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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Solidi, Woolsacks and Latchstring

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas DECEMBER. 24, 2020

Some things that might seem universally obvious are not necessarily universally obvious. This is something I learnt when I witnessed what I considered a simple act proving very difficult for a group of other people. I will elucidate on this realisation right at the end of this post. These photos are the result of a stroll around the Gloucestershire village of Blockley in the Cotswolds. This was ten years ago, although what you can see doesn't change very quickly so probably looks much the same today, well if it was warm and sunny, which it isn't. It's really dark, and wet. So quite nice looking at these and remembering what a beautiful day it was back then.

The Cotswold villages like Blockley are a bit of a time warp as they were once some of the wealthiest places in Britain, but things change, and society, technology and economics move on to other things. This is why any visitor to the villages in the Cotswolds will see houses that were once very grand and are still ornate and beautiful, if weathered and frayed around the edges.

The word for the day is Frayed because it is old and gentle and somehow sounds like it feels. Frayed - Late Middle English: from Old French freiier, from Latin fricare ‘to rub’. It also describes this whole post, a village "rubbed" gently by time, at it's edges, like this doorway, which in 1732 would have been fine and sharp at it's edges.

Officially described as - Dated on keystone of door "I.(S).B. 1732". A small artisan baroque house. Central doorpiece, segmental pediment, Ionic pilasters with pulvinated frieze. Modern door not in keeping. In AD 855 King Burgred of Mercia granted a monastery at Blockley to Ealhhun, Bishop of Worcester for the price of 300 solidi. (Working out the solid gold weight of 300 solidi in todays value comes to 60 thousand pounds.) In 1086 the Domesday Book recorded that the Bishop of Worcester held an estate of 38 hides at Blockley.

The hide was an English unit of land measurement originally intended to represent the amount of land sufficient to support a household. It was traditionally taken to be 120 acres (49 hectares), but was in fact a measure of value and tax assessment, including obligations for food-rent (feorm), maintenance and repair of bridges and fortifications, manpower for the army (fyrd), and (eventually) the geld land tax.

One of the larger Cotswold villages and largely unspoilt, midway between Moreton-in-Marsh and Chipping Campden, Blockley was a main centre of the silk industry in the 18th and 19th centuries with the silk mills using the waters of the brook which runs through the centre of the village.

Blockley was regularly featured in the television series of Father Brown: the late Norman church, St Peter and St Paul's, was used as the fictional St Mary's Church and the vicarage as Father Brown's residence. (wikipedia)

Blockley has roots in the wool industry, as do many Cotswold villages, but when the wool trade began to pale in the late medieval period Blockley turned to silk, and for many years it was a prosperous centre of the silk industry, supplying material for mills in the Midlands. At one time there were 8 mills in the area, but those days are long gone too.

The mills are now private dwellings, and the primary reason to visit Blockley is simply the attractive setting and welcoming Cotswold architecture, in which the village abounds. Most houses are built of warm Cotswold stone, and though many buildings survive from the medieval period, much of Blockley's historic architecture is 17th and 18th century. (

Wool became the backbone and driving force of the medieval English economy between the late thirteenth century and late fifteenth century and at the time the trade was described as “the jewel in the realm”! To this day the seat of the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords is a large square bag of wool called the ‘woolsack’, a reminder of the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages.

In the 1570’s to 1590’s a law was passed that all Englishmen except nobles had to wear a woollen cap to church on Sundays, part of a government plan to support the wool industry. (

If you are the sort of traveller or tourist that likes to find authentic out of the main guide book sorts of places, Blockley would be a far better bet for you than the other main tourist destinations like Broadway or Chipping Campden. They are certainly worth seeing as well but it is unlikely you could walk down the middle of the High Street admiring the architecture without being mown down by a tour bus in those places. This is more the sort of experience you can still find somewhere like Blockley. Certainly as of my last visit you would not find a gift shop of any description, or an Edinburgh Wool Shop and definitely no chain store or multinational of any description. In fact you'll be lucky to find any business open at all apart from the pub and hotel. You might meet an occasional cat sloping in the shadows.

Pretty much everything is made from Cotswold stone and due to planning laws even anything currently under construction will also be either made from or faced in the same stone.

The area is defined by the bedrock of Jurassic limestone that creates a type of grassland habitat rare in the UK and that is quarried for the golden-coloured Cotswold stone. It contains unique features derived from the use of this mineral; the predominantly rural landscape contains stone-built villages, historical towns and stately homes and gardens. Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1966, the Cotswolds covers 787 square miles (2,040 km2) and, after the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks, is the third largest protected landscape in England and the largest AONB. (wikipedia)

The stone is an Oolitic Limestone, rich in fossils, particularly of fossilised sea urchins. This is ironic as the Cotswolds is pretty much the centre of England as far as you can get from the sea today. When weathered, the colour of buildings made or faced with this stone is often described as honey or golden.

