Friday, 30 October 2015

Aurignac - 40,000 Years of History

The small town of Aurignac – situated in the Petites Pyrénées of southwest France – was so sleepy when I stumbled across it that it is hard to believe that it has given its name to the so-called ‘first modern’ man to appear in Europe.

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The Aurignacian culture spread across most of Europe and much of southwest Asia. The first human bones were found in a cave close to Aurignac in 1852. Aurignacian Man produced some of the earliest art – a small figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels is the first figurative human form ever to be found. Perhaps their culture is best known for the cave paintings of animals discovered in the Ardèche region of France as recently as 1994.

Paintings_from_the_Chauvet_cave_(museum_replica)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, all this was unknown to me at the time – I was looking for somewhere to lunch. The search for a café led me to explore some of the back lanes of the town which revealed wonderful old houses, some half-timbered and dating back to the eighteenth century and earlier.

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As with many buildings in the region, their beauty was enhanced by the decorative ironwork, often rusting, their paint bleached by decades of hot sun. One old building was derelict and a glimpse inside gave an impression of what it once might have looked like.

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The oldest part of the town is surrounded by 700 year old fortified walls, some of which had houses built into them in the fifteenth century. The communal area for clothes washing, the lavoir, has been lovingly maintained.

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The ruins of a castle destroyed by Henry IV around 1615 during one of the many wars between England and France is open to the public. The keep or donjon is well preserved and it is possible to climb to the top to admire the panoramic views.

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Also built within the old walls is the church with its ancient façade. This is an addition to the church: it was salvaged from a chapel demolished during the revolution and placed there in 1791. The church itself is of unknown date but predates the thirteenth century walls.

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Sadly, I only had an hour to explore – a day probably would not be long enough.

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Sunday, 4 October 2015

A Celtic Church on Exmoor

Exford lays claim to the title of ‘Capital of Exmoor’ owing to its central location (one assumes) in Exmoor National Park. It certainly has more facilities than most others of similar size – a village green, a post office, two shops and a garage, although the days when it sold petrol pumped by hand have long passed.
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The church of St Mary Magdalene pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and, unlike much of England, originates from the Celtic tradition brought from Wales or possibly Ireland. Centuries ago, much of Exmoor’s trade and travel links were by sea, the Welsh coast being only a few miles across the Bristol Channel; journeys overland were fraught with difficulty and danger.
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During the twelfth century mass was said by monks from Neath Abbey, giving another Welsh connection. As a Celtic church it was dedicated to St Salvyn although at an unknown later date it was rededicated to St Mary Magdalene. The east window depicts St Salvyn with St George and St Francis.
St Salvyn depicted in the left panel of the east window
St Salvyn depicted in the left panel of the east window
Despite its ancient origins the earliest part of the church still standing – the tower – only dates from the mid-1400s. It has a fine set of bells. The south aisle was built around 1532.
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The exquisitely carved rood screen dates from the fifteenth century and has a rather remarkable recent history. Discarded when the church of St Audries at nearby Watchet was rebuilt, it was rediscovered in the early 1900s in pieces in an old hay barn. It was beautifully restored and placed in Exford.
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Close to the entrance gate of the churchyard stands the memorial to Amos Cann, a young man who froze to death walking home one night in the extreme winter of 1891. His body was found some three weeks later.
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