Kyrgyz Graveyards

IMG_8525You see them everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. From afar they resemble hillside villages of mud-brick dwellings but a closer look reveals them to be cemeteries. Usually located a little way outside a village, sometimes on top of a low bluff, they are often more impressive than the villages they serve. With a mixture of mud-brick, shrine-like tombs, gravestones with etched images of the deceased, and Islamic crescent moons intermixed with communist five-pointed stars, they represent an odd amalgam of funerary styles. What makes them unmistakably Kyrgyz, though, are the large, wrought-iron, yurt structures that mark many of the graves.

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A nomadic people until well into the 20th century, the Kyrgyz used to be buried without fuss wherever they died. Although important nobles and warriors were sometimes honoured with showy mausoleums, most Kyrgyz graves were simple and basic. However, when this nomadic lifestyle was forcibly abandoned during the Soviet period the erection of large memorials to the dead started to become fashionable with the newly sedentary Kyrgyz. It may seem ironic that a wandering people like the Kyrgyz should choose such an earth-bound dwelling after death but a new practice emerged in the 1930s of erecting monuments that recalled their former nomadic lifestyle. As well as the wrought-iron yurt frames that reflected nostalgia for the old way of life, etched portraits – a Russian custom – also started to feature on gravestones. Traces of an altogether more ancient culture became prevalent too: the tradition of pre-Islamic shamanism in which antlers, animal skulls and horses’ tails are used to decorate tombs.

IMG_8530In Kyrgyz graveyards disparate traditions – shamanistic, Islamic, communist – intermingle freely. Gently crumbling as their mud-brick mausoleums slowly decay back into the earth, such cemeteries can be seen far and wide in this central Asian country. Some of the finest are those that can be seen in villages along the Suusamyr Valley in Chui Province. The photos here were taken in two villages in this isolated valley – Kara-Oi and Suusamayr.

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There will be more on graveyards and many other aspects of Kyrgyz culture in the forthcoming third edition of my book Kyrgyzstan: the Bradt Travel Guide, which will be published early next year.

More information on Kyrgyzstan, including photographs and extracts from the forthcoming book, is available on the Kyrgyzstan page of the Bradt website.

Posted in Asia, Central Asia, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

At Covehithe

IMG_1981The day before the autumn equinox: the setting, the beach at Covehithe. We have gathered here at the north Suffolk coast to walk and talk. A literary walk to celebrate W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, no less, organised as part of the Waveney & Blyth Arts festival. The weather – hazy grey skies, mist, light drizzle – is suitably Sebaldian.

Proceedings begin at Covehithe’s St Andrew’s Church – itself a curiosity, a church within a church –the large medieval shell of the original church sheltering the tiny 17th-century thatched-roofed replacement that was built when the former became too expensive for villagers to maintain. The fine 15th-century tower abuts the later build, dwarfing almost mockingly its dinky proportions. Before taking a pew to hear an introduction by UEA lecturers Jo Catling and Barbara Marshall, who both knew and worked with W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald, some of us examine the font, recycled from the earlier church, which has stylised lions and hairy human-like figures that have had their heads chiselled off. Headless or not, these strange decapitated figures are recognisable as representations of the woodwose (wild man), a creature that belongs to the same fabulist stable as the Green Man, the crude anti-masonry no doubt the handiwork of William Dowsing’s men as it was these same arch-puritans who did for the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the original church.

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We drift down to the beach by way of Covehithe Broad – the direct road from Covehithe is closed and fenced-off these days thanks to the coastal erosion that constantly depletes this shoreline. The broad’s brackish water is alive with Canada geese that honk plaintively, their voices coming through the mist even before we can see them. The geese take off sporadically in small groups to circuit and survey the parish before returning to the watery comfort of the broad. At the shore, the tide is out and the beach is deserted but for the presence of a distant dog-walker and our own gaggle of muse-seeking Sebaldians. To the north, the curve of the coast at Benacre Ness near Kessingland can just about be discerned. Southwold lies to the south: a distinctive profile that stretches from sea to land – first pier, then low town roofs and blinking lighthouse before a water tower marks the point where the town ends and the Sandlings and marshes begin.

