A local appetite for sops and dripping

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A visit to a local graveyard led us to a man who loved his sops and dripping so much, he had his dripping-cup affixed to his tombstone.


Travel south of Newmarket and the land swells gently towards the rolling hills of west Suffolk and the fields are dotted with copses and dark-green thickets. The landscape around Newmarket is rather manicured, a result of its racing industry which has brought great wealth to parts of the town although back in February 1605, when James I made his first visit to the town, he described it as a “poor little village.”

 This part of East Anglia was once politically significant, close to the ancient Icknield Way which runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards, up into Thetford Chase. These tracks were in use from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, forming a network of paths which helped people move between the south-west of England and East Anglia. The former Kings of East Anglia built defensive earthworks to gird the loins of what was a naturally  defensive topography: the marshy, dark-watered fens further to the north, creek-riven coastal margins to the east and the sprawling broad-leaf forests of Essex to the south all made invasion and subsequent navigation tricky.
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The small village of Wood Ditton lies just south of Newmarket and was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in an instrument of King Canute: the monarch went on to give Ditton Camoys, one of the Wood Ditton manors, to Ely Abbey in 1022 in exchange for Cheveley, a nearby village. Part of Wood Ditton’s southern boundary is formed by the Anglo-Saxon earthworks, Devil’s Dyke, which is also crossed by the Roman Icknield Way.

St Mary’s church was built on the periphery of the village, down a short track edged by hedgerows and the garden walls of its neighbouring cottages. Early records date the original wooden church buildings (now gone) back to the twelfth-century although it was once home to a monastery of an even greater age. Parts of the church were vandalised by Cromwell’s men but the fourteenth century north aisle remains.

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Enter the yard via a low gate and directly in front of you lies the church and the older part of its graveyard where tombstones patched with ochre-yellow lichens and moss lean at crazy angles. Walk down a gentle slope covered in cow parsley, primroses and the dying leaves of snowdrops and you’ll arrive at two more, partially enclosed, graveyards.

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We came here in search of one particular grave after an internet search for Newmarket Pudding led me to the tombstone epitaph of a local man who has been described as a ‘gourmand’. On the first of March 1753, William Symonds was interred in front of the church, close to the gate and, at his own request, his gravestone has a small iron dripping-dish affixed to its front, protected by a rusting iron grille. A former turnspit to the late Duke of Rutland at Cheveley in Cambridgeshire (although some records state he was a gamekeeper too) Mr Symonds reached a great age of eighty and as he lay dying of an undetermined affliction, his last wishes were that the tale of his demise should be told thus. They are believed to be his own words:

Here lies my corpse, I was the man,

That loved a sop in the dripping pan;

But now, believe me, I am dead:

See here the pan stands at my head.

Still for sops till the last I cried

But could not eat, and so I died.

My neighbours, they perhaps will laugh,

When they do read my epitaph.”

(Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary for the year 1876)

Poor Mr Symonds had endured that most terrible of afflictions for a man who loved his grub; an inability to eat coupled with a raging appetite for something comforting and indulgent as he approached his death. His dripping pan has turned to rust and the remains are barely visible behind the protective iron grille, but a faint ghost of his epitaph is visible, engraved on the thick stone slab. The words took some time to decipher in the cold bright light of a March afternoon, although the word ‘dripping’ retained the most clarity. I like to imagine that William Symonds would have been pleased by that.

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How on earth did a man of his modest means manage to eat his way to a dripping-related death though? His access to meat-dripping (or sops as they were commonly referred to) belied his fiscal and social class because dripping was generally not freely available for poorer working people. However, his love of it can be explained by his occupation as turnspit to the Duke of Rutland which seemed to have provided him with a steady supply. There isn’t a huge amount of information about him (as you might expect) but a life spent proximate to landed gentry and the dukedom means that there is some documentary evidence of his life in relation to them. In records from Cheveley Park dated 1896, he was described as “an eccentric lad” who for many years had filled an important office, helping to roast the game and meat from livestock provided by the ducal estate.

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For William, it must have been extremely arduous work in unpleasantly hot conditions. Indeed, records of the Tudor turnspit boys who worked at Hampton Court give some idea of the travails turnspits endured because when they divested themselves of their upper clothing to cool down, they were commanded to ‘no longer to go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now.’ William would have required every drop of that meaty sop in order to build the upper-body strength and musculature required to keep the spit turning for hours on end. It is not a surprise to learn that a small dog was especially bred to turn these spits too. First mentioned in documents from 1576, these dogs were trained to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit and to make them run faster, a coal might be tossed into their metal cage. By 1850 they had fallen out of popularity because of the creation of  inexpensive, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks, and towards the turn of the century, both human and canine turnspits had become obsolete.

Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
 Sops were commonly known as pieces of bread which would be dipped into the drippings from the spit-roasted meat. These juices were collected in a pan placed underneath the spit. Another type of sop came from bowls of pottage or gruel. When the bread had ‘sopped up’ and was soaked in liquid, meat juices or fat, the trick was to convey the sop as swiftly as possible to the mouth before it disintegrated in the hand. The word ‘soup’ derives from sop or sup (meaning the slices of bread onto which broth or cooking juices was poured) although Joan of Arc liked to sop her bread with wine instead of cooking juices. Wealthier people in the Middle Ages threw their trencher bread (so called because it functioned as an early plate for meat and sauce) out to the dogs, despite it being sopped in a good sauce. Sometimes the trencher bread would be cast out to the waiting poor too.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (in the book ‘A History of Food’) tells of St Patroclus, a third-century saint from Troyes, who managed to survive on barley bread dipped into water and sprinkled with coarse salt. In this practice, he was anticipating the early days of soup when a crust or piece of bread would be placed at the bottom of a low bowl and the gruel or other liquid then poured over it. We can see the origins of the Tuscan bread-thickened soups, the French garbures and onion soups and the Spanish gazpacho. There’s echoes of sop what we call French toast (pan perdu) in a fifteenth-century Italian recipe for suppa dorata, where pieces of bread are dipped in beaten-egg, sugar and rosewater, then fried in butter and served encrusted with more sugar. Think of zuppa Inglese too, where the bread is replaced by sweet cake which is then soaked in wine or rum and blanketed in thick custard. Still in Italy, food historian Ken Albala tells of a sturgeon-based dinner in his book, The Banquet that took place in 1584. Wealthy guests feasted upon sturgeon eggs and beaten flesh of the fish, the latter in a thick soup and served with sops, followed by sturgeon meatballs in a spicy sauce. There were sixteen sturgeon-based platters of food to get through in total, a mighty feast where some of the courses possessed a more humble culinary etymology.

At the humbler end of the scale, there’s dripping cake- or bread- which was once eaten in many British regions, although it is rarely heard of now. The Gloucestershire version of this bread, baked in the oven from  dripping, flour, brown sugar, spices, currants and raisins, had a toffee-like layer at the base of the cake which formed as it baked. Dripping cake gets a mention in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

Tom, by a sort of instinct, knew the right cupboards in the kitchen and pantry, and soon managed to place on the snuggery table better materials for a meal than had appeared there probably during the reign of his tutor, who was then and there initiated, amongst other things, into the excellence of that mysterious condiment, a dripping-cake. The cake was newly baked, and all rich and flaky; Tom had found it reposing in the cook’s private cupboard, awaiting her return; and as a warning to her they finished it to the last crumb.

