THE SPIRITUAL UMBILICAL CORD: A corpse way between Chalton and Cropthorne, Worcestershire

The small hamlet of Charlton has always been inextricably linked with the adjacent minster territory of Cropthorne, apart from a short period between 1882 and 1923.(1). Even its common-place name suggests is was always a lesser settlement(2), and in turn the inhabitants only received religious attention from the small chapel bereft of burial rights. Formerly Charlton’s 13th century chapel of St.John the Evangelist had been housed in the tithe barn(3), but it was replaced in the Victorian period by the stone building you see today.(4) Bodies committed for burial were taken to the mother church of St.Michael, Cropthorne in a direct NE/SW line.

To walk the path, start from Charlton chapel in Ryden Lane and head back westwards towards the village centre. The course approaches the village green then crosses Merry Brook by a substantial bridge, one that looks capable of carrying more than just an individual, i.e. a funeral party. Walk diagonally SW towards the waymarked gate. The path then follows the field boundaries on the southern side of the brook. The hedgerow creates a natural boundary and the walk appears unspectacular until you emerge from the small stile which aligns with the road leading up to St.Michael’s, Cropthorne Here a clear, indented, green path cuts through the crop diagonally. So small is the parcel of land that it severs, that it is obvious that this route has more than just a practical purpose. It would have been just as easy for the path to follow the hedgerow to the right than to cut straight across a ploughed field. But instead it forges ahead because this is not just a footpath, rather it is a right of way - for the dead. The path and road align on St.Michael’s, but sadly a clump of Scot’s Pine blocks the intervisibility. Importantly, this section of road between the emerging path and the church is called ‘Church Leys’ as it approaches the village of Cropthorne. This road and the section of path before it are recorded in the Parliamentary Survey 1649-50, ‘ one arable called Church Leys, the church way from Charlton to Cropthorne leading thro’ the middle.(5)

The name of the village is said to derive from its Saxon origins, ‘the land of Croppa divided from that of Charlton by a considerable thorn hedge.’ (6) or possibly ‘thorn tree near a hill’.(7) The parish church of St.Michael’s has much to recommend it and contains several interesting artefacts. As you approach it the old preaching cross soon comes into view as you climb the road towards the churchyard. Little can be seen of its Saxon origins, but an entry in the Domesday Book states that the priory of Worcester provided a priest for Cropthorne in 1086, and some feel that this is evidence for an early stone church before this date. However, today’s visitor has to be satisfied with the early Norman remains, notably the base of the chancel arch. Also of note is a 14th century coffin lid depicting a chalice and raised hand, possibly that of a priest. If every picture tells a story, then so must every effigy. Overpowering all else inside the church is the Dingley monument, a family associated with the village for many generations. But as the male line died out , it was replaced by the Goodere family who assumed a Baronetcy. Unfortunately, rivalry between two brothers ended rather sensationally in death and insanity more fully described in the church’s booklet.(8).

Arguably, what must be the prize of the church is the exquisitely carved Anglo-Saxon crosshead now held in a case, but originally found embedded in the sanctuary wall. The carvings depict foliage, exotic birds and a griffin, and it has been dated to around 800-850 A.D. It has been suggested that it was brought from elsewhere, but I have not found any indications in the archives as to where that might be nor suggestions from local scholars. We can assume that Cropthorne was intimately associated with the nearby village of Fladbury, a Saxon Minster replete with Bishops Palace by 814 A.D. Thirty four years previously the redoubtable King Offa had visited and spent time there. Is it possible that this centre of religious activity would have been host to stonemasons and craftsmen capable of carving the cross? This settlement may have been substantial, as it appears to have attracted the Vikings as they sailed up the Severn and thence the Avon. They in turn settled at Fladbury(9) and their number may have included artisans capable of such work. That said, although the cross does not display overtly ‘Viking’ designs neither does it appear strictly Saxon.

This is a short path (1km), but one no less interesting for that. It may well have acted as a spiritual as well as physical umbilical cord between the two settlements for hundreds of years, and possibly even longer than that. As an interesting development, earlier this year (1998) , aerial survey has revealed intriguing multiple ring ditches believed to be ploughed out Bronze Age barrows at Charlton. The photographs can be interpreted as a large barrow of concentric rings surrounded by smaller satellite burials, it is also flanked by several larger ring ditches that appear to be part of a linear cemetery. It has been postulated that this in turn is aligned on the crop marks of a cursus at Cropthorne(10). As these monuments represent a period within (approximately) the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, we may be looking at a continuity of use of a symbolic landscape. Wayne Perkins