Great Livermere- a walk through its ghostly past

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Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).

The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.

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Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.

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There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.

Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.

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Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.

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MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.

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James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially  ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.

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He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.

Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’

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Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book,  Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif.  Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’

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Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.

11019576_1606444612926510_8150682106061838482_nLaying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.

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The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.

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A smell of apples- sense memory and anosmia

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

Bunny Mellon, the American socialite designer of the White House rose gardens and President Kennedy’s gravestone, kept pots of stewed apple bubbling away on the stove at her Virginia estate in tribute to the apple pies made by her mother. She understood the power of scent memory to create a sense of place no matter how vast the house or estate might be, taking visitors back to a simpler, less salubrious and more homely past, all the way back to childhood.

In her essay ‘Sense of Self’, Erin Byers Murray writes about childhood memories and of her mother and the many meals cooked by her, evenly divided between those cooked ad hoc with whatever was to hand, using a pinch of this and a dab of that, and the meals that were guided in like a plane via precise instructions in recipes torn from Southern Living magazine. Her mothers food tasted good but it was the functional ‘gotta get the kids fed’ style of cooking that was the bane of the lives of women, stripped of much of its sensual pleasure.

Then the accident happened that changed everything. A head injury stripped her mother of her sense of smell and taste (anosmia) when her olfactory nerves were damaged. Assessments determined that she was still able to differentiate between salty and sweet, albeit an ability which was now drastically reduced, and to a lesser degree, bitter and tart, but for some time, her mother put down the reins in the kitchen and the other family members took over.

Taste and scent memory is complex but this is what ‘saved’ Murray’s mother who, upon baking an almond angel cake by rote for a birthday some time after the accident- having made it hundreds of times before- realised that her mind’s ‘nose’ was being stimulated by the memory, imprinted deep within her psyche, of what this cake used to smell like. As almond essence dripped into the cake batter and was spun around the bowl by the beaters of the mixer, the scent that pervaded the warm fug of the kitchen might have been beyond her sensory reach but the recollection of it was as intrinsic to her as her ability to bake the cake from memory. And for Murry’s mother, it was enough- more than enough.

Her nerves didn’t magically regenerate and there was no wonderful TV movie recovery but she began to cook and that cooking was speculative and experimental, liberated from the constraints of sustenance cooking for children. What taste she did have could be challenged and stretched- made to work for her in combination with a new exploration of texture, appearance and mouth feel. The memories she possessed of the taste and scent of food commingled with this awareness of other qualities, ones she had paid scant attention to in the past. Her gustatory life became one of adventure and the stripping away of boundaries. It transcended the cultural mores of her native cuisine, took her to new places like Japan and Thailand and to many other lands with multi-faceted culinary aesthetics.

Take salt as an example of something we may use in a pretty straightforward manner even when our pantries contain several different types. Salt sharpens and delineates the flavour of other ingredients, uniting their parts into a whole greater than their sum. Salt is the bassline, the doo-wop, if you like, of our cooking and a useful facsimile of the world of the anosmic is to try to eat your food unsalted. You will be shocked by how blunted the different flavours are until, eventually, your palate adjusts. It does a remarkable job but how often so we consider what exactly that might be? Pure sodium chloride imparts intensity as its concentration is increased up to a subjective maximum above which no further saltiness is perceived. This ‘bliss point’, the stage at which the addition of salt ceases to increase our liking for a food varies from person to person- our salt preference is malleable. An anosmic would be at risk of adding increasing amounts of salt to overcome a blunted palate with the risk of distorting and overpowering other flavours in a way that a non anosmic wouldn’t be. However salt is of huge importance in sharpening a blunted palate too and many foods (soups, rice, eggs, and potato crisps), are pleasingly enhanced  by it. Salt is proven to heighten the perception of product thickness (texture). it also enhances sweetness, masks chemical off-notes, counteracts bitterness, and rounds out overall flavor whilst strengthening and intensifying it.

I imagine Murrays’ mother surrounded by heaping piles of salt: wafer-like flakes of Maldon from nearby Essex which melt instantly delivering a bolus of super saltiness and the pink chunky crystals of Himalayan which are the salt equivalent of time-release pills. Then there are the colours; an Indian salt stained pansy-purple, gritty as gunpowder, or the delicate Kala Namak- tinted ashes-of-roses pink. Vastly different is the dramatic Cyprus black salt resembling a miniature Giants Causeway in a jar with its basalt hexagons that are slow to melt, crunchy and charcoal-dank. I see her dipping a spoon into a jar of Le Petit Saunier salted caramel sauce in its Breton saxe blue and white livery, rolling its sea-sweet flavour from the sweet-spot on her tongue to the salty and back again. I think of her recoiling as the sting of malted vinegar and salt hits her nostrils when it is sprinkled onto searingly hot chips (fries) or running her fingers through the delicate and translucent crystals of Fleur De Sel from the Guerande, sold in beige calico bags, drawn closed with a string. I hope she can do all of these things.

We know that if we lose our sense of smell, we lose much of our ability to appreciate the taste of foods because the two are closely linked. If you don’t believe this, cut a lemon in half and bite into it whilst holding your nostrils tightly closed.  And we also see what we taste and smell as a unitary perception of flavour which is incorrect and is actually not a single ‘entity’ at all being made up of anatomically independent sensory systems.