Sop-style platefuls are found wherever meat forms part of the diet. Go to Hungary and you’ll find that they have their own version of mucky bread which is known locally as fatty bread: goose fat from the well-known Hungarian goose is spread on bread, sprinkled with paprika and eaten with finely chopped peppers and onions. And there’s variations on a theme too such as Smokeworks in Cambridge, who have taken this straightforward ingredient and stirred it into mashed potatoes to make their legendary beef-dripping mash.

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‘Mucky Fat’

In Yorkshire the same dripping is spread onto good bread and goes by the name of ‘mucky sandwich’ although this habit is not unique to this fine region. My grandparents who both hailed from the Midlands kept a large china jug in the fridge, full to the brim with beef dripping from the Sunday roast, the fat solidifying into a creamy layer over a good two inches of rich beef jelly. Over the week it would be used to enrich gravies and pastry or was spread onto hot toast and allowed to melt. On an especially good day, I would be given a plate of fried bread, golden and caught around the crust and heavy with melted dripping and jelly. My grandfather would reminisce about after-school football as a lad where, at half-time, he would wolf down a ‘bread and fat’sopped sandwich with a spreading of his mother’s home-made piccalilli to cut the grease. That Sunday joint kept the family in clover for most of the week.

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Library of Congress: The Prince of Wales (George IV) asks “Dear Mother, pray let me have a sop in the pan.”

In classical literature, a sop was clearly so prized that it was deemed to be a suitable bribe for Cereberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto which guarded the gates of the infernal regions in Virgil’s Aeneid. When a person died, the Greeks and Romans would put a cake in their hands as a sop to this fearsome creature, who might therefore allow them to pass without molestation in exchange. Here we see the sop gains a secondary meaning as a bribe or salve. There exists the possibility that Mr Symons recognises that his much-prized sops might ease his suffering and might also provide him with a swifter, and easier, passage to eternal life. Or might he have been trying to bribe death to not come for him? We cannot be sure about that, but I was told that my own grandfathers sop sandwiches were so coveted by his footballing friends that he could probably have arranged to have the match thrown in exchange for a few bites- the equivalent of having Cereberus in goal.

I feel warmly towards Mr Symonds. Whilst Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary takes a dim view of ones vices being ‘considered a fitting subject for perpetuating in stone’ when it published his epitaph, and indeed Mr Symonds acknowledges his own excess of appetite, I am inclined to approve of a man who wanted to cheer-up his own neighbours whenever they visited the graveyard and church. Clearly the locals of Wood Ditton appreciate his little joke too, because when the original stone was accidentally broken during wedding party festivities at St Mary’s Church around 1871, it was removed and repaired. The stone was re-erected with the original dripping-pan in place.

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Martin Bell: my time in The Suffolk Regiment during the Cyprus Conflict

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Martin Bell / Image contributed
 The former BBC journalist and Independent MP, Martin Bell appeared at the Theatre Royal on September 25 of last year. I’ve taken the liberty of re-publishing this Bury Spy interview where he speaks about his involvement with the Suffolk Regiment and his recent book about his National Service during the Cyprus crisis. I also take a look at the Suffolk Regiment Museum, housed in the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds.

The Suffolk Regiment was one of the great infantry regiments of the British Army. It finally disappeared, after 274 years of continuous service in 1959, after a service with distinction through two world wars and in many other conflicts including Cyprus.  Martin did his national service with the regiment in its final years and his latest book, End of Empire, serves as a worthy tribute about the regimental swansong spent on a tiny island fighting a conflict which people today still know very little about. Originally intended as a personal memoir, what we can now read is the story of the Suffolk Regiment via a period of active engagement by a man who has continued his close association with what he calls “the 12th of foot.” Indeed, as you study the Suffolk Regiment Museum vitrines displaying artefacts from the regiments final tour of duty in Cyprus, look closely and among them you will find photographs taken by a young Bell during his time in the Intelligence Service.  Taken for press purposes, they are of a young recruit called Tim Davis and Tim is now one of the museums senior volunteers after an illustrious 26 year career in the Army which saw him rise to the rank of Sergeant Major.

The Suffolk Regiment Museum and Friends was established in what was once the officers mess inside the red-brick Keep at Gibraltar Barracks. The museum documents over 274 years of military history and provides a vital contextual backdrop for modern day military conflict. Located on the Newmarket Road and next to the West Suffolk College which was built upon its once very extensive grounds, little remains of the original army depot which was originally built in 1878. Enter the museum and you will see the original site maps, tracing the former location of parade grounds and infirmaries, office buildings, munitions, vegetable patches and the extensive cellars which have not been explored to date.

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(Exterior of the Suffolk Regimental Museum) 

The Suffolk Regiment was formed in 1685 when King James II ordered the Duke of Norfolk to raise a regiment and include men from Norfolk and Suffolk, although the next century saw more of a Norfolk influence than a Suffolk one. The Regiment already possessed informal links with the Suffolk Militia and tended to depend upon them for new recruits but eventually the Cardwell reforms of 1873 formally recognised these links.

Cambridgeshire was then added to the recruiting area and the Depot of the Regiment was established at Bury St Edmunds where the barracks to house the Depot was built in 1878. However, the title of The Suffolk Regiment had been conferred earlier in 1881 and the West Suffolk Militia and The Cambridgeshire Militia became the third and fourth Battalions, respectively. By the end of the century, 90% of regimental men came from Suffolk whilst the forerunner of the Territorial Army, the Territorial Force, was formed in 1908. This strengthened county links, establishing the fourth Battalion throughout East Suffolk and the fifth Battalion in West Suffolk.

Martin Bell served as a soldier in Cyprus between 1957 and 1959 and a few years ago, as he rummaged through his attic, he rediscovered a chocolate box filled with more than one hundred letters written to his family by him whilst in service. Although he was not a journalist at that point, the letters appear to hint at his future profession because they serve as a subjective war report, giving valuable insights into the life of a young conscript, serving in a conflict that was poorly understood and sparsely covered by the British press. Those letters went on to underpin End of Empire and their descriptions of explosions and terrorism, cordons, searches, interrogations, and riots in the face of a repressive military response with roots in our old colonial history demonstrate why the strategy was doomed to failure. Hearts and minds this was not as EOKA fighters (Εθνική Οργάνωσις Κυπρίων Αγωνιστών / National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) were treated like heroes and fêted on the streets of Nicosia which, to this day, remains a divided city.

Bell ended up falling out with his Regimental Sergeant Major but he acknowledges that a great deal of his National Service was ‘on the sunny side of tolerable’ and he received an education which was not only the best he had (even in the light of going up to Cambridge shortly after) but imbued him with a pride which has not faded as the years have passed. This is clearly apparent when I asked him about what audiences might expect when they come to see him at the Theatre Royal:

“I wrote this book about my time with the Suffolk Regiment at the very end of their tour,” he says.

