A Solstice Walk – Boudicca Way

In recent years I have got into the habit of taking a walk on the day of the winter solstice, December 21. Yesterday’s walk was along the section of the Boudicca Way that lies between Venta Icenorum and Norwich.

Venta Icenorum, which lies a few miles south of the city close to the village of Caistor St Edmund, was a walled Romano-British settlement that served as the civitas or capital of the Iceni tribe. The town was laid out sometime after Boudicca’s violent uprising against Roman rule in the winter of AD61 and so there is no chance that the famously vengeful Iceni queen was ever connected with the settlement itself. It is also debatable that Boudicca ever walked this precise territory but the Iceni queen is certainly local enough to at least deserve a mention.

Like many recently, it is a drearily grey day and there are few other visitors to the Roman town. I walk a little way along the walls before leaving the site to head uphill along one of High Ash Farm’s permissive paths. Damp and dreich, low cloud has largely expunged any colour from the landscape. The fields are harvested and bare, and the sense of midwinter inertia is strong despite the reasonably mild temperature and lack of snow. Light is at a premium; but the days are changing and more light will be here soon.

At the top of the hill a planting of Scots pine marks the site of an Anglo-Saxon graveyard, a situation that offers views down to St Edmund’s church and the low flint and brick walls of the Roman town. The Southern Bypass buzzes with cars and lorries in the distance. Beyond this, the impassive concrete cuboid of Norfolk County Hall marks the entrance to the city for traffic from the southeast.

The way traces a minor road for a while before dipping downhill into a valley. It then follows a footpath uphill to arrive at Caistor Lane and the curiously named French Church Farm. Another footpath leads north away from the road climbing gently up the valley side. Here, I pass a family – mum, dad, granddad, two kids – eating sandwiches on a bench halfway up. These are about the only walkers I have seen so far. In a field to the right, keeping well away from the mobbing crows that predominate the landscape around here, is a lone pair of Egyptian geese. At the top I emerge at Hallback Lane, a delightfully green, ancient trackway lined with coppiced hazel and ancient oaks. Halfway along is a wizened old oak that is familiar to many who live around here. Dubbed ‘the Africa Tree’, it bears a hollow in its trunk that delineates a fairly accurate outline of the Dark Continent. French Church, Africa Tree, Egyptian geese – something seems slightly out of kilter here.

A path to the right takes me up around the top of Caistor Chalk Quarry, close to the fence that protects it from public intrusion. The quarry is far larger than I had imagined. Steep sandy cliffs frame a deep hole and wide expanse of scarred earth; scattered extraction apparatus, storage hangars and piles of gravel and flint sit on the exposed chalk bedrock. The quarry, I later learn, is the last remaining inland section of the Beeston Chalk formation of the Upper Cretaceous. The exposed seam here is directly connected to the chalk pavement seen thirty miles away at Beeston Regis on the north Norfolk coast. Although this is the first time that I have actually seen it, I already have a connection with this place – a few echinoid fossils gifted to me over 30 years ago by an erstwhile neighbour, a lovely man called Russell who used to work at the quarry.

I join the Arminghall Road and follow it over the Southern Bypass, which is, as always, frantic with commuter traffic. Soon after, I leave this behind to take a footpath across a damp meadow towards the Arminghall henge. Truth be told, the Bronze Age henge probably looks a lot more impressive seen crow-eyed from a drone overhead. Originally, a horseshoe of wooden posts open to the southwest, now it is little more than a symbol on the OS map, a vague rise and depression in a pylon-spanned field. There has been a suggestion* that the henge may be orientated to the winter sunset over Chapel Hill to the southwest. Today though, no sun is visible, and the summit of the low hill, which once bore a church dedicated, like that at the Venta Icenorum site, to St Edmund, is engulfed by the Norwich to London railway line.

A footpath leads along the River Tas behind the large electricity substation that occupies the field next to the henge. A little way along this, the brutalist bulk of County Hall emerges through the trees beyond the railway line that hugs the opposite bank. I pass under the graffiti-adorned pillars of the rattling A146 to emerge just shy of the bridge at Trowse Millgate. Across the ring road roundabout, is Bracondale and my route into the city centre. I am almost home now. Only 3.30pm and darkness is starting to fall, Tomorrow, at least, there will be a little more light.