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We walk north along the beach in small amorphous groups exchanging thoughts on Sebald’s gloomy oeuvre. The cliffs of Covehithe feature in The Rings of Saturn, albeit briefly, which is of course why this was chosen as a suitable territory for the walk. It was here that the author stood on the cliffs and gazed out on the leaden-coloured water of what he describes as the German Ocean (a rather archaic term for the North Sea that went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century but chosen by Sebald for his own, anything but nationalistic, reasons). As he lowered his gaze to the beach below he inadvertently spied a couple making love and noted that “it seemed that the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. Overcome with panic at the sight of this “many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species” he left to walk to Southwold.

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Thankfully, no such sexual shenanigans affronted us on Saturday. In fact, the only other living thing on the beach other than a desultory parliament of herring gulls was a lone figure scrutinising the foreshore for Paleolithic flint hand tools that we were assured sometimes turn up here. The walk’s turning point was probably somewhere in the shadow of Covehithe church, although we could not see its landmark tower from our position on the sand beneath the cliff. Having examined some of the evocative bleached tree stumps that decorate the beach here like Arts Council sculptures, looked at the ever-receding cliffs with their abandoned sand martin burrows and observed a solitary craft out to sea just as Sebald had done, we turned to face south. With Southwold’s low skyline now silhouetted on the brightening horizon we placed the North Sea/German Ocean to our left as we ruminated and slowly ambled our way back to Covehithe’s church within a church. In half a century or so, this may well be gone, a victim of the ferocious erosion that defines this coastline. Covehithe and its church will have vanished forever, living on only in memory and books – a place of legend.

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Burston 1914 – 2014

IMG_1372Earlier this year I wrote of Norfolk’s radical tradition and how this would be the centenary year of the Burston School Strike, the longest running strike in British history that lasted from 1914 to 1939.  Last Sunday the annual rally took place in this quiet south Norfolk village and folk came from far and wide to particpate and celebrate. As always, there were stalls selling political literature and T-shirts, brass bands entertaining the crowd, and musicians and speakers on the small stage. IMG_1297As usual the sun shone obligingly. Sadly this year, those old stalwarts of the Left, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, were no longer here to speak but Owen Jones (a ‘braying jackal’ according to Fox News, an honorable plaudit indeed) proved a worthy successor making a stirring speech before the procession around the village ‘candlestick’ took place. IMG_1321IMG_1327Rural south Norfolk might not seem the most obvious place to see trades unionists and brass bands marching under banners but they are used to it here at Burston – it’s been going on for 30 years. A necessary reminder for what is usually considered a true blue county that zombie neoliberalism is not the only narrative. Long may it continue.

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Crossing Morecambe Bay

IMG_0733Of all the footpaths and byways that criss-cross our ancient landscape probably the most enigmatic are those that cannot be mapped because of their very impermanence. Such routes can only be defined by their start and end points rather than the space that lies in between. These conduits of human movement are impermanent in the sense that their course is forever obliged to change with the whims of nature. What is fixed is the historical notion of the route rather than the precise territory that has been traversed. Like shipping routes that must studiously avoid rocks but which have a freer rein in safe channels, footways across tidal estuaries are fluid and everchanging. One celebrated historic route is that which crosses Morecambe Bay on the south Cumbrian coast.

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IMG_0859Men and women have been crossing Morecambe Bay for centuries, millennia even, but the passage has always been fraught with the danger of quicksand and fast-moving incoming tides. The tragedy that befell a group Chinese cockle diggers stranded here a decade ago is still fresh in the national psyche. Caught by the perfidious tide, abandoned by unscrupulous gangmasters, the poor migrants that perished here were caught out by both nature and the greed and indifference of their exploiters.

