The 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”. Like 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. This 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.
Space is the Place – Shakespeare and Sun Ra
Still reeling from the solar onslaught of the Sun Ra Arkestra the previous night we travelled yesterday to Great Yarmouth to see The Tempest at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre. The Sun Ra Arkestra fronted by nonagenarian alto-sax maestro Marshall Allen had done what they always did: channel the Saturnian spirit of their erstwhile and now-deceased leader Sun Ra and perform their joyful big band space-jazz to an appreciative audience for nigh on two hours. As the song goes, Space IS the place, and the place in this instance had been Norwich’s Open, a venue fashioned from the brick and mortar of late capitalism – originally a Georgian building that had started life as a wine merchants before its vaults were re-purposed for the storage of bullion by the Gurney family. Merging with Barclays Bank in 1896 and soon outgrowing its original premises, a new building was constructed in 1926 with a large hall, extensive vaults and what was reputed to be the longest banking counter in the country. Later in life it went on to become the regional headquarters of Barclays Bank but now the clink of wine bottles and kerching of cash registers were nothing more than silent ghosts that observed on the sidelines as the Arkestra’s music swirled unfettered to the ceiling in this neoclassical void. A quotidian space formerly dedicated to the exchange of capital now given over to brave sonic venturing seemed like the best of outcomes, and the Sun Ra Arkestra quickly made it their own, filling the cavernous space with a joyful stellar noise and a powerful, if playful, presence. The Tempest took place in another very singular space: the wonderful Hippodrome on Great Yarmouth’s seafront, the only surviving purpose-built circus venue in the country. Built in 1903 by the great circus showman George Gilbert the building once faced directly onto the seafront across a square but now huddles behind the garish pink bulk of the Flamingo amusement arcade, a gaudy slice of Las Vegas tat transported to the Norfolk coast. Slip into the narrow street behind though and the gorgeous facade of the Hippodrome can be seen in its full glory, with Art Deco lettering and charming panels around the door, its towers peeping above the pink nonsense of the Flamingo to peak at the beach and the North Sea beyond. This was, and still is, a grand and stylish place: a theatre of dreams, a venue fit for the likes of Houdini and Chaplin who both performed here in the Hippodrome’s heyday. If the exterior seems full of promise, the interior is even more beguiling: all dark velvet and chocolate brown, and a warm, well-used ambience that has left a rich patina on the fabric of the place. The seating is snug and steeply tiered; its darkly lit corridors lined with old posters and portraits of clowns and past performers, most notably Houdini (where better than Great Yarmouth to demonstrate the art of escapology?). There is even a poster of Houdini in the gents and, while a male toilet in Great Yarmouth is probably not normally the wisest place to take out a camera, my fellow micturators seemed to understand my photographic purpose. Theatre in the round; theatre in the wet: the Hippodrome might have been made for The Tempest; or, given a bit of temporal elasticity that could anticipate three hundred years into the future, The Tempest for the Hippodrome. The production, directed by William Galinsky, Artistic Director of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, is a hugely inventive, almost psychedelic, affair that makes full use of the circus’s horizontal and vertical space and central water pool. For two hours we were mentally transported to Shakespeare’s island zone by means of brilliant storytelling, excellent acting and inspired direction, and, in keeping with this circus venue, the acrobatic shenanigans of the Lost in Translation Circus. Shakespeare is reliably universal of course, but did I detect a whiff of Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) in there? A hint too of Samuel Beckett? Of course, we each bring our own cultural references to bear. Today, yesterday’s performance seems almost dreamlike – a short-lived transportation from reality in which both the drama and the unique properties of the venue itself had an equal part to play. As Prospero remarks:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Beauty and the beach: Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk
What 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.
Perhaps 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.
But 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.
Either 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.
Winter solstice – Wells to Blakeney
It 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?Wells-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. Scattered 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. The 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. After 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. Approaching 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.
A 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.
We 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.
The 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.
The 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?
Heading 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.
Last month I posted on hanami in Japan; on how the fleeting beauty of cherry blossom captured the Japanese imagination and seemed to unite the country in an appreciation of the transitory nature of the seasons. I observed that we had no real equivalent in the West but on reflection that statement is not strictly true. In England, Wales and Ireland we have bluebell woods.
