(Previously published in the print edition of the Bury Free Press.)
It’s early October and already it feels more like a fresh start than New Years Day ever did. The latter’s odd meld of forced bonhomie, melancholy and lassitude from over-indulging never feels fresh to me. New Year has instead, the air of the last day before we’re packed off to some dreary wellness rehab/ resort where they torture you with pints of daily tea made of moss and old twigs, foraged by a hippie with a manbun. January resolutions inevitably require us to reflect upon our previous misconduct and Vow To Do Better meaning our Fresh Start is already tainted with guilt and dreary low-rent Calvinism. I’m predestined to fail under those circumstances.
October is better. October is the season of mists, a mellow kind of fruitfulness and- most joyful of all- entertaining twitter hashtags. Already we have #GBBO (my hate-follow because the miked sound of Mary and Paul chewing is worse than what we’d hear if they went to the loo wearing them) and #Strictly which is going to be JOYOUS because we have Ed Balls and his later-life self actualisation. To date Ed has given us pantomime boy-style capes, Elmer Fudd checks and a potted lesson in how to let go of the painful stuff without, um, RESOLUTIONS.
(Want to understand my weird obsession with him? Check out this post on the website ‘Put Up With Rain’). It’s all Jess’s fault.
October is a slight bite in the early morning air and a Titian landscape; it’s woolly tights in hedgerow colours and lining the shelves of the cellar with mulled this and damson that. There’s boxes of new pencils and Cash’s name tapes to buy and blackberries to pick in the slanting light of the early evening. It’s the best time to get stuck into period dramas and boxsets, Netflix binges and publishers’ autumn lists filled with chunky cookbooks and the latest novel from your favourite author. The memory of brand new school exercise books and writing my names on them in my best handwriting is still acute. Yes, autumn is a time for making plans but it is also a time to batten down the hatches and consolidate what we already have and despite my enjoying modern conveniences and a local market teeming with bi-weekly deliveries of fresh food, at this time of year my atavistic settler genes run deep and I feel the urge to lay down supplies for the coming winter.
Last week I was reading about a new book (Hygge, a Celebration of Simple Pleasures) whose author urges us all to adopt the Danish way of living snuggly. There’s been a rash of books published on the subject (whiff of bandwagon, apart from those written by actual Scandinavians) and a lot of (albeit pleasurable) guff written about a concept which basically means ‘cosy’ but I guess there’s something in it because the Danes took the top spot in the United Nations World Happiness Report in 2016. In the interests of balance I should also point out that the Danes also take more anti-depressants than many other nations although this may well be linked to better mental health treatment and an absence of stigma. They also have a lot of bacon which is associated with great happiness in my house, too.
V.S Naipaul was being very harsh on the Danes when he said, after winning the Nobel for literature in 2002, that ‘”If you are interested in horrible places, I can recommend Denmark. No one starves. Everyone lives in small, pretty houses. But no one is rich, no one has a chance to a life in luxury, and everyone is depressed. Everyone lives in their small well-organized cells with their Danish furniture and their lovely lamps, without which they would go mad.’ I personally would go mad without a decent lamp in the winter, without which I could not see to read (and it won’t be anything by Naipaul, the old curmudgeon) and there’s nothing wrong with a well- organized cell which is pretty much the only size of home a first-time buyer can afford anyway.
My problem with hygge is not based upon sweeping generalisations about an entire nation, although it can seem a bit Law of Jante at times. Charlotte Abrahams, (the author of aforementioned book) defines hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’) as ‘the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming’ which means that sadly I can never achieve hygge’s lofty goals because being emotionally overwhelmed by annoying things is my raison d’etre to be frank.
I have fallen at the first post.
Recently a news report on the FB page of my local paper, the Bury Free Press, struck terror into my heart. ‘At the beginning of autumn large male house spiders, gorged from a summer of eating moths and flies, start making their way indoors in search of a mate’ it told us. All I took from this was that OBESE SPIDERS ARE HAVING SEX IN MY HOUSE. My house, my home, my hyggelig-respite from the cruel world outside is full of spiders, entwined in the throes of eight hairy-legged passion and indulging in a bit of post-coital cannibalism too. (AKA the belts ‘n braces approach to GROSSING ME OUT.) Yes, yes yes I know its nature n’all but so are pustulant boils and who would want them pustulating in the corners of ones kitchen?
Greg Nejedly, a clinical hypnotherapist, offered some advice to those of us who don’t much care for spider promiscuity in the form of ‘taking deep breaths in order to…steer ourselves into a calmer state” which is probably less useful if you are reading this in Australia and a Sydney funnel web is bearing down on you. As someone who reacts very oddly to all manner of insect bites and forgets her epipen more than is good for her, I’ll forgo the calm breathing (and being a sitting duck) and rely instead upon good old-fashioned eviction techniques called a husband or anyone who is around except me basically. Another name for this is ‘you aren’t doing feminism properly’ from the mansplainers in the cheap seats.
I feel a bit mean when I criticise hygge because it feels like I am kicking a particularly well-meaning puppy but there’s yet more barriers to ever achieving it in my house asides from my ability to shrink every pair of cashmere socks I’ve ever purchased. It’s called ‘living on one of the roads popular with homebound clubbers between 1-5 am in the morning’. Hygge embraces the concepts of togetherness and sharing which is why the inebriated residents of my fair town do love to share their loud voices with us in the early hours of the morning. Instead of being annoyed at the drunken sots arguing outside our bedroom window: the hapless men breaking up loudly with invisible partners on mobiles; the groups of weaving women who want to share with us, their rendition of some dire Taylor Swift anthem to friendship, I could go full-on hygge and seek to embrace and share too.
I could have a whole new career offering relationship advice (LTB) to wailing lovers via my open window or end them a bottle or she-wee so they no longer need to urinate against the house wall (yes, this happens). When my hyggelig deserts me I fantasise about recording what is going on and playing this lovely, mellifluous soundtrack at 6 a.m outside the homes of those club or pub owners who do not take seriously the problem of anti-social behaviour and continue to sell ridiculous amounts of cheap booze to already drunk people. It’s impossible to feel cosy beneficence towards your fellow men and women when one is sleep deprived. Mess with my hygge at your peril.
If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.
The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.
Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.
Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above] of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.
The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here. Ports are a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.
Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal.
Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?
“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”
[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]
The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.
And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.
I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?
John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth] to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”
Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.
Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.
A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.
Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.
Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.
The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones, the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.
Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:
Delight of our appetites, Oyster, flee the liquid plain; Enter the pomp of the feast, Leave this perfidious element, And, since you must die, rather die in wine.
There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”
It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.
It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.
Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.
Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry.
Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.
If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank. The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.
Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.
There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.
In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.
I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).
Is it wrong to pierce a babies ears? In this piece, I write about my experience of having my ears as a small child and the impact this had.
As a small child, I emigrated to Mexico and I lived there for a number of years, masquerading as a proper little Catholic school girl, attending nursery and then moving up into the school proper. I stood out like a English sore thumb when I arrived: I was pale and subdued with bone-blonde hair, blue eyes and un-pierced ears and wore a Ladybird dress and neat patent Mary Janes, neither of which coped very well with the dust and sand of the Chihuahuan Desert. My naked earlobes caused the local people the most concern though: they marked me out as a gringa far more than my blonde ringlets did.
The culture in Mexico both then and now is to pierce the ears of newborn girl babies, performed as soon as possible after birth because presumably it is easier than trying to catch and pin down an older, more mobile, and less compliant child. In most cases, babies actually leave the maternity clinic with pierced ears, the procedure carried out just days after their birth because a newborn will not tug at her sore ears nor interfere with the earrings. Once done and with screams quietened- sometimes after sucking on a honey-dipped finger- these baby girl children received their first gold in the form of tiny sleepers or gold studs and the giving of these in the months leading up to the birth is a common gift.
I was four when my parents decided to pierce my lobes, roping in a nun from my school to do it and I was understandably reluctant to have this nun grab me by the tender flesh of my ear and pin me face-down onto her black serge lap so she might push an ice-cold needle through my lobes. A cork from the freezer was held against the back of my ear, providing the necessary resistance for the needle to push against. The nun then threaded each hole with a length of black cotton and tied the ends of the threads into two small loops to keep them open. A few days later, the threads were replaced by plain gold studs because my parents probably thought that earrings engraved with an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe were a bit too ‘Catholic’, although these were a popular choice among my friends who called upon the saints to see them through the most unremarkable of life events.
