Every now and then I love to mansion-drop.
It’s the same as name dropping, except one brags shamelessly, not about acquaintances or stars, but about mansions with which one has had a comfortable working relationship.
Schooled in Eisenhower’s British war HQ, taught to teach at Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, I do not come by my mansions through breeding but by happenstance.
I did once date a lovely gentleman who owned a mansion, however. It was fun, from the first heady party surrounded by oak panels to the stunning 18th birthday cake made in the great kitchen by the Aga, and decorated with exquisite sugared primroses from the old house’s market garden.
When I stayed over, I was given the butler’s bedroom. There wasn’t a butler any more, but he had left us his little room clad in black oak or some such wood.
But it was the windows that were special. They were latticed: criss crossed with strips of lead which held the glass in place. Granted, less light could get through the allotted space, but there was something quite magical about this arrangement which is known here as a ‘leadlight.’
At nighttime, I would switch the light off to watch a great round moon play hide-and seek with the lattice.
Great sheets of glass were simply not a possibility when the lovely old place was built. Instead, one could get small diamond-shaped glass pieces which could be sealed with lead to bring light into a dark oak-panelled house.
Lattice bound the glass together. But it also makes the whole structure stronger. And it means a window might be patched with many different ages of glass, a transparent patchwork of time.
Lattice work gives these patchworks a rigid structure.
It provides structure in nature too. In sand-sized crystals of rock, the atoms are arranged in patterns, a tiny miracle of order and symmetry. And the patterns centre around a set of points called the lattice: points which repeat, at regular intervals, in three dimensions.
It is this lattice-work in the natural world which makes it possible for neolithic humans to speak to us today.
Their parchment is silt.
Far finer than sand, silt. Because what makes rocks strong can render them weak, too. Nature’s elements can exploit the lattice. The frost shatters the rock crystals; or salt water deposits salt which becomes warm and expands to prise the crystal apart. A lattice is a Trojan Horse, purpose-built to usher in in the elements.
When the process of breaking down is complete, a fine tilth remains, a layer on the soil, or a sediment suspended in water: or even a layer at the bottom of a pond.
And it is the most perfect canvas.
An affluent settlement and a favourite of tourists in Summer, Formby sits on the Irish Sea near Liverpool. On its seashore, the sand is being washed away, and beneath lie messages from the past writ large, uncovered as a coastline which was once expanding now recedes.
Footprints. Hundreds of them. Not just humans but deer and birds and even an extinct species of six-foot cattle.
And, just like the footprints in the sand on the beach can tell whether you’ve been running or walking, with a dog or a small child, archaeologists have uncovered unbelievable clues to past lives.
So archaeologists record this ten-foot long trail of man’s prints. They show a man walking fast – 3.9 kilometres an hour – and they estimate he was one metre 66 centimetres tall.Or there’s a trail where man and roe deer tread an interlinked path: was the man hunting or husbanding?
Back then was when cows were cows. The most common animal footprint to be found on the shores of Formby is the auroch, a now extinct species of cow, which would have towered above the men which managed them.
The women and children worked together, gathering seafood – their trails are scattered with the remains of razor shells and shrimps. Or the teenegae boy who walks with his toe facing outwards and a strangely pointed foot caused by the long uncut toenails dragging through the silt.
All life is uncovered, fleetingly,there: 200 foot trails, wolves, dogs, aurochs, cattle, red deer, roe deer, unshod horse, dog or wolf, wild boar, sheep, goats) and wading birds -crane, oystercatcher and rail.
The sand uncovers these trails but they are ephemoral. They appear today but will be gone very soon.Such is the nature of silt.
And so the archaeologists of Formby – the most prolific of only 63 neolithic footprint sites worldwide – have appealed to those in the know to keep their eyes open. One day, they say, silt may present itself anywhere along the coast, where the lattice in rocks has done its work, and within a short time the footprints may first appear, and be gone once more.
A ghostly march to the music of a land before time.
Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: footprints. Have a look at her challenge here