When I say in England, Wales and Ireland I am being necessarily precise. The Bluebells of Scotland celebrated in the popular folk song are actually harebells, a different plant altogether. The thing about bluebells is not the individual plant – lovely though it is – but their mass impression. Carpeting the dappled shade of a woodland floor, the dizzying effect is one of floral synergy – a sparkling wash of violet-blue, redolent of hyacinth (it belongs to same family) but more subtle, more evocative, more wild.
Some of the best bluebell woods can be found in England in tracts of ancient woodland that have stood, little changed, for millennia. I almost added ‘unmolested by man’ to the last sentence but that simply is not true: it is the hand of man that has made such woodland the ideal habitat for species like bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta), with management practices like coppicing maintaining woodland as a productive and ecologically diverse resource. Bluebells and other woodland species are, of course, an added bonus.
One remarkable stand of ancient woodland can be found in Norfolk on the edge of the Brecks. Wayland Wood is the place upon which the Babes in the Wood legend is based, its name perhaps a corruption of “Wailing Wood” (the fictitious babes appear on the town sign of nearby Watton), but, more likely, the name comes from “Waneland”, a Viking word for a place of worship. Place of worship seems appropriate: in the first week of May the understory of the wood is so covered with bluebells that the effect is one of wading through a fragrant floral lake. Wayland Wood is not a particularly large expanse of woodland – just 34 hectares – and the traffic on the main road that runs alongside its southern fringe is usually just about within earshot. Such a low-level background-level thrum is easily filtered out though, and the sound that predominates is a melodious chorus of robins, blackbirds and warblers that pipe (largely unseen) from the newly unfurled lime-green foliage of the trees.
It is hard to say exactly how old Wayland Wood is. It is, as all the best natural phenomena are, recorded in the Domesday Book, and it is probable that the wood was already thousands of years old by the Saxon period. Now it is protected under the auspices of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a place where visitors come in early May to appreciate not just the bluebells but the impressive display of early purple orchids, wood anemones, yellow archangel, bugle and primroses. Its trees are magnificent too – coppiced hazel, oak, ash, and field maple, and multi-trunked hornbeam with silver-grey bark like elephant skin.
There is cherry too – bird-cherry (Prunus padus), a native British species with frothy white racemes of flowers that dangle over the woodland rides. This perhaps adds a little more weight to a hanami-type comparison. But if truth be told it is the bluebells that people come to see: seasonality, transient beauty, a fleeting flourish of blossom before summer leaf growth closes the woodland canopy. This is our nearest equivalent and, although such events do not attract the crowds of revellers that they do in Japan, it is encouraging to see that there is still some modest interest in such things in these materialistic, post-Utopian times.
All Shook Up
On a dismal February afternoon in Norwich, taking a walk is done as much for exercise as it is for any other more worthy or creative reason. The raw, grey day makes the city seem gloomy, uninviting even, but at least it is an opportunity to leave the house for a while and check if the world is still turning. Uncertain where to go – whether to explore new streets or let my feet follow repeated steps – I choose to follow a familiar route: down to the river then eastwards, crisscrossing by bridges the fluvial divide that separates the city’s southern half from Norwich Over the Water, its Anglo-Saxon core.
Low cloud and a dull pewter sky has already put a lid on what remains of the day. The thin gruel that is the late winter light seems to be sucked in by the black river water with just a ghost of a reflection. Such paucity of photons means that serious photography is out of the question. I venture past the Norwich School of Art where brightly lit Victorian windows silhouette busy students in the act of creation – painting, sketching, etching, shaping, cutting and pasting in earnest. On the river wall, a little further on, a legend is stencilled in bold upper case: ARTISTS SHOULD RETRIEVE AND LEARN TO ENJOY THE INNER SANCTUARY OF THEIR STUDIOS. Whether a piece of work itself or merely a well-placed instruction to would-be artists in unclear, but it seems like sound advice. Either way, there’s an avuncular tone to the words that suggests a concern about privilege and responsibility.
