Beauty and the beach: Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk

IMG_5333What is it that draws us to the sea; to the coast, the beach? On hot days in summer the answer is fairly obvious: to sunbathe, to swim, to cool off in the sea. Hot summer days are not such a common commodity these days – not in the British Isles anyway – but, whatever the weather brings, people tend to be drawn to the coast like moths to lanterns.

IMG_5307Perhaps it is part of an unwritten code of leisure etiquette, something that established itself in the British collective unconscious in Victorian times when those who could afford it caught trains to the newly developed resorts on the coast in order to take the air. The tradition persisted into the 20th century when, given more leisure time and improved public transport, the working classes too could enjoy the same privilege. Nowadays a trip to the coast is a commonplace activity: a Sunday outing, an hour or two spent strolling on the beach, exercising the dog, dragging the children away from the virtual Neverland of their electronic screens.

IMG_5294But maybe there is something that lies deeper? Some sort of atavistic compulsion to gaze at the sea, to see where we come from, from land masses beyond the horizon, from the primal sludge of the seabed. An urge look at the edge of things where seawater limns the shore and shapes our green island. We are, after all, an island race.

Or maybe that’s just me.

IMG_5312Either way, there is beauty on the beach. Sensuous ripples of sand adorned with calcium necklaces and bangles; the pure white glint of breaking waves. Serried ranks of breakers on the incoming tide, parallels of swell and surf creating a liquid stave for the ocean’s moonstruck music: swash and backwash, the gentle abrasion of pebbles, the faintest tinkle of dead bivalves.


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Winter solstice – Wells to Blakeney

IMG_4979It was the day after the winter solstice – a bright sunny day with the wind from the south, the temperature mild. Conscious of the turning of the year, a last minute escape from the frenzied Christmas build-up seemed appropriate, even if just for a few hours. The north Norfolk coast beckoned – where better to go when days are at their shortest, when the sovereign reign of darkness is turned on its head and the world set aright once more?IMG_4880Wells-next-the-Sea was already closing up for Christmas when I left it behind at midday.  I followed the coast path east, skirting the salt marshes and mud flats, the pines of East Hills silhouetted on the northern horizon. Scolt Head Island aside – Norfolk’s most northerly territory a little further west, its Ultima Thule – this was the last tract of land at this longitude before reaching the North Pole that lay far beyond the horizon and sunken, sea-drowned Doggerland. IMG_4895Scattered at regular intervals, poking for invertebrates in the mud were redshanks, curlews and little egrets – the latter once a scarce bird in these parts but now commonplace thanks to climate change.  Brent geese, Arctic natives wintering here on this soft-weather shore, were feeding in large groups in the salt marshes. Periodically, without much warning, and honking noisily – the wildest of sounds – they would take to the air to describe a low arc before landing again. A hen harrier, white-rumped and straight-winged, quartering the marshes seemed to go unnoticed by the geese.  Focused on much smaller prey, the harrier presented no threat to them – this they knew. IMG_4948The mildness of the winter was clear to see. This was late December yet gorse bushes were weighed down with mustard yellow blooms. The emerald early growth of Alexanders lined the path edge, and there was even a small, yellow-blushed mushroom, its umbel newly fruited, peering up from the grass. The recent rainfall was quite apparent too – water that had accumulated to render the surface of the path in places to a viscous gravy that made walking hard work. IMG_4971After a couple of hours walking, Blakeney Church came into view on the low hill above the harbour, its tower a warning – or a comfort – to sailors of old on this stretch of coast without a lighthouse. Stopping briefly to eat a sandwich on the steps of a boat jetty, my back to the sea, a short-eared owl, another winter visitor, swooped silently past, its unseen quarry somewhere in the wind-rustled reeds. IMG_4958Approaching Blakeney, the moon, almost full, rose over the sea as the sun started setting behind the low ridge that topped the winter wheat fields. It was only three o’clock but already the light was vanishing. But there was change afoot – from now on the days would gradually lengthen and, in perfect solar symmetry, the long winter nights would slowly begin to lose their dark authority. IMG_4981

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IMG_4701A grey morning, late November; a blanket of thick, high-tog cloud slung over the wet flatlands of northeast Norfolk. The day begins serendipitously when, approaching the car park at Horsey Windpump, two distant grey shapes are spotted in a roadside field – grey forms that have enough about them to demand a second look. Binoculars reveal them to be common cranes, an ironic name even here in one of their few British strongholds.