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While Morecambe Bay’s dangers are apparent enough, there is one man who, given time, can always find a way across between the south and north shores of the bay. Cedric Robinson MBE is the official ‘Queen’s Guide to the Sands of Morecambe Bay’ and receives the princely sum of £15 annually from the Crown (and a virtually rent-free cottage) for performing this duty. Formerly a fisherman and farmer, Cedric is the 25th custodian of the the title having performed the role since 1963. The first official guide was appointed by the Duchy of Lancaster back in the mid 16th century. Prior to this, it was the monks of Cartmel Priory who escorted travellers across the sands. No doubt little has changed in the way that the guides read the landscape – assessing the movement of the sands, the shift of the channels, the whereabouts of treacherous quicksand and the height of the river water. In a grudging nod to modernity, Cedric also has a tractor at his disposal.

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The weather forecast for our crossing from Arnside to Kents Bank was anything but auspicious, with predictions of heavy rain and the threat of the summer storms that had already tormented the south of England making an unwelcome appearance. Come the day though, there seemed to be nothing worse than light drizzle and low cloud.

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Something of the order of one hundred people had assembled at the jetty at Arnside for the 11am start across the bay. Cedric appeared on cue to blow his whistle and lead a colourfully (yet sensibly) clad crocodile of hikers, geocachers, dog-walkers and other outdoorsy types along the high street and past a caravan site before venturing out across the estuary. Leaving dry land behind, the group soon becomes an ambulant community, a walking-talking organism worming its way west across the sands. Crossing is exhilarating rather than a solemn trudge and the next three hours pass quickly as we walk briskly over rippled sand and wade through knee-high through channels of the River Kent, its fresh water surprisingly warm.

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It all seems surprisingly straightfoward, even crossing the river channels where there is a distinct undertow. Such ease of passage is thanks to Cedric who has already been out the previous day weighing up the options and marking the ever-changing route with laurel branches (‘brobs’, cut close to Cedric’s Kents Bank home at Guides Farm) that he has wedged into deep holes crow-barred into the mud. The markers are good for the next couple of days but when Cedric next takes a group out in a fortnight’s time he will need to do the pathfinding and route-marking all over again – nothing is permanent here. In Morecambe Bay the fluidity of time is all-apparent.

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IMG_0806Halfway across, the light rain eases and the sun appears, albeit dimly like a ghostly face through frosted glass. In the distance, a tractor and trailer driven by Cedric’s assistant can be seen on the bank of the River Kent, our first serious wade. The shoreline now seems a distant and untrustworthy illusion, the glimpses of Morecambe seen to the southeast, a phantasmagorical will-o’-the-wisp beyond a hazy threshold to another world. Once across the second of the deeper channels we wait while Cedric does some last minute route-finding, walking some distance towards the houses of Grange-over-Sands on the north shore before returning to give us the all-clear.

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Just before we reach the sheep-grazed marshes that fringe the shoreline, there is a moment of high drama as an area of sand the size of a car wobbles alarmingly like a jelly fish to warn of its danger: unstable quicksand with water beneath that could swallow a horse (indeed, Cedric has actually witnessed such a thing). Even the most maverick among us need no reminding to skirt this and keep moving until we are on firmer ground. A little further on and the scattered buildings of the shoreline assert themselves from behind the trees and we find ourselves climbing up to the platform of Kents Bank railway station. A southbound train is due and after bidding Cedric farewell (and purchasing a ‘Certificate of Crossing’ and a signed copy of his Time and Tide book) we climb on board for the two-stop, ten-minute journey back to Arnside. The train itself is bound for Manchester Airport, an altogether more obvious starting point for journeys to other phantasmagorical worlds that lie beyond the threshold of our imagination.

