19th July, 2018. Sea otter?

Sitting on a bench beside the Humber Estuary one evening recently noticed, on the incoming tide, two animals. One I pronounced a sea otter, having once heard from the late Miles Hopper, an eminent local naturalist, that they may sometimes be seen in the Estuary. Only its head was occasionally popping above water level so on that evidence alone I suppose it could have been a seal but the head didn’t look like that of a seal. However, the reference book tells me that sea otters are native only to North America so no wonder it looked tired!

On the flow tide the salinity of the middle and upper Estuary increases, decreasing on the ebb tide. The salinity in the lower Estuary stays pretty constant. Shore bank fishermen (persons) may be seen rod-and-line fishing as far up the Estuary as the Humber Bridge on the flow tide, these hoping to catch sea fish swimming up with the tide, then swimming back on the ebb tide. Back in the 18th century it was well documented for the Humber and other east coast estuaries to have salmon swimming up estuary and up the River Ouse and its tributaries, especially the R. Derwent, to shallow fresh-water spawning grounds, the fish able to adjust between sea and fresh water. Water quality in these estuaries has been so improved over the last 40 years as to be similar to that of the 18th century and before.

The other animal seen from the bench was a young gull, clearly unable to fly, probably abandoned and starving, bobbing about on the surface floating on the tide near the water’s edge. Unfortunately it was carried into a bed of saltmarsh plants on the foreshore and, as the tide continued to rise, probably drowned. It was not wise for me to scramble down the reinforced flood bank and wade out so I didn’t.

Walking back along the bank the storm-clouds were gathering, the first rain for weeks, bringing life back to the land while the waters of the Estuary took a life nearby.

13th July, 2018. Castles by the river, part 4.

Although at Wressle Castle it may have been possible to flood the surrounding land from the River Derwent in times of threat there is no evidence that this happened (s.p.b.s). However, defence was a primary consideration in determining the lay-out plan of earlier local castles. The Norman motte-and-bailey castles at Skipsea and Barrow (considered in a previous blog) show clearly that water was not only then the principal means of transport but also, along with earthworks, the main means of defence. The picture above shows the surviving ‘motte’  (man-made mound) sited just west of the village of Skipsea (as viewed from the west) on the eastern plain of Holderness, East Riding of Yorkshire, and now near the North Sea coastline.

Skipsea Castle was constructed on the instructions of Drogo de la Beuvriere, Norman baron and First Lord of Holderness. The outer ramparts of the site, to the south and west of the motte, are less well defined in the modern agricultural landscape but once enclosed a man-made lake which drained to the sea (then much further east) by a channel, probably canalised. Thus at Skipsea in the 12th and 13th centuries water provided the means of transport for the local alien landlords as well as assisting in their defence. Skipsea Brough, now just a hamlet, was promoted as a medieval inland port but, very much like a smaller-scale Hedon, commercial success was limited. The medieval Skipsea village developed near the castle, such a site offering considerable commercial and employment opportunities – this often also being the case near the main entrance to pre-Reformation monastic sites.

By building a motte the principal residence, in the case of both Barrow and Skipsea only, probably, ever a timber-frame structure, was raised above local flood-waters.

11th July, 2018. Castles by the river, part 3.

The Northumberland Household Book compiled in the early 16th century provides lots of details about everyday life at Wressle and Leconfield Castles. Leconfield Castle was another of the Percy’s stately defended residences (Leconfield Castle has been discussed in an earlier blog in the context of Henry VIII’s Northern Progress). Dating from a time 100 years before Wressle there are no surviving standing remains of this castle but the moat remains in permanent pasture (see above picture). An intriguing reference is that John Leland refers to a ‘study called Paradise’ in his descriptions of both Wressle and Leconfield Castles, maybe a reference to the respect for learning promoted in the Percy household or maybe of more obscure origin. Whereas Wressle was built with ashlar stone the earlier Leconfield Castle was mostly timber-framed clay walls except for the south façade which was mostly built of brick. The lay-out plan for both properties was similar with ranges of buildings around a central courtyard.

It was at these properties that Henry VIII, queen Catherine Howard and their very considerable entourage decamped during the East Riding sections of the royal Northern Progress of 1541. While in Hull Henry VIII stayed at the De la Pole mansion (later Suffolk Palace – see study of in Articles/Publications section).