*See: https://archive.uea.ac.uk/~jwmp/CAA2003.pdf

The Hare and the Point

A warm, slightly hazy day on the north Norfolk coast; a day caught on the cusp as an unusually cold spring stumbles into an, as yet unknown, summer. We walk west past a few lobster boats from the beach car park at Cley-next-the-Sea, scrunching through the shingle to reach a meandering path that leads through low glaucous shrubs at the edge of a salt marsh. Just beyond the shingle ridge to our right is the North Sea, a constant mineral grumble of pebbles grinding on the tide; an aural massage – maritime poetry in motion. In the distance ahead, a solitary single–storey building, ‘Halfway House’, cuts a lonely figure in the landscape. Beyond this, in the murky haze at the very end of the Point, is the bright blue of the onetime lifeboat station that now serves as a visitor centre.

So what’s the point? Or rather, where is the Point? Blakeney Point is a shingle spit that begins at Cley Beach and extends like a claw nearly four miles to the west, the result of centuries of longshore drift piling up sand and stone to create new land. Although famous for its breeding population of harbour and grey seals, we are here today for its little terns, which nest at awkward and not particularly sensible places in the shingle leaving their eggs vulnerable to high tides and attack by opportunist predators like gulls and kestrels. Our friend Hanne is one of several volunteers responsible for keeping an eye on the birds.

A cordoned-off area of shingle encloses some of the tern’s nests, although many by now have moved on west to the end of the Point. There are oystercatchers too, and avocets – each species doing its best to mind its own business. Salt-tolerant plants like sea beet, sea campion and biting stonecrop are all anchored in the firmer shingle, while at the looser-stoned apex of the ridge that slopes steeply down to the water seakale is in full bloom. Elsewhere, clumps of yellow horned poppy, another shingle specialist, are starting to throw up flower heads in readiness for blooming. A place that instinctively you feel should be barren; it seems remarkable that anything can grow here nurtured by little else but stone, sand and saltwater.

Hanne takes us for a walk up towards Halfway House. A skylark sings high overhead, little more than a high fidgeting dot to the naked eye. In the distance, across the marshes close to Blakeney Channel, we catch sight of the unmistakable form of a marsh harrier quartering the reed beds. On the Point itself the bushes are alive with restless flittering birds that turn out to be a mixture of meadow pipits, linnets and reed buntings, although at times of migration almost anything could turn up here. And it does: as first point of landfall for any bird carried unwittingly by powerful winds from the north, Blakeney Point has an impressive record of rare sightings.

Our most impressive sight by far, though, is a meeting with a brown hare – or, rather, a pair. One of them makes a run for it and disappears into the Suaeda (shrubby sea-blite), the other remains, frozen in its tracks, hunched with long ears flattened to its head in an effort to make itself small. In some ways more resembling a small deer than a large rabbit, with improbably long ears and soft, intelligent eyes, it is easy to see how hares have always been revered in British and European folklore. Long gifted magical properties by those whose livelihood affords them a close relationship to the soil, hares engender a strong sense of ‘the other’: a sacred animal, a spirit familiar, a symbol of fecundity, sex and madness. A means of divination too: the Iceni warrior queen Boudicca is said to have read the entrails of a hare as an augury for victory against the Romans in her uprising of AD61.

The hare slowly adjusts to our presence and cautiously and slowly raises its ears, then straightens its legs before finally bolting off to join its companion. Our serendipitous encounter has been no more than a minute in total but the whole incident has put a temporal brake on the space-time continuum. As the hare moves off, time – at least the quotidian linear time that embraces cause and effect – is finally unfrozen.

We continue our walk to head down a wide swath of firm shingle and sea thrift that Hanne calls the Fairway. It leads to the edge of a tidal creek close to Halfway House. The highly prized real estate of Blakeney village is clearly visible across the channel that separates us from the ‘mainland’, as is St Nicholas’ church high above the houses and, west of this, the iconic windmill at Cley. In the network of creeks and mudflats that fringe the channel, redshanks alternate between stabbing the mud in search of invertebrates and flying short distances, calling plaintively as they go. At the muddy margins, marsh samphire is starting to emerge, although it is still too early to pick. Heading back to the car park, we walk along the sloping beach alongside the outgoing tide. Beyond the silhouetted fishing boats ahead, the distant cliffs of West Runton are visible in the sea-hazed distance. Just pure sea-sound now: no motor vehicles or human voices, just the swash of waves on pebbles, the piercing cry of terns and the aerial clatter of a skylark beyond the ridge to our right.

