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.
A recent pledge by the Bank of England to put a British female visual artist on the new twenty pound note may run into sand according to historical scholars who cite the relatively low number of qualifying women as a reason. This follows criticism of the bank after the 2013 selection process which replaced Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill. A petition of more than 35 thousand signatures was received by the bank in protest, prompting a volte face decision by the banks governor, Mark Carney to put Jane Austen on ten pound notes from 2017.
Recently. Professor Lynda Nead, Pevsner chair of history of art at Birbeck said in an interview with The Guardian that “Visual arts seem to particularly lag behind when it comes to women, compared with other cultural pursuits like writing” and with the rule that no living artist may be nominated, presumably to avoid taking precedence over the very much alive Queen, this, in her opinion, limits the field even further with the resulting disqualification of artists such as Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor Wood and Barbara Hepworth.
In the past, female authors were able to publish under male pseudonyms which helped to overcome some of the gender prohibitions to gaining an audience in the first place. Historically, female artists in other creative fields such as visual arts have been less able to take advantage of anonymity because it would have been necessary to exhibit publically and in ones own name in order to access patrons and acquire a reputation which would positively enhance sales.
There have been calls for the Bank of England to drop its specification that the person must be dead which would open up the field hugely, giving access to such artists as painter Cecily Brown, the taxidermist Polly Morgan, the mixed media artist Zarina Bhimji or Suffolk’s ‘own’ Maggie Hambling. However I believe that should the selection committee think a little, they will find a wealth of British women working across art and often in ways that surprisingly chime very much with modern digital media despite their having been long dead.
2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a sobering thought for many of us and especially a late baby boomer like me, born to parents who clearly remembered it but the artist who I have nominated for commemoration on the twenty pound note lived and worked during the Great War- the First World War. The terrifyingly brave and gender atypical work that artist Olive Mudie-Cooke produced should be more widely celebrated.
The Great War marked a sea change in the way that women artists were regarded. Although only four of the 51 artists commissioned for the official war art scheme by the British government in 1916 were female (and one dropped out and three had their work rejected), the then brand new Imperial War Museum stepped in with its own commission. The museum engaged nine women artists in recording war work as it applied to women and, although they were not given access to the battlefields and theatre of war as men were, Olive Mudie-Cooke ended up extremely close to the frontline. Although the scheme was initially started for propaganda purposes, it soon grew beyond this, exploring many aspects of the Great War and offering an alternative narrative that provided a useful counterpoint to the sanitised and jingoistic governmental utterances.
Olive Mudie-Cooke was a Londoner, born to a carpet merchant father and was one of only a handful of official war artists. The younger of two daughters born to Henry Cooke and his wife Beatrice, Olive created a series of watercolour images that depicted the Great War in all its banal, terrible and hidden glory. Mudie-Cooke served as an ambulance driver, visiting battlefields whose names are burned into our brain: the Somme, Polekappelle, and worked for the Red Cross as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Driver (VAD), steering ambulances across France and Italy aged just twenty six. She was no slouch in the educational stakes either: fluent in French, Italian and German, she sometimes worked as an interpreter for the Red Cross too although, at that time, female artists tended to come from socially and economically advantaged backgrounds, hence the language education and private income that funded her adventures.
In 1919, the Women’s Work Sub-Committee of the newly formed Imperial War Museum noticed Mudie-Cooke’s work and acquired a number of her paintings for its own collection, still in its early stages. This purchase included her most famous picture, In an Ambulance: a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient (seen above) and in 1920 the British Red Cross commissioned her to return to France. Once there Mudie-Cooke documented the activities of the Voluntary Aid Detachment units who were still providing care and relief and produced work which spoke of the damage war inflicted upon communities, the smashed buildings and shattered lives, the latter made explicit by her haunting depictions of women tending the graves of their dead.
Before her official commission, Olive produced much of her work between 1916-18. She first went to France as a Red Cross ambulance driver in 1916 and through her chalky drawings and, at times, murky watercolours, we saw the shadow side of war: the injured man desperate for a cigarette and the woman helping him. There’s a halo of light as she cups her hands around the flame and they lean towards each other and we are drawn into an intimate moment of connection between two strangers that harks back to the Lady with the Lamp of another time, another war.
Similar pools of light falls on the ground between two ambulances drawn up alongside a barracks as injured soldiers await evacuation- they are men stripped of identity as they lie in serried ranks, painted into the canvas border. We aren’t meant to know who they are and the crepuscular tones preserve their facelessness. Olive is a master of this, the contrasts between light and dark, between what we know and are allowed to know and in ‘A VAD Convoy Unloading an Ambulance Train at Night After the Battle of the Somme’ the murky browns of the watercolour bear the aesthetic hallmarks of an old sepia photograph, found hidden in an attic and brought into the light of the day as opposed to the painting it actually is.
Her work comes complete with a psychological zoom lens: an ambulance skids and founders on an icy Italian mountain side and the rescuers are now in need of assistance. She isolates barbed wire on the canvas, coldly silvered and metallic in dimmed light as it encircles a battlefield which contains its own subterranean dangers. There are scenes that haunt: two tanks injured in battle themselves after engaging the enemy on the Western Front in 1917, part of a war action near Poelkapelle which left these armoured behamoths helpless and worse than useless and a blot on a landscape which once contained only silky shifting fields of corn.
Mudie-Cooke and women like her also helped paved the way for others to follow a similar career path: those women health professionals who work across war zones and regions experiencing humanitarian crisis and women who are soldiers are there in no small part because Mudie-Cooke showed it could be done. Most importantly though, Mudie-Cooke’s art was one of the forerunners to modern war photography and in its style and content, predicted the era of citizen photo journalism as millions of people become recorders of their own narrative, armed with smartphones instead of a sketchpad although artists are still commissioned to record war via the paintbrush as once did Mudie-Cooke.
To discern and edit is where true artistry resides though and unlike most, Olive knew what to leave out; many of her most admired works are master classes in composition. Although her work was essentially documental- and there was pressure to succumb to the propaganda machine- she adhered to a professional ethos that still exists among photo journalism despite the craze for gonzo journalism which at its worst, becomes a clumsy ego driven exercise. Olive became a silent storyteller but a not altogether passive one- she alone chose what to portray and her emotional presence pushes up through the layers of water colour and charcoal.
Mudie-Cooke returned to England for a short period before returning to France in 1925 where she took her life.Was she another casualty of war like so many before and after her? If so, in this respect she is also of her time and ours too which has seen wave after wave of psychologically harmed men and women return from conflict. Mudie-Cooke deserves to be honoured.
Standing in its elevated postion above the Stour valley and easily visible to those living on the far side, the church at Borley sits on a plot of land, an isolated and incongruous green wadi of grassy lawns, ivy-festooned oaks and a churchyard decorated with yew topiary. Surrounded by the brown and buff clays of the Suffolk farmland which falls away to the main A134 Bury to Sudbury road, the brilliant verdancy and manicured grounds stand in stark contrast. The church itself is mostly built in the Romanesque/Early English style of the late 12th and early 13th centuries with some fussier Victorian refurnishing and the churchyard is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The name of the village, Borley, is a compound of the Saxon words “Bap” and “Ley”- “Boar’s Pasture.” There were, and still are, a number of pig farms nearby and my paternal grandfather once farmed one of them.