” I had the idea to perhaps raise money for the theatre itself and to talk about the book and when I said “can I bring my band?”…They said, ‘band?’ and I replied, ‘of course I’ve got a band.’ I’m the president of the Suffolk’s concert band which inherits the traditions of the music of the Suffolk Regiment,” he added. “It’s going to be a mixture; I’m going to talk a bit and play some music, mainly military stuff and we’re going to recall the glory days of one of the finest regiments in the British Army.”

Bell is the son of ruralist writer Adrian Bell who lived and farmed in various locations in the county from Hundon and Bradfield St George to Beccles and he sent his son to school in Cambridge. The Suffolk’s were his local regiment when it came to the obligatory period of National Service that all healthy young men were required to submit to.

“In those days we had an army of 400,00 thousand strong and when I was eighteen years of age, a draft letter arrived requiring me to report to the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds on a certain day in June 1957 and serve two years with the Suffolk Regiment,”he said.

After his demob, he went up to Kings College, Cambridge where he read English, gaining a first class degree, and then joined the BBC as a reporter in Norwich in 1962, following his graduation at the age of twenty four. Three years later Bell transferred to London and covered his first foreign assignment in Ghana. The next thirty years saw him covering eleven conflicts globally, from Angola and Rwanda to the Middle East, a career that many might say was usefully underpinned by a peripatetic period of National Service.

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The Cyprus conflict seems to be a forgotten conflict, I say. So much of what happened there sounds pretty horrific and it also sounds familiar, reminiscent of the conflicts we face today. What can we learn from it?

“I think we have some lessons to learn from it. It’s a forgotten episode of our history, towards the end of empire.  We had 35,000 soldiers deployed in Cyprus, it was on rather a large scale and in and around Nicosia, the capital, we had four or five battalions. There were lots of us,” Bell replied.

“I was very fortunate that when I got to write the book I went through the National Archives and all the top secret documents of the time- exchanges between the governor and the colonial office- had been recently declassified and now we can tell the whole story. It’ s not something of which we can be especially proud although I think we soldiers did pretty well.”

That’s often the case isn’t it? The actions of those who execute the decisions of those in power tend to be ‘better’ than those of the decision makers

“That’s very true. I wouldn’t say that in the end we were successful. We held the line against the rebels of this organisation called EOKA, the National Association of Cypriot Fighters, until a constitutional compromise could be arranged and Cyprus could become independent but of course the independence didn’t hold and 14 years on the Turks invaded and Cyprus has been conflicted and divided ever since. So I don’t think we can put it down as one of Britain’s success stories.”

Is it true that some of the EOKA fighters are sueing the British government?

“Yes there are veterans who are, some were EOKA fighters , others were detained by the British under emergency powers and others, they are threatening legal action. They’ve been in contact with me but I said that I was was never more than a low grade operative: I was never more than an acting sargeant and what they were complaining about were interrogation techniques, especially, but these were usually done not by the army but by Special Branch.”

What was it like going up to Cambridge after doing your national service?

“I think that what happened, those two years, were the best education I’ve ever had. Better than three years at Kings College Cambridge. Of course, I couldn’t wait to get out of the army and my views were very much like those of the late great Peter Ustinov who served as a private  soldier and said that he hated the army like poison but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. So I felt much the same.”

From time to time we hear calls for National Service to be brought back and championed as some kind of cure for crime and youthful miscreancy. One imagines that there was no crime at all during the period of history that it was in force, if we listen to the extravagant claims made for its return. Should we bring back National Service?

“I deal with this in my closing chapter of my book and I say there might some be a case for some form of civic or voluntary service but it could not be brought back in the form in which we experienced it because todays generation just would not stand for it,” Bell counters.

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Image: Suffolk Regiment Museum

“We were much more deferential, that generation. When our Sergeant Major said jump, we jumped. I think today they would say ‘why?’. I think even my Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) who is still alive at the age of 97 would not not be able to tear young people away from their Ipads. We did what we were told. It did us a lot of good but I don’t think its realistic to dream about bringing it back.”

Would you say that our sentimentality about the army risks masks the reality of an underfunded service where the mental health of veterans and serving soldiers is neglected?

“I am a supporter of Combat Stress and I think the armed services have turned a corner on this. I think they know it is out there and they are trying to erase any stigma attached to it. But we know that between the original bruising of the mind, usually in active service, and a soldier coming forward for treatment, there’s an average gap of twelve years. It’s no longer viewed as it used to be and it is viewed now as a hazard of service. Of course there have been many obviously life changing injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan but a soldier who has PTSD may not necessairly know it at that time,”said Bell.

You must have seen and been involved in events that many would find traumatising? What psychological support have you received from the BBC, I ask.

“None at all” he says emphatically. “But they did summon me to see the doctor now and again to see if I was okay but I have just been relatively lucky in that all my nightmares have not been about the wars I have been in but about losing my bags at Heathrow – much more mundane,” he laughs. Bell seems to come from a time when it was not done to seek counselling or expect it although he is not that much older than I am.

Martin Bell stood for election in 1997 as an Independent candidate on an anti-sleaze ticket against the sitting MP, Neil Hamilton. I ask him about his subsequent election and time as an Independent MP. I can imagine him taking a keen interest in the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader and the problems that arise when the party rhetoric is defied by Labour party members and some of its own MPs.

“It’s still unrealistic to be elected as an Independent. There was only two of us, three of us in the last 15 years but what is happening now, I have noticed, is that there are many more independent minded MPs being elected and I welcome that, although it would be imposssible for the new Labour leader to insist on blind loyalty since he was a serial rebel himself. And no Labour leader has ever been elected to rebel against his own party so things are changing fast.”

Do you think we’ll ever have a crusading government, a government properly concerned with raising standards in their own house?

“I think it is important that the regulation of the House of Commons should be taken out of the hands of the House of Commons,” Bell is firm about this.

“And by the way, this [issue of expenses and MPs self regulation]  has been going on nearly 20 years now. They are incapable of regulating themselves and lessons have to be learned. Another thing, in the interests of MPs if they are accused of some wrongdoing, we seem to have a Gentleman’s Club looking after itself. If they had a proper regime of external regulation, that would be better for them and better for us,” he said.

Returning to the subject of his recent book, The End of Empire, I ask Bell about the writing itself and the research involved which appears extensive.

How long did the book take?

“It was a fun book to write and I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I discovered the letters in my attic at the beginning of last January (2014) and it was in the hands of the publishers by December.”

I’m intrigued by Bell’s account of another book about the Cyprus conflict called The Flaming Cassock. In End of Empire, Bell describes its author as “the most remarkable soldier I served under…who should have commanded the Battalion but did not” and a soldier whose command enhanced the Suffolk’s reputation for steadiness under the direst of circumstances.

“It was written by one of our officers, a wonderful man called Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Campbell who had already written a bestseller about the Malayan emergency of 1950 titled Jungle Green,” Bell told me.

“He was commissioned by Field Marshal Sir John Harding to write a book  about what Harding thought was a winning campaign and it very nearly was. Then in December 57, Harding was succeeded by Sir Hugh Foot who was not a soldier but a conciliator and he thought that this book which by then was finished would be an impediment to a settlement so he ordered it to be suppressed.”

