I don't post very often, but when I do people may have noticed over the years that I favour low fantasy and historical fantasy over the grandeur of high fantasy.
So let me tell you about Barwick-in-Elmet, the Yorkshire village where I grew up. This will explain my username, and probably my low-fantasy preferences.
Before I plough into it, I'll just note that this kind of history isn't unusual to most of us Europeans. Most of our villages date back about thousand years. Fantasy villages written by American designers seem more inspired by the Old West frontier settlements - Hommlet is a classic example. It doesn't look right, it doesn't feel right. It has no history in its design or landscape.
So here's some archaeology, a little history, and an unusual folk custom. I realise this thread is mostly inspirational pictures, but sometimes pictures want context.
The oldest obvious human 'building' in Barwick is a single-vallum, figure-8 shaped Iron Age hillfort known as Wendel Hill. It's never been dated, but the nearby Becca Banks earthworks have been dated to the 1st century AD, probably thrown up to stop the Roman general Agricola and his legion as they marched north (if so, it failed). I suspect the hillfort is up to a century older.
Within the hillfort lies the motte of a late-Norman motte and bailey castle, which we call Hall Tower Hill. The castle - its licence was granted by King Stephen, c. 1150AD, has long since vanished. The castle's bailey was the smaller part of the figure-8 of the hillfort; the larger part became part of peasant tofts (gardens).
Aerial view - the line of hedges marks the hillfort vallum (bank and ditch).
After the Romans left and the Saxons invaded, Barwick was part of the Cambric kingdom of Elmet, part of Hen Ogledd, the Old North (Hen Ogledd's most prominent king was Hen Cwl - Old King Cole of the English nursery rhyme). Along with Rheged, Elmet was one of the last surviving ancient British kingdoms. It finally fell to the Saxon Northumbrian king Edwin in 616. Barwick is sometimes erroneously considered the capital of Elmet, but in truth, no one knows where Elmet's capital was.
After the Saxons, the Vikings came. Barwick lies about 15 miles west of York, a prominent Viking trade town in the 9th and 10th centuries, and the centre of Erik Bloodaxe's 10th-century Kingdom of York. A pair of Viking carvings were incorporated into the 12th century foundations of the village church, All Saints' Church, probably dating from the 10th century. This is one of them.
Barwick is listed in Domesday Book as an outlying settlement of nearby Kippax. Its name, originally bere-wick, means 'beer village', and it's thought it was an outlying hamlet where barley was grown. By the mid-12th century its importance increased, and the de Lacy family of Pontefract moved the northern caput (head-place) of their barony there, and built the motte and bailey castle c. 1150.
All Saints has an unusual bell tower, constructed in two phases in the 15th century. The lower part is constructed of local magnesian limestone, a sought-after building material. The upper is finished in cheaper stone.The clock face is red because Barwick belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster (the current Duke is Queen Elizabeth II). While Yorkshire folk who still keep the rivalry with Lancashire like to commemorate the 1462 Yorkist victory at the Battle of Towton - about 6 miles from Barwick, the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil - it's likely that any Barwick folk there fought on the losing side. The Houseof Lancaster's lands were mostly in the North. The Yorkist lands were predominantly in the south.
The local lords in the later middle ages were the Gascoigne family. Sir William Gascoigne (1350-1405) was Chief Justice of England under King Henry IV. A probably apocryphal story has it that he is the judge who had Prince Hal (the future Henry V) imprisoned - read your Shakespeare and note young Hal's crimes with Falstaff.
A later Gascoigne, Sir Thomas Gascoigne, had a triumphal arch celebrating the American victory in the War of Independence built at his estate in Parlington, two miles south of Barwick. It's the only such monument in Britain celebrating the American victory. The inscription reads "Liberty in N. America MDCLXXXIII".
The Gascoignes have long since died out, but one of Barwick's four pubs is The Gascoigne Arms. The Maypole
Barwick's prominence dwindled over the centuries. Its inhabitants farmed, and made caustic lime in limekilns around the village. Its claim to fame these days is the maypole in the middle of the village.
Its uncertain when Barwick first erected its maypole. Some say it's an ancient tradition going back to pagan times, but it's far more likely its more recent - perhaps the 17th or 18th century. At 90 feet (26 metres), it's the tallest village maypole in England.
The maypole is made of two lengths of Norwegian pine, spliced together and mound with iron. It needs upkeep. Every three years, on Easter Monday, the maypole is taken down for repainting. When I was a kid, we took it down the old-fashioned way - a village man, the Maypole Climber, shinned up to the iron bands above the garlands and lowered a guy rope, which which he pulled up four heavier roles and attached them to the pole. One rope came towards Hall Tower Hill (towards the viewpoint in the image above), another down Main Street (to the right of the image), a third down towards the church, and the last one over the rooftops to the left to the courtyard behind the Black Swan pub.
As the whole village turned out to hold the ropes under the guidance of the village Pole Master, the ground at the base of the maypole was loosened and dug out with pickaxes and shovels, then, slowly, at the Pole Master's instructions, lowered onto waiting ladders, then onto the shoulders of scores of man,, then carried to Hall Tower Field for repainting.
These days, since The Day The Maypole Fell, it's done with a crane.
As well as repainting, the garlands were replaced. The garlands are made little ribbons with bells on - an old garland bell is a good luck charm, and I carried one as a key fob for many years. During the three weeks between Easter Monday and Whitsun, the new garlands are carried to every house in the village and touched for luck.
Several times, while it was down for repainting, lads from the neighbouring village of Aberford or the town of Garforth, stole the maypole in the middle of the night. Must have been a few of them - it takes a few score of people to carry the maypole. The most recent attempt was in 1966, when Aberford lads successfuly stole the top half 3 days before the maypole raising ceremony. Barwick had to quickly get a new top half and repaint it. The orginal was found the day before the ceremony - so for a few years, the village had a spare.
Maypole raising is done on Whitsunday, amid great celebrations at Hall Tower Hill, where crowds sit and watch the events. It's become something of a tourist attraction. Children from the village infant school dance around a smaller maypole (we practised for weeks when I did it). Older children from the junior school perform country dances (we practised for weeks when I did it). A village girl is chosen as May Queen and other children chosen as attendants (I was crown-bearer once). There's a fair. There is a lot of beer drunk. A lot of beer. There are marching bands, brass bands.
The maypole is raised in pretty much the reverse of how it's taken down. There's is one important difference - once the maypole is set in place, and the Maypole Climber ascends to remove the ropes, he must continue climbing to the very top of the maypole to spin the fox weathervane and bring luck to the village...
For many years, the maypole climber was my neighbour, Arthur Nicholls, who built a smaller maypole by his farmhouse to practice. I think that's him in the picture above. The Day the Maypole Fell
Easter Monday, 1981, the maypole fell down Main Street while it was being lowered. I, aged 12, was on the Main Street rope with my sisters. I didn't quite realise what was happening at first - the rope went slack, the maypole seemed to be getting shorter, and then people started running. Fortunately, it landed in the street and everyone got clear. The tip hit the curb, and the top two feet broke off. A lad grabbed it (and the bent weathervane) and tried to make off with it, but one of my neighbours saw and brought him down in a rugby tackle a couple of hundred yards away.
These days, with much regret, the village uses a crane to raise and lower the maypole.
The next maypole raising will be at Whitsuntide, 2020, if you'd like to visit.