Cranes have bred in the region of Horsey Mere for over three decades but all my previous visits to the area had proved to be fruit-, or rather, bird-less. This time they were there for the asking: a pair feeding on the far side of a field, their visibility as good as it gets for cranes, which, despite their bulk and striking appearance, are shy birds that can be hard to locate. The birds stayed for a minute or two as binoculars were passed round before raising their wings to fly a over a hedge, out of vision. A fleeting sight, but a thrilling one – it was easy to why the Chinese call them “birds of heaven”. I had seen cranes before in Norfolk, at Stubb Mill, a remote winter raptor roost near Hickling Broad, where I witnessed half a dozen swooping in low, bugling their Latin name “Grus Grus”, just as darkness fell. This though, was a surprise sighting – unprepared for, unexpected – and all the more magical for that.

IMG_4721We had, in fact, come to Horsey for the seals. But first, a walk through the marshes alongside Horsey Mere, then to follow the channel of Waxham New Cut before crossing the coast road to Horsey Gap to reach the dunes and the beach. Close to Brograve Mill, a solitary marsh harrier was quartering the reed-beds on the opposite bank. The jackdaws that had gathered on the broken remains of its wooden sail flew off as we approached the mill. Long an icon of the Norfolk Broads, this photogenic ruin looked to be reaching critical mass in its ruination; the brickwork of its tower leaning, Pisa-like, in a losing battle with gravity.

IMG_4735The car park at Horsey Gap had its usual compliment of visitors – most folk do not want to have to walk far to fulfill their annual seal pup quota. Clearly it has been a good year for grey seals, with more than 300 newly born pups along this stretch of coast. Signs and plastic ribbon barriers do their best to encourage the over-inquisitive to keep at bay. Grey seals, despite their bulk, are the epitome of vulnerability. On land anyway – slumped on the beach liked huge slugs with lovable Labrador faces, their awkward obese bodies are an encumbrance out of the water.

IMG_4754The beach action is minimal: an occasional clumsy rolling over; the odd shuffle forward using flippers for traction; sporadic barking and baring of teeth between rival males. The scene looks like an aftermath of overindulgence, bodies adrift on the beach sleeping off the effects of a heavy night. Perhaps it is all that hyper-rich seal milk that explains this torpor: the effort the pups take to digest the 60%-fat fluid, the energy involved in the cows’ synthesising the milk from a diet of fish? Such extreme inactivity brings to mind an assembly of turkey dinner-replete families on Christmas afternoon, individuals sprawled on sofas somnolently waiting for the Queen’s speech. Maybe this is the subliminal reason that so many people come here to see the seals on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day?

IMG_4712Heading inland back to the car, the lowering sun finds a gap in the clouds to paint flame red those that lie beneath. We stop for a pint in the pub and, looking out of the window observe a deer, emboldened by the burgeoning dark, casually crossing a field of sugar beet. At the car park, as the last traces of daylight evaporate, three V-shaped formations of geese fly overhead, their high, wild calls preceding the appearance of their silhouettes in the sky.


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Great Yarmouth: the View from the Monument

The strangest place in the wide world

Charles Dickens

IMG_2678I wrote a post about Great Yarmouth’s Time and Tide Museum some time ago. The museum continues to be one of the town’s cultural highlights but for inquisitive visitors, especially those with a taste for faded grandeur, there is plenty more to see. One such attraction is the Britannia Monument, aka Nelson’s Monument, which is also mentioned in the same post. This 44-metre-high monument of Britannia atop a Doric column is closed to visitors for much of the time, but access up the slim spiral staircase to its viewing platform is permitted with prior booking on Sundays in summer (visits can usually be booked through the town’s Nelson Museum). Our visit was during heritage weekend in early September. Some of the photos come from earlier in the summer.

IMG_1524IMG_1530From the top of the column it is plain to see that Great Yarmouth occupies a sand spit, a narrow isthmus of land delimited by the North Sea and the River Yare. Housing and industry have long since filled the available space between the river and sea – today a modern industrial estate surrounds the base of the column – but when the monument was first erected in the second decade of the 19th century it stood alone on a fishing beach, separate from the bulk of the town to the north. An early 19th century painting by JMW Turner depicts the monument as a beacon towering over a vast beach on which sailors and local women frolic on the sand, the glowering sky above appropriately Turner-esque in tone.

IMG_1529Looking east, our eyes are drawn to the taut curve of the North Sea – a white-flecked mass of green that fades to grey in the haze towards the horizon. Wind turbines, grouped together like wraiths with arms raised in supplication, loiter offshore at Scroby Sands, their blades almost immobile on a calm day such as this. Turning around to gaze inland the wide silver snake of Breydon Water is revealed, the bird-thronged estuary where the Yare and Bure rivers come together before narrowing to flow  past South Quay to the sea. On a clear day, it is said, you could see the spire of Norwich Cathedral nearly twenty miles inland. On this day though, a smoky blue haze limits the view to the west beyond the glimmering mud.