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Foot’s reputation was as a liberal administrator and it was certainly hoped that he could play an important part in setting Cyprus on the road to self government within the Commonwealth. This in itself was very important because according to the Sandy’s Defence White Paper, Britain would no longer be able to maintain a large enough presence on the island to retain it by force. Foots attempts to conciliate a settlement that pleased both Athens and Ankara resulted in Cyprus descending into a downwards spiral of violence as the two communities railed against each other. It is clear, in retrospect, why the decision to redact Flaming Cassocks was made, regardless of the rightness of such a decision.

Bell is convinced of the importance of the book to future narratives of Cyprus and its bloody history.

“It [the book] has been resting under lock and key until I got it under the Freedom of Information in July 2014. It’s a marvellous story of the campaign against EOKA by a soldier with a real flair for language. And I think that if we can get it published it will be as important a contribution to the literature of Cyprus as Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons.”

Three copies are believed to have survived according to Bell’s book. Two are held in the National Archives at Kew whilst the third is an unedited text subjected to a sixty year gagging order meaning that it will be available to read after 2022. There is also an earlier draft which has been redacted under an eighty year restriction. The reasons for their suppression aren’t strikingly obvious considering the book was a commission from the governor, intended for publication as opposed to a sensitive government document, according to Bell. The file of documents relating to its suppression is over an inch thick apparently.

Are publishers interested in the book, I ask?

“We have only just started finding out because for a start we couldn’t find the family of Campbell because of course the copyright lies with them.

“Arthur Campbell died in about 1992/3 and we’re looking for the family now” Bell replies.

It is to be hoped that Campbell’s descendants are swiftly traced and agree to the books re-issuing. What seems to be clear is that between its pages lie a considerable contribution to not only the history of Cyprus but of British military engagement too.


 

Friends of the Suffolk Regiment.

St Edmundsbury Chronicle

A Home away from home: Anna Hope’s novel ‘The Ballroom’ has links with our own Suffolk history

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire. A photographic book entitled `Asylum’ has just been published and shows the work of photographer Mark Davis who has photographed derelict asylum’s round Britain and Ireland.
This feature was first published by The Bury Free Press in their print edition only and is reprinted here by kind permission.

Grand ballrooms are not the first thing that come to mind when we imagine the Victorian asylums of our recent past but a newly published novel by Anna HopeThe Ballroom, was inspired by her discovery old photographs of an ornate ballroom in a northern asylum, now fallen into disrepair. And whilst her story is set many miles away, in the Yorkshire Ridings, it has intriguing parallels with the old county asylum, once known as St Audry’s near Ipswich and the exhibition dedicated to it in Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life. After reading Anna’s novel and interviewing her for this feature, I realised that it was time to re-visit this local museum which has an exhibit about the old St Audry’s asylum and talk to Lisa Harris who is employed there as Collections and Interpretation Manager.

The St Audry’s Project tells the tale of the old St Audry’s Hospital in Melton, which began life as the Suffolk County Asylum in 1832, on the site of an old workhouse. When St Audry’s closed in 1993, its museum collection and archive were divided between various regional establishments. Since then, the Museum of East Anglian Life has been collating oral testimonies and working with local people to ensure that such an important and fascinating part of Suffolk history is not lost. Lisa explains the history of the collection and her involvement in it.

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Abbots Hall at Museum of East Anglian Life. Image: Museum of East Anglian Life

“The Museum of East Anglian Life was re-developing Abbots Hall and we wanted to look at the concept of home and belonging: home as in the people who themselves once lived in Abbots Hall; home as in being a proud Stowmarket girl, or a Suffolk person or even an East Anglian. We also wanted to look at different types of home, of which an asylum is one, and we knew we had the St Audrys collection which hadn’t actually been on public display before, to my knowledge,” she says

“All the archives that survived are based at Ipswich Records Office so this gave us a chance to talk about this whole element of life in Suffolk but also to link into the bigger picture and we were able to get funding from Comic Relief for this.

It is interesting that the collection came into being via the informal efforts of the staff who once worked at the hospital and I ask Lisa about this.

“The collection came here originally because it was in the teaching section of St Audry’s, housed in the attic. When they became a teaching hospital in the 1950s different staff gradually gathered items such as clothing, farm equipment and patients belongings and created a museum on site. But when the asylum closed in 1953, there was concerns as to where all of this might go. Some of the more medical items went to the Science Museum in London, a lot of it went to Felixstowe Museum and the rest came here”, she explains, sweeping her arm around the room lined with glass vitrines containing the tokens used as part of a patient-goods exchange system, the books and records, carefully inked in black fountain pen, pairs of spectacles, thick hard-to-rip nightgowns and decks of cards.

There’s staged vignettes too: a hospital screen has become an art installation where people have attached labels inscribed with the stigmatising language used to describe mental illness and the people who experience it. ‘Mental’, ‘schizoid’, ‘mental enfeeblement’ are starkly stamped on paper luggage tags and there’s a bed and bath with restraints in one corner plus the recorded voices of former staff who talk of their own lives there, often in a pronounced Suffolk burr. As visitors move slowly around the room, these voices fill the air, bringing the room to life.

Conducting research such as this can be made challenging by the stringent rules which control access to patient records: By law, a 30 year closure period is applied to administrative and committee papers, 80 years for student and staff records, and 100 years for personal medical records. This means the most important voices of all – that of the patients- are missing. Both Lisa Harris and Anna Hope emphasise the importance of that patient voice and the ways in which they sought it out for their respective endeavours.

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Anna Hope: author of The Ballroom

The voice of the patients in The Ballroom are vivid, born in part from the many hours of research its author put in, as Anna Hope explains. “Their [the patients] voices do break through too, particularly in the casebooks. I read extensively in the casebooks of High Royds for the period in which the book is set, and the patients jumped vividly from their pages; even the act of holding the casebook in my hands was powerful: the marbled covers, the smell of age, the photographs of the patients, and their own words, erupting into the present, making themselves heard.” Anna skilfully combines her research with the imagination of a fiction author, managing to avoid the trap that many authors fall into, of circumventing the objectivity of historical data to such a degree that accuracy suffers.

“We decided our exhibition would only go up to the 1920s because we can’t access any of the records after that date so why try to tell a story that isn’t out there yet in purely historical terms?” Lisa points out. “Our concern was telling that historical story in the hope that people can learn from it. And that maybe we don’t make the same mistakes in the future that we made in the past…or in the case of something has worked well, we’ll take that and work out how we can take that forward now. We’re trying to do sessions with medical professionals because in order to tell the story you’ve got to have some understanding of the terminology and the treatments. I’m not a medical expert, my understanding  is of curating and preservation: woodworm and rust!” She laughs. “I need to be able to point people in the right direction to get greater understanding, and to properly explain the context”, something which served her well when later on in our chat,  Lisa tells me about her encounters with some artefacts which appear to have a sinister purpose.
In 1832, when St Audry’s was called  The Suffolk County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics, Dr John Kirkman was appointed Medical Superintendent  and his reports and those of the doctors following him show a mind remarkably in tune with some of today’s philosophies of what constitutes good mental health care. The concept of an asylum as a home from home was central to his management: “Drugs are of course necessary in some cases, but moral treatment is essential to all and this is obtained chiefly by means of employment, amusement, pleasing associations and cheerful surroundings which act as medicine to the deceased mind” said the 50th Annual Report, back in 1888″  and the hospital became a self-sufficient community which nonetheless had strong ties to the village of Melton. Dr Kirkman couldn’t be more different to Dr Fuller, one of the narrators in Hope’s book.