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Arslanbob – In Walnut Tree Shade

IMG_9321It had been almost eight years since I was last in Arslanbob, a tantalisingly spread-out settlement in Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad province. As before, I had arrived at the start of Ramadan – the moon was new, the mosque was full; a holiday mood gripping the steep rocky streets of this sprawling mountain village. This time though, it was stifingly hot late June rather than pleasantly cool mid September, and the walnuts that the area is famous for were still forming on the trees – ovoid green jewels dangling from silvery branches, their sweet ripeness yet to develop. The last time I was here it was during harvest season and walnuts were everywhere – stacked in pyramids at the bazaar, piled in dishes in every home, filling pockets, bags and every potential container. To walk in Arslanbob at such a time was to invite walnut generosity – for foreign visitors even the shortest excursion into the streets resulting in bulging pockets, stuffed rucksacks and camera bags. Walnuts even appeared to serve as legal currency – on first arriving in the village I witnessed a pair of laughing schoolgirls paying their minibus fare with a handful of nuts; the driver didn’t seem to mind at all.IMG_9163IMG_9394Of course, Arslanbob is not just about walnuts: the village has multiple identities. A relatively conservative Uzbek enclave in a predominantly Kyrgyz nation, Arslanbob has strong historical ties with Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley that lies not so very far away over gerrymandered Soviet-period borders to the south (never was the political strategy of ‘divide and rule’ more apparent than with the convoluted and sometimes utterly nonsensical lines of demarcation that separate the now independent republics of Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan). Almost totally Uzbek in population and culture, Arslanbob is also a spiritual centre of sorts, with holy rocks and sacred lakes in the mountains above the village and religious shrines in the surrounding forest. Islamic it may be, but there are strong animist and shamanist overtones too – the peoples of Central Asia have always had a strongly developed sense of place that has its spiritual expression beyond the normal confines of formalised religion.IMG_9172IMG_9597So walnuts and sacred shrines . . . there are another elements too. Since Soviet times the village has had a turbaza, a sanatorium that provides R&R for weary city folk. These days it is predominantly Uzbeks from the sweltering cities of Kyrgyzstan’s southern basin – Jalal-Abad and Osh – that come to stay. There is local sightseeing too – a scenic waterfall against the backdrop of a ravine lies quite close to the village centre. When I first visited this eight years ago, there were almost no visitors and little to be seen apart from plummeting water against a rugged rock face; the votive rags tied to the branches of a tree above the waterfall, the only evidence of human interest. Now things are rather different: a dust-cloud of lumbering Toyotas ferries visitors up from the bazaar where, after paying a token entrance fee, they pass through a phalanx of makeshift wooden stalls en route to the falls. The stalls sell all manner of tourist tat – plastic trinkets, cheap jewellery, carved wooden souvenir eagles and lions, souvenir Astanbap (Arslanbob) hats, medicinal mountain herbs in cellophane packets, lengths of fruit leather like seaweed and ‘I heart Islam’ T-shirts.IMG_9225IMG_9280It is easy enough to escape though. Take the path beyond the falls and the tawdry commercialisation swiftly drops away as a dazzling landscape reveals itself – towering snow-capped peaks, emerald pastures and farmhouses peeping through poplars on steep ridges. To the east and south extends a vast green swathe of walnut forest that stretches sublimely to vanishing point. Just two minutes beyond the falls the only sounds to be heard are those of running water, rustling leaves, birdsong, a distant complaining donkey and perhaps the woody squeak of a horse-drawn plough. All is transformed, and this is a heart-gladdening landscape to behold.IMG_9304IMG_9446Having struggled up to the Holy Rock before (at 2,900 metres elevation it lies at 1,600 metres above the upper part of the village), a long walk through the walnut forest seemed the sensible thing to do this time round. I set out with two German cyclists and a local guide from the uppermost part of the village, our starting point reached by means of a redoubtable ex-Soviet Army UAZ, which, although uncomfortable, you feel could go almost anywhere with a skilled driver and plenty of vigorous wheel twisting. From our dropping-off point a shady woodland path runs all the way to the settlement of Dashman in the heart of the forest. Along the way, we enjoy the unparalleled dappled sunlight – perfect camouflage for the green, yellow and black of golden orioles (which, sadly, we don’t manage to see). Here and there we pass through clearings filled with flowers – clary, marjoram, orchids, bugloss and tall yellow daisy-like blooms whose names we will never know.IMG_9530IMG_9554Dashman could hardly be described as a village, more just a scattered collection of houses each with its own bit of land in a clearing. This isolated settlement was, however, once home to displaced Chechens, uprooted and displaced from their Caucasus homeland by Stalin during World War II. The Chechens have long gone (one solitary Chechen remained in Arslanbob I was told, ‘a good man but too much drinking problem’) and now the houses are occupied by a handful of locals who keep animals to graze in the forest. There is a crossroads of tracks close to Dashman. Today it was a quiet place, with just a woman out fetching water, a beautiful blonde-maned horse wafting flies way and the liquid song of a blackbird trilling from the bushes. But it was at this very same location, our guide told us, that things came alive during the September walnut harvest. Many villagers would come from Arslanbob to camp here for a few days, gathering nuts by day and celebrating and socialising by night. There would be music, dance and laughter; traders from Arslanbob would set up temporary stalls; shashlyk would be grilled, much chai would be consumed. Naturally enough, the main currency of exchange would not be Kyrgyz som or US dollars but freshly harvested walnuts: a timely opportunity for nature’s bounty to show its true worth and for just a brief few days turn capitalism on its head.IMG_9573IMG_9563IMG_9510