IMG_1545Walking back to the town centre along Marine Parade we pass all the familiar trappings of an old-school English coastal resort: the town’s Pleasure Beach with its garishly painted fairground rides, amusement arcades, fast food shacks, miniature golf courses, skate parks and putting greens. Punctuating this main seaside thoroughfare are the town’s twin piers – the eponymous Britannia with its end-of-the-pier theatre, and the truncated Wellington, now little more than an elegant facade. Next to Wellington Pier stands the intricate, if fragile-looking, framework of the town’s Winter Gardens, the last remaining Victorian glass and wrought iron building of its type in the country. Long empty and neglected, corroded by salt spray, the structure resembles a huge three-storey greenhouse badly in need of a paint job: a potential future Eden Project in waiting (indeed, that is one council member’s dream) if only the necessary funding could outpace the building’s slide into irreversible decay.

IMG_1579It is the all-too-familiar face of the English seaside resort in the early 21st century. Once bustling entertainment palaces now lie empty and abandoned. The Ionic-columned Empire Theatre opposite Britannia Pier lacks both audience and a full complement of letters above its portal. In its most recent incarnation this Edwardian cinema served as a bingo hall, and before that as an amusement arcade, but since 2011 it has lain dormant despite vague plans for its reincarnation a nightclub. The building’s anachronistic colonial name is now reduced by weathering and gravity to spell out ‘EMPI’. Perhaps in a few more years it will degrade further to ‘EMP’ and invite a literal-minded graffitist’s addition of ‘TY’?



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Birmingham Edgelands Part 2

IMG_3769Edgelands are not necessarily always on the urban edge. Not physically anyway – the important thing is they are perceived as different from the zones that lay beyond. Neither strictly urban nor rural but an overlooked amalgam of the two in a cannot-make-up-its-mind frontier zone, canals constitute an edgeland of sorts – a conduit by which the countryside without can snake its way into and through a town or city. A narrow green thread of water and wildlife through concrete and brick, their resilience is remarkable, and canals can withstand pretty well anything that their urban surroundings may throw at them.


In the early decades of the 19th century canals dramatically changed the face of the landscape as countless navvies laboured to gouge channels through the countryside to create a network of slow-moving waterways between the towns and cities of newly industrialised Britain. With the coming of the railways just a few decades later most of these were soon reduced to the status of transportational white elephants, although their sluggish water would always be valuable for industrial cooling and quenching purposes as well as providing a handy receptacle for dumping factory effluent.


These days nearly all canals have been re-imagined for leisure purposes – narrow boat holidays, fishing, cycling and walking. Nevertheless many, like the Grand Union Canal that curves its way into central Birmingham from Oxford and the south, seem to have few users despite a well-maintained towpath. It was this canal that I chose for my approach to the city centre having sneaked in under the thrumming M6 at Chelmsley Wood close to its airport (see Birmingham Edgelands Part 1).


Perhaps it was the less than endearing urban surroundings that was keeping visitors away? Thanks to high-budget projects, like the curvaceous, disc-clad Selfridges building and the newly redeveloped  New Street Station, Birmingham might well be currently enjoying a minor renaissance but drabber inner-city areas like Sparkhill and Small Heath rarely make the Sunday papers’ “see-before-you-die” travel sections. Consequently, I had the canal almost to myself as I followed its towpath westwards and inwards from Olton in the east of the city. It was only close to gentrified Gas Street Basin that I started to have much in the way of company. There was the odd cyclist along the way of course, an optimistic fisherman here and there, and even the occasional lone spliff-smoking youth wasting the morning away on a waterside bench, but for the most part I was oddly alone – the local graffiti artists (there was no shortage of evidence of their presence) had long since completed their mission and taken their spray-cans to scent-mark pastures new.


At Olton the canal is a rural microcosm, its bosky banks bursting with leaf and life as it winds its way further into the city’s heart from Acocks Green to Yardley. But closer to the centre the vestiges of industry draw closer to the water itself – high factory walls and railway sidings at Small Heath, Victorian warehouses at Sparkhill, railway bridges and flyovers at Bordesley. Everywhere graffiti, the heraldry of hyperactive taggers, and ciphers of Birmingham’s tribes – Blues and Villa, West Brom, even a lone, provocative Wolves flag curtaining a cracked factory window. Occasional gaps in the buildings and solid walls offer rare glimpses of the world beyond – a large mosque at Sparkhill, new offices and residential blocks at Aston – but the city’s more iconic high-rise buildings are surprisingly elusive until the centre itself is reached.


Eventually, somewhere near Nechells Green, the canal turns a tight loop south for its final run into Gas Street Basin. Here at last are barges on the water, joggers and lunchtime office workers on the towpath, modern new apartments over the water and waterside pubs with outside tables. Finally, this is a place that people choose to be – a respite from city-centre bustle and rattling traffic. Here you can lose sight of the fact that, despite the oft-repeated claim of having more canals than Venice, modern Birmingham is largely a city where the pedestrian is peasant and the motorcar is king. A case of unconscious onomatopoeia, it’s not called Brum for nothing.







