Review: Shadowlands by Matthew Green
A medieval city washed away by a violent storm, a Neolithic settlement in Orkney buried by sand and a village wiped clean of its inhabitants by the Black Death: these are some of the lost cities, ghost towns and vanished villages described in this historian’s journey into absence and loss. You might call it spectral archaeology.
Matthew Green is particularly affected by a visit to Skara Brae, an Orcadian settlement, not least because his own world was being ruined at the same time, as his father was taken ill and his marriage sundered.
The way in which the sand has entombed what was once a busy, small farming and fishing community in what became Scotland connects the story with a later settlement at Kenfig.
Here a medieval village was been buried beneath dunes in the shadow of Port Talbot steelworks. As Green describes it: ‘It had a small port on a river sheltered by dunes.
But, as intensive grazing of cattle dislodged the sand, and the climate became cooler and more tempestuous as the Medieval Warm Period came to an end, these dunes crept ever closer until, by the fourteenth century, many of its field and buildings were inundated.’
One of the other obliterated communities in the book is Capel Celyn, the Welsh-speaking community drowned in order to provide water for Liverpool.
It’s a story often told but Green manages to add some extra depth to his account by using the photographs of Geoff Charles to bring the domestic rhythms of the place before its inundation to vivid and pulsing life.
He details the political battle to save the chapel-going community and sketches the psychic harm wrought by creating the dam at Tryweryn, not least the pupils who attended the single class of Capel Celyn’s small school:
Many of the children were haunted by a sense that the waters could rise at any moment, gushing into the class-room mid-lesson, carrying them off, and drowning them deep in the valley.
One exhibit at the Royal Cambrian Academy of Arts was painted by a girl from Capel Celyn.
The valley, with its stark black hills, is unmistakable, and the Tryweryn stream has accrued an ominous new significance, coming across as a great slithering snake, ready to poison the landscape.
As Green cautions at the end of the book such drownings are not just things of the past, as he cites the example of Fairbourne in Gwynedd, where sea-defences are not being replaced in a case of managed retreat from the effects of sea-level rise.
Other places such as Portsmouth, Cardiff and Chichester might also face ‘sepulchral incursions’ to use Green’s very memorable phrase.
The other Welsh example of a lost place examined in detail by Green is the medieval settlement at Trellech in Monmouthshire in south east Wales.
Piecing together the full story requires the full detective powers of a historian, not to mention a good measure of impartiality.
The basic, astonishing story runs like this.
Some molehills appear in a field near the village, speckled with shards of crockery. A local archaeology graduate, Stuart Wilson, who is at the time working toll booths on the Severn Bridge hears about the discovery.
Wilson, soon dubbed the “Welsh Indiana Jones” asks the farmer’s permission to dig in the area which leads to his becoming convinced that this is the site of not just a hilltop settlement but an entire medieval town, or even a city.
The media get wind of this and get excited. Academics debate the dates and reasons for the place existing in the first place and this exchange gets very heated on occasions as people on social media champion Wilson the underdog over the experts from academia.
There are “official” digs and rival “democratic” ones, all rooting for the truth.
Reputations are besmirched and there are accusations of fakery, with some going as far as to invoke the name of Heinrich Schliemann, the irresponsible archaeologist who blew up some of the remains of Troy with explosives.
Dirt flies, some of it sticks.
Green does a sterling job of describing the Wales-England borderlands at the time, places riven with dissent as the Marcher lords took a steel grip on things, not least the de Clare family.
Fighting, and building castles – at a time when one needed a “licence to crenallate” required some basic commodities and one of the most central and necessary of these was iron.
Trellech grew at speed because of it, setting a pace of urbanization that was quite extraordinary. It might even have enjoyed a brief spell as the biggest city in Wales, a ‘giant factory of armour for the breastplates, visors and chain mail coats whom Gilbert de Clare commanded.’
Trellech also made shields and spikes for the bases of portcullises while its smithies were ‘forever churning out crampettes…for fastening drawbridges…bars for windows.’ As the work grew so did the infrastructure of the town, with streets laid out and housing erected.
But as with many a boom town it was eventually bust, perhaps because of its reliance on the fates and fortunes of one dynasty, whose powers had to wane as dynastic ones do.
Soon it was relegated to the status of eight largest town in Wales and by the mid fourteenth century land was lying wild and fallow. Certainly by 1695, when it was visited by a botanists he found just a ‘poor, inconsiderable village’ where once blacksmiths had toiled day and night.
Matthew Green is a convivial, learned and sensitive guide who manages to combine a sense of physical travel (he walks, cycles and hitchhikes to places) with a communicable feeling of excitement as he delves, often slowly, into the past.
There’s a sense of elegy too, of course as he ponders the dead and tries to imagine lost lives, traversing shadowlands that somehow seem to reach into the present day with very long fingers.
They certainly have this fine historian and writer in their grip.
Shadowlands by Matthew Green is published by Faber and is available from all good bookshops.
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