Even in summer, chill nor’-easterlies sweep across the valley whilst a pure easterly wind will bring with it, cold and dry air from Scandinavia. These winds scour the fields, sending up eddies of loam-dust and pushing trees into a distorted and angular shape, braced against the onslaught. We see regular if small tornadoes here. These clay fields do not play host to pre- nineteenth century homes generally because until then, homes in East Anglia tended to be built upon exposed seams of gravel that run through the valleys like dry riverbeds. You will not find older towns built upon the great clay plains that dominate this landscape but as the population grew, people had no choice- the clay had to be built upon.
it is difficult to approach Borley in a neutral frame of mind if you know anything about its past. Whether you believe in ghosts and manifestations or not, everything is couched in the stories that are famous worldwide and the villagers know this and they do not want you there. Even the ever present wind that buffets you in this exposed place seems to carry with it a timbre of notoriety. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the famous Victorian ghost hunter Harry Price knew this and in an instructional booklet given out to his investigators, he cautioned against ascribing psychic qualities to natural things “..It is very important that the greatest effort should be made to ascertain whether such manifestations are due to normal causes such as rats, small boys, the villagers, the wind, wood shrinking, the Death Watch Beetle, farm animals nosing the doors etc., trees brushing against the windows, birds in the chimney stack or between double walls..”
Even this list of earthly causes has a suitably gothic feel: death-watch beetles and rats; the fluttering of birds doomed to die trapped in walls and the shrinkage of ancient wood that has tightened and relaxed against itself over time. These are the noises that have scared humans witless over the centuries and often defy logical explanation when it is night-time or we are worked up into a state of nervous agitation as Marianne, wife of the vicar Lionel Foyster, and resident of the reputedly haunted rectory well knew. “There were occasions when we frightened each other, if you know what I mean. We talked about things and we would get ourselves nervous and excited, and then even if the house creaked you imagined things were coming.” When you discover that Marianne and her rector husband played host to playwright George Bernard Shaw; T. E. Lawrence, the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”; Sir Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England and Bernard Spilsbury, the Home Office criminal forensic scientist during Easter 1935 for a seance at the rectory, it becomes clear that bumps in the night aren’t something that only the gullible fall prey to.
Louis Mayerling, writer of the book ‘We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory’ in 2000 admits that despite the many pranks he claims to have played on ghosthunter and paranormal investigator Harry Price (which the Foysters were allegedly in on), there was one incident that he could not explain and which frightened George Bernard Shaw so much he refused to stay the night. He recounts, “the kitchen bells clanged as one and a brilliant silver-blue light seemed to implode around us from the walls and the ceilings.” Mayerling’s previous attempts at creating eerie sounds and noises in the rectory had shown him that it was not possible to make all the bells sound at once. He was also unable to explain what had caused the lightning-like flash around them which actually blinded him although he eventually recovered sight in one of his eyes. Mayerling confesses in his book that memory of the experience still “set my spine to tingling.” Marianne Foyster went on to claim that many of the ‘spontaneous’ fires were the work of vagrants who broke into the house and gained access through the four outside doors and cellar entrance. These were apparently not secured during Price’s investigations.
Asides from putative deliberate pranks and faked hauntings, there are also the sounds that all houses make but especially those of a badly built Victorian edifice which attempts to defy or ignore the elements instead of mitigating them. Borley rectory was typical of the dwellings that cling to the exposed valleysides of East Anglia; draughty, ranging and cold and in the winter, its rooms would only have been heated if they were regularly inhabited and its interiors were barely protected from the worst of the weather battering the outside. The rectory had no insulation, draughty windows, bare floors of wooden planking and very poorly located north-facing windows that received the full strength of those vicious northeasterlies. Having lived in some very old houses with their peculiar micro-climates, I can attest to sudden vortexes of frigid air that shake keys from locks and cause doors to slam on the other side of the building. At night these houses talk. As the warmth of the day is chased out of a house by the dusk, Victorian wooden floorboards push against each other then shrink back like an overly modest maiden aunt. Tightly-laid boards creak around the skirting and sound like sharp footsteps around the room edges. The cold, dank and frequently wet climate in South Suffolk created in its Victorian house builders a hatred of chinks and cracks: floors were tightly-laid and joiners laboured under tighter tolerances to construct doors with securely tacked panels and window frames with no give. Their work was emblematic of the Victorian values of restraint, creating homes that were buttoned-up and doughty in their defence against excess. As a result, when the humidity rose, the panels increased their width and chafed noisily against their constraints. The sounds resembles a tap on the door.
The mention of the death watch beetle may have significance too. Like all bugs, it can generate odd noises that carry over spectacular distances but the drilling of this beetle, sonorous and creepy as it is, becomes amplified by its preferred medium-rotting wood- which possesses its own set of characteristics. It loses a lot of strength as it rots and the slow collapse of its internal structure causes creaking and groaning. The former plumber at Borley rectory himself confirmed the presence of rot behind a courtyard window and that the sound carried unusually was corroborated by one of Harry Price’s observers, Major Douglas-Home, who, in 1943, wrote in a statement that that the footsteps of the cottage occupants were clearly audible inside the rectory or sounded as if they were actually footfalls from the rectory corridor. In fact, the sound came from people walking across the courtyard at the time. The cottage was very close to the rectory and its occupants often played in the courtyard attached to the rectory. He remarked, “Owing to the shape of the courtyard & the position of cottage, every sound made at cottage was magnified at least 5 times in the main house—I verified this—even voices spoken outside the pantry by cottage were strongly heard in the Base [the rectory library] and other rooms’. The metal skeleton of a building are not silent either and speak of its construction with fluctuating temperatures causing the truss rods and brackets to expand and contract and place stress on the building as a whole. Strange noises amplify under a phenomenon akin to ventriloquism as metal rods send their protests far away from the original source and their sum is far more than their parts.
We recently drove to Borley to have a look around which is when some of these photographs were taken. It has been several decades since our last visit and we were disconcerted by how difficult it was to look around; the atmosphere was one of hostility despite the warmth of the early spring day and sun splashed graveyard with its pots of primroses, placed on graves and growing wild alongside ancient gravestones tumbled and piled at the back of the plot. We met another older couple standing by the gate who reported being shouted at by locals despite the fact that all they were doing was sitting in the churchyard admiring the view. Funnily enough this couple knew nothing of the villages past and were bemused by this behaviour. We used to visit Borley as teenagers and I daresay we were regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the locals who appear extremely unwelcoming to visitors, no matter their age or demeamour. The church is locked, its car park is chained shut and there are no attempts to provide tourist information or offer safe spaces to leave cars.
I understand the desire for privacy but consider the amounts of tourists worldwide that visit Long Melford, Lavenham and even Polstead, (the latter with its own gruesome past). All of these villages possess fascinating histories and are evolved in the way they manage tourists so I cannot help wondering if the attitude of Borley residents is actually exacerbating the problem they have with occasional anti social behaviour. Make visitors welcome, develop a small tourist industry which promotes what you want to promote (it need not be unmanageable), plough the income back into community projects and you will actually discourage anti social activity because this thrives on a place being deserted and dissasociated from its legacy. The stories do attract overnight campers who haunt the churchyard, sleeping (and drinking) against the graves and the proximate houses must get tired of this. But again, this occurs because of a lack of engagement with tourists, not because of. And the stories attached to this tiny village and its church are world-famous and could be an excellent source of parish revenue.
