From Psychiatrists to Peter Rabbit

My apologies for not putting up a blog post in quite a while, so I hope you will read this one in its entirety, and if you think someone else should read it, please pass it on.

On the 6th of December 2013 I was at work when I suffered what can best be described as the mother and father of depressive panic attacks. It really frightened me and thinking of the consequences of what I might do to myself in this mood, I drove myself straight to my Doctor’s Surgery and asked to see someone. The receptionist was really patient with me, especially after she told me there was no Dr. available to see me and I pointed out I wasn’t leaving, because I was scared of walking away from a situation where I would receive help.

The Dr. who saw me took one look at me, asked me a couple of questions and immediately phoned to make me an appointment with the mental health team at one of the major hospitals. I was taken there and after a brief conversation with a nurse was put in a quiet ‘special’ room to wait for a full assessment. The room had very heavy furniture with rounded edges and no easy way to get your fingers underneath to lift any of it up. The windows were bolted shut, the pictures screwed to the wall and a panic button fitted behind where the assessor was to sit. I suppose people had been there in far angrier moods than me.

The assessment was an opportunity to talk. I was allowed to ramble on, follow tangents and let everything tumble out of my mouth in an unfocussed narrative. Much is written about how writing a PhD can be detrimental to your mental health, but not much is written about when a PhD is the glue that binds your mental health together. I have a good life, as many people do who suffer mental health issues, but when that indefinable something gets in under your skin and the tiny problems you are experiencing start to expand and fill your every thought. Well, you get the picture.

I’ve been ill before, and I mean physically ill. I’ve had a couple of operations on my kidneys and my gall bladder out. Add to that some other scars from various other adventures and I have parts of my skin that look like a dog chew toy. Physical pain I can handle, junior doctors at the end of my bed staring at my testicles I can handle, but letting someone look inside your head is a very different experience indeed. In one sense, writing these blog posts are letting people inside my head, by explaining the inner workings of how I come to work out various concepts and points of my thesis. In another sense, many of you don’t know me as a person and form your opinions of me from what I write on here, and my writing has meant that my first term was funded by you, and I in turn am inspired by your faith in me.

After the assessment by a psychiatrist I was allowed home and this was the start of my recovery. In order to recover from something like this you have to admit that you understand that there are problems, and that you need to address each one as an individual rather than screw them up into one big ball which is then juggled around as one big worry. Making sure I fulfilled my obligations to you, the people who support me by reading the blog and contributing to my PhD fee payment fund http://www.gofundme.com/medievalgardensandparks is something which I have to admit worried me and was rolled up in my big ball.

Thanks to the dispassionate honesty of my psychiatrist, the love of my family and the support of three friends in particular – you know who you are – I’ve been able to work through my problems and I’m now well enough, both physically and mentally, to be able to continue with the writing process and to able to talk about my latest discovery, which all starts with the ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tale_of_Peter_Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.

One of my friends has just given birth, and she and her husband have decorated the nursery. They chose to put up illustrations from ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. I remembered that the illustrations were drawn in the garden of Gwaynynog Hall near Denbigh (Latitude 53.177178; Longitude -3.445713) and so posted a link to the BBC News article http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/north_east/4441615.stm to show her.

Galch Hill

And then I thought. Hang on a minute. Where exactly is Gwaynynog Hall? So, I checked my maps and it lies within one of Denbigh’s medieval parks. Which then made me think that Peter Rabbit, or at least the rabbits that Beatrix Potter was inspired by when she created Peter Rabbit, arrived in the area during the medieval period. Whether these were imported by English or Welsh royalty is a little bit more difficult to establish without archaeological excavation of the medieval rabbit warren locations, but it is an important step forward in understanding the landscape. And I’ll be sure to tell my friends’s newborn daughter someday how she helped me start writing again.

If anything in the first part of this blog post struck a chord, you could try the following websites:




Si longtemps, et merci pour le poisson

Writing a PhD thesis can raise questions you never thought you would have to contemplate finding an answer for when the research began. I assumed (naively perhaps) that I would just sit down, write about Welsh Castles, show where their landscapes were and be made a Doctor.

Except it doesn’t really work like that.

You sit down, start writing, and then find a reference. This reference takes you off to a book you’ve never heard of – and before you realise it a whole sub-plot has appeared in your research.

Which is what happened to me with the Otters.

It all began so innocuously. As part of my reading I have to look at the medieval extents which were compiled in the Fourteenth century describing who owed what service to the ‘new’ English Lord of the Manor – who had replaced the Welsh Prince after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282-1283. Within them I found a reference to something called ‘Cylch Dyfrgwn’ – with literally translated means ‘Otter Circuit’.

As an archaeologist, I’d never heard of an ‘Otter Circuit’. And, having thought about it, I’d not read about any otter bones being found on the excavations I’d been reading about. Was there a connection between the two?

An ‘Otter Circuit’ was a service which had been carried out under the Welsh Princes, and which was subsequently carried over to the English Lords. Essentially it was a hunting party who travelled around a prescribed piece of land from place to place keeping the ‘uneatable’ animals under control, of which the otter was classed as one.

Just because the animals were ‘uneatable’ did not mean that the event to hunt them was not without symbolism and ceremony. The ‘Devonshire Tapestries’, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum and dating to the Fifteenth century depict an otter hunt in detail http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/devonshire-hunting-tapestries/ and, although stylised, the detail of the hunting equipment and methods is clearly depicted. The main piece of equipment, a two pronged spear, continued to be used unchanged well into the Twentieth century.


The lack of archaeological evidence for the Otters from the ‘Otter Circuit’ can be explained by the fact that they were killed where they were caught, so the remains which were not useful were left at the spot. The skins were subsequently used for high-status clothing, and unfortunately these materials have not survived to the present day.

I’ve probably spent way too much time unpicking this story to try and understand the place of Otters in the medieval world, but the data I’ve collected can be used by modern researchers to understand the medieval range of the Otter and hopefully aid in ensuring the continued growth of the population.