There are psychological consequences to anosmia and what we can also lose is a sense of pleasure in life:  an anosmic can become disengaged, anhedonic, dysthymic. It is also dangerous- as Murray points out, her mother was warned never to live alone because leaking gas would not be discernible to her. Think of other warning signs- the sweet acetone of diabetic urine or a hint of smoke on the air from a fire; the hot and clean electrical whiff when an appliance overheats or the curdle of milk on the turn. Think of the fact that we all have our unique smells, imprinted on our own offspring within moments of birth and we all sense when a loved one (or a stranger) is nearby because of what our olfactory equipment tells us, a primal and instinctive alert system that helps keep us safe. Fear and heightened emotional arousal is often described in terms of scent (an acrid smell of fear), and we associate certain scents (and tastes) with comfort (vanilla is a common one). Indeed as the Tutorial on the Sense of Smell states:

“The uncus, phylogenetically part of the ‘smell brain’ (or rhinencephalon), is functionally associated with the whole limbic system (which includes such brain areas as the amygdala, hippocampus, pyriforn cortex and hypothalmus), which is increasingly recognised to be crucial in determining and regulating the entire emotional ‘tone’. Excitation of this, by whatever means, produces heightened emotionalism and an intensification of the senses.”

And anosmia can highly correlate with a risk of emotional lability, impulsivity and problems with adapting behaviour to the lessons of experience. It can leave sufferers derealised, as Dr Rachel Hertz explains in The Scent of Desire:

” I felt trapped inside my own head, a kind of bodily claustrophobia, disassociated. It was as though I were watching a movie of my own life. When we see actors in a love scene, we accept that we can’t smell the sweat; when they take a sip of wine, we don’t expect to taste the grapes. That’s how I felt, like an observer watching the character of me.”

The average human being may recognize up to 10,000 separate odours but our language to describe those odours is nowhere near as intricate. It is very hard, near impossible to explain what something smells like to someone who has yet to smell it and when we describe a taste, it is informed very much by its scent and how this marries with taste in our noses and mouths.

At a basic biological level our responses to smell and the anticipation of taste aren’t that much different to that of a Labrador dog with its Pavlovian reactions- a set of responses that prevent the dog (and us) from dying of starvation or developing malnutrition due to disinterest. We want to seek food out, prepare it in a safe manner (because scent and taste is potentiated by cooking methods that also effectively kill off bugs), digest and utilise it effectively. But as humans we also possess full and sub consciousness; the free will and layers of cognition that allow us to transcend that basic stimulus-response mechanism and interpret, manipulate and filter the messages we receive from our senses.

In the first few months of independent life (as in independent from our mothers placenta) we display a predisposition towards the inherent sweetness of breast milk and all human babies show some aversion towards bitter foods (eat brassicas for a day while breastfeeding and see your newborns reaction) which is most likely an evolutionary throwback to when we needed discouragement from eating poisonous foods. The ever changing nature of breast milk, which is in part a result of the mothers diet, also primes an infant to cope with our human omnivorous diet and as their kidneys develop, a taste for salt emerges which roughly correlates with the time at which many babies begin to be weaned and are, as a result, exposed to higher salt levels. All other preferences are learned behaviour and that learning is so strong that unlike a Labrador, we may not overcome our dietary taboos and predilections, no matter how hungry.

Along with those dietary taboos, aversions, phobias and fads we develop strong gustatory and olfactory memories where time, place and food meld in such a way as to transport us back decades in time through our senses. This confluence functions as a way of reinforcing family bonds and developing new ones, as a way of heafing us to our territories (no matter how wide ranging or compact) whilst also encouraging us to fan outwards towards new people and places- a handy way of discouraging genetic overfamiliarity when we decide to breed. We learn to guard against foods that don’t suit us and help reinforce affection and attachment to the foods that we can easily grow and eat. We learn that food is love.

It is possible for us evoke the past so viscerally because of our ability to build emotional content into what we sense; conjured up by what we hear (the clink of Sheffield steel against a china cake plate, the sound of boiling water being poured into a teapot, the paper dry rustle of a corn husk as we wrap a tamale), by sight and via our tactile encounters.  These memories and experiences are multi sensate, multi causal and have layer upon layer of meaning. Taste without context does not exist and I’m not sure we are capable of unpicking all the strands. Nature is not more complex than we think. It is more complex than we can think.

And the power of these memories! Walking along the banks of a Sardinian river one unusually hot late spring day, a sudden drench of rain penetrated the clay of the path. The air became sodden with water vapour and impregnated with the unmistakeable smell of the clay goblets and jugs used by our housekeeper in Mexico. As a child I was mildly obsessed with this roughly glazed pottery and I would nibble away at the gap between the top of the glaze and the rough clay rims. Bordering upon pica, the earthiness permeated the contents- water sharpened with a squeeze of local limes. All our drinks tasted of clay and were imbued with the love we felt for Maria and the bridge she created between two worlds, Latina and European. As I stood by that river I felt the heaviness of the goblet, so large in my five year old hands and my vision narrowed to what I could see over its rim. The clear light of the Sardinian mountains turned heavy, dusty and straw-yellow as I went back to our Saltillo kitchen and a light that shot in through the gap at the base of the heavy blinds, which had to be kept drawn in the day to keep out the vicious desert sun. It was confusing and surreal.

Erin Byers Murray’s mother instinctively knew what she needed to do to live fully in the world rather than continue to tolerate a gustatory existence diminished of colour, sense and the opportunity to make fresh memories. That almond cake was her Proustian moment in a far more significant way because it guided her towards a new future as opposed to Proustian wistful musings about a lost past. It is also a less frivolous example than that a stratospherically wealthy woman able to afford to keep pots of apples bubbling on the stoves of her many homes, but it is no more or less touching. Both women were negotiating the tricky present and future by invoking their sensory past.

Fifth Sense.org

Parosmia Diaries

More reading: The Poetics of Smell as a Mode of Knowledge on Brainpickings and The Science of Smell: how the most direct of our senses actually works, also on Brainpickings.