The stone varies in colour from north to south, being honey-coloured in the north and north east of the region, as shown in Cotswold villages such as Stanton and Broadway; golden-coloured in the central and southern areas, as shown in Dursley and Cirencester; and pearly white in Bath.

In 2016 some 38 million day visits were made to the Cotswold Tourism area. But don't worry because most of those visits were in the tour buses I mentioned that go to the main attractions, you won't find many of those visitors in Blockley.

I have personally sat in a tea room in Chipping Campden ordering a drink and a sandwich at the same time as a bus has pulled up in the main square and disgorged about fifty tired looking passengers from a distant land, decked out in cameras and sun hats, whereupon they are all getting back on the bus as my sandwich was being served. Chipping Campden done. And I am not suggesting the service at the tea room is slow.

One of the top attractions for me is what they do with the stone, like this beautiful contemporary dry stone wall with a perfect curve. A real work of art, and the perfect example of something that looks simple being extraordinarily difficult.

This sundial is at the church. On the external wall of the south porch above the sun dial is an inscription commemorating the two churchwardens at the time the porch was built. WILLIAM DIDE & THOMAS WIDDOWE dated ANNOD 1630

Whether both these Churchwardens were builders and assisted in the erection of the porch is a possible reason for their names to be displayed (

Top left is also the sign for the society of masons so it's a good bet they were at least members of the masons if not masons involved in the work on the church itself.

In 1570, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Padovani published a treatise including instructions for the manufacture and laying out of mural (vertical) and horizontal sundials. This sundial is dated only 60 years later.

Russell Spring, nearly opposite the entrance to Malvern House is a simple gabled aedicule to a niche with a water spout in it. The tympanum is inscribed "Water from the Living Rock God's Precious Gift to Man" and over the niche "Russell Spring". Built with unemployed labour during winter under the supervision of Richard Belcher, the Parish Waywarden. Named after Lucy Russell (d. 1858) who worked the nearby mill c1800-1820. (

The churchyard has seen better days but is all the better for that if you are looking for interesting photos with textures, weathered decay and strong shapes and shadows on a bright sunny day. Again, as with the quality of the homes built for the living you see here the original quality of the dwelling places created for the deceased. No expense was spared in making ones mark when dead. It's just a sad fact of life that those who come after you may not have the will or possibly the means to keep up the splendour, that is, if there are scions left, to look over your resting place after you have gone.

Below is a traditional style door latch. A similar type of latch operated with additional string results in the word latchstring, which lifts the latch. I only add this to point out that the word latchstring is one of a tiny number of words in English which have the largest number of consecutive consonants, that being six.

But I digress. My story mentioned at the start of the post relates to a latch like the one in the picture below. There's really no telling how old they are, but they have always been there and we seem to instinctively know how they operate.

A few years ago I was in the Cotswolds, in Broadway to be exact actually on a photography trip organised by someone in my camera club. He had arranged access to three old churches for us to take interior shots. (I must find those and have a look at them, as it might make another post). During our lunch break we stopped at an old pub in Broadway. We all sat around in the bar and ordered our lunch, while in the back room was a large party of Japanese Tourists who were having a break from being driven around in their tour bus, mowing down pedestrians wandering down the middle of the High Street admiring the architecture.

As I was eating my lunch I noticed that the Japanese party had finished their meal and were leaving in small groups of three or four. One after the other a small group would approach the front door and discover they were unable to open it as they were faced by exactly what you see below, a traditional doorlatch. It became apparent to me pretty quickly that none of them had ever seen one before, I can only think that on arrival they were all ushered through an open door. I was completely fascinated by this, as each small group in turn puzzled over the latch unable to work out how it worked, pushing it, pulling it, pressing it, discussing it animatedly, and everything in between until eventually one thought to lift it, something quite counter intuitive to their expectation. Having opened it, each group in turn closely examined the latch inside and out obviously intrigued and bemused by it's design. On leaving, the door would close, awaiting the next group, and each group went through the same process some working it out faster than others.

Having been to Japan and experienced how different it is to where I come from and having seen what to me were some amazing and wondrous things which were obviously pretty mundane to the local inhabitants it did make perfect sense that they should have the same experience where I come from. Japan to me was full of little surprises around every corner and it was always in the little details.

In case anyone reading this can't see how it works, this is normally the back view or the inside view of a door. The piece of metal going through the door sits, weighted at an angle on a pivot. Outside is a thumb pad on the end which you press down, on it's pivot. On the inside the metal handle lifts up in turn lifting the latch, the horizontal metal bar, which disengages from the slot on the door frame allowing the door to open. If set up correctly, it should be possible to just push the door shut as the horizontal bar should hit the slope on the slot causing it to slide up and drop back into the slot. Outside you push down, inside you lift up. Obvious when you know, impossible when you don't.

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