This dour nun was far removed from the gentle Brides of Christ you might have watched in The Sound of Music and she demonstrated a firm grip and an even firmer countenance as she trapped me deftly between her knees to examine the shape of my ears whilst my parents held onto my thrashing arms. I briefly contemplated biting her plump little kneecap as she bent my head forwards then decided that the risk of Hell On Earth- as opposed to going to the real hell afterwards- was too much of a risk. I had already spent too much time locked in the dark and chalky art supplies cupboard for various minor classroom insubordinations (like being, um, four) and I wasn’t planning on spending more time in there with sore throbbing ears to boot.
Post-piercing, all I was allowed to wear was a tiny, uptight gold stud whilst my Mexican friends wore dramatic, passionate, ear jewelry that afforded them a bigger and more decorative space in the world. I was envious of my friend Susie’s black curls, brown skin and the chunky pair of carved gold arracadas hoops that danced in her ears: standing alongside her, I felt like a half-erased drawing. My discreet British-style studs rendered me a half-hearted participant in a rite much bigger than me and as a child, I squirmed over my competing cultural definition. My envy confused me, wrapped up as it was with resentment at my parents. I had failed to separate my feelings about the frightening method used to pierce my ears from the longer-term consequences and cultural significance of remaining the only un-pierced girl in my school. At times I hated my parents for forcing me to go through such an ordeal, I disliked the hassle of caring for my pierced ears yet I longed too, for something a little less waspy. Alone in my room at night, I would remove the studs and ‘lose’ the small gold ball that screwed onto the sharp post which threaded through my ear. The next morning, my mother, or Maria our housekeeper, would triumphantly produce one of many ‘spares’ and reinsert the earring, accompanied by scolding slaps and harsh words. It became a daily and unpleasant ritual until Maria sat me down and explained that when I was older it would be up to me but for now, I had to submit. She was sure that an extra cup of atole might be in line for little girls who weren’t put on earth to turn her waist-length black hair prematurely grey. Maria was just eighteen.
Arracadas do “Tesouro Bedoya”, expostas no Museo de Pontevedra.
My early teenage years were marked by a nascent feminism and I began to consider the psychological implications of having ones pain rewarded by jewelry and a sugary finger. I thought about the fact that I underwent the same procedure without ‘enjoying’ the benefit of being too young to consciously recall it: it was very hard to forget my feelings of terror at being held down without real explanation of what was to happen. I found it hard to shake off the fear I felt when I realised that I had absolutely no say in it. The fact that ear piercing was performed by a nun made it even odder.
I lost interest in my earrings in adulthood, refusing to wear them as I started to regain jurisdiction over my body and began to reject everything that reminded me of my powerlessness in the face of my parents’ actions. It was in defiance of all that came after the parental neglect and abuse; the ongoing disregard of me as a person separate from themselves which was heralded by their turning a deaf ear against my pleas to leave my own ears alone. Eventually, I let the holes close up until all that remained was a thickened piece of tissue, a minute bulls-eye in the centre of my lobes. Slightly darker in colour than the rest of my ear, these were a reminder of things done and it became apparent that they would not fade and the damage would never be completely invisible. I had my own daughter and left her ears alone although when she was twelve she went through her own push-me pull -me as she tried to decide of her own accord whether to pierce. Six years later I had my son and left his ears alone too.
Decades later, I’m attracted by the thought of the flash-trash clink of Creole gilt hoops as I shake my head. I imagine white-gold stars thickly clustered along the outer and upper part of my ear or Halston-fabulous slim needles made from silver and platinum which I imagine swinging and catching the light. The mysterious language of the ear piercer intrigues me too. There are piercings called the tragus and the anti-tragus which sound like a Greek myth on the scale of Perseus versus the Gorgon. The conch and the rook are embedded into the shell-like curves of the inner ear lobe whilst the daith sounds like something a nun might whisper in the stillness of her cell-like bedroom. I’m drawn to what some call the Chola style, from first- and second-generation Mexican and Mexican-American girls who wear gold chains, large hoops and stop-the-traffic red lipstick with an attitude that both reclaims and flips this formerly abusive term on its head. I like the Chola blend of strong femininity and toughness which spits in the face of the fact that these girls probably had little choice as to whether their ears were pierced or not. But I’m not Mexican or Mexican-American, no matter that I once lived there for a while and despite the fact that the Chola has evolved from a culture I am familiar with. There’s a line of authenticity to be drawn in the sand somewhere, probably starting with the fact that Chola abuelas (grandmothers) seem to be quite thin on the ground and I am nearer the abuela than I am her daughter or granddaughter.
I’m ready now. I am eyeing up the anatomy of my little ears and wondering what they can take. As I get older, I can see that a jeweled ear (or nose!) can defy time in unexpected ways, allowing me to retrace old paths with bigger, more sure-footed steps. This time it will be my decision.
The countryside and small scale urban landscapes of Suffolk have long seduced those of a creative bent with artists and writers taking inspiration from this county, situated as it is on the edge of the English landmass, punctuated by towns and miles of rolling fields and quilted by waterways. We take a look at some well known and others, less so.
Arthur Ransome has a long and renowned association with Suffolk, using it as both backdrop and inspiration for his children’s books. The Ransome family moved to Suffolk in 1936, and they lived at Broke Farm on the banks of the River Orwell where Pin Mill harbour could be seen from his window. Ransome moored his sailing boat, the Nancy Blackett here.Made famous in his novel, ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’, the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the Orwell and downriver from the mighty Orwell Bridge, overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily on a spit of land between the rivers Orwell (which inspired a pen name for George Orwell) and Stour. The waters infiltrate this strangely porous landscape with its fimbrels of mud-flats and saltings. The breeze carries a salty brackish-tang of mud that mingles with the honey scent of the gorse-covered headlands and their ridge-line stands of pine and oak. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.
The young adventurous protagonists of Ransome’s book were staying at Alma Cottage; located right by the Butt & Oyster pub and he had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard although his home was actually high up on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington.
Ransome’s first Suffolk based story, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, tells of an unintended voyage across the sea. The Swallow children have promised their mother they will play in the safe confines of the harbour, but their boat, the Goblin, loses its anchor and drifts away in a fog. The children end up sailing across the North Sea to Holland. In tribute, an annual sailing race now takes place from the sailing club at Pin Mill. In the second book, Secret Water, the Swallow children are once again in a pickle, marooned on an island with a small boat and end up charting the area of islands and marshes which, in reality, are south of Pin Mill at Hamford Water.
There are plenty of folks who live on the river at Pin Mill and quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red sailed Thames sailing barges are also a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here. Last summer (June 2014), Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brought it to Suffolk for the Felixstowe Book Festival and I had the great pleasure of seeing up close, the craft that bravely sails the pages of Ransome’s books. Keep an eye out for future visits next year, hopefully.
The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well-known (and signposted) trail that loops around Woolverstone Hall and the Park that surrounds it, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past those mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rising up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirting the tiny village of Chelmondiston, before returning you to your start point- The Butt & Oyster Inn. The pub overlooks the boatyards which edge Pin Mill Common on both sides and makes a logical and scenic place to start or finish at although if you like a drink, it might be best to wait until after that walk- the fireside seats and sunny warmth streaming through the picture windows overlooking the water makes it hard to get up and get going. If the weather is inclement, sit by the window with your book and watch the wheeling gulls, sent upriver by rough seas as they set down, then take off again from the maram grass covered islands and shores of this beautiful part of Suffolk.
The west and south of the county boast many fine examples of buildings and churches built by wealthy wool merchants of which Lavenham is probably the most famous of all, but how many of you also know that the village has a direct connection with the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and its composer Jane Taylor (1783–1824), an English poet and novelist? Jane and her family made their home at Shilling Grange in Lavenham’s Shilling Street and Twinkle, Twinkle was originally published under the title The Star in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Taylor and her older sister Ann. The poems were a special commission by the publishers Darton and Harvey and Twinkle’s simple verse belies the skill required to capture the tender relationship between a mother and her child as she introduces it to a universe beyond the nursery walls. In her autobiography, Ann, Jane’s sister, alludes to this skill as she reminisces about Jane describing her own writing process: ‘I try to conjure some child into my presence, address her suitably, as well as I am able and when I begin to flag, I say to her, “There love, now you may go”’.