Many thanks to Hanne Siebers and Klausbernd Vollmar for their company on the Point. Check out Hanne’s wonderful photographs of Casper, Cley’s leucistic barn owl at The Silent Hunter

Westering

My book Westering is published this week by the award-winning independent publisher Saraband. Beginning in Great Yarmouth and meandering to Aberystwyth, the book describes a coast-to-coast journey on foot traversing the Fens, East Midlands, Birmingham, the Black Country and central Wales.

Here is a brief extract from the first chapter. It should be noted that the accompanying photographs shown here are NOT included in the book.

Extract from Chapter 1: Red Herrings

From our high viewpoint it was clear that Yarmouth developed on a sand spit, a narrow finger of land squeezed between the North Sea and the River Yare that points accusingly southwards in the direction of Lowestoft. Modern housing and light industry have long filled in the space between the river and the sea, and an industrial estate now surrounds the base of the column, but when the monument was first erected in the second decade of the 19th century, to commemorate Nelson’s maritime victories, it stood alone on a fishing beach, isolated from the town to the north.

Looking south, we could see the mouth of the River Yare at Gorleston. Just beyond were the Suffolk border and a cluster of holiday villages before the sprawl of Yarmouth’s historic rival, Lowestoft, Britain’s most easterly town. Further south still was the prim resort of Southwold, which, like its neighbours Dunwich and Walberswick, was once a mighty port before silting and coastal erosion took their toll. To the east lay the taut curve of the North Sea – a wave-flecked, grey-green expanse that diminished to a hazy vanishing point. A cluster of wind turbines, their blades almost immobile on this calm late-summer day, stood someway offshore at Scroby Sands. Across the water, far beyond the horizon, unseen even from our elevated viewpoint, were the polders and dykes of the Netherlands, a country that once had close economic ties with this easternmost part of England.

Some impulse had me imagining a time before the rising sea levels that followed the last glacial period, a time when a land bridge still connected Britain to Europe. Doggerland, as the territory has become known, now lies beneath the waves but it was a land of plenty just a few thousand years ago, roamed by mammoths, bison and small bands of Mesolithic hunters.

A little way beyond the entrance to Wellington Pier stands the intricate Victorian wrought-iron framework of the Winter Gardens, the last remaining building of its type in the country. Impressive but now empty and neglected, the structure resembles a giant multi-storey conservatory in need of a paint job: a potential future Eden Project in waiting (this is still one council member’s dream), if only the necessary funding could be raised. Although it looks perfectly at home here on the North Sea coast, the building was a blow-in from the southwest. Originally constructed in Torquay, it stood in that resort for twenty-four years before being carefully dismantled and barged around the coast in 1903 to take up residence here alongside Yarmouth’s then brand-new Wellington Pier.

Across the road from the Winter Gardens, the Windmill Theatre has a facsimile set of sails attached to its façade in impersonation of the Moulin Rouge in Paris, although it is doubtful if the floor show here was ever quite as racy as its French equivalent. Back in the 1950s, this building – which started life as The Gem, the country’s first electric picture house – hosted George Formby summer residencies. The Norfolk coast and the nearby Broads had become a second home for Formby in his twilight years when, rather than old-fashioned variety, public taste was starting to demand a more exciting, rock n’ roll flavour for its entertainment. But the entertainer and his ukulele always had a loyal following here on the Norfolk coast, where tastes were more down to earth. It did not take much imagination to turn the clock back to Yarmouth’s heyday and picture a grinning, Brylcreemed Formby strolling along this very same seafront in pullover and baggy flannels as he dreamed up double-entendres in the briny air.