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Yuri Gagarin’s Holiday

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When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from the first successful manned space flight in 1961 he took a well-deserved holiday. We can only assume that this took place after a considerable debriefing by the Soviet military – it was, after all, a highly significant achievement and overnight he found himself to be the most famous living Russian after Nikita Khrushchev. The place he chose for his vacation – or rather, was chosen for him – was close to a large alpine lake in what was then the Kyrgyz SSR in Central Asia. This was a forbidden zone at the time and so safely well away from the prying eyes of Western journalists.

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Tamga is a small, dusty village close to the southern shore of Lake Issyl-Kul in what is now Kyrgyzstan. Tamga still has its sanatorium, formerly a Soviet military R&R facility, and it was here that Gagarin stayed for a while, strolling the pine-shaded paths, bathing in the lake perhaps, no doubt eating shashlyk and contemplating his short but epoch-making sojourn in space. The camp is still popular with visiting Russians in high summer. While not deliberately nostalgic there is plenty to remind of its Soviet past – statues of military heroes tucked away between the conifers and stirring murals of proletarian power in the Soviet realist style. There is nothing to record Gagarin’s time here, no plaque or monument, but head a dozen or so kilometres up the neighbouring Barskoon Valley, and you will find a bust of the world’s first space traveller on a plinth. It stands beneath a lofty waterfall and Gagarin, of course, is depicted wearing a space helmet. On the road nearby stands another rather more colourful memorial to the cosmonaut, although damaged around the time of Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991 it has since been repaired. Although he belongs to another era, and another country, Gagarin remains a hero to many.

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San-Tash: The Riddleof the Stones

New Image7A large pile of stones in the Karkara valley: in the far northeast of Kyrgyzstan, close to the Kazakhstan border, San-Tash is an enigma. What can this pile alongside one of the ancient Silk Road routes possibly represent? Who placed them here, and why? One popular legend relates that the stones were deposited here by Tamerlane’s troops whilst they were on their way to battle in China. Tamerlane instructed each of his soldiers to bring a stone from Lake Issyk-Kul and leave it here, removing a stone on the way back if they had survived the conflict. But most of the stones are far too large to make this at all believable, and the number far too large – for an army to lose so many men in a battle, or even have this many men at arms to begin with, defies credibility. A more likely theory is that they are the stones left over from the excavation of a large burial mound – the region abounds with large kurgani (tumuli associated with Saka warriors, otherwise known as Scythians) constructed around two millennia ago. Either way, San-Tash (‘counting stones’) is an evocative sight tucked away far up this beautiful valley of horses and horsemen – a veritable piece of super-sized landscape art.

