Charred Earth

Medieval pastures outside Beverley, Yorkshire

No rain for nearly six weeks. Occasionally clouds, but light and carefree. Or they pile up on the horizon like mountains shimmering behind a grey haze, and then disperse to leave the sun to reign by day and the moon by night. At dusk this Friday Britain will witness a spectacular and rare celestial spectacle, a ‘blood moon’, or astrologically speaking, a total lunar eclipse. It will be the longest-lasting one in the 21st century, from about 9 on Friday evening in London until early on Saturday. The last eclipse I experienced was in Italy in 1999, or it might have been 2000. It was at about midday when the sun went dark, birds stopped singing and grasshoppers stopped rubbing their legs on wings. There was an uncanny silence until dogs began howling across the valley. Then the sun shone again and the usual hot summer afternoon sounds returned.

In a drought, the earth reveals traces of a forgotten past. Where grass grows and cattle graze, lines of dry earth trace the foundations of a lost barn or shepherd’s hut, or even an entire village patterned on the dry earth. It would have been a settlement abandoned centuries ago because there wasn’t enough fertile land to support the population or because of a plague. Often the only ruined building left standing is the church, Shakespeare’s ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’. Or it could have been a question of politics. In Yorkshire there are many such abbeys, their altars stripped and slates torn off their roofs by Thomas Cromwell and his henchmen, obeying the orders of Henry VIII. They still stand as ‘maintained ruins’, often, as with Rievaulx Abbey, a romantic ruin in a superb landscape garden spreading over land once grazed by monastic sheep. Their wool was exported far away to Tuscany and was considered some of the best in Christendom. Rain, lush grass and vast tracts of grazing land produced high-quality wool.

There was protectionism in the 15th century. One of the oldest banks in the world, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, was literally a mound or pile of money to invest in improving the pastures in Sienese territory so local, not imported wool would be used in the famous and fashionable textiles from Siena and especially Florence. Their problem was that pastures around the hilltop city dried up in summer and entire flocks moved away to mountain pastures – the transhumance.

Some time ago I was going round the Mediterranean Basin in summer and ended up at Masada in Israel where Roman troops besIeged Jews who had taken refuge there in 73 AD. I climbed slowly up inside the desert outcrop, past the huge natural tanks where water was stored for the Jews surrounded by Roan soldiers on the plain. You looked down and could see the outline of the Roman encampment still etched in the dry earth after over 2000 years.

So after more than six weeks of continuous sunshine, the charred fields here are revealing unexpected patterns of forgotten huts where the shepherd once sheltered with his dog and lost villages where you can walk along streets and into houses imagining what life might have been like there centuries ago. But when the rain falls, the grass will grow over the map of the foundations and they will be lost again.

Thomas Cromwell


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