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Birmingham Edgelands Part 1

IMG_3729Some cities draw you straight in from their edges by dint of gravity or beckoning pathways – officially designated walking routes or desire roads shaped by regular footfall. Not so Birmingham: here the momentum at the city’s outer limits is largely centifrugal – a manic rotation of cars and passengers around the city rim; a spinning Catherine wheel of inertia that is hard to break through. Much of England’s second city is, as Jonathan Meades and other commentators have observed, purpose-built for motor transport; unrepentant walkers may struggle for footing away from its pedestrian-friendly core around Centenary Square, Victoria Square and the newly appointed Jewellery Quarter. Birmingham’s obeisance to the internal combustion engine has long had comedic value: the Gravelly Hill Interchange, aka ‘Spaghetti Junction’, is infamous for its confusion of tangled asphalt pasta subbing as roadways, and parts of the outer city can give the appearance of an apocalyptic Ballardian landscape in which the motor car has unfettered dominion.

There are chinks in the armour here and there though – safe passages on foot towards the centre that can be discovered by close scrutiny of the upper right hand side of the Birmingham 1:25,000 OS Explorer map. One such pedestrian wormhole occurs beneath the M6 Motorway at Chelmsley Wood at the far eastern edge of the city close to Birmingham Airport. Chelmsley Wood is actually part of Solihull rather than Birmingham but that’s another story.


I approach the city from Coleshill, a north Warwickshire market town that lies on a ridge just beyond the M6. A brownstone settlement with a high street lined with pubs that once might have been coaching inns, it gives little clue to the vast West Midlands megalopolis that lurks nearby. I weave my way down from the high street through a new housing estate to approach the traffic roar that comes unseen from beyond a protective belt of trees. A muddy footpath leads through to the A446, the Stonebridge Road – a busy dual-carriageway that I have to cross carefully, resting briefly like a human bollard in the central reservation before continuing to the other side where the track continues though more din-blasted woodland.

The footpath soon joins a farm track that rises over a bridge that spans both the M42 and the M6 Toll. Traffic roars underneath – more than a dozen lanes of cars and lorries heading north and south, their road-dazed occupants oblivious to the ancient forest that once stood on the territory they are speeding through. This motorway island,  like Chelmsey Wood, its high-rise blocks now within sight to the east beyond the pylon wires that frame them, was once part of the vast Forest of Arden – a leafy tract of Merrie England across which squirrels (red, of course) could travel for miles without the inconvenience of having to touch the ground. But such romance is now long dead, despite the subterranean presence of 2½ million Mills & Boon novels pulped to provide bulk for the underlay of the M6 Toll road – bodice-rippers recycled in such a way that their female protagonists would now genuinely be able to feel the earth move beneath them.

IMG_3739Even here, in plain earshot of the hum and thrum of the motorways, the landuse remains determinedly rural: the hedgerows cheep with edgeland birds, flowers deck the drainage ditches, isolated oaks stand proud soaking up CO2 and less desirable hydrocarbons; wheat fields stretch productively to the very edge of the motorway. A timely reminder of the close proximity of Birmingham Airport comes when a jetliner suddenly swoops into land, hugging the horizon – a trick of perspective giving the momentary illusion of the plane perching on the roof of one of the Chelmsley Wood blocks that lie just beyond the motorway ahead.

IMG_3745I follow the farm track under the pylons and a tunnel comes into view ahead. It is, in fact, a subway, a passage that leads beneath the third of this triptych of motorways, the M6. Graffiti daubs the walls of the subway – it would feel very wrong if it didn’t – and at the other side a staggered, anti-motorbike gate leads directly into Chelmsley Wood, streets of tidy new-build to start with (the estates posh end?) and then its high-rises. Chelmsley Wood doesn’t have the best or reputations – a clergyman was attacked and car-jacked outside a church here in broad daylight recently – but it does not seem too threatening on first glance. The high-rises – 39 in total, one of the biggest development schemes in Europe when they were first erected as an overspill estate on green belt in the late ‘60s – seem well-maintained; grassy landscaping softens the territory between the blocks, cycle-ways trace curving routes to the meandering River Cole that delimits the estate’s northern boundary.

IMG_3751Kingshurst Brook, effectively a damp ditch enlivened by a blousy pink display of Himalayan balsam, leads away from the river, skirting the perimeter of the estate to pass Alcott Wood, a remnant pocket of ancient woodland that now serves as a local nature reserve. A few local youths in grey tracksuits have gathered at the wood’s entrance, although their interest in botany is probably negligible.