New Image5Strolling around the stones, absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying the heady, herb-tinted breeze, we see a young Kyrgyz women walk determinedly across the jailoo (alpine meadow) towards the other side of the valley. Suddenly she stops and stands motionless as if rooted to the spot by some powerful unseen force. Her arm is raised as if cupping her ear to listen to the wind. Binoculars reveal that the woman is holding a mobile phone in her hand – her purposeful walk to the centre of this wide valley was simply to pick up a signal. The unseen force was Beeline KG.New Image9

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Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!

IMG_6854I don’t quite know what it is that has made me think of Vietnam recently. Maybe it was a casual mention in a conversation that made me realise that I don’t have a very vivid memory of the short time I spent in that country a couple of years ago. It was, after all, just a fleeting glimpse of the fat bottom end of a long thin country – a day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and a few days up the Mekong River.IMG_6933I wandered Ho Chi Minh City in a jet-lagged daze, stupefied by a body clock that badly needed winding and oppressive tropical heat that clung like a blanket. What did I do? I gaped at a few of the tourist sites I was told to look at. I dodged road-wide flanks of manic motorbikes (just wait until they get cars!), ate fishy, chilli-spiked noodles and bought, of all things, a copy of David Copperfield in a savagely air-conned bookshop (an unconscious hankering for the fictionalised Yarmouth coast perhaps?). The rest is a sleep-deprived blur, although I do remember Christmas lights – it was early January – incongruous as a Santa suit in steamy Indochina. The city, as I remember it, seemed an awful long way from the imagined sinful metropolis of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.IMG_6811I am also struck by the visa in my passport that reads: Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon – despite the reinvented name and the occasional remnant image of a wispy-bearded Uncle Ho, it was hard to imagine anywhere more unashamedly capitalist. The new moniker foisted on the city in 1976 seemed an ironic rebranding for a city that was firmly in the US camp throughout the war (The American War, the Vietnamese call it). One can only imagine the victors’ delight in defiantly renaming this southern capitalist city after their erstwhile northern communist leader. But a name is just a name – the USA may have lost the war but it was the West that inevitably won in the end. IMG_6844

IMG_6919As for the Mekong, what stays with me most is its murkyy lifelessness. It took a day or two along the river before it dawned on me: despite fisherman eking a living from the river’s grey waters and insects aplenty, I slowly realised that there were almost no birds to be seen. No dipping kingfishers, no fish-spearing herons, no skeins of geese overhead; just an occasional swallow flitting nervously above the water. The first egrets I saw were dead: a sorry pair on display in a food market, a meagre meal for a poor family. Uncontrolled hunting and trapping, along with severe habitat depletion, appear to be the main reasons for this sad depletion of what, in a previous life, would have surely been a tropical paradise. IMG_7043A river without birds is a like a song without a melody. Things improved slightly as we approached the Cambodian border but really not that much – for the most part, the river remained the ideal film setting for a tropical version of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.IMG_7187IMG_7149IMG_7255

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Edgeland

IMG_4934Edgelands are everywhere, orbiting our towns and cities like unbeautiful rings of Saturn: non-places, junkspace, transitory transition zones that lie between that which is unequivocally urban or rural. Transitory because they are spaces in flux, with fluid geography that today may be brownfield site or landfill but tomorrow could be new housing, an out-of-town shopping emporium or a bypass. I hesitate to use the term ‘liminal’ here, that overused adjective beloved of psychogeographers, but … oh go on, I will. Edgelands are, if you’ll excuse the trope, zones of liminality, thresholds of the urban world. They might also be defined as those places that people pass through but do not usually stop at. They represent the view from the car  on the daily commute, that untidy marginal landscape glimpsed flashing by through the grimy window of the morning train.