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High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

The Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and it begins with the arrival of Ella Fay at the Sharston asylum in 1911. She is sent there because, after railing against the lack of light in the textiles mill where she works, she snaps and breaks one of the windows- a socially transgressive act in the eyes of her employers and her colleagues, albeit perfectly understandable and rational to us. John Mulligan is already a patient at Sharston, an Irishman suffering from depression provoked by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent abandonment of him. When Ella and John meet at a Friday night dance in the asylum’s beautiful ballroom, they embark upon a slow-burn of a relationship, marked by surreptitious meetings outdoors and smuggled letters and encounters in the wild, expansive Yorkshire moors.

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The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Overseeing their care and to a certain extent, their fate, is Dr Charles Fuller, an ambitious yet inadequate medic who becomes slowly obsessed by the growing eugenics movement which advocated the social control and compulsory sterilisation of the poor and anyone with a mental illness or learning disability. In 1908, the newly appointed home secretary, Winston Churchill, was determined to solve the problem of what he referred to as  the“feeble-minded” – anyone who was deemed unable to self-determine. Churchill’s views on compulsory sterilisation crystallised and he began to circulate pamphlets on the subject among the cabinet. The Eugenics Society grew increasingly influential and in 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act established powers to incarcerate the “feeble-minded” in specially-built asylums. As we see in John and Ella’s story, the sexes lived separately and only met in strictly monitored meetings, in their case, the weekly dance and these impending laws threaten their relationship and very existence, in John’s case.

I asked Anna Hope about the clear parallels with todays social and political situation, not just in the UK but across Europe too, where cuts to health and social care have disproportionately impacted upon the poor and the mentally unwell and the language used to justify government policy has become ugly. “The welfare state; universal healthcare, access to education and greater social mobility are being eroded daily. Not just that, but I feel something even more insidious taking place; poverty has shifted in my lifetime from being something that should be ameliorated by a healthy government and society, to something that is perceived as the fault of those who find themselves poor. I think this is deeply dangerous and beneath the cuts to child benefits for instance, amongst many other cuts, there’s a disturbing echo, as you say, of eugenic policy,” she says.

As for the long view, Anna emphasises the importance of re-visiting the recent past in order to learn from it. We must guard against rose-tinted historiography too. “I think it’s a good time to look a little into our past and see what we were capable of” she says. “Churchill, for example, has been very well served by history, and for good reason, but if you look at his language as home secretary in 1911, in its insistence on ‘racial purity’ and the threat to the race from social degeneration it’s really not so very far from Hitler’s a few decades later.”

Do you think we lost as much as we gained from the abolition of the asylum system with regard to the purest meaning of the word? Have we forgotten that sometimes, some people do need a place of asylum while they recover, I ask Anna.

“That’s a really great question. Before I started researching I think my preconception, from reading lots of novels, about the Victorian and Edwardian asylum system was that once you were there you were there for life and the key was thrown away. Reading the casebooks gave me a different picture; there were many women for instance who were suffering from exhaustion or what sounded like post-natal depression, and who must have been working all hours in the mills or similar places, who simply needed a place to rest” she says.
“Following their stories in the casebooks I was really surprised and happy to read how many of them improved steadily over time with decent food, and rest and time away from work and families”, Anna adds. “So the asylum began to be a more nuanced, complex environment, not just this bleak, monolithic place from which no one ever emerged.”
Lisa Harris concurs with this and addresses some of the common stereotypes and misconceptions people held and still hold about an admission to an asylum. “A lot of people come to us and say “I’ve been tracing my family tree and I think I’ve found someone who was in an asylum and they get worried about this” she states, then looks back at her own initial reactions when she began looking through the St Audrys collection in the early days of developing the exhibit at the museum.
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The ‘Home From Home’ exhibition at Museum of East Anglian Life
“When I started this, I didn’t know very much about asylums at all and the first thing I found was this set of branding irons,” she says, pointing to a set of narrow branding irons displayed in a glass case. “Now the first thing that went through my head and our Learning Officers head was ‘Oh no, they branded the patients,  that is awful!’, but as we went on, we thought this cannot possibly be true. We had an over-active imagination and I do give a talk about the implications of this [for historical research]. But, in the light of the restraints we also found it was an understandable assumption and we were really pleased when we discovered the hospital had its own farm!”, she laughs wryly.
How many of us have assumed patients never left once admitted and lived in social seclusion, isolated from local villages, a source of fear, prejudice and trepidation to the locals? Not necessarily so, according to both Lisa and Anna although it would be naive to assume that the patients lived free from this. People with mental illness still have to negotiate the impact of stigma, whether this be socially, occupationally or politically [usually all three] and this prejudice is deeply rooted in the past. Lisa tells me more about St Audry’s and its position in the local community.
“The hospital was like a little city and the whole village of Melton relied on St Audrys. There was an overseeing of the patients as they went into the village and people were protective of them. That’s what humans do, what they should do. Look at the Second World War and how we cared for people. Would we still do that today? I hope so…” she says, quietly and goes on to touch upon the misconceptions many of us have about asylums whilst also warning against adopting a rose-tinted view of life in one.
” My concern was always that I would look at this with rose tinted glasses because its really easy to do that but the more you talk to people and the more stories you hear, you think actually, I’m not rose tinting it.And I spent months reading the medical records, and they are obviously written to sound good but as you read them you realise that on the whole, these people really did care and they wanted the patients to get better.”
You hear a lot of stories” Lisa smiles, warming to her theme. “St Audrys was a home for unmarried mothers- which was not necessarily true-and it was likely a misunderstanding of postnatal depression. People say ‘they went in and never came out.’ Well, the research I did showed that unless there was an issue with other illnesses like dementia or epilepsy for example, which weren’t really understood back then, people were admitted and usually came out within two years.”
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This bath was used for psychiatric treatments: from the ‘Home From Home’ exhibition

 

Anna tells me, that same lack of medical knowledge meant that “it certainly wasn’t a great time for mental health-care” and expands upon this. “I’d argue that it was perhaps a little better than the age of lobotomy and experimentation that came not so long after the First World War. When you look at the records for the pre-World War One asylums there were very few drugs used on the patients, which meant that many suffered without remission but also that they were awake and alive in a way that later patients perhaps weren’t allowed to be.” Certainly the discovery of Chlorpromazine in the fifties led to its being described as a chemical cosh and many people suffered from its terrible sedating side-effects.