Much of the Yarmouth that would have been familiar to Formby is still evident: the beach, the town’s ‘Golden Mile’ of amusement arcades, the miniature golf courses and pleasure gardens, the fast food outlets that gift the seafront a pungent cocktail of chip fat and fried onions (with notes of biodegraded phytoplankton from the beach and horse shit from the pony-drawn landaus). Such attributes are not as popular as they once were, but the town’s latter-day decline is the familiar story of many English seaside resorts in the late 20th century. The beach is still as pristine as ever, but a number of the town’s once-flourishing entertainment palaces now lie empty and abandoned. The Empire was one such place, a former theatre that lacked both audience and, until recently, a full complement of letters above its art nouveau doorway, its former terracotta cladding stripped and once-proud colonial name reduced by weathering and gravity to read ‘EMPI’. Although touted by some as an ideal venue for a future art gallery, it still stands empty and unloved.

Fogbound: Heacham to Old Hunstanton

Earlier this week we walked from Heacham to Old Hunstanton along the seawall. To say that it was a bit foggy would be an understatement as the whole of northwest Norfolk lay shivering under a thick blanket of dense fog – a white-out, or rather ‘grey-out’, that rendered visibility poor in the extreme.

We made our way through Heacham village, past gingerbread carstone cottages and then holiday bungalows and caravan sites before arriving at North Beach, where the previous night’s freeze had created thin blades on the stems and leaves of shoreline plants and shrubs.  

A few distant ghostly figures could be seen out on the wall, walking dogs or just taking exercise. The Wash that lay ahead was an unappetising grey soup that disappeared from view not far beyond the groynes that ran into it. On the far shore lay Lincolnshire; today, it may as well have been Narnia. It is said that on a clear day it is sometimes possible to make out Boston Stump (the soaring tower of Boston’s St Botoph’s church) on the distant shore. Not so today. The tide was going out, its recent turning delineated by a line of seaweed, broken shells and energy drink cans. A washed-up sprig of plastic holly added a timely if lacklustre reminder of the coming festive season.

Approaching Hunstanton, the resort slowly came into focus as the mist started to clear. Soon after, a hazy disc of sun shone through and fragments of blue sky began to piece together overhead. By the time we reached Old Hunstanton the transformation was complete – perfect light to appreciate the banded cliffs that rise here. Some unknown hand had created a piece of citizen landscape art on the beach – a collection of painstakingly assembled cairns of red and white chalk that echoed the cliffs of the backdrop. On the shoreline, oystercatchers perched companionably on seaweed-covered rocks while sanderlings scurried like clockwork toys and turnstones did exactly what their name suggests. A scene to savour, albeit briefly – by the time we turned around to walk back into town fog was already starting to descend once more.

 

The Shrieking Pits

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Tucked away in the north Norfolk coastal hinterland, close to the villages of Overstrand and Northrepps, is a group of small ponds known as the Shrieking Pits. More of the same can also be found a few miles further west near Aylmerton close to Felbrigg Hall. Thought to be early medieval excavations for iron ore, the resultant pits have long been filled with water and softened by vegetation to allow them to blend in with the scenery as if they were natural features in this gentle post-glacial landscape.

Seeking them out, we made our way on foot from Overstrand, following the Paston Way inland through dark woodland and prairie-sized fields of barley and oilseed rape. The pits lie amidst arable land just beyond a farm at Hungry Hill, a name that points towards agricultural impoverishment at some time in the past. The pits stand beside a green lane, a byway of some antiquity that may have been here as long as the excavations themselves.

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The first one we come across is small, surrounded by willows of a uniform height. In the ring of tree shade that encloses the shallow pond, a wooden palette left over from some undefined farming business lies next to the water liked an abandoned raft. The main ‘pit’ is nearby, an altogether larger and more impressive pond edged in by semi-recumbent oaks. The water is glassy and ink-black, suggesting great depth and perhaps a little menace. On the far bank the surface is coated with pond weed the colour of puréed peas. A small wooden notice board has been placed next to one of the oaks is but it is bare, its writing long gone to leave it devoid of information other than that which can be told by wood grain alone. Despite this unwitting redaction, a tangible sense of genius loci suggests that there is something to be told of this place other than a chance meeting of trees and water.

Naturally with a name like Shrieking Pit there is a strong likelihood of dark legend. The mundane answer is that the name alludes to the sound emitted by the exposed gravels. But does gravel really shriek? It scrapes and it crunches but does it make a noise quite so dreadful? Shriek is a loaded word, a term that evokes emotion – fear, dismay, even terror. It is these qualities that inform the folklore associated with the place.