IMG_4921Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in Edgelands, their definitive book on the subject, quote a long list of names associated with waste landscapes of this type in the United States, a lexicon that starts with ‘boomberg’ and ends with ‘world city’. My favourite though is ‘stimdross’, which sounds like some sort of propriety brand of exfoliant cream.

IMG_4944Like anywhere, Norwich, the city where I live, has its own edgelands. These take on a different character depending on which side of the city you look. To the north, the city sprawls for miles through ‘30s council estates, Tudorbethan suburbs and rural fringe new-build with leadlight windows and double garages. Heading in this direction from the centre, it is only after the airport is passed that the city finally gives way to the arable farmland that continues all the way to the Norfolk coast.

IMG_4946Heading south, the transition comes much sooner. A little way beyond the ring road the landscape changes abruptly as it crosses a railway line and the River Yare. Here, where the traffic of the southern bypass creates an ever-present thrum, is an edgeland par excellence: a territory that has elements of both urban and rural but belongs to neither camp. The rough grassland here is too poor for arable crops but supports both grazing horses and a vast imposing electricity substation. Lofty pylons march across the landscape, dwarfing the horses. The scene is a strange juxtaposition that shouts of marginalisation but the horses do not seem to mind. Who owns them? Travellers probably, or is it wrong to make such an assumption?

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The OS map of the territory reveals a henge in the field here, right next to where the electricity substation and horses are. The Arminghall Woodhenge, which was discovered in 1929 thanks to crop marks on an aerial photograph, was excavated in 1935 and discovered to be a Neolithic monument orientated on the mid-winter sunset. All that remains now is a vague bump and dip in the ground but once this was a place of power, a place of knowledge, ritual and observation. Now that power is reduced to a ghost of landscape, forgotten, returned to the earth – a palimpsest overlaid with electrical distribution hardware and grazing horses. Most of the motorists speeding by on the southern bypass avert their eyes from the unsightly pylons and transformers and do not give these fields a second glance. How can they ever know of the henge if they do not even notice the horses?

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Mildred Holland’s Seven-year Task

IMG_3824Mildred Holland was an unusual and determined woman. Not content with  being merely the new rector’s wife at St Mary’s, the parish church at Huntingfield in northeast Suffolk, Mildred took it on herself to singlehandedly repaint the ceiling of the church’s hammerbeam roof. This enormous labour took seven whole years between 1859 and 1866, a period in which spent she much of her time on her back atop scaffolding wielding a paint brush. First she painted the chancel, then the nave. A novice to church painting, Mildred was given some advice by E L Blackburne FSA, an expert on medieval decoration, but other than this and the help she received from workmen erecting the scaffolding she had no assistance whatsoever. Naturally, such arduous toil took its toll and Mildred died in 1878, a relatively young woman, not so many years after completing her task.

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There may be those who will find the roof decoration here far too bright for their taste –  the colours are brilliant and vibrant, the overall affect almost psychedelic. But if you have  a plentiful supply of pound coins  – there is a cash-hungry slot for inserting coins to supply short-lived electrical illumination – you can see for yourself the sort of church decoration that might have held illiterate medieval peasants in awe. True, Mildred’s work was a Victorian makeover but it was probably quite faithful to the original paint job – the bling of medieval church decoration was often far more garish than many of us imagine it to be.

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To find the church you must first venture down winding narrow lanes southeast of Halesworth in Suffolk, a modest adventure in its own right. There is a monument to Mildred and her husband in the churchyard close to the gate. The dedicated font cover, a sort of internal church steeple, is rather impressive too.

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St Mary’s, Huntingfield and the story of Mildred Holland makes an appearance in my new book Slow Travel Suffolk, a companion volume to the recently published Slow Travel Norfolk, although the book is by no means solely about churches, medieval decoration or single-minded determined women.

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