Blidworth's origin is lost in mists of antiquity

By W.E.D.

Main Street, Blidworth, c.1904.Main Street, Blidworth, c.1904.

PICTURESQUE traditions, historical associations, mystery and long-retained sylvan beauty combine to bestow unusual interest upon Blidworth, and its history goes back to the mists of antiquity. Half-a-mile west of the church are the so-called Druidical Remains, pieces of rock of mysterious origin, similar to the Hemlock Stone at Bramcote. The parish historian, the Rev. R. H. Whitworth, was convinced that they were the handiwork of the Druids of ancient Britain, and others have shared that view, but geologists prosaically aver that they are simply weather-worn fragments of “gravel cemented to a hard comglomerate" during long ages, and have thus survived, whilst the surrounding softer earth has been washed away.

Human agency, as well as nature, have given them their present form, and they may have served for the rites of the pagan priests: the presence of tumuli or burial barrows has been claimed to support that belief, but the fact that many similar rocks once abounded, and have been destroyed as a hindrance to agriculture may constitute an argument on the other side. All that can be safely said is that they are relics of the Glacial Era: the mystery of their use remains. Discoveries of small relics have suggested that the Romans may have had a small station, and a stone which may have been an altar has been found.

It is now thought that in 617 was fought on the banks of Rain-worth Water (then the Idle) the battle of the Idle which opened the way to the spread of Christianity in the North of England, and a very doubtful suggestion has been made that soon after that event a timber church was erected at Blidworth. No church is mentioned in the Domesday record and probably none existed in Saxon times. It is possible that the village did not exist by the early years of the 7th century, for nobody knows when Blid came hither and established the “worth” or farm that gave the place its name.

At the Conquest

At the conquest Aldred, Archbishop of York, had here a manor with five villeins who worked two ploughs, and belonging to the manor was a water-mill at Lowdham and the berewick or inferior manor of Calverton. We must picture the district as forest land, partly open but with well timbered parts, and there is reason to think that the manor had long pertained to the archbishopric, for Aldred had founded the Southwell prebend of Oxton and Crop-well, giving the great tithes of Blidworth as part of their endowment. Thoroton (1677) wrote: “I suppose this lordship ever remained entirely, as it yet doth, to the Archbishops of York,” but in early Norman times when Sherwood Forest was formed into a royal chase the archbishops’ land was included within its bounds and the prelates’ hunting rights were restricted to three days at Christmas and the like at Easter and Whitsuntide, “through the whole Wood of Blythworth.”

They had their own foresters, falcons, fish-hawks, with the privilege of taking honey which, in default of hives, bees had accumulated in the trunks of trees, and some of their monks hunted with them. King John, who is said to have had lodges at Haywood Oaks, Langton Arbour, and the Queen’s Bower, in vain disputed these rights, but carvings in Southwell Minster are held to indicate the priestly addiction to the sport, and shortly before the Reformation Henry VII, his Grace of York, and the Prior of Newstead were together pursuing deer through the woods and groves of Blidworth.

Age of Outlaws

Venerable oaks at Haywood Oaks, and majestic elms as at Langton Arbour are reminders of the old days when similar trees abounded, but the district was not all wooded. Great clearances had been made under Henry II, and one of the early acts of John was to grant 60a. of land here “where wood was not” to Wm. Briwere, who had negotiated the ransom of Richard I. From time to time felling thinned the woods, and during the voidance of the See of York in 1316 the king granted fifty leafless oaks to be cut down in Blidworth Wood for charcoal and trestles for the meeting of Parliament at Lincoln. Trespasses of vert (trees) and venison (deer) were common, and in 1279 inquisition was made as to the right by which the archbishop dealt with these offences at Blidworth, inflicting punishments and taking the fines at his court of Southwell, and it was found that his predecessors had done the same. Another inquiry of that time resulted in the archbishop being permitted to make a clearance in his wood here, and a trench 40ft. wide between that and the adjoining wood of Newstead Priory.

In virtue of its prebendal grants the Southwell Chapter in 1329 claimed and exercised the assize of bread and ale and view of frankpledge or mutual responsibility among their tenants for offences, and the prebendary of Oxton accordingly held a half-yearly court to adjudge such matters and take the waifs and strays. It was the age of outlaws, and confirmation of these powers was obviously necessary from the prevalence of local disorders. In 1276 some prisoners here were violently released and their captors assaulted. In 1329 a shepherd of the village was hanged for stealing 57 sheep; the bond-servants of the prebendaries refused to render their customary services and payments; cattle drovers were waylaid and robbed and murdered, and it was not without cause that Thieves' Wood obtained its name.