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The story goes that a grieving young woman haunts the locality. It tells of a heartbroken 17 year-old called Esmeralda who was seduced and then abandoned by a duplicitous local farmer. Inconsolable, the desperate young woman is said to have thrown herself into the water of the pit one dark night before immediately regretting her decision and crying for help that did not come. Her unheard cries are said to be heard at the spot each February 24th, the anniversary of her death.

Another story tells of a horse and cart vanishing without trace in the pool’s murky depths. Looking at the black unreflecting water it seems perfectly possible. Places such as this, although mere dust specks on the map, are the bread and butter of rural folklore. Such places inevitably become repositories of legend – features where the landscape can be painted with tales of intrigue, romance and horror. As the notice board is currently blank perhaps we should feel free to write our own story.

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References:

http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF6787-Shrieking-Pits

https://www.hiddenea.com/norfolkn.htm#northrepps

Winter Light

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Even in winter, the northeast Norfolk coast has its attractions, especially over the Christmas and New Year period when many flock here to see the grey seals that come to the beaches of Winterton and Horsey to give birth. For many it is an annual outing, an opportunity to walk off seasonal excesses, to get close to nature, to delight in the spectacle of the seals and their pups. Some are tempted to get too close, of course, but these days a dedicated army of volunteers in hi-vis orange jackets ensure that visitors and their naturally curious dogs do not disturb the vulnerable animals on the beach.

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We arrive to find grey seal mothers and their fluffy-coated pups scattered like driftwood along the shoreline. Some are on the sand close to the breaking waves, while others are further inshore along the tideline, or even in the hollows of the dunes that back this coastline. Here and then along the beach, a hefty bull seal waddles in awkwardly from the surf to try his luck with one of the nursing females – this is the season for both breeding and mating.

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The seals are not the only creatures of interest here today: walking north along the beach, a small flock of snow buntings – perhaps 20 or 30 birds – rise like a flurry of sleet on our approach before setting down again a little further ahead. Winter visitors from much further north in Scandinavia and the Arctic, they resemble frosted sparrows as they peck busily at the seaweed, sticking close together for security.

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The seals and birds are engaging but the real star this cold January afternoon is the quality of the light, which morphs from gloom to gleaming in the space of half an hour. At first it seems as if the sky is weighed down like stone beneath a dense slate-grey sheet of stratocumulus but cracks soon appear and, like a hagstone held to the eye, an opening forms in the clouds to reveal the blue that lies beyond. As the sun loses height  beneath the cloud layer, shafts of pale golden light break through. The play of light on the dunes invokes a ghostly atmosphere. The wind-bent marram grass of the dunes, caught in the glow, seems almost fluid – an impressionist rendering of a wave-tossed ocean. In the distance, beyond the luminous marram, the Perpendicular tower of Winterton’s Holy Trinity and All Saints’ Church rises loftily above the crouched bungalow roofs of the village. This fleeting serendipity of light gives the scene a numinous quality, an eerie supernatural glimmer. It is a scene that might be co-opted for the cover of a book of ghost stories – a lost work by M.R. James perhaps.

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On Stiffkey marshes

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On August Bank Holiday Sunday we drove east along the coast road from Cley-next-the-Sea. The coastline was bathed in hazy sunshine; the sky, milky white and unthreatening. Rain and wind had been forecast for later – typical bank holiday weather it seemed but, as yet, no sign of it. Was this the proverbial calm before the storm? Somewhere on the way to Blakeney the traffic slowed to a steady 20mph as we joined the rear of a procession of vintage tractors that were heading west for some sort of agricultural shindig. With Countryfile pin-up tractors and new-reg Range Rovers processing past flint-clad farm cottages, corduroy fields and cow-grazed meadows, all boxes had been ticked, all necessary stereotypes fulfilled. This might just be peak North Norfolk?