I’m not going to explore the likelihood or not of the hauntings being real when the attendant story, that of their exploration by Harry Price and the subsequent Borley ‘industry’ that grew up around them is much more interesting. Harry Price was one of England’s most famous ghost hunters, dedicated to his mission to investigate suspected hauntings and with the potential to expose the fraud that might lie behind them. Since the early 1920’s when news of the suspected haunting at Borley first became public knowledge via a 1928 story in the Daily Mirror sent in by the then owner Guy Eric Smith, the burned out remains of this rectory and its graveyard and grounds in a small village near Sudbury in Suffolk has captured the imagination of the public to become arguably, one of the most, if not the most famous of all national ghost stories. It is a tale full of gothic tropes- nuns, ghostly writings and fierce fires with strange figures seen in the flames. Pure Vincent Price.
Borley Rectory was built in 1863 for the Reverend Henry Bull on the site of an ancient monastery.The ghost of a sorrowful nun who strolled along the so called “Nun’s Walk” was already well known locally at the time, believed to be a disobedient sister from the nearby nunnery at Bures who had fallen in love with a monk from the Borley Monastery. We’d perhaps expect more ghostly monks to infest the grounds but by all accounts because of the prior existence of this monastery, it is the nun who dominates. The two had tried to elope and upon their capture, the monk was executed and the nun bricked up alive in the cellars of the monastic building. The family weren’t too bothered by her presence but their guests began to be startled by the nun appearing to peer at them through the windows of the new rectory and servants rarely stayed long. When Henry’s son Harry took over the rectory the visitations were reported to have increased with a ghostly coach and horses seen racing up the rectory drive. Other villagers have pointed out that a Mrs Yelloly of Cavendish Hall was a cousin of the Bull family and was conveyed on her social visits by an old-fashioned black horse-drawn coach at the time. The olfactory hauntings were said to include a strong smell of lavender which pervaded the halls and rooms of the rectory but a nearby lavender processing factory on the outskirts of Long Melford is the more likely source of such odours. Stafford Allen went on to become Bush Boake Allen, one of Englands most prolific producer of herb and spice preparations and scented the air for miles around.
The Revd Eric Smith and his wife arrived at the rectory in 1927 and they invited well-known psychic researcher, Harry Price, to visit, setting off nexplicable poltergeist activity where belongings were broken and stones thrown at the family and Harry Price. The Smiths only lasted two years before they moved, to be replaced by the Revd Lionel Foyster and his family whereupon the ghostly presences increased their activities. The resident ghost appeared to hold a penchant for the rector’s wife, Marianne, displaying its ardour in a bizarre manner- hurling objects at her and leaving messages scrawled all over the walls. Witnesses claimed to have seen these appear in from of their eyes, although most of the writing was illegible and unintelligible. According to Roger Clarke, writer of “A Natural History of Ghosts; 500 Years of Hunting for Proof’, the handwriting of the ‘otherworldly messages’ matched Marianne Foysters.
Finally the family decided have the Rectory exorcised and life quietened for a while afterwards but the manifestations eventually returned in a variety of new ways with inexplicable music emanating from the nearby Church and servant bells ringing by themselves, communion wine turning into ink and “something horrid” attacking one of their children. The family left and successive Rectors refused to live in the rectory and who would have blamed them?
Upon his return in 1937 with a large team of investigators, Harry Price recorded a number of phenomena, the most chilling occurring during a seance where a ‘communicant’ claimed that the the rectory would catch fire in the hallway that night and burn down. This second spirit identified himself as ‘Sunex Amures’ and warned that a nun’s body would be discovered in the ruins. Nothing happened until exactly eleven months later when the rectory burned down after an oil lamp fell over in the hall during the occupation of the property by Captain Gregson. The insurance company were not convinced with his explanation for the fire and it was thought as fraudulent. Locals were still claiming to have seen a nuns face peering from an upstairs window and ghostly figures cavorting around. When Price returned yet again in 1943, he discovered the jawbone of a young woman and gave it a Christian burial in an attempt to bring peace to the site. The bones were interred at nearby Liston Church by Rev. AC Henning.
Despite the fact that I am no stranger to Borley Church, it was only on my last visit there that I was struck by its position overlooking the south Suffolk valley (although the village is in Essex) and how this might have affected those looking at it from the fields directly opposite. Despite the evidence of fakery, many remain convinced that the place is haunted and that these spectral occurrences are mainly malevolent in nature. What must it have been like to see the church standing sentinel over the valley all those years ago, one of the taller and more imposing structures in the area with such an attendant reputation, contrary to everything a church and its rectory should stand for? We have always seen a church and its grounds as sanctuary since medieval times, dating back to King Ethelbert’s rule in 600AD although this privilege was finally brough to an end in 1723 but perversely the church as site of malevolent happenings is a popular filmic trope (The Omen) and not everyone sees it as a place of shelter. Researching local attitudes to the events at the church and rectory at the time would be a fascinating area of study; not so much the opinions and feelings of the Borley villagers but those of people living nearby and in homes and farms that had a direct view of the church standing silently over them.
Much of what happened may never be made public because it concerns the private spheres of those who were involved and what is known is an intriguing blend of observation, assumption, self delusion and pseudo science of its time. There is convincing evidence for both camps; the believers and the sceptical and if you believe in the old adage “from extremes comes moderation” then you might agree that much remains ‘not proven’ which is not the same as disproven. There has been a resurgence of interest in the Borley story over the last few years and if your interest has been piqued, Neil Spring’s book ‘The Ghost Hunters’ tells the story of the rectory and Harry Price via the character, Sarah Grey, one of the new assistants taken on to explore the hauntings. Sarah says: “I knew of Borley Rectory, too, before I visited it with Harry – supposedly the most haunted house in England. I knew there was no such thing as phantoms; the many witnesses must be mad, or lying. I knew I could visit Borley Rectory without fear, return without harm. These are the things I thought I knew. I now understand the true meaning of terror.” A new animated documentary film called ‘Borley Rectory is also currently in production. Noir-ish is style, the director Ashley Thorpe describes it as a ‘love letter to another age of horror’ after reading about Borley Rectory as a child in the Usborne Book of Ghosts.
I recently contributed to a BBC Radio Suffolk feature about the recent launch, by the York tourist board, of what is claimed to be the UKs first scratch-and-sniff travel guide designed to attract visitors with a real time evocation of the scent of the county, The guidebook is a sensory journey across all aspects of regional life, from the centre of the city to its wildest and most isolated places.
We know how important smell is in the formation of sense memory as Kate McMullen, head of Visit York, says: “Countless scientific studies prove that the human sense of smell is one of the key facets in forming strong memories. We commissioned this scented guidebook to give potential newcomers to York a fun flavour of the many lasting memories that a trip to our historic city could provide.”
Produced with the input of a team of scent “engineers” who analysed a range of smells before recreating them in a laboratory in a process identical to that found in the perfumery industry, the smells were then turned into a printing varnish and applied to the photographs on the pages. A good old scratch will release the scent.
There’s the spooky sulphurous smell associated with one of the city’s smelliest ghosts and an evocation of coal, steam and oil from the Victorian railways (“a nostalgic infusion of coal, steam, engine oil and iron”); an olfactory reminder of its antique shops ( “a musty infusion of leather, old books, gold, silver, wood and dust”) and the smells of horses galloping to the finish line at York Racecourse ( horse hair, hoof oil, grass and fruit punch). Visitors are reminded of the time when the air was enriched by an aroma of chocolate, mint and vanilla as the great chocolate making families of Terry’s and Rowntree worked their magic. The scent of loose leaf tea and cream cakes from Betty’s of Harrogate and strong Yorkshire cheeses such as Wensleydale and Swaledale rounds off the culinary tribute.
It might be the UK’s first odiferous guidebook but it isn’t the first worldwide as that honour belongs to New York City which chose to commemorate sewer steam, hot dogs and pizza alongside the garbage that, no doubt, the latter two scents make up a goodly amount of.
