Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Devil’s Churchyard

Near my home, and dominating the view to the north when travelling along the A5, is a wooded ridge. On the Ordnance Survey Map it is named the Devil’s Dressing Room, although I have never been able to discover why. Access is restricted, making close examination impossible. Yet this does not seem to be particularly ancient woodland. Thus either the name is comparatively recent, and therefore a created name, or where trees had been cleared and have regrown and thus an ancient name and one which was not recorded on very old maps.

To link the Devil to minor place names is not unusual, indeed it is surprisingly common which may be a clue how these names rarely refer to Beelzebub himself but to someone seen as wicked or known for some evil deed. Whilst I have no idea of the origin of his Dressing Room, from Minchinhampton, near Stroud in Gloucestershire comes a story which I do know. I suspect the story was told in an attempt to explain why there was no local church but this depends upon whether the story predates the name or vice versa – and that is something we will never know.

Hyde Farm gets its name from that Saxon measurement of land, the hide. Most often said to equal 120 acres, this is simply an average because the ‘measurement’ refers to productivity and not area. It is extremely difficult to quantify a hide, the reason can be seen in the accepted definition of “the amount of land required to feed one family for one year” where there are so many variables – the size of the family, quality of the soil, skills of the farmer, choice of crops, all have to be taken into consideration.

During the twentieth century Hyde Farm has been associated with flight. Today it is owned by the local gliding club but was once a base of operations for the Royal Air Force. This military presence had the effect of isolating the farmworkers as much as it did the official personal who had made it their temporary home. Even after the end of the Second World War rationing remained in force for a number of years, making life hard for all and particularly so for those who were just starting on married life.

It was a warm day when one farmworker broke for lunch. Recently married, both he and his wife worked long hours and would have looked forward to the few hours each day they spent together. Perhaps that was where the young man’s mind went when he entered a small copse away from the heat of the sun and cab of the tractor to open his lunch box. Having just taken a second bite his thoughts were interrupted by a most awful noise from the depths of the copse. Looking up he saw a mist and, as he watched, it began to gather into a most unnatural form. This was enough for the poor man who fled, leaping into his tractor and driving off as fast as the lumbering farm machine would allow.

Not being a local man he was unaware of the reputation of the copse as a place of evil. An area where no bird was heard to sing, of inexplicable darkness, where chills were felt on the warmest of days. Many years before the community, tired of trecking to neighbouring villages for Sunday worship, had asked for their own church to be built and this field had been selected. Agreement was reached and eventually work started.

Foundations were laid down and walls rose reaching half their eventual height. During the night something happened and the sight which greeted the workers when they returned next morning astonished them. Before them were no walls but a collection of stone blocks strewn around the site but not seemingly having fallen. They built them back up again but, once more, they returned next day to find the walls dismantled. Four more times this happened and the workers abandoned the site.

No reason was ever found for this act of superhuman vandalism, yet the community soon offered their own explanation. Ever since this field has been known as the Devil’s Churchyard.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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