Further west along the river I had already witnessed daubing of a more untutored stripe: a graffito that taunted the efficacy of urban CCTV with the ironic legend: CAN’T CONTROL THE VANDAL, its capital letters redefining the acronym, alongside an anarchist declaration of SICK OF THE POLITRIX! This is both social comment and poetry of a sort. Mostly though, the urban graffiti is not political or culture-busting but just simple tagging – guerrilla spray painting that derives from some atavistic urge to mark territories and serves much the same purpose as a dog’s instinctive leg-cocking.
One of the most ubiquitous taggers is ‘Shook’, who if nothing else certainly gets around. Shook’s five-letter cipher can be seen all over the city – north and south, east and west, on walls and bridges, on fences and lampposts. I suspect that Shook has a bicycle. Or perhaps even a rail pass – I once even saw his tag on a wall approaching Cambridge station, well outside his usual homeboy patch. Shook, although enthusiastic and clearly determined, is no Banksy. True, he has no sanctuary to enjoy – the streets are his studio – but I wish he (I can only presume his gender) would exercise a little more imagination and realise that mere territoriality is not the be-all and end-all. Shook, it’s time to raise your game.
Norwich, mid January. At dusk over the past few weeks an avian spectacular has been witnessed taking place in the sky over St Stephen’s Street. As the daylight dwindles around the four o’clock mark a swirling murmuration of roosting starlings may often be seen in the sky above this busy city centre shopping street. There’s a pleasing degree of unpredictability to such behaviour, and some afternoons the starlings seem to be conspicuously absent, but as a rule the birds circumscribe a giddy figure eight in the sky above the old Norwich Union office block, Surrey Street bus station, the Marsh Insurance building and Queens Road.
For many of the shoppers and workers hurrying home on the bus this phenomena takes place virtually unnoticed. Even so, there are those who stop to look and wonder at such wild exuberance in what is to them a familiar and quotidian urban environment. While shopping is bought and buses are boarded in the street below the massed starlings dance above – a joyous ensemble piece that twists and turns like a single organism, choreographed by some sort of instinctive group consciousness. As the light fails the birds finally settle, with what seems like a collective spontaneous decision, on the roof of a disused office building where they will spend the night. Darkness falls: the spectacle is over for another day.
True, this is not a particularly grand example of the murmuration phenomenon – perhaps just a thousand birds or so: it is hard to say – but beauty and wonder is relative and this modest display has a personal dimension in that it can even be glimpsed from the windows of my home. Such a spectacle within a stone’s throw of one’s own doorstep can only be seen as a gift.
There’s a good omen as we leave Heacham before dawn: the sharp cry of a tawny owl emanating from somewhere in the woods. Fifteen minutes later, walking from Snettisham RSPB car park towards the beach at The Wash, there are already a few skeins of geese in the sky, flying west, ready to breakfast on sugar beet fields.
Mostly though, you hear them before you see them – a noisy gabbling racket coming from dark rafts of life out on the water. Tens of thousands of pink-footed geese overwintering from Greenland and Iceland – west Norfolk must seem like Shangri-La after all that tundra and icy water. The geese peel off in groups at regular intervals, forming fluid arrowheads as, honking excitedly, they fly west inland.
There is an unwritten discipline at work, and every bird seems to know its place in the squadron. Flapping inland, the geese merge loosely with other groups before they eventually disappear from view. To our human eyes, Snettisham church rising out of the mist is the only recognisable local landmark; perhaps its steeple serves as a beacon to the geese too, as they seem to know exactly where they are going.
The sun rises over the land, a brilliant orange fire that lights the birds as they fly over head, turning their underbelly pink, orange, red. Momentarily they almost resemble flamingos.
The tide is turning quickly and hidden sandbanks are revealed as the unseen moon sucks water from the land. As dawn-pink drains from the sky our attention is drawn to an untold number of hyperactive waders a little way to the south. Mostly dunlin, curlew and knot, it is the latter, another Arctic winter visitor, that are the most extraordinary as dense clouds of them rise sporadically into the sky, tightly grouped like starling murmurations. As they swiftly weave and turn, shifting the angle of their wings, the colour of this mass organism transforms dramatically from black to white to golden – the avian equivalent of a firework display. Such fleeting serendipity of form and colour: a photograph can hardly do this justice. As with the pink-footed geese, the Arctic’s seasonal loss is Norfolk’s gain.
Burston 1914 – 2014
Earlier 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. As 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. Rural 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.