It is not known if the poem was actually written in Lavenham or indeed, inspired by its West Suffolk night skies and many scholars claim that the poem was written in Colchester, where the family moved to. Jane did have an interest in astronomy though and would have had fine views of the Lavenham skies from the attic windows which her brother noted:
“The window commanded a view of the country and a tract of sky as a field for that nightly soaring of the fancy of which she was so fond,” Isaac wrote in 1825.
The two little girls attended dance lessons at the Swan Inn (now the Swan Hotel) tutored by an 18-stone dancing master from Bury St Edmunds and their father, a noted engraver, painted both children against the bucolic backdrop of their garden back in 1792. This portrait is now owned by the National Portrait Gallery although it is on long-term loan to the Bath Preservation Trust and is hung in the Georgian setting of the drawing room at 1, Royal Crescent, Bath.
The Taylor sisters were fairly prolific, publishing several volumes of tales and rhymes for infants but Jane died early aged forty of breast cancer on April 13, 1824 although her work continues to attract visitors to the village and particularly Japanese tourists who are especially entranced by this magical little poem and like to see the house its author lived in, now owned by the National Trust who have staged exhibitions at the nearby Guildhall. And one more star-related Lavenham fact for you: Molet House on Barn Street is a handsome black and white Tudor building and if you look closely, you’ll see that its doorway boasts an engraved star. This is the badge of the De Veres, the local lords of the manor, and is it known as a ‘molet’ or ‘mullet’ and is said to refer to a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem high in the skies, as witnessed by a member of the family called Aubrey the First during the Crusades. He went on to victory.
Here, he tells of this event, speaking of himself in the most self-important of tones: “God willing the safety of the Christians showed a white star ……. on the Christian host, which to every man’s sight did light and arrest upon the standard of Aubrey de Vere, there shining excessively.” It was subsequently claimed that an angel actually leaned down and threw the star onto De Vere’s standard himself, thus further legitimising Aubrey’s war efforts in his opinion.
Many places near to Ipswich are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment and their stories tell themselves -stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place, where, in 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaeologist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold and burnished jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and completely intact feasting set, and most famously, the ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum, although the original now resides at the British Museum.
Intensive archaeological excavations gave us wonderful insights into the lives of these Anglo Saxons: tiny fragments showed that rich textiles, dyed using plant matter, once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen over-shirts to shaggy woollen cloaks woven to keep out the searing winds blown straight here from Siberia and caps luxuriantly trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the boggy acidic peat which was composed of soil enriched by centuries of decaying bracken, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king, ruling over the hardy souls that once carved out a living from this harsh and inhospitable land.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship adhering to the highest of standards and benefiting from far-reaching international connections which spanned Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of glittery treasures, cavernous reception halls and strong, formidable warriors described in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s book, Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister tale of a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world who love the interactive displays and the chance to dress up. Take a copy of ‘Beowulf’ and recite it aloud to the kids: this dramatic piece of prose perfectly suits dark and stormy East Anglian winter days where you can declaim loudly into the wind in a kingly (or queenly) manner.
Suffolk has always been a place for migration. We began as the indigenous ‘South Folk’ whose toughness and shy self-reliance became hard-wired through centuries of fighting off challenges by land-grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility. You can see why our county sea-borders are home to such a compelling mix of people and the county town of Ipswich, with its history as a busy working port and status as county seat, has always attracted economic migrant workers from all over the world. The Orwell River was once a prime trading route between Ipswich, the European mainland and the rest of the country and in the Middle Ages, the wool produced by wealthy East Anglian merchants and farmers was exported via Ipswich whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area is now slowly being restored although the waters bob with yachts and houseboats now instead of the merchants ships that once plied their trade there.
Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of 22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here as she saidin an interview with a regional newspaper:
“Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.”
With a well-established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says;
“I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”
Ipswich docks are undergoing regeneration and now bustle with a different kind of economic activity from their earliest incarnation (they first took shape in Anglo Saxon times). In a place where merchants once traded and dock workers hefted cargo onto the rust encrusted decks of the great ships that sailed between Britain, Europe and the rest of the world, the docks are now populated by sailors working on sleek pleasure craft. There are some fishing fleets still, sturdy and stout hearted as they putter in and out of their berths but the biggest change is in the crowds of locals, here to eat and drink and to live in flats on the redeveloped warehouses and wharves. At night, lights blaze not from the returning fishing boats but from the bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses that have migrated here. It is beautiful and has yet to reach its full potential, a very different one to its original purpose.
With its long and noble maritime history, one of our choices for a great place to eat and drink here was always going to be afloat and Mariners Restaurant is situated on a beautiful craft berthed on the newly redeveloped Ipswich marina, surrounded by sympathetically restored brick built warehouses and some maritime related businesses. The Mariner was built and launched in 1899 as the gunboat SS Argusfor the department of the Belgian State. Recommissioned in 1940 by the Belgian navy, it was sunk, raised and subsequently re-repaired by the Germans who returned it to the Antwerp based owners in 1945 and then rechristened as Flandria VII.
Sri Lanka, Dunwich, Orford and Ipswich all appear in Rona Tearne’s book, ‘The Swimmer,’ a tale of a relationship between a woman and a young male immigrant and, appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for a dreamy story of 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) who spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain and while he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair and when tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.
The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around the region: a crepuscular and brooding backdrop. Shaped by conflict and affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum, least not in such a mutable part of the world, shaped by immigration, where the human landscape is so very much, more than a sum of its parts. The fictional story of Ben, swimming in the stream, feeds into the rivulets of migration that in real life forms the fascinating story of Ipswich. From the Frisian potters originally from the part of Europe we now call The Netherlands who settled the Quay area in the 7th century and established the first large scale potteries since the time of the Romans, to the people arriving here from the Caribbean in the 50’s, stepping off boats like the Windrush at Tilbury before setting off downstream to Ipswich, their contribution is woven into the very fabric of the town.
In Something Might Happen, her murder-mystery novel from 2003, novelist Julie Myerson barely disguises the Enid Blyton-esque seaside town of Southwold, where she has a second home. Myerson’s storytelling again walks the line between humanity and the dark, jangling terror of what we are capable of, all set in the most domestic and cosy of surroundings, a place of aspiration and longing for the land-locked suburbanite. Yes, this coastal landscape could be anywhere in Britain, which is important for a nation of people heavily invested still in the Victorian idyll of a seaside holiday, but I see it as unmistakably East Suffolk, where miles of marshland act as buffer between land and sea. Myerson’s most recent book, The Stopped Heart, is also set in an unidentified rural part of England but again, to a Suffolk dweller the sights and sounds say unmistakably ‘home’: there’s the ‘bright, raw smell’ of a freshly skinned rabbit and the ‘smashed’ sensation one of the characters feels upon seeing the sea. There’s a move to an isolated cottage in the country and ghosts and past crimes returning to haunt us as Myerson expertly weaves together the story of bereaved Mary, newly moved to the country and Eliza, a 13-year-old farmer’s daughter, living in the same house a century earlier and addressing us directly from the grave.
Charles Dickens was a frequent traveller to Suffolk and toured the county giving recitals of his work and was also invited to open the lecture hall for the Ipswich Mechanics Institute in 1851. Sources have claimed that the Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouses in nearby Barham may have inspired the workhouse setting and tale of Olive Twist. We know that Dickens visited and read the records of a ten year old apprentice who lived there; the sordid and inhuman conditions which triggered a riot in protest must surely have made an impression upon him?
In 1835 he stayed in Ipswich and subsequently set some of the scenes in his novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there- it is believed that an Ipswich woman, a Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold was the inspiration for the character of Mrs Leo Hunter in the book, depicted as a woman with pretensions for the performing of charitable works and the writing of poetry. Opened in 1518, the Ipswich hotel he was a guest at was known then as The Tavern, later being renamed the Great White Horse Hotel with meandering stairs and corridors depicted in chapter XXII. The hotel is no longer in its original incarnation and is now home to a chain coffee shop and one other store. Dickens also stayed at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds (a short drive along the A14) and this ivy clad hotel, which fronts onto Angel Hill, still stands and you can stay in the very room in which Dickens slept and wrote. In Ipswich, there are plenty of good coffee shops in which to sit and read your copy of Pickwick Papers (which also mentions the Angel Hotel). Try Jacey’s Coffee House, Arlington Brasserie, Bakers & Barista or appropriately enough, Pickwicks Tearooms on Dial Lane. They all serve a decent cup of joe, plus food and other drinks.