And what of the ballroom which first inspired Anna Hope to write her novel? Well, interestingly I also discovered that St Audry’s had a ballroom too which is, for me,  one of the most unexpected counterpoints to the stereotype of an asylum as a dour and crepuscular place- all worthy, joyless therapies and rigid monitoring. I also discovered that ballrooms were common in Victorian mansions from the 1880s until around 1920, and these mansions were, after all, family homes which links beautifully to Dr Kirkman’s belief that St Audry’s should replicate the home as much as possible and be filled with activities and things that were not merely useful but also stimulated the patient aesthetically.

“The more we looked into it, the more we discovered that St Audrys acted as a home away from home and this was all of the principles that Dr Kirkman put into place about being able to step out of your day to day life and the drudgery and issues that worried you,” Lisa says.

“If you had a mental illness, [although obviously these illnesses were understood in a different way to how we interpret them today], you then could be taken somewhere that was safe. You could be kept warm, you could be fed and given the chance to keep yourself clean but also, be given something that would keep your mind active. So being involved in day to day running- making clothes, helping with washing, on the farm,. It kept you busy and gave you the time to heal, I suppose”, she adds, and her words very much reflect the  St Audry’s 28th annual report of 1865 which reports, in the purple prose of the Victorian age,”the admission is in dark insanity, the discharge in bright reason and  light.”

Interestingly, in The Ballroom, Dr Charles Fuller, is initially keen to encourage his patients to enjoy dance and music, playing the piano for them in the dayroom and when he is introduced to the new Ragtime music emanating from New Orleans by a local music-shop employee he attempts and fails, to embody its joyful and less boundaried spirit. I held my breath as I read this because Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients but fails to recognise this and I really hoped he might break free. The psychic struggle he becomes embroiled in is something I asked Anna about, especially with regards to his lessening empathy for his patients and increased ‘othering’ of them in line with his belief that eugenics is the way forward. “I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy,” she says, something which chimes with Dr Kirkman’s own beliefs about how to care for the mentally unwell, some of which are inscribed on the walls of the exhibit in the Museum of East Anglian Life. “No restraint can be employed which is so powerful as tenderness. Watchfullness, activity, gentleness and that peculiar tact acquired by long training to replace contests of strength between patient and keeper.

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Vitrine containing nurses uniforms from St Audry’s hospital
Lisa is privy to the reactions of visitors to the St Audry’s exhibit.” I’ve come in and there have been groups of people in here and they start a conversation along the lines of ‘Oh, we worked at St Audrys and it was really like family, with everyone looking out for each other. Generations of the same families worked there” she explains. “Dr Kirkman started the hospital in the 1800s but his ideas and principles carried right on through.”
“We did a survey a couple of years ago” she adds, “and since we’ve opened, the St Audry’s exhibit has seemed like a room where people feel the need to come in and be quiet and we’re not that kind of museum, not a quiet museum really! But the survey said that people felt they needed to talk to each other about it and our work has opened up ways for them to do this.
“It has encouraged adults and children to talk about mental health.”
Sadly, it has been more challenging to encourage patients to come forward, the latter more understandably. “We struggle to get in touch with people who once were hospitalised” says Lisa. “We’ve done appeals but they don’t necessarily want to talk about it.”
There is pain here, I comment. Lisa nods. “This  exhibit has made our team more aware of mental health  issues, and more aware of how we each have our own needs. I think its one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on.”

The Ballroom is out now. 

The Museum of East Anglian Life website.

Related links: an oral history of a Suffolk psychiatric hospital

Museum images courtesy of The Museum of East Anglian Life, except where indicated.

Image of The Ballroom book cover, Anna Hope, the High Royds hospital, courtesy of Anna Hope/Transworld publishers.

The header image of West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum is courtesy Mark Davis / Guzelian

 

Suffolk’s bookish heritage

 

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An old  postcard, sent in 1914,of the Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill, where Arthur Ransome sailed and set two of his novels.

The countryside and small scale urban landscapes of Suffolk have long seduced those of a creative bent with artists and writers taking inspiration from this county, situated as it is on the edge of the English landmass, punctuated by towns and miles of rolling fields and quilted by waterways. We take a look at some well known and others, less so. 

Arthur Ransome has a long and renowned association with Suffolk, using it as both backdrop and inspiration for his children’s books. The Ransome family moved to Suffolk in 1936, and they lived at Broke Farm on the banks of the River Orwell where Pin Mill harbour could be seen from his window. Ransome moored his sailing boat, the Nancy Blackett here. Made famous in his novel, ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’, the Butt & Oyster Inn on the banks of the Orwell and downriver from the mighty Orwell Bridge, overlooks the smugglers haven of Pin Mill, one of Suffolk’s most romantic landscapes where time and tide meet twice daily on a spit of land between the rivers Orwell (which inspired a pen name for George Orwell) and Stour. The waters infiltrate this strangely porous landscape with its fimbrels of mud-flats and saltings. The breeze carries a salty brackish-tang of mud that mingles with the honey scent of the gorse-covered headlands and their ridge-line stands of pine and oak. This pub serves local, seasonal food, good ales and provides a resting place for walkers, tourists and locals who still earn their living off the river. The landscape appears little changed from Ransome’s time and thank goodness for that- we all need to feel we can go back to a less complicated time even if beer prices are a sharp reminder that we are no longer in 40’s England.

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The Butt & Oyster Inn

The young adventurous protagonists of Ransome’s book were staying at Alma Cottage; located right by the Butt & Oyster pub and he had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard although his home was actually high up on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington.

Ransome’s first Suffolk based story, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, tells of an unintended voyage across the sea. The Swallow children have promised their mother they will play in the safe confines of the harbour, but their boat, the Goblin, loses its anchor and drifts away in a fog. The children end up sailing across the North Sea to Holland. In tribute, an annual sailing race now takes place from the sailing club at Pin Mill. In the second book, Secret Water, the Swallow children are once again in a pickle, marooned on an island with a small boat and end up charting the area of islands and marshes which, in reality, are south of Pin Mill at Hamford Water.

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There are plenty of folks who live on the river at Pin Mill and quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red sailed Thames sailing barges are also a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here. Last summer (June 2014), Julia Jones, the owner of Ransome’s boat ‘Peter Duck’ brought it to Suffolk for the Felixstowe Book Festival and I had the great pleasure of seeing up close, the craft that bravely sails the pages of Ransome’s books. Keep an eye out for future visits next year, hopefully.

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The boatyards of Pin Mill

The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well-known (and signposted) trail that loops around Woolverstone Hall and the Park that surrounds it, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past those mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rising up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirting the tiny village of Chelmondiston, before returning you to your start point- The Butt & Oyster Inn. The pub overlooks the boatyards which edge Pin Mill Common on both sides and makes a logical and scenic place to start or finish at although if you like a drink, it might be best to wait until after that walk- the fireside seats and sunny warmth streaming through the picture windows overlooking the water makes it hard to get up and get going. If the weather is inclement, sit by the window with your book and watch the wheeling gulls, sent upriver by rough seas as they set down, then take off again from the maram grass covered islands and shores of this beautiful part of Suffolk.