I veer left along roads into Marston Green, a very average sort of suburb, and make my way to the railway station. A train has just departed but there will be another along in just twenty minutes. The only other passenger on the platform is a beautiful and elegantly dressed young Asian woman who shouts gleefully into her mobile phone with a posh, distinctly non-Brummie voice, asking of her unseen friend, “You said that would fix me up with a nice man. When are you going to do it”? The train arrives on time and we immediately become anonymous occupants of a fast-moving bubble that speeds us southeast away from the city, past the airport, past the cow-grazed fields of bucolic Warwickshire, through the ghost territory of the ancient Forest of Arden. Already Birmingham seems far behind.

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Lenins of the world, unite!


I don’t quite know what it is but whenever I have come across an old Lenin statue anywhere in the territories of the old Soviet Union I have usually not been able to resist taking a photograph. It may be it purely a matter of posterity – these things will not be there for ever. But perhaps it for other reasons – vague nostalgia for something I never had the opportunity to experience, or a sneaking regard for an idealistic yet flawed political system that had such indomitable self-belief? Another part of me acknowledges that I am drawn towards old Soviet statuary in the same way I am attracted to photogenic ruins: as revolutionary ghosts manifest in stone and concrete that serve as repositories for the recent past.

IMG_6856The countries of the former Soviet Union have widely differing attitudes to displaying representations of their erstwhile leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The new Baltic countries and those of the Caucasus region, keen to sever any lasting connections with the USSR, tend to shun them completely – most of the old statuary has long been toppled and reduced to rubble or hardcore for roads. In a few cases, like the irony-heavy Grutas Park in Lithuania, the statues have been collected together and repurposed to make a joke of the past by creating a sort of Soviet-era theme park. This comes complete with statues, barbed wire, military music and canteens that serves ‘Soviet-style’ food – dishes that feature cabbage, beetroot and, of course, vodka.  Such a move is motivated by nostalgia to some extent, but it is also undoubtedly partly taking the piss.

IMG_7900Ukraine, which once had an impressive number of Lenin statues, has got rid of up to 500 of these over the past couple of years, an ideological casualty of the civil war and perceived Russian aggression in that divided land. Currently many still remain in place but President Petro Poroshenko has recently signed a bill setting a six-month deadline for the removal of the country’s remaining communist monuments and so their days are probably numbered – in the pro-European west of the country at least.

IMG_5854Elsewhere, where Soviet-era murals are attached to buildings or just too cumbersome to remove wholesale, the offending revolutionary faces are simply scratched away. I once saw a hillside in Uzbekistan where a Lenin-shaped ghost image was left where a giant face had been erased from the landscape. Once lovingly marked out in stone, the image of the revolutionary leader was no longer needed – or indeed desired – in a newly independent country presided over by a self-elected president-for-life. I have seen much the same sort of thing in Georgia – murals of Soviet period scientific achievements in which Lenin’s face has been clumsily redacted by means of a chisel. Curiously, local boy Stalin – a far more murderous character than Lenin ever was – is still revered in some circles in that country. A museum to the ‘Man of Steel’ – more a shrine of very dubious taste – still stands at his hometown of Gori together with a statue that used to have pride of place in the town’s main square.


Russia has long condemned Stalin’s brutal excesses but his predecessor Lenin can still to be seen in more or less every town and city the length and breadth of the land. The same can also be said for Belarus, Russia’s closest ally in Europe. Kyrgyzstan – the Central Asian country I know best – is much the same, the only only place in Central Asia where it would appear that the recent Soviet past is not thoroughly scorned. Weather-beaten statues and busts of Lenin can still be seen in most towns in the country, although these are now slowly being usurped by shiny heroic representations of national heroes like Manas and Kurmanjan Datka.



Photographs from top to bottom (all ©Laurence Mitchell)

Lenin and bust in Soviet sculpture park, Moscow, Russia

Lenin waving at civic buildings, Yekaterinberg, Russia

Lenin in taxi-hailing mode, Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia

Nonchalant Lenin, Pskov, Russia

Redacated Lenin face on Soviet space travel memorial, Akhaltsikhe, Georgia

Lenin and friends, Russian flea market, Tbilisi, Georgia

Dynamic ‘caped crusader’ Lenin, Tirasapol, Transdniestr

Lenin the theatrical performer (note the redacted face on plinth), Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin the thinker, Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin points out the lofty Ala-Too mountains beyond the city (not any more though, he’s been moved and now faces the other way), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Stoic upright Lenin with Kyrgyzstan flag, Chaek, Kyrgyzstan

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Crowland – the name seems to be well chosen. Walking into the village I cannot help but notice several dozen crows perched on the wires above the village sign: a welcoming committee taking a brief respite from wind-wheeling above the fields that surround this south Lincolnshire village.

A few minutes earlier, well within sight of Crowland Abbey’s stumpy spire, I had been in a ditch, albeit briefly, when in a fit of pique resulting from the footpath not being where it ought to be according to my OS map, I had attempted to plough my own furrow through head-high thistles to the edge of a cornfield. As it turned out, the field was surrounded by a drainage ditch full of rushes and foul-smelling stagnant water. Plunging knee-deep into this hitherto unseen swamp I hastily beat a retreat to return to the main road, which I followed west to reach a roundabout where a sign pointed me towards the village centre and Crowland Abbey, half ruin, half working parish church.