So, asked BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Mark Murphy on his mid morning show, “if we were to do the same here in Suffolk, what smells would you include?” Many of the respondents displayed those well known Suffolk traits of pragmatism and practicality, mentioning traffic smells and the salt, fish and industry of local ports, whilst others waxed lyrical. Here’s some of the most interesting replies sent to me when I canvassed some suggestions, accompanied by a bit of background information.
(1)“Fields of oil seed rape and freshly cut wheat and corn on country runs” says Labour’s parliamentary candidate,Jane Basham when I ask her for her favourite Suffolk smells. The rolling fields of the county grow dense with the smoke blue of borage, acid yellow froth of rape plants and acres of cereal crops. As late summer approaches, the scent of hot straw baled and left in the fields settles low in the air and towards the end of the day, the sun gets low on the horizon and its rays catch the dusty straw motes as they hover in a thick, golden light. The only sound is of crickets hiding in the verges and the bells of the great wool churches of Sudbury, Lavenham and Long Melford as they call the failthful of South Suffolk to prayer.
Some of the loveliest walks can be found in Jane’s constituency along the South Suffolk valley on the north and south sides of the river Stour. The north and east sides take you from the south side of Long Melford to the north side of Sudbury and onwards through both Little and Great Cornard to Bures. The steep lanes that rise up sharply from Bures Road are thickly hedgerowed and climb to the high points of the county at Arger Fen, surrounded by fields of crops and patched by thickets of mixed broadleaf trees and shrubs. The A134 Rodbridge Corner to Borley road takes you past Long Melford Country Park which borders the Stour and lies to the south and west side of the river from Ridgewell in the west. Rodbridge Corner was once the site of a Roman villa, a vestige of the nearby Roman settlement which once underlaid nearby Long Melford. Continue to Borley, site of the notorious rectory hauntings or travel onwards to Foxearth, Bulmer and Twinstead, ending up on the outskirts of Mount Bures which abuts the county of Essex. The views around Foxearth and up to Borley are panoramic because this is a gentle and undulating landscape, in part due to the clay plateau upon which Foxearth is perched at its western end.
The tree cover is minimal affording walkers a good view of the entire valley and the signposts are engraved with intriguing place names. Don’t be fooled by the French sounding names of the hamlets of Belchamp Otten, Belchamp St Paul and Belchamp Walter. Yes, the modern form of ‘bel champs’ means ‘beautiful field’ in French but they are actually Old English placenames that refer to ‘the settlement on the baulk or ridge’.
The landscape is loam and chalky clay, a leftover from the great Anglian glaciation, fully fertile and edged by well maintained hedgerows of elm and hawthorn, field maples, oak and ash. Ancient holly bushes loom deep in woodlands thick with cherry, oak and hornbeam. Roadside plantings of old limes cast dappled shade and drip honeydew and sooty ash from the many ants that grow fat on sap whilst modern shelterbelt plantings of alder girdle horse paddocks.The roads and pathways bisect and skirt clusters of hamlets and villages with their mixture of Medieval, Jacobean, Victorian and Georgian architecture: colour washed, buff local brick or tar pitched; beamed, thatched or red clay tiled roofs and estates of solid brick built to house a post war population.
(2)“The scent of hemp and algae covered rusting metal- the great ropes and clanking chains of our Suffolk shipbuilding industry”reminds Edward Miller of our watery history. Suffolk, more than most other counties, has a shifting and permeable boundary, subject to the vagaries of time, tide, wind and water along its coastline. The watery fimbrels of creeks and rivers piled on the pressure for invading forces and made navigating the county so very challenging in times past. Crossed by five estuaries with diverse terrain and features, the Suffolk coast is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and its watery nature has made road building virtually impossible, protecting it from the thoughtless development that other coastlines have been subjected to. From drained marshes, managed reedbeds and deep creeks filled with dark waters to shingle beaches, striated cliffs, heathlands full of tumbled bushes of gorse and forests that march right up to the waves, the landscape is at its best chartered by boat or on foot.
The intriguingly named Johnny All Alone Creek is one such place, halfway along the river Stour and surrounded by nothing more than grazing marsh to the west and a stretch of shingle beach to the east. Walkers along the Stour/Orwell long distance path which follows the river wall are few; river crafts here are far more prevalent in a landscape pockmarked with brackish rindles and mud flats which are home to avocets, godwits and curlews which stalk the waters and scoop up beakfuls of tiny shrimp.
Explore Pin Mill between the rivers Orwell and Stour where both estuaries run relatively straight between deep wooded cuts or travel to Woodbridge on the river Deben with its gently curved trajectory which nonetheless requires its sides banking to keep the rising tide from the surrounding farmland. Then there’s the river Waveney and the two other northern estuaries, the Blyth and Alde, with a mild rise to their valley slopes and less assertive flood defences or the river Stour between Mistley and Flatford Mill. Pleasure craft, working fishing boats and the old hulking Thames barges can be seen marooned at Pin Mill during low tide. Winds catch the gorse and pine which grows along the bluffs rising up from the river and carries their scent down to the boatyards where it mingles with estuarine mud and salt, the iodine of the seaweed encrusted rills and gullies and bloody iron tang of the chains as thick as your arm, tethering the crafts to the shore. Jane Watson is another fan of the sealubber scent of Woodbridge from her years spent living there: “that salty sea water from Woodbridge…I love it.”
Run by Des Pawson, one of the world’s leading authorities on knots and sailors’ ropework and a researcher and historian on the subject, theMuseum of knots and sailors ropework is one of those niche museums that is both labour of love and repository of centuries of skills and knowledge. As Des says, “Rope and knots are my life and have been since I was a boy” and alongside his business ‘Footrope Knots’ which sells handmade knotted items, Des is determined to ensure that Suffolk rope making is not consigned to the footnotes of history.
Shipbuilding may sound romantic but it is an industry darkened by sweat and graft and marked by waves of immigration and importation, resentment and assimilation. By the 13th century the industry was flourishing in the county town of Ipswich and by the late 16th century, sailmaking was hugely profitable too although the latter declined as the 17th century waned. Timber and iron came here from the Nordic north and chandleries acquired their hemp for ropes from Latvia. Dockers greeted the import of coal and iron from other parts of the UK and waved goodbye to holds packed full of goods made from this iron. By 1842 a wet dock had been constructed although Ipswich was no longer an international port of importance but this domestic to-ing and fro-ing kept the place alive. Down river, Woodbridge too had been a centre for boat building, rope and sail making since the Middle Ages: both Edward III and Sir Francis Drake had commissioned the construction of fighting ships in the town.
The establishment of Woodbridge’s Custom House followed the increased prosperity that followed the religious settlements under Elizabeth I and the wool trade saw local merchants in Hadleigh, Sudbury and surrounding villages grow rich. The tensions that arrived with Dutch refugees and the competition they posed to local labour forces have strong parallels with present times as the county sees the arrival of migrant workers from Poland and Eastern Europe. They settled across South Essex (Colchesters Dutch quarter bears witness to their aesthetic input) and Suffolk and then, in the 19th century, competition from the northern English factories with their cheaper mass produced yarn and cloth saw the end of boom times for Ipswich and other ports although the silk weaving industry in Sudbury benefited from companies moving out of Spitalfields in East London.
