A Discovery

After living in Yorkshire for so many years I assume there is nowhere that can be reached on a day’s drive that I haven’t discovered. I was wrong.

Preferring hilly country, we have usually avoided lowland and that can also mean wide, open valleys. Last Sunday, still suffering from the short winter days and early sunsets, we set off to explore the ‘ings’ or low, semi marshland that the Roman settlers in York had cultivated in the first century AD.

It was a clear, crisp day hovering above freezing, ideal for a brisk walk through a village straggling along the bank of the river Derwent that, with the Ouse, provided medieval York with its defensive moat. At one end a church stood facing flooded fields. It is no longer used and is looked after by a trust. The door was locked and one of the windows was covered in plywood. The porch slab stones were covered in bird excrement. It had become a designated shelter for barn owls, a threatened species a notice informed us. Standing close to the tower, we sheltered from the wind and gazed over the river that had spilt over the fields or ings.

We drove to the other end of the riverside village of Aughton before that wintry day cheated us of an afternoon. The road stopped abruptly at a farm gate with a smaller one for walkers on one side. Two golden retrievers gambolled towards us at the end of long retractable dog leads that could easily entangle you. Their genial owners told us that there was flooding but this raised public footpath was not too muddy. On the right, a large mound with three trees was where once a Norman castle stood, though the name of the family that built it is not recorded. The dry moat round it was still quite deep and consequently fenced off. Beyond it stood a chapel. It was open, empty but filled with the memory of voices of adults and children who had scattered hymn books on the pews and toys in the play corner. If was welcoming though no one was there. The cross and chalices were on the altar below a fine medieval carved stone arch. The choir area had been truncated but on the right was an attractive small narrow stained glass window of two hands reaching up towards a dove. It was designed by Ann Sotheran FMGP and dedicated by the Archbishop of York in 2010.

A description of the castle mound, church and manor house in 1537, nine years before the Pilgrimage of Grace, states that the younger branch of the Aske family settled here in the early 1400s when a member of the family married an heiress of the de la Haye family, the Lords of the Manor. The rising against Henry VIII’s closure of the monasteries in the north of England started here and was led by Robert Aske of Aughton who gave it its name. This ‘pilgrimage’ was a peaceful demonstration against the closing of the monasteries, carried out from 1536 by Thomas Wolsey on Henry VIII’s orders. Within weeks a mass of more than 30,000 followed Robert Aske on the march south to London. It recruited more followers from every village it passed through. The king did not have a big enough army, but Robert Aske accepted a pardon for himself and his followers and assurances that policies would be changed. However, there was a later rising unconnected with Robert Aske, but he was arrested and executed in Clifford’s Tower, York in July 1537. The elder brothers, John and Christopher, had no part in the rising. On the church is an enigmatic inscription in Norman French below seven shields, which would have been painted to create a powerful visual statement, ‘Christopher, the second son of Robert Aske, knight, ought not to forget the year of our Lord 1536’. On the church wall nearby a salamander is etched into the wall. ‘Aske’ is Norman French for salamander, and it was also the emblem of the French king at that time, François I.

Salamander or ‘aske’ in Norman French

Outside, below the church and the castle mound behind it, the river had flooded the fields, their outlines marked here and there by the ragged tops of hedges. The sun was already sinking into this vast river-lake, splashing streaks of gold over the water in cobweblike patterns when you looked at it through the bare trees. Outside the church on the far side of the mounds, was a wide ditch, for defence, not drainage. Further back across a lawn and partly hidden by trees stood a white Regency building on the site of the original 12th – century manor house of the de la Haye family, probably built with stones pillaged from the castle.

It was dusk. The large golden globe of the sun sat on the horizon its rays shining into the car mirror as we drove home, propelling us eastwards into the night.

St. Mary’s, Aughton

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