Driving slowly through Stiffkey we caught a glimpse of the ghost image of a swastika on a flint wall, its attempted redaction incomplete. Daubed here during World War II by the village blacksmith (a communist), it marked the property of the writer Henry Willamson (a self-proclaimed fascist and unapologetic admirer of Hitler), who in 1938 had moved here from Tarka the Otter territory in Devon to try his hand at farming. Further along the village’s main street, the tractors stopped to park outside the church. Was this some sort of Christian tractorists outing, or had the machines been brought here in anticipation of a ritual blessing from the font of St John the Baptist? The church certainly had previous, for its eccentric vicars if nothing else. Most notable of these was its early 20th century incumbent, Harold Davison, who was defrocked in 1932 for showing a little too much enthusiasm for saving the souls of ‘fallen’ women. This same unfortunate cleric subsequently met an untimely end whilst performing an ill-advised Daniel in the lion’s den routine in a circus cage in Skegness.

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We parked just beyond the village campsite at the edge of the marshes. The area adjacent to the car park was busy with families and dog-walkers but after just ten minute’s walking in the direction of the sea we found ourselves more or less alone. Soon the rippled sand became wetter underfoot thanks to sea water left in furrows by the outgoing tide. We came to a long-redundant, rusted sewage pipe and followed it in the direction of its outflow into the North Sea. Our original target had been the Stiffkey Freshes, the vast sandy area revealed each low tide between the Stiffkey salt marshes and the western end of Blakeney Point. But now the predicted rain had arrived and a change of plan was in order. It was still some way to the creek that had to be crossed to reach the Freshes so, given the worsening weather, we compromised on a shorter alternative and just followed the pipeline a short way.

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In the rain-faded light, the sea lavender, already well past peak bloom, had lost most of its remaining colour. Fresh rainwater glistened on the sea-drained sand like a desert mirage; the precise edge of the sea itself, indeterminable to the eye at low tide. But all edges were fluid and transitory here. Retracing steps, we detoured along a path that followed a slightly raised bank, dried-up thrift and blackened patches of gorse indicating that this narrow strip would remain high and dry even when the tide came in. Redshanks piped in alarm from the surrounding marsh, a solitary curlew flew up, disturbed from its determined mud-probing. A few late swallows were swooping low for flies, feeding up before departure to points south.

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The path brought us abruptly to a wide creek where the skeletons of long-abandoned boats were slowly rotting into the black mud. A single wooden bench stood against a backdrop of dead trees – a suitable place to contemplate such entropy at work. One of the boats still clutched a rusted engine within its frame, although its hull had long been eaten away by salt monsters. Bottomless, with mustard-coloured corrosion and flaking red paint, what remained of its surface was a fantasy landscape painted in rust. We tried to continue beyond the bench but the track disappeared in a wide expanse of marsh samphire. I gathered a plastic bag full of the succulent jade-green stems and then joined the others in wondering which way to go. After several aimless, mud-spattered creek crossings, it became obvious that all we could sensibly do was retrace our steps back to the raised bank we had arrived by. This we achieved after much slipping and sliding on the mud. It was a soggy walk in mizzling rain back to the car park, where we discovered a newly arrived line of tractors parked tidily along the camp site fence.

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That night, eating the steamed samphire with butter, I thought of the bench, the decaying boat and the glistening creeks with their swathes of sea lavender and glutinous mud. The Stiffkey marshes – each salty mouthful was imprinted with the memory of this tidal world: a landscape reduced to its bare elements, a simplified inventory of mud, salt water, salt-tolerant plants, birds and human detritus – boat wrecks, nylon ropes, and semi-opaque plastic vessels of indeterminate purpose. A place where land, like water, was fluid: each day and night, each tide, a death and rebirth.

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The Tyranny of the Horizon by Laurence Mitchell

For this post I am reblogging something I recently wrote for The Arsonist, the webzine of Burning House Press.

BURNING HOUSE PRESS

“A frontier region… the resort of brigands and bandits”
– Sir Clifford Darby, from The Medieval Fenland

Two summers ago I walked coast to coast across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk to Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast. The idea was to etch a furrow in the map along a route that traced familiar haunts and places of personal significance. My aim was to rekindle the memory of places I once knew in East Anglia and the Midlands; join up the dots, to connect all the places along the way with a line made by walking – a pagan pilgrimage, if you like, a personal songline.