Now, with the increasing importance of the leisure and tourist industry and the consequential redevelopment of the marina at Ipswich and Woodbridge’s Tide Mill, we are seeing new life breathed into our old Suffolk ports alongside the huge importance of Felixstowe, just down the coast which is one of Europe’s most important commercial ports and never fails to remind locals of its presence: “the malted smell that drifts from Felixstowe docks when the winds in the right direction”. The spectacle of humongous cargo ships steered into port by floodlit tugs and pilot boats whilst crowds gather at Languard and Shotley to watch is something that particularly delights children.
(3) “The smell of fish and chips in Aldeburgh”; “the smell of the sea”are among the most frequently cited smells of Suffolk and definitely some of the ones that stir up the most nostalgia and longing. The Aldeburgh fish and chip shop is one of the most famous takeaways in the UK, scene of queues down the street and conveniently next door to a well regarded pub with benches out front so you can sit and drink an ale with your chips. There’s a sister restaurant, The Golden Galleon, with a plaster mermaid at its prow and sit down space inside.
Fact is, fish and chips by the sea is an example of food in context, eaten just steps away from one of the best store cupboards in the world- the North Sea. Tidy rows of black pitched and weatherboarded huts along the shingle beach chalk up details of the daily catch on blackboards; sole, lots of crab, skate, plaice and decent lobster with shells tinted hypoxic blue. The fish comes twice daily and locals buy what arrives, eschewing an over reliance on the pre planned shopping list.
Yes, we’ve probably had our fill of food blogs and articles from over excited out of town food writers who are excited by ‘local colour’ and an interminable wait in a chip shop queue, punctuated by swigs from a mini bottle of champagne. Rapturous prose follows their route along the seafront alleyways down to the water where they eat their meal straight from the paper. I’m not going to tell you how the air sizzles with iodine-like inhaling an oyster- nor go on about the pleasure of licking salt and vinegar from your fingers in a brisk on shore wind because I will sound like one of them. Also, contrary to received knowledge, this isn’t the best fish and chip shop in Suffolk but it is really good nonetheless; fish from the neighbourhood cooked in fresh bubbling hot oil. It is Mark Murphy’s quintessential Suffolk smell and he knows what he is talking about, I reckon.
(4)The sickly sweet nostril prickling scent of scorched sugar from candy floss and sugar beet: the latter is transported to the British Sugar factory on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds. Belching great gouts of steam into the sky and visible for miles around, the factory acts as sentinel, telling locals that they are home- it is the steam, as garden designer Janey Auchincloss points out, that they have the association with. Despite the appalled reaction of nature writer Roger Deakin, many locals are pretty tolerant of the factory, smells and all, and manage to live alongside it: “sugar beet: not lovely, not awful” as Jane Watson says. Deakin really was pretty hard on the sugar beet factory, in part because back in the 80s, toxic effluent was leaked into the river Lark and sugar is a particularly malevolent contaminant, deoxygenating water by encouraging a massive overgrowth of bacteria. Interestingly this is one of the reasons why people with diabetes who have poor blood sugar control may also struggle with lingering bacterial infections, especially of the skin.
Anyway, Deakin reminds us that lorry drivers refer to Bury St Edmunds as ‘sugar city’ and finds it easy to see the factory as a “giant conspiracy against the nations health…it looks at its most satanic at night, when clouds of evil smelling smoke and steam billow like candyfloss out of e forest of steam chimneys and high tech ducting, floodlit in lurid pink and orange.” He continues…“The place looks like a missile launching site…with a system of deodorising mist sprays…perfuming the evil smeling air…a gleaming new spinney conceals vast lagoons full of rotting beet sludge” then ends by referring to “a pot pourri of perfume and stench [which] assails the puzzled nostrils of the traveller.”
The thing is, although residents in Bury St Edmunds know not to open their windows when the wind blows in a certain direction or when the pits are being cleaned, I haven’t encountered anyone who vehemently objects to the smell; indeed most people were fairly pragmatic about it, recognising that this is a place that employs not only a significant amount of local people in the factory, but also in the surrounding farms and their associated agriculture. The smell is sweet with a weird vegetal note, reminiscent of the smell of decaying old rhubarb leaves as you dig them back in, exposing fresh growth at the crown of the plant or a potato grown soft and rotten at the back of the vegetable bin. Anyway, we all need to remind ourselves that before the sugar beet began to yield its sweetness, there existed, within the sugar industry, a practice that was responsible for far more unpleasantness than a bad smell.
In an address to the Oxford Symposium on Food, Cathy K Kaufman talks of the initial dream that the sugar beet would render slave produced cane sugar obsolete. Some 19th century American abolitionists saw the root as the ultimate weapon against a cruel system which enabled the southern states to undercut prices through the use of human slaves. As was said in National Era, the options for refining sugar needed to“show that the sweet may be obtained without the bitter, and that there is no necessary connection between bondage and Muscovadoes.” Those early dreams of ending the plantation system via sugar beet sugar came to nothing at that point as commercial production only became viable in 1870 after the American Civil War had done away with the Confederacy and the slavery which was its social and economic foundations.
Previously the post Enlightenment and early industrialization periods saw huge demand for sugared hot drinks which caused prices to skyrocket. Initially sugar sweetened tea, coffee and chocolate remained costly luxuries for the wealthy in the 16th and 17th centuries but over the next 200 years, these libations became more democratically available and by the 19th century, the British, French and American working classes routinely drank coffee and tea. The sweetening came from tropical sugar cane from Asian and other colonial outposts. Hence slavery and, of course, the great wealth which it generated in the United Kingdom. The battles between various colonial empires meant that imported supplies of sugar were vulnerable to all manner of economic and political vagaries- a simple shipwreck of a vessel loaded with cane was a potential disaster- so European scientists started experimenting with the extraction of sugar from a variety of plants, via an edict from Napoleon to cease reliance on imports of British sugar cane. Eventually they began to be successful and cane sugar started to lose its monopoly.
As for that other sugary scent….the bags of bum pink candy floss festooned from kiosks along our seaside promenades are in rude contrast to all that Arthur Ransome seaside stuff and those burned sugar whiskers, spun as you wait at fairgrounds, are the focus of much nostalgia from those of us d’une certain age. From the fairs of our childhood on the ‘Rec’ in Great Cornard to the arrival of those brightly painted trucks on Long Melford Green in the shadow of its great church, candyfloss and the other fairground smells never fail to evoke the sheer excitement of the this gaudy extravaganza coming to town- or trips to the sea. As Pauline said, “candyfloss was something that mum could afford- we were a family of five kids- and I loved the fact that it lodged in the corners of your mouth. I’d sit in the back of the car, travelling home and still be able to taste it hours later. That is, perhaps in hindsight, NOT a good thing for teeth!”
The waltzers always had a dangerous looking youth spinning them; sporting a gold hoop in his ear, a wicked grin and super tight jeans, he would leap onto the fast moving cakewalk and spin the car. His attentions were fuelled by our flirtatious screams and plenty of backward glances as we staggered around dressed in our best clothes because the fair coming to the town warranted a full day of Getting Ready in the seventies. Our hair would stick to the thick cherry flavoured Bonnie Bell lipgloss we wore: we left contrails of Charlie and Jovan Musk oil in our wake and made a deafening racket in our wooden heeled platformed sandals. Our teenage flirtations made us feel, as Margaret Atwood says in the Handmaids Tale, “like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.”
(5) The washing machine water was my grandfathers name for the weir at the Croft in Sudbury and he told gruesome tales to rival the Brothers Grimm of a current strong enough to suck a child down and hold them permanently in the embrace of the green jellified ribbons of river weed. This was a most effective way of keeping a curious child from getting too close and even now, decades later, as I walk the towpath I hear his voice.