Children may be interested to hear that the well-known nursery rhymes ‘Little Boy Blue’ and‘Humpty Dumpty’ may be satirical references to the life and fate of Cardinal Wolsey who himself was born and schooled in the town and whose bronze statue can be found at the junctions of St Nicholas, St Peters and Silent Street. These rhymes (and many others like them) served as a useful way of criticising, teasing or satirising figures of power and influence at a time when these behaviours, conducted openly would likely earn you a deadly fate, or imprisonment at the very least. Children love gory and dramatic history, as evidenced by the success of Horrible Histories and the pretty gruesome events behind seemingly innocent rhymes make perfect examples of how people living under oppression will always find a way of expressing dissent.Tell your children how the arrogance of this powerful man (who would not listen to any voice other than his own) is referred to in the line ‘Come blow your horn’ whilst ‘where’s the little boy that looks after the sheep?’ strongly implies that his ‘sheep like’ people are suffering at the hands of a self-serving and neglectful man. Humpty Dumpty references an interesting event in history, the loss by Wolsey, of his power, and by the time that this rhyme became popular, he had been charged with high treason, accused of delaying the annulment of Catharine of Aragon and Henry the Eight’s marriage. Humpty’s ‘great fall’ symbolises Wolsey’s own fall from grace. Indeed, Ipswich School lays claim to being the only school that warrants a real life mention in the works of William Shakespeare where, in ‘Henry VIII, Griffith has this to say about Cardinal Wolsey: “Those twins of learning that he raised in you, Ipswich and Oxford! One of which fell with him.” Further Wolsey related commemoration can also be found at 47 Nicholas Street where the Ipswich Society has mounted a blue plaque at Curson Lodge, to mark the birthplace of Wolsey on the opposite side of this street.
Suffolk is an unusual place, irregularly defined more by water than its land which has presented a peculiar and unpredictable challenge for various invading forces. However it has also been the home of people who travel far beyond its confines in their own lifetime and the results of these expeditions can be seen growing in our gardens and parks and town centres.
The tales of the great plant hunters are epic, ranging across seas and the unmapped heart of continents. Often centred upon the grand male narrative, these treks were deemed unsuitable for women although some did manage to penetrate the closed world of botany and plant collection. Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, of whom we will hear more from later, said this, barely 100 years ago: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.”
Think of David Douglas who sought out and introduced the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Escholtzia (Californian poppy) and lupins and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii and Alice Eastwood who rescued the herbarium at California Academy of Sciences after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire, by clinging to the banisters. Then there’s Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke who went to Columbia and Panama in search of the rare orchids and were were kidnapped by Farc guerillas, remaining captive for nine months in more recent times: this has never been a sedate and genteel past-time. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovering the new, whether that be a plant or place to forage for them has driven humans to trade in and import plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain and elaborate preparations were made to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree covered mountain slopes.
Two of the countries most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who went on to become scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and became Director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1185 and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker who was Kews first Director and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.
Joseph Hooker combined a thirst for discovery and an inexhaustible hunger for travel with rigorous taxonomic innovation and investigation which soon led to a developing reputation as the foremost botanist of his time. Beginning his career as an assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus for Antarctic expeditions (a way of overcoming a lack of fiscal means by which to fund his own expedition), he roamed the southern oceans, India and the Himalayas, even getting himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for ranging far into territories he had received no invitation for- Tibet. If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons because the varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were his Indian discoveries: 25 of them in total and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants. The restored Victorian gardens at Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their apparent domesticity and British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here. Hooker adored his plants but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer. As he commented about the rhododendrons one day, ” If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am.”
In those extensive diaries now being digitised at Kew, Hooker frequently expounded on the arduous nature of his expeditions: “I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect the seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever” as he wrote to William Hooker from Darjeeling in 1849. Joseph took few luxuries with him: apart from the tools of his trade he packed a supply of cigars for each evening and a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Kinchin. A devoted companion, the dog one day fell to its death and was swept away by a river.
Described as ‘an interrogator of the natural world’, Hookers work helped to support Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species because he understood botanical context- he interpreted what he saw around him and his own publications were many. Containing exquisite botanical illustrations, works such as the Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya and the Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India culminated in The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years and published in 1883. It has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century, describing over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species. The work underpinned the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.
Joseph’s father, William, the first Director of Kew Gardens came to Halesworth to take up the position of superintendent of the brewery, staying for eleven years until his botanical passion drive him to London and his directorial post at Kew Gardens. His son clearly followed in his footsteps and mighty ones they were too: he increased the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres and oversaw the construction of the Palm House. On 1 November 1865, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, aged just 48.
One of my personal favourites of all his plants is the Winter flowering Sarcococca ‘Hookeriana’ which is possessed of an understated appearance but a fragrance that is anything but. Tiny lime green pendulous blossoms, dangling from the undersides of leathery leafed branches give off a powerfully spicy and verdant sweet scent which wends its way down our garden and into the kitchen whenever we open the door. Often used by municipal gardeners because it is tough and low maintenance, the Sarcococca often makes its home outside multi-storey car parks, on median strips of urban clearways and on council office borders and most of us walk past without paying it a moments notice.
But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with great hazy swathes of bluebells although all these are without doubt easily found in our county and much celebrated. I think of the Scots Pines and Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath. They populate the ancient and characteristic twisted pinelines of the Brecklands (‘broken lands’) and tall cedars grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall nearby after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.
Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in the eponymous country and in Syria too, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians. Many thousands had been massacred. Even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker ” ‘For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.” As he arrived in Damascus in the October, his diary told of what he encountered: ” The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses” but the expedition found, what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon, about 400 of them with an estimated age was 350-400 years. Hooker collected the seeds and added to the UK population of a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes, both rural and urban. Its shape is etiolated and those distal flat level branches with their clearly defined clouds of bristly leaves are well suited to the coastal regions where it provides tall shade for the wild ponies that graze there and shelters the acid yellow gorse that perfumes the late spring air. Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the bible, “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92 v12), the tree has been a great success and is my living memorial to Joseph Hooker.
Hooker’s own botanical illustrations straddle the fields of art and science being both wondrous objet d’art and scientific record. The history of botanical painting and illustration stretches back centuries, being used for medicinal purposes (Culpeppers) alongside its aesthetic and decorative properties. In Santon Downham, the Iceni Botanical Artists now offer tutorial workshops free of charge to the public at the village hall, funded by the HLF ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. There are guest speakers, the chance to gain skills in watercolour and receive tuition on how best to depict local flora from Breckland wild flowers to its fungi and pine tree landscapes. Artists can tap into a landscape suffused with stories which stretch back to the Stone Age: rabbit farming, glacial pingos, flint mines and over 12,845 species of plants and animals.
This piece was previously published on the InSuffolk site (find them at @insuffolk on twitter).
Suffolk, the curious county, has its well known tales of saints and martyrs, of a great book that underpins the laws of the land and towering church edifices where queens lie. We have villages under the sea, a ghost writer who once lived in a spectre infested village and roaming black dogs with eyes of carmine fire. There are stories of tamer beasts too: of binary patterned Dalmatians who drank from a church horse trough as they searched for their stolen 101 puppies; the poor entombed mummified cats found walled up in Tudor buildings throughout the county and the gentle giant working horses that ploughed our fields. We have curious place names (Finger Bread Hill, Beggars Bush, Wherstead Ooze, Burnt Dick Hill and Smear Marshes) and architecture that spits in the face of straightness (the crinkle crankle walls of Bramfield and Tudor squew whiffness of Lavenham) but look a little harder and you will find thousands of smaller stories too within this big, bold narrative. These stories are frequently overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance of history and the pew kneelers at the cathedral of St James in Bury St Edmunds are one such example.
I stumbled upon these accidentally after calling in at the cathedrals newly refurbished Pilgrims Refectory for lunch one Saturday. Having spent a happy half hour making sure they were all placed the right way -all the better to admire the many, many crewel stitches that go into their designs- I looked up to see some cathedral staff grinning broadly at my apparently, slightly barking behaviour. After seeing them in such close quarters, my curiosity about their inception was peaked.
