Blackden: An Arcadia of Apotropaios

I love Mondays. Well, maybe that isn’t always the case, but I do love Mondays that see me venturing into the heart of Cheshire to visit the doyen of apotropaically-protected structures.

Imagine your birthday, Christmas, and New Year all rolled into one, and that’s how I felt today as I was guided around what is arguably the most interesting set of buildings I’ve ever had the pleasure of stepping foot into: Toad Hall and the Old Medicine House.

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In the area of Blackden, within hopping distance of Jodrell Bank, is the home of Alan and Griselda Garner. You’re probably familiar with the name; it’s the same Alan Garner who wrote fantasy children’s books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service, to name only a couple. He’s lived in Toad Hall, a timber-framed medieval hall, since the 1950s, and believes that when you live in one place for so long you come to notice things that others might overlook – which is how he’s come to find so many fascinating deposits in and around his home.

In 1964, for example, he discovered a cache of shoes concealed behind what apparently can only be described as a blob of clay and gorse in the roof space by the chimney. These included four children’s shoes, heavily worn but wonderfully conserved, all dating to c.1680.

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A horseshoe was found up one of the chimneys and a holed flint was discovered in a joist socket over a door. Another holed flint fell unannounced into the fireplace one evening, and judging by the rusty piece of wire hooked through it, Alan guesses that it was hung up the chimney. Was this some form of hag-stone, like the one below, currently held at the Horniman Museum and purportedly used for warding off witches?

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And then there’s the Old Medicine House, which is tacked onto Toad Hall. This is a 16th-century building, originally the home of an apothecary, which was destined for demolition in 1970 until the Garners and architect Michael Peach intervened. Purchasing it for £1, they dismantled the entire building, moved it to Toad Hall, and re-erected it. It’s now owned and cared for by the Blackden Trust, a voluntary group founded by the Garners and Patsy Roynon in 2004, who protect and teach about the history of Blackden.

The process of dismantling and re-erecting the Old Medicine House was something akin to an above-ground excavation, with Alan determined to record everything they came across. He knew the significance of concealed deposits and asked the builders to inform him if they found anything that fit the bill – he didn’t have to wait long. Secreted away in a wall close to the chimney was a bundle of decayed sacking containing shoes (again dating to c.1680), a saddle stirrup (c.1500), and an earthenware jar known as an Albarello (c.1710). Close to this bundle was a leather pouch, and under the floorboards they also found two Neolithic flint flakes.

Both buildings are also bedecked with a plethora of timber markings. Some are functional (e.g. masonry marks) but others don’t appear to serve any practical purpose, such as the ‘VV’ (inverted ‘M’ for Mary? Virgin of Virgins?) on the downstairs window frame in Toad Hall or the ‘XII’s and ‘XI’s (a variant of the common ‘X’ form which may have been protective?) which bedeck the timber of the Old Medicine House.

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But it doesn’t end there. Excavating the remains of an old square outbuilding on their land, they lifted a threshold stone and found the complete skeleton of a cart horse arranged in the foetal position; its jaw-bone is currently displayed in the Old Medicine House. At another building a few fields away, a mummified cat was discovered in a brick recess beneath the hearthstone, also now displayed.

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And I’m not even going to try to detail the many deposits found in the surrounding land or the Bronze Age material which suggests the site was once a burial ground. This place truly is an archaeologist’s dream – and an Arcadia of apotropaios!

I’m hoping that I’ll have the opportunity to record an interview with the Garners, not only to get more details on the finds but to begin to understand what they mean to the Garners themselves. It’s clear they’re both very proud and protective of these items, particularly those found in Toad Hall, which they keep tucked away close to where they were found. I feel privileged that they brought them out to show me, and am eager to rush back there to learn more about these buildings and the fascinating deposits – and people – they house.

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