Any scratch n sniff book of Suffolk would have to include the odour of fast moving river water ; dank, notes of ozone and muddy mildew that hunker over the flood meadows on a misty morning. Walking along the river, it is possible to identify the point at which its sluggishness, marked only by the dents made by the weight of pond skaters and the occasional fish burp, change into a sudden tugging then a brown watery rush to the weir. The weight of the water pushes it through the grille and flushes it through pondscum and decaying water lily leaves trapped in the iron bars. It churns over a ledge into the cow pond a few feet below then spreads out into a shallow basin whose muddy margins are tromped down into a mess of hoof prints. Hovering over the towpath is an aerosol mist of scent warning walkers of the weir well before the waterway does.
The Stour is well used by ‘wild swimmers’ and there are some murmerings about starting a campaign to redevelop the neglected Victorian swimming pond near the Croft which was closed in 1937 after an outbreak of Diptheria. Pictured below, in 1923, the pool came with changing rooms and the surrounding fields made it a perfect place for stretching out with a book in the sun.
The ornamental stone steps and rusting foot ladders still remain, close to the footbridge where ducks gather. Walking along the river from the meadows on Melford Road to the Mill Hotel. I can imagine the rope swings that would have hung low over the water and local kids jumping from the bridge on a hot summers day. The water is silky and brown and slow moving here and the frogs eye view is of nothing but fields and the tree line.
The Sudbury Museums site tells of the affection American airmen posted nearby had for the town and its river during the Second World War. “Americans had fallen into the swing of Sudbury life and few Sudbury homes were lacking in American friends. At Sudbury the meadows are broad and green, and the river flows close to the edge of the old buildings that spring up from its eastern bank. You can walk down to the river across the green in front of St. Gregory’s church, cross a little bridge and sit on a bench under the plane trees, and look out across the meadows to the fields that rise beyond them, and the line of tall trees crowning them. You cannot get much closer to the heart of England anywhere.”
“You would never have known that there was a war being fought on this island and elsewhere in the world. Or that this was the twentieth, and not the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Not until you looked across the meadow again, and saw, white and ugly under a copse of willows, like one monstrous overgrown white mushroom, a concrete pillbox.” Although the swimming pond closed before their arrival, local GIs did swim in the river and afterwards they would saunter through the town, damp trunks bundled into a towel and go for a coffee at the cafe in Station Road (later known as The Bongo). Run by Basil Gates, it had a very popular snooker table at its rear.
(6) Oil paints squeezed onto a palette; that sharp and rich chemical scent as the knife scrapes through represents Suffolk’s great artistic legacy– eau d’atelier maybe? Imagine how the studios of Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, Cedric Morris, Maggie Hambling and other great painters smell: a melange of turpentine fumes soaked into rags and wooden floors; of freshly shaved pencils, primed canvas and crushed stubs of charcoal scattered on floors; clove oil as thinner, cigarette smoke and sweat and old bottles of solvent with their layers of greenish sediment…and not all the scents are harshly ‘chemical’ either. Leonardo Da Vinci apparently used oil of lavender to regenerate a dry canvas and the Early Dutch painters ( Hubert Van Eyck, Rembrandt) added great sweeps of it across their entire canvas as a diluent. After the 14th century spike lavender became the artistic fashion and added another olfactory layer to a scene already replete with them and the work of the artist themselves.
Suffolk provides inspiration for many artists and its literal and metaphorical depictions can be seen on the walls of some of the worlds most important galleries. To walk the Stour valley and the Suffolk coast between Southwold and Aldeburgh is to see the county through the eyes of its greatest artists and to gaze upon an iris is to experience what inspired Cedric Morris (Hambling was a protogeé) who painted in the garden of his Higham Farm home and at Benton End, near Hadleigh.
Listening to Maggi Hambling talk about painting in oils is a visceral experience in itself where she describes oil paints as “very sexy stuff… which you have to love to work with.” Hambling discovers new things in oil all the time and has to juggle the weird telescoping of artistic time where an oil painting can take forever to make then requires bringing together in one moment. “ Things happen that have never happened before when you paint… Oil paint has a great life force of its own.”
The fact that art is about commingling of all five senses should not be forgotten either, despite the focus on scent. Get up close to a Constable, Hambling or Gainsborough and there’s the studio right in front of you, saturating the canvas with aroma but there’s so much more too. Constable paints Suffolk hay and Suffolk punches and Suffolk fields. Gainsborough painted portraits and landscapes and you can smell the blue of the sky and the starch of the blue dress that Mrs Andrews wore in her eponymous portrait. There is a sense of self embedded in the art and that self is built from terroir- the land and people- and the spirit of each piece springs from this. You can smell the salt spray and wild grey fury of the North Sea in Hamblings’ wave paintings too. and you can hear it all: great gouts of water smashing the sea wall, each wave different: made up of rivers of silver, turquoise and gold and the darker grey of its trough. In that same interview, Hambling talks of other oil painters and the way their work transcends time: “Oil painting can make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being made. Somebody looking at it can feel, with a late Titian or with a Rothko or a Van Gogh, as if they are there with the work being created in front of them. That’s something oil paint can do. So, yes, I suppose all these marks are energetic. They jump about. It’s all physical,” but equally, she could be talking about her work too.
(7)“The smell of old books, of antique filled barns and tiny shops and our great libraries- old things”. Suffolk used to be the county of antique shops and book shops, both new and antiquarian, and whilst this might no longer be the case, this past casts long shadows over the present. Our library service has also endured cuts although at the time of writing it has prevailed, with branches in the smallest of towns and a mobile library which reaches the tiniest of hamlets. The libraries of my childhood are no more though as nowadays the stock is replenished more often and you do not see tatty books. I mourn the loss of those stiff pieces of cardboard tucked inside each book and the heavy ink stamp which friendly librarians allowed me to do myself. Upstairs in Sudbury library was a reference section with a giant atlas with its many maps telling of the worlds crops and rivers, the modern political boundaries and olden days when half the world was coloured pink. The inks smelled sharp and medicinal and they left smudges on the pads of my fingers. There is a wonderful quote by Ray Bradbury, “Every book has its smell. A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. A really old book smells like ancient Egypt.” which says it far better than I could. So where does that smell of old books come from? A paper surface acts as a magnet to dust particulates, all three sides of the book will preserve these as long as they are not cleaned. When you open an old book, the deposited particulates are stirred up and pushed up towards your nose because of the currents of air.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Matija Strlic of University College London described it as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.” Hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) comprise this scent, from the paper, inks, bindings and adhesives alongside the skin oils from readers. These all break down over time. Benzaldehydes lend hints of almond and vanillin imbues the pages with a powerful emotional resonance as vanilla is associated with babyhood. The sweetness of toluene and ethyl benzene and floral notes from 2-ethyl hexanol add to this olfactory soup.
Sltrlic led a study published in Analytical Chemistry in 2009 that found 15 VOCs which break down more rapidly than others and this may assist librarians and conservators on identifying those books most vulnerable to degradation. What can be done about the degradation in book and antique shop numbers and library services is a point of debate. Lovejoy did much to promote the county of Suffolk as an antiques filled haven and there is much talk of a new series which is currently being written.