The kneelers are a relatively modern ‘invention’ because prayer was never supposed to be comfortable and the Christian church did not originally intend to meet our need for comfort; instead inculcating congregants with the sense that the holiest of outcomes (heaven) involved a degree of self sacrifice, denial and subjugation in the face of unheated and cold stone floors. The transaction was not between the worshipper and the church per se, but between them and God and therefore no earthly comforts or comfy intermediary between supplicant, floor and their God was offered.
Times move on though and churches, as well as wanting to appear more welcoming, are seeking new ways of embedding themselves into their community and tear down some of the ancient rituals that may intimidate as much as they comfort. People aren’t so attached to formal and old religious emblems of security and belonging, the ways by which churches pandered to their wealthier congregants via ornate tombs, dedicated and reserved pews with high backs to increase the distance between their noble occupants and the ‘great unwashed’ in the pews behind, and richly coloured stained glass windows. Churches are, in effect, advertising and celebrating the ordinary people who once lived and continue to live and work in a parish and they use items such as kneelers to tell their stories.
And what stories! With over five hundred parishes in the Diocese, each kneeler is united by a common theme of colour-the three hues of Suffolk blue which marked a cloth out as originating from the county when it was traded in mainland Europe. The broadcloth trade was already established in Suffolk before the arrival of the Flemish weavers in the 1330s and the main broadcloth area stretched in a roughly trinagular shape between Hadleigh, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds. The cloth was dyed with woad or indigo and Hadleigh became reknowned for its blue cloth whilst the success of Lavenhams blue serge led to it becoming the 14th richest place in the country by 1524. This is why the kneelers embroidery is set against a Suffolk blue backdrop with the colour representing the Diocese or ‘mother’. Each kneeler is then embroidered with a crewel work design that reflects some aspect of parish history, some traditional and others quirkier.
An online record of church kneelers across the country was set up by Lady Bingham of Cornhill who described them as a form of folk art, one which she says makes up as vast library of information about the interests of innumerable parishes. Unnoticed yet widespread, she sees them as fine examples of folk art and a narrative through craft by local people that is often disregarded by the lofty. The kneelers of the cathedral of Bury St Edmunds are included in this record.
When it was decided to make them, each parish was invited to choose an emblem or motif that symbolised parish and church and said something significant about them. Some motifs possess layer upon layer of folklore and spiritual history spanning centuries and one example of this is the scallop, that ancient symbol of christianity and central to the design of the St James of Dunwich kneeler. The scallop shell is arguably more famously associated with Aldeburgh and the Maggie Hambling sculptural tribute to Benjamin Britten than it is with Dunwich. However the shell itself is a wider symbol of the sea, of pilgrimage and fertility and is seen in paintings such as Boticelli’s ‘Venus’ with its underlying messages about the birth of love and spiritual beauty as a driving force of life. Dunwich’s own loss of one of its churches to the might of the sea acts as poignant counterpart to the scallop shell as a giver of life and facilitator of spiritual rebirth.
The British Museum has a scallop shell shaped lead ampula found in Dunwich that is believed to have originated between 1067-1600- quite a wide period of time but also indicative of the enduring popularity of the motif. Worn on the person, the pilgrim would use it as a flask, to hold water and offer spiritual succour during an arduous trek through the mountains of north west Spain. Today, pilgrims wear scallop shells and are given them as symbolic gift upon their arrival at pilgrimage sites.
The Wall of St James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages and a plenary indulgence could be earned by completing the route- the church at Dunwich takes its name from the saint. The Spanish city of Santiago De Compostela had its beginnings in the shrine of St James the Great which is now in their cathedral and it was the end point of the pilgrimage. There is metaphor in the shell shape too: its deep pleats and grooves meet at a single point on the shell and symbolise the different routes taken and the common goal and it also repesents the pilgrim too. The shells wash up in their thousands on the beaches of Galicia and this is interpreted as the hand of God, guiding and urging pilgrims forward. The body of St James was feared lost to the sea during a furious storm but then the waves gave him up and when he was found prone on the sands, his body was adorned with thousands of tiny scallop shells. There are other tales too, of horses and bridegrooms guiding a boat carrying James’ body to land and in this tale, the horse and rider are encrusted with shells after being feared drowned.
Now to the village of Boulge which is the burial site of Edward FitzGerald who lies in the churchyard of the small, isolated Church of St Michael & All Angels. His grave is situated next to the FitzGerald family mausoleum, a location that poignantly reflects his decision to not make Boule Hall his home because he chose to live in a thatched cottage on the family estate instead. A friend of Tennyson, Fitzgerald was the translator of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám from its original Persian alongside some of fellow Suffolk poet George Crabbe’s poems. The Boulge parish has chosen for its kneeler, a single bloom of Fitzgeralds Persian Rose, the Rosa Damascene of the Caspian with over 800 years of intoxicatingly perfumed history to commemorate its literary resident whose grave is near to a rose bush which bears this dedication: “This Rose tree raised in Kew Gardens from seed brought by Wm. Simpson, Artist-Traveller from the grave of Omar Khayyam at Nashipur was planted by a few admirers of Edward Fitzgerald in the name of the Omar Khayyam Club on the 7th October 1893′′. On a trip to Nashipur in Persia, Simpson had previously gathered a pocketful of rosehips from roses growing near to the tomb of Omar Khayyam which he sent to Fitzgeralds publisher. This resulted in a rose described by Grant Allen as “Long with a double fragrance may it bloom, This Rose from Iran on an English stock”, and a local nursery Notcutts has helped conserve stocks by budding and grafting new plants.
Like Boulge, St John the Baptist at Onehouse has gone for a non indigenous plant and embroidered a Honey Locust Tree on its kneeler, a tree which is very closely associated with its saintly namesake. The Book of Matthew tells us that John survived year round by eating the edible fruit of the Honey Locust “…and his food was locusts and wild honey”(chapter 3, verse 4) and not live bugs which has been a common misinterpretation. Locust populations in Israel and the Holy Lands are strongly dependent upon the rainy season which causes the parched desert sands to become giddy with blooms and lush vegetation which spring up as if from nowhere and live a brief life which ends after they have reproduced. For much of the year, these ravenous insects would simply not have enough to eat in these sere and rocky deserts but the Locust Tree (Ceratoni Siliqua) prefers this kind of terrain and the flat leathery pods, surrounded by a spongy sweet pulp (carob) grow thickly upon its branches. Locally referred to as’ Saint John’s Bread’, the pods would have nourished John the Baptist and any locust that decided to try to brave the hostile conditions.
At the top of a winding and narrow lane, the strategic location of Little Cornard and its church is obvious, situated on the waning hills of the Chiltern ridge where the Suffolk lands rise up to meet the Essex border. The parish of Little Cornard was the first place in Suffolk to report the Black Death and lost 60 congregants with 21 families suffering the loss of every adult member. Other battles were fought and also brought death in their wake because here the Danes and the Saxons fought a savage and arduous conflict. None of these events feature on the All Saints kneeler which is instead emblazoned with – a peacock- that most un Suffolk and indeed, un-English bird. There is a Peacock Hall in the village though, an 18 timber-framed and plastered house with a keystone decorated with an angels head. According to archive material, the manor was held in 1333 by John Somersham who also held the Manor of Peacocks in Little Cornard and today, locals report peacocks do live in their vicinity as semi tame family pets.
The history of the bird in England is less clear although there is evidence that the Indian Peafowl was brought by Phoenician traders as gifts to the pharaohs of Egypt as long ago as 1000 B.C and probably brought here by the Romans. Their association with grand homes? Maybe because they were popular edible centrepieces at banquets or were an exotic ornate addition to the grounds, showing that their owners were worldy sophisticated people. The actual word ‘Peacock’ comes from the old Anglo Saxon (péa) to describe an overtly vain person, from the pre 7th Century word “peacocc” and Chaucer used the word to refer to an ostentatious person, calling him “proud a pekok” in Troilus and Criseyde.The word, as a personal name, was first recorded in the Domesday Book for the county of Essex in 1086.