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Hethel Old Thorn

img_4397If trees could only speak. If they had some semblance of sentience and memory, and a means of communication, what would they tell us? Ancient trees – or at least those we suspect to be very old – are usually described in terms of human history. Perhaps as humans it is hubris that requires us to define them in this way but the fact is that by and large they tend to outlive us: many lofty oaks that stand today were already reaching for the sky when the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the land over two centuries ago. This linkage of history and old trees has resulted in some colourful local history. The story of the future King Charles II hiding from parliamentarian troops up a pollarded oak tree in Boscobel, Shropshire carried sufficient potency for the original tree to have been eventually killed by souvenir hunters excessively lopping of its branches as keepsakes. Undoubtedly the stuff of legend, Royal Oak ended up becoming the third commonest pub name in England. A long-established folk belief also tells of the Glastonbury Thorn, the tree which is said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arithmathea whom legend has it once visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail. What was considered to be the original tree perished during the English Civil War, chopped down and burned by Cromwell’s troops who clearly held a grudge against any tree that came with spiritual associations or historical attitude.img_4398There is an ancient thorn in Norfolk that is sometimes connected with the same Joseph of Arithmathea myth. Hethel Old Thorn can be found along narrow lanes amidst unremarkable farming country 10 miles south of Norwich. Close to the better known Kett’s Oak that can be seen propped up alongside the old London Road near Wymondham; closer still to the Lotus car factory and Hethel’s All Saints Church, which dates back at least to the 14th century and may even have a Saxon core.

The old thorn stands enclosed behind a fence, a measure designed to deter the red poll cattle that graze here, and perhaps also would-be tree-huggers if the rampant bed of nettles around its base were not enough. Occupying just 0.025 hectares, the site is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s smallest nature reserve; indeed it is probably the smallest nature reserve in the country. The tree itself is impressive although now much diminished from what it once was – in the mid 18th-century its trunk was recorded as having a circumference of over 12 feet and a spread of 31 yards.img_4402At an estimated 700 years old this is thought to be the oldest specimen of Crataegus monogyna in the UK. Like the nearby Kett’s Oak, the thorn was thought to be a meeting place for the rebels during Kett’s Rebellion in 1549. Long before that it may have been used as a meeting point for protesters during the time of King John. According to the information on the sign board local children would once have danced the village maypole and then scrambled to the thorn to count the number of props holding up the boughs. Seventy or so years ago it would have witnessed a flow of American Liberator B-42 bombers taking off for operations over Germany from the nearby airfield that now serves as the Lotus works. Despite age, decay and fragmentation the thorn still appears to be in good fettle. On my visit in late November a fine crop of haws were hanging on its boughs, a rich invitation for blackbirds and wintering redwings. Clearly the Hethel Old Thorn is still very much alive and thriving. Who knows how many more centuries the tree will live and what future events it will observe as silent witness?

Marshland

IMG_2002The far west of Norfolk between Terrington St John and Walsoken on the Cambridgeshire border is often referred to as Fen country but technically it is part of the Norfolk Marshland. John Seymour in his Companion Guide to East Anglia (1970) writes: “The Marshlands are not to be confused with the Fens. The Marshlands, nearer to the sea than the Fens, are of slightly higher land, not so subject to flooding, and have been inhabited from the earliest times”. IMG_1982Like the Fens proper this is a region of wide horizons and big skies, a table-flat landscape of barley and mustard fields, of plantations of poplars and lonely farmsteads, of electricity pylons that march across the landscape like robotic sentinels. This is the countryside of The Goob, of Eastern European farm labourers and itinerant travelling folk. This is Tony Martin territory, where the stark cereal prairies of west Norfolk give way to the reclaimed farmland of the Cambridgeshire Fens. No airs or graces, no romantic rural idyll, this is countryside without finesse, without apology. IMG_2006This region, along with the Fens to the west, is a Brexit stronghold where many bear a grudge towards the Eastern Europeans who come to work in the fields here. Antipathy to itinerant farm labourers is nothing new and Emneth, a village located hard against the Cambridgeshire border, has become particularly, and probably unfairly, infamous thanks to its Tony Martin connection. Interestingly, John Seymour, writing in the late 1960s, describes Emneth as having “one of the pubs in the Wisbech fruit-growing district that does not display the racialist (and illegal) sign: NO VAN DWELLERS, and consequently it is one of the pubs in which a good time may often be had”. They still grow fruit in the Wisbech district but I cannot vouch for the welcome currently proffered by its pubs. IMG_2008IMG_2014IMG_2018IMG_2021IMG_2025IMG_2026IMG_2031IMG_2039