the larger Regent as his flagship. This gave him the element of surprise at the Battle of St Mathieu in 1512. The French were not expecting the English to arrive for several more days, and the Mary Rose was able to catch them unawares, crippling their flagship the Grande Louise.

The ship saw many more years of distinguished service before being sunk off the Isle of Wight in 1545. The exact reasons for her loss were unknown, but it is thought that bad weather hastened her demise.

The story does not end there, however. The wreck of the Mary Rose was raised in 1982, and today sits in a dedicated museum located in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard. Find out more at their website.

Wessex Attractions: MAKE Southwest

MAKE Southwest, formerly the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, was founded in 1955 by Edward Baly, to promote regional crafts. They started out creating small exhibitions in various venues across South Devon, but now have over 250 members and a permanent home, Riverside Mill in Bovey Tracey, purchased in 1986.

Riverside Mill contains a retail gallery and three exhibition galleries, hosting over 20 exhibitions a year between them. Members include printmakers, silversmiths, sculptors and many more categories.

The satnav postcode for RIverside Mill is TQ13 9AF, and the what3words is figs.roost.rabble. Bus number 178 from Newton Abbot to Okehampton stops nearby, and the nearest railway station is Newton Abbot. The gallery is open 10am-5pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, and admission is free. There are two pay and display car parks located within a minute’s walk. If you cannot make it there in person, their website hosts virtual exhibitions. Click the link for details.

Review: Orlam and I Inside The Old Year Dying by PJ Harvey

Polly Jean Harvey (2022) Orlam. London: Picador.
Harvey, PJ. (2023) I Inside The Old Year Dying. Partisan Records

.Orlam is a novel in verse by PJ Harvey that represents the first full-length book written in the Dorset dialect in over a century, though parallel translations into “book-English” can be found on facing pages, and there are also footnotes and a glossary, so that the reader does not need to be well-versed in Wessex English to be able to understand it. Her vocabulary draws upon the work of William Barnes, but while Barnes favoured plain meanings and everyday subjects, Harvey’s verse is dense, allusive and rich in symbolism, closer to the work of William Blake.

Like Barnes’s poetry, Orlam reflects the timeless nature of the Dorset countryside, though references to Gateway carrier bags and Jim’ll Fix It locate it temporally in the 1970s or early 1980s. There is nothing twee or romanticised about the portrayal of the countryside here. Death and decay are everywhere, and the album ends with the sound of buzzing air-vlees (flies).

‌The book tells the story of 9-year-old Ira-Abel Rawles, from the imaginary village of UNDERWHELEM (always written in ALL CAPS); and her ghostly (imaginary?) Christ figure Wyman-Elvis, a soldier killed in the Ransham rebellion, a fictional revolt against the English crown seemingly modelled on the Western and Pitchfork rebellions. Seeing all is the titular Orlam, the eye of a dead lamb (the Lamb of God?) that had been saved from the crows.

Harvey subsequently chose to set some of the poems to music in the album I Inside The Old Year Dying. She instinctively understands the difference between a poem and a song lyric, so the poems are often substantially rearranged. The works can be experienced independently of each other, but are best taken as a piece. The music is eerie and evocative, and rather delightfully, Harvey sings the songs in an understated Dorset accent, though without going full Wurzel. The sounds of nature, such as birdsong, fade in and out, evoking the rural setting.

Orlam and I Inside The Old Year Dying are highly recommended to readers of this blog. They carry on the legacy of Barnes and Hardy while feeling contemporary. They show that a Wessex identity need not just be a relic of the past, but can be dynamic and capable of reinventing itself. Which is what Wessex Society has been saying all along.

Wessex Attractions: Corfe Castle

Last week, we looked at Shaftesbury Abbey, once home to the relics of Edward, King and Martyr. This week we turn our attention to Corfe Castle, the original site of his murder, Destroyed by the Roundheads during the English Civil War in a misguided attempt at denormanisation, this year (2023) saw its ruins become the subject of the National Trust’s biggest ever conservation project, restoring loose and damaged stonework, and removing excess vegetation without destroying valuable wildlife habitats.

Species found in the castle and surrounding area include the Adonis Butterfly and the Grey Bush Cricket. Perhaps fittingly, its gothic ruins are also home to birds of prey and carrion eaters; ravens, red kites and peregrine falcons.As with the Tower of London, legend has it that if the ravens ever leave Corfe Castle, England will fall.

Corfe Castle also gives its name to a nearby village and civil parish. Its railway station was a rather late casualty of the Beeching rail cuts, closing in 1972, but was reopened as part of the heritage Swanage Railway in the mid-1980s.

As well as the ruins themselves, Corfe Castle also has a tea room and bookshop, and is licenced for civil weddings. Opening hours are 10am to 6pm daily, with last entrance to the castle at 5.30pm.

The castle has a car park, and the satnav postcode is BH20 5DR. The nearest main line railway station is Wareham, and bus number 40 (Swanage to Poole) stops at the nearby Village Centre.

Wessex Attractions: Shaftesbury Abbey

Shaftesbury Abbey was founded by Alfred the Great in 888, and continued until it was dissolved in 1539 by order of Thomas Cromwell. At the time, it was the wealthiest convent in Wessex, and the second wealthiest in England, exceeded only by Syon Abbey in Richmond, Surrey.

For a long time, the Abbey was the home of a shrine to Edward, King and Martyr. The translation of the relics in February 981 from Wareham, their previous home, was overseen by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia. The latter was a rather ironic choice, as he was a supporter of Edward’s stepmother Ælfthryth, whose servants were behind the murder, and who was widely believed to be the instigator. His involvement appears to be a way of distancing himself from the killing. The procession was reenacted in 1981 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary.

In Jude The Obscure, Thomas Hardy wrote of the ruins of Shaston Abbey (his name for Shaftesbury) that “Vague imaginings of its castle, its three mints, its magnificent apsidal Abbey, the chief glory of south Wessex, its twelve churches, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, its gabled freestone mansions—all now ruthlessly swept away—throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy which the stimulating atmosphere and limitless landscape around him can scarcely dispel.”

Today, the abbey survives as a museum and herb garden. It often hosts open air events such as movie screenings during the summertime. Interestingly, their website features the Wessex coat of arms in its masthead.

The museum is open from March to October. The nearest rail station is Gillingham (Dorset), and bus numbers 2, 6, 7, 27, 29 and 86 serve the nearby Town Hall bus stop. The satnav postcode is SP7 8JR.