The site of Leconfield Castle north of Beverley was not beside a river which may explain the more ‘rustic’ building materials used. This site is on the western fringe of the River Hull floodplain but there is no evidence of a ‘cut’ being dug from the site to the River Hull (a relatively near example of such a project being Beverley Beck, the canalisation of dip-slope tributary of the River Hull dug in the 12th century to convey quality building material to the then Minster building project).

10th July, 2018. Castles by the river, part 2

The ruined south façade of Wressle Castle is a Grade 1 ‘listed ruin’, being 10 years or so past classed as ‘at risk’ various works were done to ‘increase the shelf-life’ of this standing ruin.  Estimated to have originally been built in the late 14th century it was built to the standard lay-out plan of a quadrangular ‘palace-fortress’ (for a roughly contemporary comparison see Suffolk Palace in the Articles/ Publications section). Initially financed by the Percy family it was periodically in royal control during the 15th century (see Suffolk Palace). By the early 16th century Wressle Castle was again a home of the Percy family, now Earls of Northumberland, about this time the building was made much more grand and was surrounded by extensive formal gardens. Writing in 1540 John Leland describes Wressle Castle as having a moat with ‘orchards beyond’ and the building was all of ‘great squared stone’, ashlar building blocks, presumably from limestone quarries and brought to the site by water transport. The picture above shows evidence of a greyish hard limestone.

Most of the building complex was destroyed by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil Wars, 1642-1651 and the surviving standing ruin has been the only remains above ground since the early 19th century.

So why build a late-medieval ‘palace-fortress’ near the River Derwent, a river with a history of notorious flooding even into the 21st century? Part of the answer is that the Percy family were lords of the manor of Wressle in the late 14th century and they may have built on the site of an earlier manor house. Furthermore there do not seem to be records of regular inundation of this prestigious property, did the Earl of Northumberland in the late 15th century improve the site’s flood defences? Maybe the transport availability of the River Derwent (its waters flowing into the Humber Estuary and beyond) outweighed potential disadvantages of the site.

9th July, 2018. Castles by the river.

Yesterday evening’s Country File programme included a section on the Hampton Court flower show. An aerial view showed the Tudor period house beside a meander of the River Thames. Built, originally, to the instructions of Cardinal Wolsey early in the reign of the second Tudor monarch Henry VIII Hampton Court was a grand example of the developing era of building residences without particular reference to defence from potential attack. Indeed the King took over ownership after the fall from grace of Cardinal Wolsey in the 1530s, it becoming one of his portfolio of 20+ palaces, mostly dotted alongside the River Thames. Of course, the River provided both advantages and potential disadvantages. The River Thames, like most other English rivers of the time, was utilised as a highway, royal barges and richly liveried bargemen being the main vehicle and means of propulsion for the use of the King.  The main disadvantage was the threat of flooding when the water tables were high in the Cotswold and Chiltern escarpments (not sure if the Thames was tidal as far inland as Hampton Court but certainly the flow-tide would have had less effect there than further east – this long before the Thames Barrier was built). In what was the lower course of the River Thames the River’s banks would have been raised naturally as levees by flood deposition before the intervention of Man. Whether Wolsey or King Henry had the River’s banks further raised artificially to improve flood-defence is something I need to research.

The day before I had taken the train from Paragon station, Hull to York (the first time I had ever taken the train to York!), the line passing just south of the ruined south façade of Wressle Castle, near Howden, East Riding of Yorkshire (see picture above) before crossing the bridge over the lower course of the River Derwent. So, like Hampton Court, Wressle Castle was built near a river bank, in effect on a flood plain.

(To be continued).

6th July, 2018. Encouraging news from W.W.F. and C.I.W.F.

News from the World Wildlife Fund – In Colombia, north South America, a vast area of Amazonian rain forest has been officially designated a national park and U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Site. The Serrania del Chiribiquete national park, now the largest national park protecting rain forest, is home for a multitude of species, some endangered such as the lowland tapir (see above). The landscape includes river courses and towering cliffs around the base of an extinct volcano. Let’s hope the people of Colombia show a higher level of fair-play than their national footballers on the pitch!

The charity Compassion in World Farming is currently celebrating its recent Good Farming awards. For example, the Co-op were given an award for their commitment to out-door reared pork. Other multi-nationals are making promises but the timescales seem very slow. Sainsbury’s continues to be outlawed for reneging on an earlier commitment to high welfare bred chicken.

C.I.W.F. was a founder member of the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics and the E.U. is now committed to ending the routine ‘preventative’ use of antibiotics on farms.

C.I.W.F. activists in Italy are experiencing resistance to the phasing-out of sow cages.