The BBC show ran between 1986 and 1994 and starred actor Ian McShane in the lead role as a roguish antiques dealer with around 15 million viewers regularly watching his iwheeling and dealing in Clare, Long Melford, Cavendish and Lavenham, giving the region its name of Lovejoy Country. There has been rumours that Tony Jordan, creator of TV hit Life on Mars, is developing a remake with his company Red Planet Pictures and will use the original Lovejoy novels as a basis for a new series. But where will Lovejoy wheel and deal now? The growth of online auction sites such as EBAY and rising business rates and rents has led to the demise of many of our antiques centres although Long Melford and Clare still have some; the latter has a thriving auction room too as does Bury St Edmunds. When Lovejoy first filmed, Long Melford had over twenty antiques shops and this number has more than halved over the last fifteen years meaning that Lovejoy may have to branch out. Clare resident Sarah Barrington, owner of a gift store in the town called Blue Dog was not living in the town when Lovejoy filmed but sent the images shown above of the original series filming nearby.
Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).
The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.
Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.
There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.
Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.
Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.
MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.
James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.
He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.
Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’
Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book, Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif. Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’
Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.
Laying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.
The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.
This traditional dried fruit and almond filled pastry was eaten all over Suffolk and Essex and takes just a few minutes to make. Mentioned by Chaucer and part of a town ritual for the last four hundred years, it deserves to be eaten more widely.
Wandering around Saffron Walden some fifteen years ago I came across a trove of old cookery books in one of the second hand bookshops the town used to be known for, and now sadly closed down alongside many others. One of the books I bought contained a wealth of old East Anglian recipes including an intriguing one which mentioned the ‘Bury St Edmunds Kitchel.’ Unfortunately a lot of the pages were missing and I only read half of the story, then I lent the book out and never got it back. Then more time passed and apart from the occasional impulse to do some further research into this mysterious pastry that bore the name of the town I had moved to, life got in the way and the Kitchel remained unbaked and unknown.
Last week, whilst ambling through the lanes and highways of t’internet I came across it again and although my hope that it had a closer link to my part of Suffolk was dashed (It is linked more closely to the Essex town of Harwich, if anything), there is still enough evidence that it was baked and eaten pretty widely throughout the Suffolk with specific links to the seaside town of Aldeburgh. Alas, I can find no trace of that mysterious Bury St Edmunds link and it remains a mystery as to why the book was so adamant about this.
The God’s Kitchel is based on that tried and tested combination of pastry and dried fruit that served as efficient fuel delivery system for hard working bodies and a way of getting through the lean period between November and late March when little fresh fruit was on the market. Back then, the stores were not full of imported green beans from Kenya and satsumas from southern Spain.
Households would preserve the fruits that they could grow, those apples, cherries and plums from their own trees, but the dried fruit we associate with mince pies and Christmas puddings- sultanas, dried peel and raisins, was comparatively expensive and beyond the reach of many households. During the medieval period, foreign exploration led to the trading of exotic spices and dried fruits which could survive the many months a sea journey could take but their rarity and expense caused them to used in foods made for feasts on high days and holidays; at least for ordinary families anyway. Back then, like the mince pie, they were made with meat and served as a useful way of using up this preserved meat over the winter months. Over time, the meat was gradually omitted from the kitchel in the same way it ceased to be included in mince pies, although traditional mincemeat still contains suet, the fat that protects the kidneys of an animal.
Back then, many towns and regions had their own very specific feast day foods of which the kitchel was one- it is a close relative to the godcake made and handed out in Coventry; the only other place with a ceremony similar to that of Harwich and Aldeburgh. It has been suggested that the kitchels original triangular shape was a reference to the Holy Trinity, as are the three cuts in the top, and this very same religious symbolism (like the original crib shape of the mince pie) might have resulted in their ban from sale during the period of the Commonwealth in seventeenth century England.
Edward Moor, in a dictionary of Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) describes the kitchel as “a flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.” By triangular, he means more of a cornet shape, like a triangular apple turnover.
The kitchel was even mentioned as far back as 1386 when Chaucer cites it in his Summoners Tale:
“Give us a bushell whete, malte, or rice, A God’s kichel, or a trippe of cheese,”
and the 15th century ecclesiastical court servants of Chaucer clearly considered the kitchel a worthy enough and acceptable recompense for the saving of a soul or its delivery from penance. Evidence then that a cake that appears, to our modern palates as fairly modest, was actually a great and infrequent treat for the 15th century person.
The origins of ‘the word kitchel’ are obscure and therefore suggestive of an ancient lineage (way back to the 11th century at the very least) although the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘kichel’ (and offers an alternative spelling of cicel) as a ‘small cake’. A connection with the German for cake- ‘Kuche’- is suggested as is the Yiddish ‘kikhl’ which commonly refers to a small sugary cookie. In Anglo Saxon, ‘cicel’ is both a ‘morsel’ or ‘little mouthful’ but is also linked to ‘circle’ too. The Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838) supposes that the origin is Anglo-Saxon although there is no specific reference to cake so unless anyone can further advise, one has to assume that the Germanic origins are the most likely ones. Or are they?
Locals in Harwich, Aldeburgh and other East Anglian towns say that kitchels also known as ‘Catch Alls’ because of the tradition where the cakes were thrown to the crowds by the mayor each year (and more on this later) to symbolise the showering of his blessings upon the town. Believed to date back to the Norman conquest, a 1905 guidebook describes this practice as ‘a curious custom, many many hundreds of years old.‘ In Aldeburgh, ‘kitchels’ are baked and sold on New Year’s Eve and monumental amounts of bad luck is foretold for those who do not order at least one ‘kichel’ for each member of the family. As F A Qutt says in his book, ‘The County Coast,’ the kitchel “must be eaten before midnight or the worst of ill luck was predicted for folks who failed to partake of these cakes and even now, it is said, there is no one in the town so daring as to nibble a crumb of them after the new year had dawned.”
Back in 1935, the local newspaper of Harwich and Dovercourt describes the town ceremony as a ‘good custom for godfathers and godmothers every time their godchildren asked them for a blessing to give them a cake which was a ‘gods kitchel’ and cites the saying ‘ask me a blessing and I will give you a kitchel’ as a common one.
Going back to the Harwich ceremony, the ringing of the bell from the town crier, followed by a speech, “Catch a kitchel, if you can!” signifies the start of their being thrown from the Guildhall window in a ceremony that is now held on the third Thursday in May around noon at St. Nicholas’ Church. In the next town, staff at the Cabin Bakery, Dovercourt, begin baking the 400 kitchels in the early hours, ready for delivery to the Guildhall and local schools – unlike centuries before, every child who wants one will get a kitchel. The town clerk and staff sit in the grade one listed Guildhall and wrap each one individually.
Symbolising the spreading of goodwill amongst the poor of the town by the newly elected mayor who walks through the streets back to the Guildhall from Church Street, resplendent in bicorne hat, mayoral chain and scarlet frock coat with black pantaloons worn underneath, it is thought to be a development from the tradition, at the beginning of the year, whereby godparents would present theur godchildren with a cake along with their blessing for the new year ahead. The children of Harwich however, accompany the mayor back to the guildhall and await his appearance at the window, hands outstretched, waiting to catch the kitchels.
Some recipes for Gods Kitchels specify shortcrust pastry and others use puff. I have tried both and much prefer the latter which gives it a lightness that balances out the dried fruit and ground almond contents. I have seen versions with added rum or brandy which you, of course, are most welcome to do too but I have kept my version as close to the original as possible although I use bought pastry, fresh from the chiller cabinet. The brand I buy is all butter which puffs up admirably. Despite the dried fruit, the sweetness quotient isn’t that high (sugar wasn’t that cheap back in the day) so you might want to add a little extra sugar. Or do what we do and serve it custard or with a dollop of double cream, sweetened with a little icing sugar.
Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ Gas mark 6. Grease a large baking sheet.
