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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Radical Norfolk

2013188929Norfolk doesn’t tend to be the first place that comes into mind when you think of political radicalism but, surprisingly perhaps, there is  a strong tradition here and the East Anglian countryside has not always been as true blue as some might have you think.

Thetford in the Norfolk Brecks is the birthplace of republican and revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a man who had an important part to play in both French and American revolutions. Two hundred an fifty years earlier, Robert Kett, a yeoman farmer from Wymondham was another radical figure who became a thorn in the side of the ruling class. It was Kett who, along with his brother, sided with his own impoverished labourers and helped break down fences erected to enclose common land in 1549. Kett’s ragged rebel army  camped on Mousehold Heath just outside Norwich before eventually being defeated by government forces, after which Robert Kett was hanged at Norwich Castle, and his brother William at Wymondham Abbey, as an example to uppity peasants.

Another pair of local heroes were Tom and Kitty Higdon who in the first half of the 20th century led the longest strike in British history at their tiny school  at Burston in south Norfolk. Here  is a brief extract from Slow Travel Norfolk on the subject:

The Burston Strike School

‘The labourer must henceforth take his place industrially socially and politically with the best and foremost of the land.’

Tom Higdon, 1917

In brief, the story goes that Tom and Kitty Higdon were appointed as teachers at Burston School in 1911 after previously working for nine years at Wood Dallingin north Norfolk. The Higdons, who were Christian socialists, had complained about the poor conditions at the Dalling school and the frequent interruption of the children’s education when recruited for farm work. Many of the farmers employing the children were also school managers and tensions mounted as a result of this, particularly as the Higdons had also encouraged local farm labourers to join trade unions. When matters came to a head, the Higdons were given the simple choice of dismissal or removal to a different school.

The couple were transferred to Burston, where they found conditions much the same:their complaints to the school managers, the chairman of whom was the local rector, created tensions here too. The pair were dismissed on fabricated charges of pupil abuse on April Fool’s Day 1914 and, following their dismissal, 66 of the school’s 72 pupils marched along Burston’s ‘candlestick’ (a circular route around the village) carrying placards that bore messages like ‘We Want Our Teachers Back’. Many parents refused to send their children to the official council school and, as a result, a separate ‘strike’ school was established.

The Burston Strike School, as it came to be known, began as little more than a tent on the village green but later moved to a carpenter’s shop in the village. There was considerable intimidation by local employers against the rebel parents and many workers were sacked or evicted from their tied cottages. The village rector, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland, who firmly believed that labourers should know their place in the social order, also went as far as evicting poor families from church land. Fortunately, the labour shortage created by the onset of World War I worked to the advantage of the labourers. Money was raised by labour organisations such as the Agricultural Labourers’ Union and the Railwaymen and, by 1917, there were sufficient funds to build a new schoolhouse. Both Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury attended the opening ceremony in that same year. The school ran until 1939 when Tom Higdon died and the same modest building serves today as a museum of the strike school’s history. There has been a rally organised by the TGWU held annually in the village since 1984, the 70th anniversary ofthe school’s founding.

An annual rally still takes place in the village each year on the first Sunday in September. It’s a colourful, upbeat affair and a rallying call for what might be described as ‘the old Left’, with speeches by well-known political figures and trades unionists, and music by the likes of Billy Bragg. Regular – indeed, almost annual – speakers were two men who have both sadly passed on this week: Bob Crow and Tony Benn. (The last time I saw Tony Benn here I remember that he recounted the words of Thomas Paine from Rights of Man: ‘My country is the world, my religion is to do good.’)

As 2014 is the centenary year of the strike there is additional event this year on April 1st, but now that both of these two mighty oaks of the Left have fallen it may prove to be a poignant occasion.

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Slow Travel Norfolk

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Well, it is finally out – my new book Slow Travel Norfolk.

Here is a brief extract from the book about an extraordinary rook roost that takes place at Buckenham Carrs each winter:

A  large  wooded  area  just  east  of   Buckenham  station, Buckenham Carrs is in winter home to an enormous rook and jackdaw roost mentioned in the Domesday Book. It’s thought there may be as many as 80,000 birds. The roost is the central motif of Mark Cocker’s Crow Country, which celebrates both crows and the Yare Valley where he lives. The Buckenham roost, which takes place in the winter months, roughly between late October and March, is quite a spectacle to behold, a natural phenomenon that has been taking place long before the fields were ploughed here and the church at Buckenham constructed. Ideally, you’ll want a crisp winter’s evening with a clear sky and a full moon.                                                                                                                                                    The best vantage point is to walk up the narrow road from Buckenham station until you reach a copse on the left with a small ruined brick shelter. You’ll see it all from here. The performance – if you can call it that – is a slow burn. Just after sunset, groups of rooks, and some jackdaws, fly in to gather on the large ploughed area immediately to the west; others land in the trees that surround it. Some have come quite a long way to be sociable but the crow conversation taking place sounds rather tetchy, all guttural complaining caws.                                                                                                                                       Momentum slowly builds as more and more groups of birds fly in to land in the field. As the light fades, the noise from the congregation builds louder and eerily expectant: something is clearly about to happen. Eventually, when the darkness is almost complete some sort of signal spurs the birds airborne and the sky blackens with rooks that swirl noisily east to settle in the woods of Buckenham Carrs where they will spend the night together.                                                                                                                                                It’s an astonishing, almost primal, event. One that almost laughs in the face of man’s perceived dominion over nature. No collective noun can adequately describe it: a building of rooks, a train of jackdaws. It’s less a murder of crows, more a mass execution.

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For an another take on Slow Norfolk, here is a lovely post about Going Slow on the north Norfolk coast on The World According to Dina, which generously mentions my book too.

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