It may be mentioned in passing that a member of the Byron family was resident here in 1337. The date of the erection of Blidworth’s first church is unknown, and it is probable that until after the Conquest the scanty population worshipped at Calverton. The oldest part of the existing structure is the tower, which was built about 1485, and Mr. Whitworth has noted that the old chancel masonry is “preserved as a ruin at Fountain Dale.” A floor-stone of about that date bears a floriated cross (figured in the Stretton MSS.) displaying a pair of wool-shears, and a record of 1486 tells that John Wystowe then had a grant for life of the office of keeper of the king’s flock “in the forest of Sherwood and Blythworth.” Evidently pastures had been laid down in mediaeval times for the production of wool.

Church Changes

When Henry VIII in 1533 commanded that flax should be cultivated in every parish the parishioners purchased the Ashcroft for the purpose with the Ashwell, for the washing of the fibre, but the soil is said to have been found unsuitable and the production small Ashwell took its name from a magnificent ash tree which flourished until 1800 when it was felled by mistake. The Dissolution of the Monasteries in that reign made little difference here, but there were some chantry lands which were sold off in the time of Edward VI, including the tithes of grain, sheaves, corn and hay, which had been leased by the prebendaries to John Bassett. In 1553 Sir Henry Sidney, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, acquired these interests of which he was promptly dispossessed by Queen Mary. The Elizabethan Settlement brought further trouble, for upon the establishment of the Church of England the vicar resigned the living, as also did his prebendaryy, Robert Pursglove, rather than take the Oath of Supremacy to Elizabeth and the protestant. William Emley was appointed in his stead. Pursglove had become one of the prebendaries of Oxton, which carried with it the patronage of the church, in 1558 and one of his duties was to preach in it once every half-year.

“Heart of Robin Hood land”

AT the opening of the 17th century much of the parish soil of Blidworth still lay waste, but in 1623 the inhabitants made an excellent bargain with the archbishop who allowed them to enclose and cultivate many acres in return for a supply of wood and ling for fuel whenever he was in residence at Southwell Palace. Two decades later the villagers so testified their loyalty to King Charles that they were rewarded by the grant of a small wood in Blidworth Forest, but they trespassed beyond its limits and the grant was withdrawn. The Hercules Clay who signalised by various charities his remarkable escape from destruction during the siege of Newark, was a native of this village, and the Thomas Clay who was keeper of Langton Arbour in 1799, and the Clay who. fought at Waterloo and lived until 1873. were presumably of his line.

During the Commonwealth John Rose, who had turned the guns of Rotherham upon the cavaliers, was the Puritan vicar with a stipend of £22, but in 1662 he declined to conform and was ejected, and after undergoing much persecution for his continued ministry in the district he died in 1697, having lived to greet the Act of Toleration. In the Restoration age deer still abounded, there was abundance of smaller game, and poaching was so prevalent that the Duke of Newcastle had to direct the forest officers to take all possible steps to check these depredations “with dogs, guns, nets and other Ingins.” With Langton Arbour Blidworth was one of the nine “walks” into which Sherwood Forest was then divided, each walk having its own keeper with a salary of 20s. a year. After the Revolution of 1688 the fallen Stuarts were not without local adherents, their centre was at Mansfield and prominent among them was Wm. Thorp, the vicar of Blidworth, who died in 1720 having significantly endowed a yearly sermon in Nottingham St. Mary’s to commemorate the “Joyful Restoration.”

Religious Sects

Blidworth parish church, c.1930.Blidworth parish church, c.1930.

In 1676 the parish contained 102 adult inhabitants of whom one was a Dissenter, but fourteen years subsequently the Presbyterian Samuel Crompton was preaching here on alternate Sundays, and in 1727 Joseph Walters, mayor of Nottingham, bequeathed 22s. per annum to the “Protestant Dissenting Ministers” here. In 1743 of the forty families of the parish eight were Presbyterians or Independents who attended a small meeting-house in which services were held at intervals of six or eight weeks. There was but one service in the church each Sunday because, as the vicar explained, “the living is small and without the curacy of Papelwick, which I also supply, not a Sufficient Maintenance.” Later the living was united with that of Oxton. When the Rev. Montague Wood founded a school at Woodborough in 1736 he endowed it with valuable lands at Blidworth, and in the following years the parish was shocked by the fall of most of its church. Mr. Bilbie had purchased an estate and a family vault was being made, but unskilful excavation for it undermined a pier and the nave and aisle collapsed. The tower survived but the rest of the fabric was rebuilt. It was reopened in 1740 having assumed the classic style of that rococo age, but the nave arcading is so fine that the work has been ascribed to a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren.