With soggy feet, and still brushing storm flies and thistle fragments from my hair, I reflect that the unseen ditch was a timely reminder that, historically, all routes to reach Crowland were once of a watery nature. Crowland (formerly ‘Croyland’) lies in the South Holland district of Lincolnshire, hard against the border with Cambridgeshire, just to the north of Peterborough in that part of the county that once belonged to the far north-eastern tip of Northamptonshire. Crowland Abbey, its remains now part of a parish church, was formerly a Benedictine abbey church founded by Saint Guthlac, a priest who came to live as a hermit Croyland in 699 when the village was nothing more than an isolated island in the Fens. A monastic community developed here in the 8th century and Viking attacks took place on the abbey in the following centuries. Land was slowly drained and reclaimed around the village for agricultural use and during the early years of the Norman occupation Hereward the Wake held land here as an abbey tenant. The abbey was finally dissolved in 1539 and its eastern part demolished leaving just its nave and aisles for continued use as part of the village’s parish church.


On the day of my visit the church is shrouded with scaffolding – never a pretty sight. I soon leave it behind to walk down West Street where a triangular bridge stands marooned on dry land – another reminder of Crowland’s watery past. Trinity Bridge once stood over the confluence of the River Welland and its tributary, the River Witham. Both of these rivers have long been diverted away from the village and so now it stands high and dry, a white elephant of civil engineering, opposite the village pub and tight cluster of houses that are built from the same warm-hued Barnack stone that the bridge itself is made from.


Barnack and its now exhausted limestone quarry lies a dozen miles to the west in Cambridgeshire, just beyond Helpston, the birthplace of John Clare, the ‘Northamptonshire peasant poet’ who documented the changing landscape of his home patch with razor-sharp detail and poetic vision. Crowland Abbey was the subject matter for one of his sonnets, although it is unlikely that Clare had to put up with scaffolding dampening the spirit of his muse.

Of this old Abbey, struggling still with Time,

The grey owl hooting from its rents the while;

 And tottering stones, as wakened by the sound,

Crumbling from arch and battlement around,

Urging dread echoes from the gloomy aisle,

 To sink more silent still


I leave Crowland behind, Helpston-bound, and follow the raised bank along the New River channel south of Crowland High Wash, a large area of grazing land that has served as emergency drainage for the area since the reign of George III.  With the exception of the abbey, whose church spire slowly diminishes behind me as I progress westwards, and a white water tower across Crowland High Wash in the distance, the bank, just a few metres above the surrounding land, is the highest thing around here for miles. The River Welland, now diverted to flow a little way north of Crowland, lies just out of sight at the northern edge of the High Wash.


A strong, warm westerly breeze confronts me head-on as I make my way along the bank. The track serves as part of the Green Wheel Cycle Route that circles Peterborough. It is part of a local heritage trail too, and placed at regular intervals along its length are wooden posts with carvings and Perspex panels that depict local wildlife – flora, owls, crows. There are no cyclists today, nor walkers either apart from a solitary jogger and a woman from the village who struggles with four dogs on leads.

A little further along the bank stands an iron ‘Charm Tree’ that has dangling charms designed by local schoolchildren. The metal charms move and clang in the wind and in this minimalist landscape the sculpture certainly possesses charm on more than one level.  The schoolchildren’s brief was to show what made Crowland special, and the charms depict the things they associate with their home village: musical instruments, fish, a hand and what I first thought was a pair of briefs until it dawned on me that it was a representation of Crowland’s Trinity Bridge. Flying lower than the other charms, there is also, of course, a crow.


There are real crows too: ahead on the bank, a dozen or so are pecking at something or other on the path. They rise at my approach and are joined by scores of others from the fields below – a wheeling, whirling protestation of harsh-voiced birds above my head. Can this be some sort of farewell to the parish, a place that is the unchallenged domain of the crow? Perhaps there could be some sort of civic twinning with Rockland (Rookland) in Norfolk’s Yare Valley. Both villages belong – historically, ecologically – to what best might be described as Crow Country.


Half a mile further on, at a large pond where tracks lead away from the water to lonely farmsteads, I pass unheralded into Cambridgeshire, that part of the county which was formerly Northamptonshire. The track and bank veer south here, edging ever closer to the course of the River Welland. Just after Sissons Farm, where an information board describes the extensive drainage work carried out in the 17th century by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, I meet a minor road and cross a bridge into the hamlet of Peakirk. The fastest way to Glinton from here is cross-country, and walking alongside wheat and sugar beet fields I am confronted by something I have not encountered for some time – a gentle slope. Broaching the top of the field a stone needle emerges over the rise – the towering spire of Glinton’s St Benedict’s Church.

