Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hairy, club-carrying and wood-dwelling

As well as unearthing the story of Florence Nightingale, my current work for Culturissima and English Heritage has been introducing me to a handful of historical figures whom I was previously only dimly aware of.

One of my favourite discoveries is General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), a soldier and archaeologist extra-ordinaire. Widely considered the father of modern British archaeology, the General was also a committed philanthropist: from the early 1890s onwards he set about designing Larmer Tree Gardens,"an extraordinary example of Victorian extravagance and vision" set in the heart of Dorset, south-west England.

Pitt Rivers created Larmer for the delectation and delight of the general public, and, as well as admiring the parkland, pagodas and free-flying parrots, it’s also possible to visit some of the ancient burial sites and villages unearthed by Pitt Rivers. A modern equivalent of Pitt Rivers is Martin Green, one of Dorset’s foremost field archaeologists, whose private museum at Down Farm houses the archaeological remains that Green has excavated on his land over the past 40 years.

Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) is another of the colourful characters who has been populating my working life (and dreams!) over the past couple of weeks. Walploe is a British politician who dominated parliament for over two decades; in fact, he’s generally regarded as Britain's first prime minister.

Born at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, one of England’s grandest country houses, and later educated at Eton and Cambridge, Walpole was the first prime minister to live and work at 10 Downing Street. Life wasn’t always so easy for Sir Bob, though: ridiculed as Sir Blustering by his enemies, he sailed closed to corruption on more than one occasion and even spent six months marooned in the Tower of London.

My favourite encounter of the last few weeks, though, hasn’t been with an archaeologist or politician.

Hairy, club-carrying and wood-dwelling, the wild man or "woodwose" is a familiar figure in mediaeval art and literature. Part-man, part-beast, he - and sometimes even she - can still be seen going about his daily business, whether it’s hunting lions with a Herculean club or throwing a pagan stare over a congregation of Christians. The wild man is carved into the very fabric of Norfolk and Suffolk: the region’s early churches and historic houses, even its heraldic coat of arms, bear fertile witness to the potency of the woodwose. East Anglia is still alive, too, with tales of beasts and monsters - including the 12th century wild man of Orford:

Men fishing in the sea caught in their nets a wild man. He was naked and was like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard. Brought into church, he showed no signs of reverence or belief.

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