Many of the kneelers use puns based on a parish name as in the wheelbarrow chosen by Barrow, the crow that represents Crowfield (although Crowfield is not named from the bird but from an Old English word croh meaning nook or corner) and Burgate’s gate. Modern parish life is celebrated too: Leavenheaths grazing cows juxtaposed with electricity pylons; Leistons nuclear power station (which has its own sci-fi kind of strange beauty in the sea mists that swirl in the early morning) and the modernised ‘House in the Clouds’ of Thorpeness. Suffolks watery locale and maritime heritage is beautifully represented from the crewelled Wolverston smugglers cat sitting in a cottage window, the tall mast of HMS Ganges chosen by Shotley parish and Dalham’s Golden Hind, captained by Sir Francis Drake. His agent went by the name of Martin Stuteville, came from the village and was also his sailing companion alongside familial owner of the local manor house. The village name, Dalham, springs from the Old English word for valley homestead.
For me, the stand out piece of Suffolk curiousness is the frog emblazoned kneeler that represents Frostenden; a village that the Danes referred to as ‘the valley of the frog’ (‘frosc’ = ‘frog’) and in possession of one of Suffolks 38 round tower churches -completely ancient in itself and one of the oldest of the old. A valley is indicated by names that contain the Old English ‘denu’- although do be sure to pronounce Frostenden without that ‘t’. Recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Froxedena’ , the good book also stated that ocean going crafts moored here although all that remains now of its marine past is a ditch that is barely wide enough to house a family of frogs and many acres of farmland separate the village from the North Sea. Near to the old port area by a footpath running from Cove Bottom is a large earthen mound which locals say has yet to be excavated or even explained definitively. A report from the early 1900’s talks of a ‘naust’ – a Viking dry dock rarely seen outside of Denmark and, also scattered around and lying buried under great whippy stems of brambles and thickets of nettles, are what remains of the old quays. You’ll find other port-related working objects lie scattered about the place too if you really hunt about.
I still nurse a childhood fascination with drovers and the romanticised images I held of these men as they tramped along the ancient walkways that cross-hatched the British countryside, etching them deeper and deeper into the land as they escorted their charges to market, to summer pastures or sheltered locations for overwintering. The census of 1890 lists the details of young men who worked as ‘ankle beaters’, using a sharp rap with a stick to drive the livestock forward towards market.
As a child I read The Woolpack by Cynthia Garnett and thought about the sheepy-smelling wool merchants of fifteenth-century Cotswolds as they smuggled, double-crossed and pirated their way into actions that reverberated across Europe. I explored the wool towns and villages of South Suffolk- Lavenham, Long Melford, Sudbury and Hadleigh -where wooden frames houses line narrow streets which wend their way towards ornate, dramatic churches constructed with wool money, imbued with lanolin and self-importance.
These sheep, which dotted the fields and pastures of Suffolk, earned the county untold wealth and influence. The animals moved from field to field, farm to farm and their fleeces and cloth were sold in local markets or transported overland or by river barge to the North Sea via Kings Lynn, along the river Stour at Sudbury, or taken to London and transported onto mainland Europe and beyond. Suffolk wasn’t strictly all things ovine although records of 1440 show that around Bury St Edmunds, the profits from the rearing of sheep had superceded those of cattle. The annual cattle shows in villages such as Melton, Hoxne, Woolpit and Woodbridge drew the attention of Scottish cattle farmers in the early 18th century who sent down animals in fine condition although there is evidence that cattle have been driven to England as far back as the fifteenth century. These could fetch prices as high as seven shillings for a handsome short-horn. Suffolk and East Anglia as a whole were geographically convenient, being within reach of the London markets and home to some of the best ‘finishing’ grazing where cattle could fatten up and rest after the long and arduous drive from the Scottish highlands and lowlands.
East Anglia had adopted Flemish methods of livestock farming which included supplementing grazing with the feeding of fodder such as clover and root-vegetables- highly attractive to cattle farmers wanting the best return on their livestock. Indeed, Daniel Defoe (in the quote below) had remarked that East Suffolk became the first English district which fed and fattened its sheep and cattle in this manner and by the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south from Scotland. His account mirrors modern day food debates about the merits of grass versus grain-finished cattle and their respective flavour and textures and it is also thought that the Red Poll breed that came out of Norfolk and Suffolk is most likely a result of polled Scottish red Galloway bulls being put to local cattle.
“This part of England is also remarkable for being the first where the feeding and fattening of cattle, both sheep as well as black cattle with turnips, was first practised in England, which is made a very great part of the improvement of their lands to this day; and from whence the practice is spread over most of the east and south parts of England, to the great enriching of the farmers, and encrease of fat cattle: And tho’ some have objected against the goodness of the flesh thus fed with turnips, and have fansied it would taste of the root; yet upon experience ’tis found, that at market there is no difference nor can they that buy, single out one joynt of mutton from another by the taste..”
The feet of turkeys would be tarred and sanded to protect them on a journey that could take up to three months (according to John Chartres in Chapters from The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume 4) and a typical journey in 1696 saw turkeys driven from Newmarket to Epsom, whilst cattle were fitted with iron shoes. Geese would have iron booties making me wonder whether the term ‘a gaggle of geese’ accurately described what must have been an infernal racket as they clattered and scuttered across the landscape on route to market.
Suffolk cattle drovers would place notices in the local press during the month of January, advertising where they would be present to collect stock to drive onto London’s Smithfield Market. They gathered at Oulton Blue Boat Inn and Rushmere Hall, at the Ufford Crown, Martlesham Red Lion and the Woolpack at Pakenham. In Cockfield, a large parish lying between Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds, the drovers assembled at The Greyhound Inn and records by the Suffolk Institute mention a Mr James Howlett of Brome who took a ‘more westerly route’ which included Bury St Edmunds on the traditional Wednesday market day. On this day, he could be assured of like-minded company, a place to gather and catch up on all the news and seek lodgings should he require it.
These Scottish cattle droves were mightily impressive with each drover responsible for fifty or sixty heads which comprised herds over two hundred, reaching paces of between ten to fifteen miles per day. As in classic American Western style, a mounted topsman would ride on ahead, operating as an alert system and charged with securing night-time pasture, water and shelter. Paid approximately twice the going rate for a farm labourer (3/4s per day, 10s for their return journey), this had to cover their lodgings and their food. As the time of the fairs approached, local village lanes and pastures were hemmed in by herds of steaming, snorting beasts, tended by drovers in their hundreds and picked over by local graziers looking to add to their stock. The hostelries and local businesses ramped up their hospitality, serving meals and advertising the time and location of these. Indeed, the Melton fair was held on land next door to the local inn.
Suffolk and Norfolk are watery counties and maps show a lattice of rivers and streams, marshes, bogs, creeks and man-made drainage channels. As many a would-be invader found to their cost, navigating the region was complex and attempts to replicate the flight path of a crow were doomed to failure. Whilst navigating on water might seem as simple as building a craft fit for the purpose of carrying humans, fitting hundreds of heads of cattle, sheep and flocks of stroppy, birds onto one is an entirely different matter. Trying to ford what appears to be a shallow body of water with livestock in tow or mounted on horseback can swiftly go very wrong indeed as William Camden wrote in 1582 after trying to ford the River Wharfe “…for, it hath such slippery stones in it that a horse can have no sure footing on them, or else the violence of the water carryeth them away from under his feet.”
Therefore, a drover generally needed to travel around or over water and when time is money (packhorse transport was considerably more costly than horse-towed barges on water), going around might necessarily involve considerable added mileage. So began the construction of packhorse bridges along main routes at a time when the large-scale trading of livestock and their produce began to factor greatly in the regional and national economy. Dating mostly back to the seventeenth century, packhorse bridges were largely used to transport wool, cloth, sheep and cattle. Designed to be narrow in width with low parapets to allow clear passage of the heavy, goods laden panniers that were carried on the backs of animals, these bridges began life as planked-in wood with supports constructed of logs. Later on as the design was improved, the wood was replaced by piers and arches made in the local stone and some of them were widened to allow safer and more efficient passage of the significantly more wide bodied cattle. By the eighteenth century, the construction of turnpikes (after the 1773 Turnpike Act) rendered some of the bridges obsolete although away from the ‘main drags’ they continued to be used to navigate free routes. Drovers did much to create the seemingly meandering patterns of lanes in our countryside as they tried their best to avoid costly turnpikes and toll-gates, most of which straddled the straighter routes between markets, ports and towns.