John Clare had a sonnet for this too:

Glinton, thy taper spire predominates

Over the level landscape – and the mind,

Musing – the pleasing picture, contemplates

Like elegance of beauty, much refined

By taste – that almost deifies and elevates,

One’s admiration making common things

Around it glow with beauties not their own.

Thus all around, earth superior springs;

Those straggling trees, though lonely, seem not lone,

 But in thy presence wear superior power;                         

And e’en each mossed and melancholy stone,

Gleaning cold memories round oblivion’s bower,

Seems types of fair eternity—and hire

A lease from fame by thy enchanting spire



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Passing through Birmingham recently I had a little time on my hands and so decided to visit the Digbeth area, a shortish walk from New Street Station. Head south from the futuristic silver button bulwark that is the Selfridges building and you will soon arrive here. Hitherto, I had known of Digbeth coach station – which is still here, revamped and now known as Birmingham Coach Station (opened by Fabio Capello, no less, in 2009) – but somehow whatever else lay in this industrial area close to the city centre had mostly escaped my attention.

IMG_2306IMG_2440Typhoo Tea once had a factory here, as did the Birmingham Battery and Metal Company before it decamped to Selly Oak, but probably the most famous of Digbeth’s buildings is the imposing Devonshire Works, better known as The Custard Factory. It was here that Alfred Bird & Sons manufactured their innovative egg-less custard powder, a buttercup-coloured product, which combined with hot milk, provided the nation with the necessary lubricant for its stewed rhubarb and apple crumble. An illuminated sign still hangs over its entrance to remind us of the building’s former use, although these days the complex has found new life as a centre for arts, small businesses and independent retailers.

IMG_2501IMG_2372The Custard Factory stands as a slightly self-consciously gritty beacon of culture amidst the quotidian surroundings of Digbeth High Street. Digbeth, which clearly still has some industrial dirt beneath the finger nails of its clever hands, does ‘gritty’ quite well. Beyond the high street, narrow streets lead down to the railway bridges and embankments that bisect the district east to west. The tropes of inner city cultural re-purposing are clear to see: the graffiti is mostly of a high standard; the converted galleries have a homespun, do-it-yourself air about them; the pubs remain authentic-looking despite their reinvention as hip places to drink.


IMG_2400It is widely thought that Digbeth was the focal point from which England’s second city developed when Berma’s Saxon tribe chose to settle the valley of the River Rea in the 7th century. Digbeth, which now tends to incorporate the old parish of Deritend at its eastern end, later became the manufacturing heart of the city when Birmingham rapidly expanded during the Industrial Revolution. Evidence of this industrial heritage can still be seen everywhere, although these days it is marked more by conspicuous absence than thriving activity.


IMG_2361Flanked by the Irish Quarter to the south and Eastside to the north, Digbeth was mostly cleared of its poor housing in the 1950s and ‘60s to become a factory zone that has slowly atrophied into a wasteland of disused industrial buildings and car parks, some of its more edgy-looking pubs now standing solitary and alone like isolated fortresses. Now, the area is an edgeland of sorts – a buffer zone between the shiny new architecture of the CBD and the residential areas of the inner city. Surprisingly, this formerly industrial quarter is also where Birmingham’s oldest secular building, The Old Crown, may be found: a Tudor period timber-framed inn that began life as a private house and would look more at home in genteel Stratford-upon-Avon than here wedged between the old factories and viaducts. There is more pre-industrial history if you look for it: a blue plaque next to the Irish Centre commemorates Bible translator John Rogers, who was born in Deritend in 1507 and burned at the stake at Smithfield, London in 1555, the first victim of the Marian persecution waged during Queen Mary’s reign. Whether or not a plaque that commemorates a Protestant martyr should be placed quite so close to a (Catholic) Irish institution is perhaps a moot point.

IMG_2394IMG_2487For all its atmosphere of gentle dereliction, Digbeth is clearly on the rise once more. The Custard Factory has its shops, studios and workshops, its bars are busy at weekends and there’s a burgeoning electronic music scene centered around some of the clubs.  On the up, certainly, but Hoxton-style hipsters have yet to take over (better try Moseley instead) and, rather than fashionable full beards, most of the facial hair that you will witness on the street here tends to be the henna-died chin whiskers of elderly Pakistanis who pass through Digbeth on their way to the Southside markets.IMG_2439


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Lunar Sun (Ra)

IMG_2069This post comes not from Elveden or points east but from Arden, as in Tanworth-in-Arden; from the lush green countryside between Redditch and Solihull in northwest Warwickshire, that rolling bucolic Eden that lies just south of the diesel-rank treadmill that is the M42.  Umberslade Farm near Tanworth-in-Arden is the inspired location for the Lunar Festival, which has just enjoyed its third annual convocation.