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Jane Taylor

The west and south of the county boast many fine examples of buildings and churches built by wealthy wool merchants of which Lavenham is probably the most famous of all, but how many of you also know that the village has a direct connection with the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and its composer Jane Taylor (1783–1824),  an English poet and novelist?  Jane and her family made their home at Shilling Grange in Lavenham’s Shilling Street and Twinkle, Twinkle was originally published under the title The Star in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Taylor and her older sister Ann. The poems were a special commission by the publishers Darton and Harvey and Twinkle’s simple verse belies the skill required to capture the tender relationship between a mother and her child as she introduces it to a universe beyond the nursery walls. In her autobiography, Ann, Jane’s sister, alludes to this skill as she reminisces about Jane describing her own writing process: ‘I try to conjure some child into my presence, address her suitably, as well as I am able and when I begin to flag, I say to her, “There love, now you may go”’.

It is not known if the poem was actually written in Lavenham or indeed, inspired by its West Suffolk night skies and many scholars claim that the poem was written in Colchester, where the family moved to. Jane did have an interest in astronomy though and would have had fine views of the Lavenham skies from the attic windows which her brother noted:

“The window commanded a view of the country and a tract of sky as a field for that nightly soaring of the fancy of which she was so fond,”  Isaac wrote in 1825.

The two little girls attended dance lessons at the Swan Inn (now the Swan Hotel) tutored by an 18-stone dancing master from Bury St Edmunds and their father, a noted engraver, painted both children against the bucolic backdrop of their garden back in 1792. This portrait is now owned by the National Portrait Gallery although it is on long-term loan to the Bath Preservation Trust and is hung in the Georgian setting of the drawing room at 1, Royal Crescent, Bath.

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Shilling Grange : wikipedia commons

The Taylor sisters were fairly prolific, publishing several volumes of tales and rhymes for infants but Jane died early aged forty of breast cancer on April 13, 1824 although her work continues to attract visitors to the village and particularly Japanese tourists who are especially entranced by this magical little poem and like to see the house its author lived in, now owned by the National Trust who have staged exhibitions at the nearby Guildhall. And one more star-related Lavenham fact for you: Molet House on Barn Street is a handsome black and white Tudor building and if you look closely, you’ll see that its doorway boasts an engraved star. This is the badge of the De Veres, the local lords of the manor, and is it known as a ‘molet’ or ‘mullet’ and is said to refer to a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem high in the skies, as witnessed by a member of the family called Aubrey the First during the Crusades. He  went on to victory.

Here, he tells of this event, speaking of himself in the most self-important of tones: “God willing the safety of the Christians showed a white star ……. on the Christian host, which to every man’s sight did light and arrest upon the standard of Aubrey de Vere, there shining excessively.” It was subsequently claimed that an angel actually leaned down and threw the star onto De Vere’s standard himself, thus further legitimising Aubrey’s war efforts in his opinion.

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Face-helmet, unearthed at Sutton Hoo and now in the British Museum

Many places near to Ipswich are atmospheric enough to require little by way of embellishment and their stories tell themselves -stories so fantastical and magical that they defy belief. Sutton Hoo is one such place, where, in 1939 a Mrs Edith Pretty asked archaeologist Basil Brown to come down and investigate the many Anglo Saxon burial mounds on her property near Woodbridge in Suffolk. He went on to make one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time- the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre lay a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: sumptuous gold and burnished jewellery, Byzantine silverware, a lavish and completely intact feasting set, and most famously, the ornate iron helmet which is now the iconic symbol for the burial site and museum, although the original now resides at the British Museum.

Intensive archaeological excavations gave us wonderful insights into the lives of these Anglo Saxons: tiny fragments showed that rich textiles, dyed using plant matter, once adorned the walls and floor, along with piles of clothes ranging from fine linen over-shirts to shaggy woollen cloaks woven to keep out the searing winds blown straight here from Siberia and caps luxuriantly trimmed with fur. The dead man’s body had dissolved in the boggy acidic peat which was composed of soil enriched by centuries of decaying bracken, but he was clearly a person of great standing in the kingdom of East Anglia. He may even have been a king, ruling over the hardy souls that once carved out a living from this harsh and inhospitable land.

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The Sutton Hoo ship burial provides remarkable insights into early Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals a place of exquisite craftsmanship adhering to the highest of standards and benefiting from far-reaching international connections which spanned Europe and beyond. It also shows that the world of glittery treasures, cavernous reception halls and strong, formidable warriors described in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was not a myth. This story forms the inspiration for the children’s book, Gravenhunger by Harriet Goodwin, a sinister tale of a house inherited by Phoenix after the death of his Mother. The house and grounds hint at the secret buried within and the reason why their existence was kept secret from the boy and his Father. This idea of things not being what they seem and of small secrets growing into huge, life changing ones have clear parallels with the amazing Sutton Hoo discoveries-a Suffolk treasure visited by thousands of school children from all over the world who love the interactive displays and the chance to dress up. Take a copy of ‘Beowulf’ and recite it aloud to the kids: this dramatic piece of prose perfectly suits dark and stormy East Anglian winter days where you can declaim loudly into the wind in a kingly (or queenly) manner.

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Suffolk wealth from wool: Lavenham’s architecture.

Suffolk has always been a place for migration. We began as the indigenous ‘South Folk’ whose toughness and shy self-reliance became hard-wired through centuries of fighting off challenges by land-grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility. You can see why our county sea-borders are home to such a compelling mix of people and the county town of Ipswich, with its history as a busy working port and status as county seat, has always attracted economic migrant workers from all over the world. The Orwell River was once a prime trading route between Ipswich, the European mainland and the rest of the country and in the Middle Ages, the wool produced by wealthy East Anglian merchants and farmers was exported via Ipswich whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area is now slowly being restored although the waters bob with yachts and houseboats now instead of the merchants ships that once plied their trade there.

Themes of migration, strangeness and change lie at the heart of 22 Britannia Road’ by Amanda Hodgkinson, set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here as she said in an interview with a regional newspaper:

“Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.”  

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With a well-established Polish community, Suffolk (and the county town, Ipswich) provides a backdrop to the story of Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek who board a ship to England, where her husband Janusz is waiting in Ipswich. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret, Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside. Suffolk saw large influxes of immigrants and Londoners after the war, displaced by bombing and bad economics and the promise of a bucolic life in the countryside. The reality was rather more complex though as Amanda says;

“I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”

Ipswich docks are undergoing regeneration and now bustle with a different kind of economic activity from their earliest incarnation (they first took shape in Anglo Saxon times). In a place where merchants once traded and dock workers hefted cargo onto the rust encrusted decks of the great ships that sailed between Britain, Europe and the rest of the world, the docks are now populated by sailors working on sleek pleasure craft. There are some fishing fleets still, sturdy and stout hearted as they putter in and out of their berths but the biggest change is in the crowds of locals, here to eat and drink and to live in flats on the redeveloped warehouses and wharves. At night, lights blaze not from the returning fishing boats but from the bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses that have migrated here. It is beautiful and has yet to reach its full potential, a very different one to its original purpose.