The village of Moulton is four miles east of Newmarket and has its own Packhorse Bridge. The village is recorded in the Domesday book although the settlement of Moulton predates 1086 and is older than the its much larger neighbour. The name is Old English for the Farmstead of a man called Mula although an alternative explanation suggests the name may be derived from the Old English words ‘Mula’ plus ‘Tun’= as a place where mules are kept.
Bounded by meadows and farmland, the River Kennett runs south-north along the eastern borders of the meadows, carving a gentle pathway through a chalk landscape which folds itself into two hills, Primrose Hill to the east and Folly Hill and Thrift Covert to the west. The parish is bordered on its north side by the prehistoric Icknield Way which went on to be modified by Roman engineers to follow the chalk uplands which bisect England from the Wash to Wiltshire. The Icknield Way was one of the longest used drover routes and a popular route for merchants travelling between the towns of Royston and Newmarket, with higher vantage points at Gazeley and Dalham. Although its name is suggestive of a single defined route, it actually grew from a medley of braided tracks, lanes and greenways which lie above the lowland chalk that runs underneath Breckland, past Newmarket and onto Knettishall Heath, ten or so miles from Thetford. The Roman route of Peddars Way continues on from Knettishall to the red sandstone layers of Hunstanton’s cliffs on the North Norfolk coastline.
Out driving last week, I crossed and recrossed the borders of Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire and I encountered the 15th century Pack Horse Bridge quite by accident after getting lost trying to find my way to Newmarket from Sudbury via the back roads and lanes. The bridge itself traverses the old Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds packhorse route, one of the main arterial runs for the latters wool trade which, by 1440, had outpaced cattle farming in revenue and if you draw a straight line from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds, it passes straight through Moulton. Stockily built in local flint and stone and spanning twenty metres, the bridge possesses the classically low parapets although it is wide enough to allow the passage of smaller carts. As you walk over, the view ahead is of acid-jazz fields of oil seed rape, a road snaking its way up a hill and scudding clouds. The curve of the bridge is far less gentle underfoot than its appearance from the roadside might suggest and after a week of torpid sun and a night of rain, my sandals scudded across its gravelled surface in their search for traction, and I imagined the slip and flinty clatter of horses or mules hooves as they struggled to gain momentum, panniers laden and possibly pulling a cumbersome cart behind them too in trains of up to fifty animals. The surface most certainly would not have been user-friendly gravel back then and surely must have been made more treacherous from animal manure and other detritus.
The vantage point is a gift that keeps on giving: views of the old rectory school on your right, dating back to 1849 and beyond that lies the churchyard and St Peter’s church set above the river. The west face of the church presides over fields dotted with copses and the misty silhouette of Ely Cathedral lies on the horizon amid the low-lying Cambridgeshire fens. Ask an East Anglian about ‘The Ship of the Fens’ as we call the Cathedral and many of us will be able to name our favoured spot where we go to gaze upon its spires from a distance. This is now mine. Gazeley Stud lies beyond (this is prime horse country) and nearby pastures are home to some of the best horseflesh in the world.
The road by the bridge was dry when I visited although a few days later the skies dumped a months worth of rain in one night but I didn’t go back to see if anything had changed. Back in February (2014), heavy rainfall did cause flooding and the bridge was once again fording torrents of water as the Kennett burst its banks and the environment agency issues flood warnings from Ousden to Freckenham. The River Kennett is home to kingfishers, egrets and the healthy chalk favouring stickleback population which feed them and further downstream, a similar old flint footbridge curves over the waters which have shrunk somewhat since the bridge was first built. The size of this bridge shows us this because had the Kennett been a small narrow stream back then, a single arch would have sufficed. However the Moulton bridge has a series of four smaller arches which allow for a gentler slope towards its apex instead of the steep slope a single arch of the size needed would have resulted in and each arch, shaped like a bishops mitre, is faced with brick as are the cut water buttresses. The arches were constructed via the creation of a timber framework to provide a template for their shape and form and support for the brickwork. Once the bricks had been laid in place, the supports (formers) were taken away. The bricks are rayed outwards and bedded down against knobbly flints and rusty red sandstone rubble.
I was able to walk underneath and alongside the bridge because a concrete surface, like a platform, has been laid down alongside and over the top of the stream. A close look at the undersides of some of the arches revealed a micro climate: slightly steamy and dank, feeding and housing the lichen, ferns and moss which like to lodge themselves in all the damp places. When I pressed my hands against the flint and stone rubble, water leached and seeped through my fingers and my childhood self, enchanted by the subterranean and grotto-like atmosphere, would have fashioned a world of water fairies on leaf boats with beds of maidenhair fern and toads as friends and guardian of the arches.
The edges of the stream had all the verdancy you would expect from a Suffolk waterway in July. Rushes and reeds, rosebay willowherb, ferns, trefoil and clover, potentilla, flag irises and water hyacinth, flattened down in places here and there; possibly because of the passageways of voles and rats and perhaps, otters which have been returning to our local rivers. Waterways overlaying chalk (which the Kennett is) are vitally important for local widlife: sometimes intermittent in nature, they possess clear, pure, oxygenated water with a relatively even temperature all year round and would be especially useful to drovers, who were always on the lookout for water sources for their livestock and themselves. Additionally, the abundant fenlands that are proximate to this part of East Anglia are dependent upon lime rich waters which feed and support their unique biodiversity.
I wasn’t singing this, but the Song of the Skewbald was recorded under the middle arch of the Moulton PackHorse Bridge. There’s a wealth of local folk songs that are most appropriate for humming under ones breath or listening to on an ipod should you want a musically immersive experience. This Moulton and three churches walk is a pleasure to do as is this walk. The Moulton Packhorse Inn is next to the bridge and locals speak highly of it for ambience, food, beer and location.
Thank you to Dr Harvey Osborne, senior lecturer in History at University Campus, Suffolk for his generous help in locating primary and secondary sources.
I am shivering, not so much because of the cool air which is pushing up from the sea, ahead of the sunset but more from my realisation that seventy five years ago other people probably sat right where I am now and listened to what I am listening to. It’s 10pm on the Fourth of July and I’m on a pebbled beach at Bawdsey Island looking out across the waters of the River Deben which separate me from the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry across the mouth of the estuary. There’s an American tribute band playing ‘In the Mood’ inside the boat club and the voices, laughter and pops of champagne corks are carried across on the breeze. Time has telescoped in the most peculiar and unexpected way and I don’t quite know what to make of this.
Felixstowe Ferry was vulnerable to German Luftwaffe pilots seeking to unload a cargo of undropped bombs before their flight back across the North Sea and the blackouts imposed on this hamlet, huddled at the edge of East Anglia, probably ruled out too much partying. However I like to imagine the locals and temporary residents dancing to music and enjoying the relief from war, responsibility and the heavy burden of hyper vigilance. In the near darkness, I see memory ghosts of laughing girls stumbling along the pebbles, bending down to remove strappy sandals and precious rationed stockings which they ball up and carry. They dance and chatter amidst the smell of American tobacco and caulked boats with fishy cargoes on the ebb of the English landmass as it merges with estuarine waters, the North Sea and a blacked out horizon.
To my right, the skies are brindled with pinks and violets, the undersides of the lambs tails clouds tinged with amber. On the left where the River Deben splays into the sea, we watch as a tidal bore of darkness approaches, barrelling down the estuary and pushing at the still light over the beach which has now developed a silvery caul. In front of me, the light begins to peter out and the shoreline to my right becomes banded by grey- the sea, the shingle and the sky-as the Deben estuarine tide continues its exhaustive task of transporting the heft of stones, polished to a dull shine, dumping them onto an ever growing offshore shingle bank.
The sky seems to bulge inland and towards us. Out to sea, it is all blue: French navy and saxe, indigo, midnight and then, a nothingness settles lit up only by the perimeter lights of a cargo ship bound for the international port.. I feel like I am suspended in space: the lights of the boat club across the river and a chink of light from the porthole of a cruiser are the only things anchoring us as we sit on the pebbles and even they shift beneath us. Watching the night rush in left us a little breathless. Neither of us had seen a night seemingly as tardy and pressured for time and had the breeze aped Alice’s white rabbit and whispered “I’m late, I’m late” we would have accepted this with equanimity.