Melt the butter over low heat in a decent sized heavy bottom pan and add the currants, spice and peel along with the ground almonds and stir them well, ensuring they are all incorporated. Set the mixture aside and allow to cool.
Divide the puff pastry into half, roll each half into two evenly sized oblongs and place one of them carefully onto the greased baking sheet. Spread the dried fruit mixture evenly over the pastry base, ensuring you leave a margin around all four edges. Moisten the edges with some milk then lift the second sheet of pastry carefully over the top. Seal the edges by crimping (you might have an excess which is fine to cut off with a sharp knife before you crimp and seal.
Mark the pastry lightly into squares with a very sharp knife. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until puffed up and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting through the outlines knife marks into squares. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar (I like golden) and serve.
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year and is a time for everyone to pause and remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Commemorated each year in Bury St Edmunds where a service in the Abbey Gardens at the existing Holocaust Memorial sees dignitaries and civic leaders join locals for a moment of quiet reflection and memorial, this years ceremony (2015) will be marked by the unveiling of a one and a half metre teardrop sculpture which will form a centrepiece to a new Peace Garden. The Memorial Garden Trust, a registered charity, has raised more than £11,000 for the project in the Abbey Gardens.
Rob Lock from the trust said:
“In addition to providing a more dignified setting for the annual holocaust service the Peace Garden is also designed to commemorate the murder of 57 Jews in our town on Palm Sunday, 19 March 1190. It is an event in our town’s history that the trust felt needed to be publicly acknowledged.
“The teardrop is a natural and universal symbol of pity and persecution, of human suffering and sorrow. It is made from polished stainless steel; its mirrored surface reflects back to us the role we all must play in opposing humanity’s inhumanity.”
The Peace Garden, which is being installed by Urban Forestry, also includes 57 cobble stones – one for each of the victims of the 1190 massacre. There will also be two stone benches as seating for quiet reflection. The trust was formed by local residents and is supported by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, and members of Suffolk’s Jewish Community.
St Edmundsbury Borough Cabinet Member for Leisure, Culture and Heritage, Cllr Sarah Stamp said:
“The teardrop memorial is a very poignant symbol. Although this is an area that forces us to think about the worst acts carried out by mankind, the trust has also raised the funds and created a cultural space that they should feel proud of.”
Back then Hatter Street was recognised as the Jewish quarter of the town and referred to as Heathenmans Street. It was claimed that Moyses Hall could have been their synagogue but this has now been disputed, largely because it would have been next to what was then the medieval pig market. It is more likely that the higher ground along Hatter Street between numbers 25-26 served as the synagogues location, a case strengthened by the evidence of a well beneath the basement, necessary for ritual bathing and washing. Other claims for Moyses Hall is that its name is a derivative of ‘Moses’ and that it was built by wealthy Jewish merchants of the town. However, ‘Moses’ and ‘Moyses’ are both common Suffolk names.
By the 1190’s, the Jewish population in England numbered approximately some 2,500 people and until this time they enjoyed relative freedom of movement, the right to own real estate and access to education when compared to the Jewish people who lived in mainland Europe. However all was not rosy, In 1189, they were taxed at a much higher rate than the rest of England to finance the Third Crusade. Jews might have comprised less that 0.25% of the English population but they provided 8% of the total income of the royal treasury. This financial contribution did not render them beloved of the people though and the pro Christian ideology of the Crusades engendered an anti Semitic rhetoric.
In 1181, a dispute broke out between William the Sacristan (Sexton) of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds and his associate Samson. Alongside the local townspeople, the Jews sided with William but unfortunately, it was Samson who came to power the next year as Abbot. In 1190, after the Coronation riots, Samson demanded that the Jewish people in the town should be placed under his authority rather than the Kings and when they refused, they were expelled under guard.
This was set among a nationwide background of disempowerment for Jews. In the same year, King Henry II enacted the “Assize of Arms”, ordering that all weapons owned by Jews should be confiscated on the grounds that their protection came from the King and therefore they would not have any reason for owning arms. The weapons were turned over to the King’s forces, leaving them with little defence and protection when riots broke out less then ten years later.
The 1189 coronation of Richard the Lionheart saw further state sanctification of their persecution when Baldwin who was the Archibishop of Canterbury, persuaded Richard to not accept gifts from Jewish dignitaries, and further, to banish them from the palace which was interpreted by the watching crowds to mean the King favoured persecution. That same day, a pogrom against the Jews in London occurred and again, the next day. Reluctant to get involved in protecting them at the start of his reign, Richard did not enact a severe punishment of the rioters which saw the civil unrest spread to Norwich, Lincoln and Bury St Edmunds alongside other towns.
The church and locals seized on every opportunity to justify their prejudices. When Saint Robert of Bury, a young choirboy from the abbey was found murdered (crucified), allegedly on Good Friday, his death was blamed on the town’s Jewish community. Robert was buried in the Abbey church and in his Chronicle, Jocelyn of Brakelond, a monk in the Abbey during Samsons rule, even attributed miracles to him. Rumours based on the belief that the Jews had gained their wealth through sacrificial murders began to percolate through the town and their community became the focus of much anti semitic feelings. Regionally, the Jews of Norwich were accused of torturing a Christian child named William, using his blood for the Passover Seder, then killing and burying him and despite the entreaties of Pope Innocent IVs to ignore such ridiculousness, the image of Jews being dangerous to Christians became the dominant one.
After nine more years, anti semitic feelings had increased and it has been suggested that the catalyst to the massacre may have been a ‘vanquish the infidels’ type sermon, preached in the abbey church at a time when anti Jewish sentiments were even more heightened, it being Lent. The abbey was no longer a reliable place of sanctuary for them but Samson is recorded as claiming the Abbey was not the Kings property and therefore these ‘Jews were not Saint Edmunds men.’
On Palm Sunday, the 19th March, a group of Christian Crusaders rampaged through Bury St Edmunds and killed 57 Jews followed by the obtaining of a writ by Abbot Samson, leader of the monastery, to have the survivors expelled. Previously the monastery had sheltered Jews when there was a threat of a pogrom but recently the monastery had gone into debt to Jews and therefore took advantage of the opportunity to escape having to repay those debts. Much building work had taken place in the Abbey and some major debts had accrued under Abbot Hugh, despite the churches moral teachings against usury. The offer of consecrated vestments and other articles as security against the debt gives clues about their extent and the pressure upon the monastery to do everything it could to expunge them.
Six months after the massacre of the Jews, Jocelin recorded in his Chronicle that Samson’s expelling of the remaining Jews showed that he was a ‘man of great virtue’, an expulsion that was granted after he appealed to the King for permission to do so in October 1190. On July 1290, King Edward the First ordered their expulsion from the whole country, making England the first country to do so. There is some disagreement as to how many were forced to leave- either 4000 or 16,000 which is some difference- and their return was not officially sanctioned until the 17th century, some 350 years later.
This event is relatively unknown in the town and wider annals of regional history and the translation of Jocelyns Chronicle that is stored in our Records Office itself omits the event. The opening of the Peace Garden, coming at a time when Jewish people all over the world face renewed persecution alongside other faiths and creeds, could not be more timely and significant. When the Holocaust happened, we did it to our own people-NOT a group of people living separately as ‘others.’ Europe placed them in a ghetto, they did not ghettoise themselves. The Holocaust destroyed a living and vibrant part of our European culture- music, art, economics, politics, the sciences and left a gaping hole, a rent or whatever ugly image you wish to use which has yet to fill in. And when it does, the scar will still be there and we should continue to remember. There is no such thing as the ‘past. ‘