“Hello Lunar. I’ve been living in North Wiltshire in a mystical state” was how Julian Cope introduced himself to the audience before launching into a troubling but catchy song about ‘sleeping in the room that they found Sadam in’. Cope, enthusiastic psychedelic practitioner, occult archaeologist, Krautrock chronicler and self-parodying rock survivor, seemed a natural choice for the Sunday afternoon slot at Warwickshire’s Lunar Festival. Dressed like a fallen Hell’s Angel and accompanied by only a sparkly 12-string guitar he entertained the crowd with darkly melodic songs that he interspersed with rambling tales of how no-one would work with him these days because of his errant Byronic ways.

IMG_2114Sadly I missed The Fall and Mark E Smith’s malevolent mumblings on the Friday night, along with Tuareg camel-rockers Tinariwen, but had enjoyed Wilko Johnson and a resurgent, partly septuagenarian Pretty Things on the previous day. I had also witnessed Mike Heron and Glaswegian nu-folk-rockers Trembling Bells covering some early Incredible String Band back catalogue in the Bimble Inn bar – a slightly shambolic but warm-hearted performance with Heron grinning broadly at the crowd, clearly enjoying himself as they performed the likes of “This Moment” and “A Very Cellular Song”. And it was – very cellular.

IMG_2075The Lunar Festival is intimate and small-scale with a local feel. The lingua franca spoken here is mostly Middle Brummie, a tonal language spoken throughout the West Midlands, north Worcestershire and Warwickshire: a tongue in which I have working proficiency having grown up nearby, although decades in East Anglia have stymied full fluency. The Lunar vibe is early Glastonbury: gently pagan, psychedelic and counter-cultural. Imagine a Midlands Wicker Man without the unpleasant sacrificial burning at the end. Crow symbols abound, there are quite a few animal-headed folk strolling about, and the wood-smoked air is pleasantly redolent of 1967, as are some of the attendees – patchouli and other popular herbal fragrances may possibly be discerned. An oak tree trunk next to the arena’ s central camp fire is carved with the legend: ‘A day once dawned and it was beautiful’ – a line from a song by Nick Drake, a large portrait of whom hangs from a tree branch next to the Crow Bar beer tent at the top of the field. The reference is deliberate: leafy Tanworth-in-Arden was the childhood home of troubadour Nick Drake, whose tragically short life created a musical canon of great longevity.

IMG_2161The Bootleg Beatles concluded the festival on Sunday, and were glorious with their note-perfect trawl through the very best of the Fab Four’s 1966—70 material, but for me the real star of the festival was the penultimate act, the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by 91-year-old Marshall Allen. Allen joined the band way back in 1957 and took over the musical directorship in 1993 when their controversial leader Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra  1914—93) ‘left the planet’ to return to his native Saturn.

IMG_2179I had seen the Arkestra perform last year at London’s Barbican Centre when they celebrated their erstwhile leader’s centenary. They were good but somehow it seemed that they did not quite gel musically on that occasion. At Lunar though, they dazzled, segueing from one tune to another, Marshall Allen directing his cohorts with hand gestures, ear-whispers and alto sax squeaks. Despite a playful sense of humour and the faintly ridiculous galactic-warrior outfits sported by the Arkestra players, the music they generated was deadly serious: spontaneous, risky, and on occasion quite unsettlingly beautiful. At times the music seemed to teeter on the edge of anarchy but it was usually only a brief time before the band swiftly gathered itself together to swing into another languid yet skin-tight ensemble passage.  It has sometimes been dubbed ‘space-jazz’ or ‘afrofuturist’ but to accurately describe the scope of the Arkestra’s music is a futile endeavour – never has the dictum ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ seemed more apposite. There were a couple of tunes I recognised: “Saturn”, I think, and “Angels and Demons”, and near the end of the set we were treated to a superb straight-ahead blues in which everyone took a solo and the Arkestra seemed momentarily to almost be a normal sort of jazz band, albeit one where the adjectives ‘left-field’, ‘spacey’ and ‘psychedelic’ still seem to be wholly appropriate.


The set concluded with the Arkestra leaving the stage to lead a procession around the site: a motley pageant of aged jazzmen in sparkling capes followed by an assortment of folk in badger and crow outfits, black-faced Molly dancers and a few adventurous children. The denouement came with the ritual combustion of the wooden crow-man totem that had stood in the centre of the site for the duration of the festival. The crow-man burned hard and bright, sparks crackling to the strains of “Space is the Place” played by the Arkestra’s gamely marching horn-men.

Perhaps space is the place? But then so is Tanworth-in-Arden in early June. Magic is undoubtedly in the air around this time. Wicca comes to Warwickshire; Sun Ra smiles down from Saturn. Lunar, I’ll be back.



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