Our trip here was spontaneous, we’d forgotten that the Fourth of July is a date of some significance, especially here in East Anglia where American GI’s came in and our women married out. We were driven out of our Bury St Edmunds home by the torpid heat, a whole weeks worth of it, which had evicted the residual coolness from the stolid rows of Victorian brick. Our house was gasping for breath and the whole town was so still in that strange yellow, layered heat that we could stand it no more. We grabbed our bags and made a dash for the edge of East Anglia.
Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Ransholt are surprisingly easy and quick to drive to from Bury, straight down the A14 and a turn off to drive through the undulating roads around Woodbridge, Coddenham, and Alderton. The air remained close and still but the patchworked greens, acid jazz yellows and buffs of the fields flash by and a stray breeze lifts the hair from the back of my neck when we stop to buy some eggs. There are lanes marking the edges of pre-enclosure strips, ancient bridlepaths and sand clotted foorpaths hinting at a sea hiding over the next hill. I want to play the game we played as children- who can see the sea first- although in this case, we approach an estuary. The underlying Red Crag rock gives the earth a brick dusty hue, not dissimilar to the red of the Georgian deep south as we climbed the hilled sharp turn off towards Ramsholt. The Ramsholt Arms and a drink was our destination before a late afternoon walk along the shore of the River Deben, a route hugging the pines and saltmarshes of the coastal walk that passes in front of the pub.
The view from the inn’s carpark which crests the slope down to the waters and beer garden is a shock if you get the timing and the light right. Go there late afternoon on a hazy summer day and the water appears, blindingly metallic, shimmering like the steel of a razor blade through the ink dark woods. The anchored boats appear black against the water and the only relief from this binary watercolour is the neon orange of the buoys and flags woven through the halyards. The Strand borders a sandy, pebbly beach and beyond, a muddy strip beside the lazy waters where children happily mudlarked in the sun. There’s old sharks teeth to be found in the Red Crag, wizened corals and echinoids and shells a plenty from the exposed London clay which lines the shallow basin of the estuary.
As the tide turns, it gives up a hundred yards of glistening mudflats, pockmarked by the beak marks of oyster catchers and redshank and patterned with dragons teeth arrangements of old wooden sea defences: the groynes have rotted away to piles of semi carbonised sticks, slimy with seaweed and encrusted with barnacles, their rough triangle shapes a grim nod to the Anglo Saxon past. There’s sea lavender and purslane along the edges along with the saltmarsh and squeaky jelly like samphire – the Deben estuary possesses a beautiful and luminous bleakness from its quirky plants to the blank yawn of the estuary at dusk.
The Ramsholt Arms was once called the Ferry House because of the eponymous ferry which used to run to Kirton Creek and is now no more. The village was also the first landing on the north side of the River Deben after Bawdsey, making it strategically and economically important to the region. It waved off heavy cargoes of local brick from the many yards which lay along the rivers Deben, Stour and Orwell and it shipped coprolite (fossilised dinosaur dung, used for fertiliser). Barge quays once lined the banks which seem stunningly empty and haunted by comparitive inactivity now, apart from the flipped collar jollity of the weekending boat people. The village is more boat than house now.
The parish church of All Saints, one of 38 Suffolk round tower churches presides over a startling view which stretches from the Martlesham Research Tower at one end to the Martello Towers of Felixstowe Ferry out towards the North Sea and the sodium lights of the cargo port emerge in the distance as the sun sets. The round tower was built of flint, brick and the septaria from the river bed, notably from an area known locally as ‘the Rocks’, a place where anchors would foul regularly. The round tower appears as square from a distance but as you get closer, its oval shape appears, a seemingly magical feat which is also achieved by Beyton’s church, another round and buttressed tower.
The church may well have had an important function as a look out with its all seeing position over a part of the UK which was deemed to be both vulnerable and strategically important with its multiplicity of river conduits and dank, hidden creeks: a highly permeable coastline. Watery landscapes have always attracted plotters and maleficence although the unfamiliar invader might well meet their match at the hands of the sunken, hidden rills and deep channels which snake through the gorse and reeds that edge the coastal pathway and Strand. There’s a sunken lane which also snakes its way to the church, hidden deep between tall banks which burst forth in poppies, grasses, cow parsley and nettles in the spring: a precious reminder of a time when these lanes were more common: sadly most of them have been allowed to sink back into the landscape or have been turned into roads, proper.
The church stands eight feet or so above you as you climb and steps cut into the banks of the lane provide access to the beautiful churchyard. The whole place is ethereal, other wordly yet strangely pragmatic, and inside the church, a chart dating back to 1287 seems to indicate its function as a useful seamark, helping to keep watch against Viking invaders during the time of the Saxons. The burial site of a rather important Saxon, replete with golden wordly goods and precious stones, is, after all, only a few miles inland at Sutton Hoo and although the Ramsholt parishioners weren’t buried with such riches, they chose to be buried facing that glorious view which is the greatest jewel of all- the north of the church which looks away from the river has hardly any graves.
Moving on to Bawdsey, a place which we’d never visited but gazed upon on many an occasion from the opposite shores, the light was fast fading. The Bawdsey Peninsula is home to Bawdsey Manor, a top secret RAF research establishment purchased by the RAF in 1936 where the Chain Home (CH) RDF (radar) system was developed during the fraught war time years. From Bawdsey, a chain of radar stations ran around the south coast to defend Britain during World War II and the Transmitter Block Museum tells the story of radar, and how Bawdsey helped win the Battle of Britain (For opening call 07821 162 879) . This part of the Suffolk coastline came under special measures during the war and only ‘essential personnel’ were afforded access-even the ferry was closed to the public during WW2 after managing to survive from the 12th century, although it is open now and a very popular and atmospheric way of travelling between Felixstowe and the Bawdsey Peninsula.
The vulnerability of the region to attack and spies is underscored by the 1943 bombing of the church which saw it totally destroyed. St. Nicholas’s Church was built in 1954 on the site. When war was declared against Germany in September 1939, fears of a possible commando raid on the group led to the development activities being relocated and, in 1940, the British Army staged a training landing against Bawdsey, having warned the station’s officers that the attack would be taking place. However, an administrative oversight meant that the sentries were not warned and when they spotted rubber dinghies approaching the beach area, they released gas-filled barrels and set them alight with tracer fire from the cliff-top machine-gun posts. As the sun rose over Bawdsey Beach the next morning, the sentries “found the beach covered with dozens of charred bodies” that they at first thought were Germans dressed as Army soldiers. The story was declared secret until 2014, but was leaked in 1992.
Bawdsey Beach has a seasonal cafe, raised above the beach and beach front road which peters out in front of three 30’s arts and crafts style houses (one of which can be rented for holidays). The pebbled shore extends out to sea, divided by groynes until you reach the North Sea where super tankers and cargo ships are escorted into Felixstowe, one of the largest cargo ports in Europe. Lining the road in front of the sand were VW campers and children warmed themselves by barbecues, scrooched down below the groynes as they ate and watched the sun set. You travel back in time here, in part because for so long Bawdsey was closed off, protected from people and civilian development and in part because there simply is nowhere else to go. This is the end point, a still point and it orders you to stop and retrace mentally as well as literally. Bawdsey is Enid Blyton. It is Arthur Ransome and Glenn Miller and Shine on Harvey Moon. You expect the locals to wear thick khaki cotton, to have their hair set in pin curls and wear tea dresses, hair in a victory roll. When a sleek and modern BMW purrs along the sea front, it jars.
Felixstowe Ferry is gruffer, from its black pitch fishermens huts to the tangle of utilitarian fishing nets and buoys which lace the gangways and cement walkways bordering the quay. MR James set Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad on the nearby golf course, there’s the stately warning of the martello towers ( this bastion of defence is one of five built on the coast between Felixstowe and Aldeburgh designed to protect us from the wrath of Napoleon) and the embarkation point of the ferry taking you over to Bawdsey. If the ferryman isn’t within sight, locals will advise you to raise the bat and wave it to alert him. There’s fish to be hauled in and sold from boats, huts and ad hoc shops and several places to eat from the Boathouse cafe to the Ferryboat Inn originally built in the 15th century as a home for the harbourmaster, facing the heath. The boatyard itself started up in the late twenties and made its own wartime contributions too- it used to build quite a lot of boats for the Royal Navy, including motor boats that were useful modes of getting about during those war years where Glenn Miller and his band provided respite from the business of trying to survive.