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Ipswich marina, partly renovated

With its long and noble maritime history, one of our choices for a great place to eat and drink here was always going to be afloat and Mariners Restaurant is situated on a beautiful craft berthed on the newly redeveloped Ipswich marina, surrounded by sympathetically restored brick built warehouses and some maritime related businesses. The Mariner was built and launched in 1899 as the gunboat SS Argus for the department of the Belgian State. Recommissioned in 1940 by the Belgian navy, it was sunk, raised and subsequently re-repaired by the Germans who returned it to the Antwerp based owners in 1945 and then rechristened as Flandria VII.

Sri Lanka, Dunwich, Orford and Ipswich all appear in Rona Tearne’s book, ‘The Swimmer,’ a tale of a relationship between a woman and a young male immigrant and, appropriately for such a watery region, swimming and immersion in water forms theme, metaphor and subject for a dreamy story of 43-year-old Ria (who lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child) who spots a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden in the moonlight. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain and while he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair and when tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.

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Bailey Bridge, over Stony Ditch at Orford Ness, crossing a tidal creek between the Ness itself and the River Ore estuary. Copyright Ian Taylor> attribution: share-alike 2.0 generic(CC by -SA 2.0)

The delicate tensions that exist between her characters reflect the currents and eddies of the marshlands and tidal brackish waters around the region: a crepuscular and brooding backdrop. Shaped by conflict and affected by political forces in lands far beyond their surroundings, the characters learn that loss, love and regret can eddy, ebb and flow and that no actions exist in a vacuum, least not in such a mutable part of the world, shaped by immigration, where the human landscape is so very much, more than a sum of its parts. The fictional story of Ben, swimming in the stream, feeds into the rivulets of migration that in real life forms the fascinating story of Ipswich. From the Frisian potters originally from the part of Europe we now call The Netherlands who settled the Quay area in the 7th century and established the first large scale potteries since the time of the Romans, to the people arriving here from the Caribbean in the 50’s, stepping off boats like the Windrush at Tilbury before setting off downstream to Ipswich, their contribution is woven into the very fabric of the town.

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In Something Might Happen, her murder-mystery novel from 2003, novelist Julie Myerson barely disguises the Enid Blyton-esque seaside town of Southwold, where she has a second home. Myerson’s storytelling again walks the line between humanity and the dark, jangling terror of what we are capable of, all set in the most domestic and cosy of surroundings,  a place of aspiration and longing for the land-locked suburbanite. Yes, this coastal landscape could be anywhere in Britain, which is important for a nation of people heavily invested still in the Victorian idyll of a seaside holiday, but I see it as unmistakably East Suffolk, where miles of marshland act as buffer between land and sea. Myerson’s most recent book, The Stopped Heart, is also set in an unidentified rural part of England but again, to a Suffolk dweller the sights and sounds say unmistakably ‘home’: there’s the ‘bright, raw smell’ of a freshly skinned rabbit and the ‘smashed’ sensation one of the characters feels upon seeing the sea. There’s a move to an isolated cottage in the country and ghosts and past crimes returning to haunt us as Myerson expertly weaves together the story of bereaved Mary, newly moved to the country and Eliza,  a 13-year-old farmer’s daughter, living in the same house a century earlier and addressing us directly from the grave.

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Charles Dickens was a frequent traveller to Suffolk and toured the county giving recitals of his work and was also invited to open the lecture hall for the Ipswich Mechanics Institute in 1851. Sources have claimed that the Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouses in nearby Barham may have inspired the workhouse setting and tale of Olive Twist. We know that Dickens visited and read the records of a ten year old apprentice who lived there; the sordid and inhuman conditions which triggered a riot in protest must surely have made an impression upon him?

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Charles Dickens in 1858 / wikipedia commons

In 1835 he stayed in Ipswich and subsequently set some of the scenes in his novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there- it is believed that an Ipswich woman, a Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold was the inspiration for the character of Mrs Leo Hunter in the book, depicted as a woman with pretensions for the performing of charitable works and the writing of poetry. Opened in 1518, the Ipswich hotel he was a guest at was known then as The Tavern, later being renamed the Great White Horse Hotel with meandering stairs and corridors depicted in chapter XXII. The hotel is no longer in its original incarnation and is now home to a chain coffee shop and one other store. Dickens also stayed at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds (a short drive along the A14) and this ivy clad hotel, which fronts onto Angel Hill, still stands and you can stay in the very room in which Dickens slept and wrote. In Ipswich, there are plenty of good coffee shops in which to sit and read your copy of Pickwick Papers (which also mentions the Angel Hotel). Try Jacey’s Coffee House, Arlington Brasserie, Bakers & Barista or appropriately enough, Pickwicks Tearooms on Dial Lane. They all serve a decent cup of joe, plus food and other drinks.

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The Angel Hotel entrance, Bury St Edmunds

Children may be interested to hear that the well-known nursery rhymes ‘Little Boy Blue’ and‘Humpty Dumpty’ may be satirical references to the life and fate of Cardinal Wolsey who himself was born and schooled in the town and whose bronze statue can be found at the junctions of St Nicholas, St Peters and Silent Street. These rhymes (and many others like them) served as a useful way of criticising, teasing or satirising figures of power and influence at a time when these behaviours, conducted openly would likely earn you a deadly fate, or imprisonment at the very least. Children love gory and dramatic history, as evidenced by the success of Horrible Histories and the pretty gruesome events behind seemingly innocent rhymes make perfect examples of how people living under oppression will always find a way of expressing dissent.Tell your children how the arrogance of this powerful man (who would not listen to any voice other than his own) is referred to in the line ‘Come blow your horn’ whilst ‘where’s the little boy that looks after the sheep?’ strongly implies that his ‘sheep like’ people are suffering at the hands of a self-serving and neglectful man. Humpty Dumpty references an interesting event in history, the loss by Wolsey, of his power, and by the time that this rhyme became popular, he had been charged with high treason, accused of delaying the annulment of Catharine of Aragon and Henry the Eight’s marriage. Humpty’s ‘great fall’ symbolises Wolsey’s own fall from grace. Indeed, Ipswich School lays claim to being the only school that warrants a real life mention in the works of William Shakespeare where, in ‘Henry VIII, Griffith has this to say about Cardinal Wolsey: “Those twins of learning that he raised in you, Ipswich and Oxford! One of which fell with him.” Further Wolsey related commemoration can also be found at 47 Nicholas Street where the Ipswich Society has mounted a blue plaque at Curson Lodge, to mark the birthplace of Wolsey on the opposite side of this street.

 

Walking the Deben estuary: Bawdsey Island, Felixstowe Ferry and Ramsholt

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Boats on the Deben at Ramsholt

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.

The Deben at Ramsholt
The Deben at Ramsholt

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.

The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry
The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry

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.

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Looking out from the jetty at Ramsholt

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.

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Noght pushes towards Bawdsey from the North Sea which lies beyond the mouth of the Deben estuary

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.

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Approaching the Ramsholt Arms and River Deben

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.

The old sea defences
The old sea defences

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
The Ramsholt Arms

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 harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty
The harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty

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.

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Footpaths take you up to the church which perches high above the estuary

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.

All Saints Church at Ramsholt
All Saints Church at Ramsholt

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.

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Bawdsey Ferry by Martin Hardie from the V&A Collection

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.

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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.

The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

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Looking out to Felixstowe Ferry

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.