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Before Birmingham

Many millions of years ago in a climate much hotter than the present, most of the Birmingham area was covered by a vast shallow lake that lay below sea level.

The climate changed and the lake vanished. The clay bed cracked and when it rained, water flowed along the cracks creating shallow streams and rivers. Gradually the valleys of the Cole, Rea, and Tame were formed.

During the most recent Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years ago, the land was buried beneath 3,000 metres of ice. The climate was like that at the North Pole today.

A layer of sandstone, the Birmingham Ridge, runs north to south from Lichfield, through Birmingham city centre and down to Bromsgrove. This strip of red sandstone about a mile wide was formed in dry hot desert conditions during the Triassic period.

There is evidence of early Anglo-Saxon settlements on the Birmingham Ridge, including one in Northfield. Open woods and grassland used to grow on the sandstone soil. Birch trees were among the first to return to the wilderness left after the retreat of the glaciers ten thousand years ago. Early hunters would have found deer, hares, and birds. Sandstone soil can be good for farming and is easy to plough, but rainwater tends to run through quickly and crops may struggle in dry weather.

Bartley Green was first noted in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Berchelai. The name dates from the early Anglo-Saxon period and derives from the Old English beorc leah which means ‘birch clearing’.

This fascinating information is taken from the superb web pages below. Well worth a look to find out more about what was here before.

The monster below us - the tale

Before man built the great space to hold the water to keep the people hydrated, there was the plain of earth that belonged to the monster. Deep below in the cold hard soil it lived, nestled between roots of the greatest trees and rocks and solid, smooth stone. It breathed a rhythm into the earth. The village knew it was there, and feared and loved it in equal measure. It was theirs, but they had to keep on the right side of it. Each year on the 1st of February they danced to it. Took their sticks to the ground - a gentle tap, tap, tap. ‘Wake up,’ they whispered. ‘Wake up, please.’ 

If it was ready, it turned and they felt the ground below them quiver and quake. If it wasn't time yet, they'd hear a sigh, so they'd return each day till it moved. One year, they left it too late, didn't wake it up and many of them perished, the crops failing in the fields, the dark, damp earth too cold to support growth. Once they felt it moving they'd dance in thanks, spiralling round and round, slowly at first till it had wakened some more, then once it was safe they danced full of joy and glory. Then they'd leave on the ground a pile of bread and cheese and any vegetables they could spare from the winter store. The next morning, the food was always gone. Great grooves appeared in the soil, the land turned over ready and fresh for planting. And then they knew they were safe.

They had more than just the monster to worry about. They prepared places to hide when the men from out of town came visiting on the 1st of May with their own giant winged monster leading the way. The villagers left a volunteer in the middle of the field, a flag held high declaring ‘I'm here’. The out-of-towners would head there first. The volunteer would quake, standing in the field, and would tap on the ground.  ‘Help. Help.’  The earth would shiver and shake. And when the out-of-towners got nearer, the earth would rumble and the men would disappear, their monster with its wings fleeing from the scene. The village would be safe for another year, except for the volunteer who sadly would be lost.

One year, however, a child was chosen, small and weak but big of heart.  They watched the winged monster come leading the men. The child held out their hand; in it, was a small shiny stone their mother had gifted as a final parting.  It glinted in the sun. The winged monster was intrigued and down it swooped. ‘You can have it,’ whispered the child. ‘I don't need it,  but get away before the earth shakes.’ The monster bowed to the child and paused. The child climbed on its back. The monster flew high and roared at his men. They quickly ran, and this time only some of them perished, those that lagged behind. None of the villagers saw any of this for they were all hiding.

Next year, the villagers woke their monster, fed it bread and cheese. When the time came, a volunteer came forward.  He willingly stood in the field. The earth quietly rumbled. A small procession of out-of-towners strode through, the winged monster hovering above with a child on its back. He swooped gently down and placed the child before the volunteer - the child's father who felt he could live no longer after the loss of his brave child.   He let out a gasp and holding hands they both ran to the trees. The out-of-towners took vegetables, bread, and cheese and left them on the edges of the ground.  The earth shook. And the food disappeared. The thing in the soil was hungry, not bloodthirsty. The out-of-towners spoke to the child's father, told him the tale of how each year their monster led a group of men way from town and none had ever returned until the child had saved them with a shiny stone. The two villages began working as one. The winged monster took off and never returned. As time passed, no longer in danger, the villagers stopped waking up their monster. Its ‘protection’ was no longer needed, and as the earth warmed, crops grew without the monster’s awakening. They left it to its deep slumber.

Children no longer remembered the stories. Years passed and all was well. Then, as villages grew and become towns, and towns became cities,  a space was needed to hold water. It was time to build a reservoir. It took longer to build than expected. A few of the people working on it just disappeared never to return. There were reports of a couple of earthquakes, and some rumbling noises too. An old, old person, who had once been a  young and brave child, began to have vague memories of a tale of a dragon and a snake, maybe their parents had told them. But few listened and those that did didn't believe.

So when you're gazing at our lovely reservoir and see a ripple in the water or feel a quiver underground, don't fear, but leave a piece of bread or cheese, or preferably a Brussels sprout.  Our village protector is just there rumbling away making sure we're safe.

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