Enclosure Benefits

Under the enclosure Acts of 1769 and 1809 the aspect of Blidworth vastly changed. The commons and almost the whole of the waste, some 5,000 acres in all, were reduced to cultivation, the only undeveloped land, apart from the woods, being a. sterile rabbit warren which defied all efforts to make it productive. So late as 1916 Sir Arthur Markham had some of it ploughed up, but crops failed and it was again abandoned to the rabbits which breed faster, than they can be destroyed. For centuries a stream ran through the Fishpool part of the parish and men living in 1873 had caught; fish in it, but it dried up in a night (probably through pumping operations) . The wells, ranging in depth from 18ft. to 75ft., after being dry for twenty years, commenced to run again during the dry summer of 1868 and then stopped and recommenced their flow in 1874. In 1888 a scheme for ensuring a proper water supply was introduced.

For some generations the cure was served by a curate, for the incumbents were absentees, and by the reign of George IV the parsonage house had been divided and let as two dwellings. Then, under threat of complaint to the bishop, the premises were restored to their proper use but it was not until 1860 when the curate, the Rev. John Porter, became vicar that the. parsons lived among their people. Of the church some historical details have already been given. In 1839 the chancel was rebuilt in slightly longer form, the tower was heightened by about five feet, and the whole building was restored. Some window tracery, arch mouldings, capitals and monumental slabs then discarded were removed to ornament the grounds of the Need mansion at Fountain Dale, but on the other hand the Jacobean panelling ejected during a “restoration” at Southwell Mmster was placed in the chancel, and from the same source was salved the handsome Italian plaster pulpit of early 18th century date. The Lay Cross in the churchyard originally stood at the crossing of the ways on the old Rufford road at the point where the parishes of Blidworth, Calverton, Oxton, and Farnsfield make contact. According to local tradition it was erected to mark the spot where in an affray of 1598 Thomas Leake was slain, but it was almost certainly a boundary cross of which only the ancient base now remains. In 1836 it was transferred to the churchyard, but an ultra-Protestant vicar suspecting it of popery cast it out and it, too, found a refuge at Fountain Dale, where it remained until 1903, when the Newstead Colliery Co. purchased that property and permitted the cross and old church masonry to be returned to their former holy ground.

Modern Times

A century ago the archbishop was still lord of the manor though it was soon to pass from him. The population (including Rainworth) was then more than 1,100, having increased by half during the previous twenty years, and in 1847 a national school superseded the vicarage stables and harness room which had been serving for educational purposes. Residents in 1903 could remember that in their early days the village was yet railed off from the forest and the ranger locked the gates of this encircling pale-fence each night to prevent deer from ravaging the gardens and closes and chewing the washing hung out to dry. Old customs and beliefs persisted and the famous “Rocking” was regularly observed. The church is dedicated to St. Mary of the Purification, and on a Sunday near the feast which celebrates the dedication of the Child Christ in the Temple the youngest male baby in the parish was brought in a beribboned cradle to the church where he was rocked to the accompaniment of prayers. It was a red-letter day for the parish; crowds came to the ceremony; families gathered for it from far and near, but by 1873 the accompanying feasting had degenerated into licence and soon afterwards the age-long custom was stopped, but under altered conditions it was revived in 1922. This year the rocking was performed by the Bishop of Southwell.

Blidworth is the heart of Robin Hood land. Maid Marion is supposed to have had her home, and Will Scarlet is alleged to have been buried in its churchyard. One of the most popular ballads recounts how the Bishop of Hereford was stopped and eased of his valuables here in the time of Richard I, and Mr. Whitworth devoted much research to the story and came to the conclusion that it was substantially true. Pryor’s delightful “Forest Folk” opens its romantic story at the spot where the Lay Cross stood, and vividly describes the local life, manners and customs of rather more than 100 years ago. Rainworth is now severed from Blidworth; in 1934 a portion of this parish was transferred to that of Newstead, and the Rufford sale of 1938 caused some changes in ownership. In recent years collieries have developed, but Blidworth is still a charming village. In 1938 Mr. Adrian Oswald discovered some earthworks near Thieves’ Wood, but as these await investigation this article terminates—as it commenced— with an unsolved mystery.