To the Lighthouse

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They are taking the lighthouse down. It was really just a matter of time. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, and the two make for a powerful combination on this rapidly changing shoreline. The Orford lighthouse has stood here on the Suffolk coast since 1792, the 11th to stand on the same spot. All the previous lighthouses, mostly flimsy wooden structures, were lost to the sea; this one built by Lord Braybrooke of Audley End has lasted longer than any before it.

The ongoing demolition is simply a matter of being one step ahead of what will happen naturally as a result of longshore drift. Built as a very necessary warning for shipping and continually in service until its decommission in 2013, in more recent times the lighthouse has served as a bold territorial marker for this curious – and one-time secretive – strip of coastline. What it stands upon is not an island as it may seem but a spit – a long stretch of shingle, marsh and sand that sits between the estuary of the River Alde and the North Sea like a curving finger pointing south. Along with an expanse of pylons and weapon-testing ‘pagodas’, this red-and-white band structure has been an icon for the territory of Orford Ness, a place of Cold War secrets, sea-scraped shingle, wildlife and, in recent years, National Trust day trippers. Because of its dark history and evocative, lonely location, the Ness has also seen service as an unsanctioned psychogeographical theme park, a go-to liminal zone for enraptured lone males and Sebaldian shore-shufflers (myself included).

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While we are all losing a lighthouse, I am losing a gravatar for my blog and twitter feed. I suppose I ought to replace it with something new but I will keep it for a while as a tribute to the lighthouse’s ghosted memory. As for the lighthouse itself, it is hoped that the lantern will be reused to form part of a memorial structure on land across from the Ness on Orford Quay.

Not for the first time have iconic buildings world vanished overnight. The lighthouse’s destruction is, at least, planned and been a long time coming. Other well known places I have visited have met more violent ends – vicious executions rather than gentle euthanasia. I refer to some of these in a post on Palmyra from five years ago. Syria seems like a dream now; something I might have imagined. The reality is that the country I experienced as a welcoming place nearly twenty years ago has since become a land of nightmares.

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Going further back in time, it feels equally strange to recall having once spent several days in a hotel that overlooked the enormous sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. This was back in the halcyon days when the country was a way-station on the so-called Hippie Trail to India, long before the Taliban decided to blow the Buddhas up as blasphemous objects of idol worship (even then, the statues’ faces had already been disfigured by angry iconoclasts).

To continue a tally of Zelig-like appearances at places associated with doomed futures, I might also mention a visit to the World Trade Centre in New York on my first visit to the city in 1986 – of having once stood in a small room at the very top of the structure, a space that now existed as just a cube of empty sky above a disaster zone. Or a visit to a place that languished in a void between destruction and repair: Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still a broken city when I visited in 2003, the absence of its beautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge hanging like a question mark above the rubble-filled turquoise of the River Neretva. The bridge was faithfully rebuilt with foreign investment and reopened in 2004. As beautiful as before but somehow sad and perhaps even futile, the reconstruction was a gesture of hope more than anything else — the Muslim east and Croat west banks of the river would remain as places apart in terms of religion, culture and political allegiance.

Less exotically, I also recall the cooling towers that used to stand next to the M1 in Tinsley, Sheffield – twin behemoths that could be seen from the windows of the school where I did my first teaching practice in the city. The towers, devoid of function since 1980, possessed a grace and heft that seemed to perfectly symbolise Sheffield’s industrial past (as did the abandoned steelworks of the Don Valley, which were eventually cleared to provide the land for the inevitable – a massive shopping complex, Meadowhall). Like the Orford lighthouse, and also the equally iconic cooling towers that stood at Ironbridge until last year, the Sheffield towers were finally expunged from the landscape. It took just seven seconds to reduce the 76 metre towers to rubble. For now, like the Orford lighthouse, they remain as a memory, a ghost of landscape that will fade with time.

Blyth Spirit

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Back in April I took part in a writing workshop in Suffolk led by Ivor Murrell of Suffolk Poetry Society and Melinda Appleby of Waveney & Blyth Arts. The workshop encouraged the participants to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the Blyth estuary and to reflect something of the history and nature of the area. The following is what I came up with on the day.

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Blyth Spirit

We followed the estuary path beneath spindly oaks in first flush leaf, the reedbeds rippling in a southerly breeze. Across the water, white-faced cattle grazed on the sloping pasture: a pastoral diorama framed by willows with the Southwold skyline beyond – church, lighthouse, a scaffolded water tower. This once was a place more connected to the sea, to fishing and trade; the town’s lighthouse, no mere curiosity but earning its keep as a warning to shipping. This was before the great silting and scouring of the coast, when Dunwich was a name on every seafarer’s lips and Suffolk was still holy – Selig Suffolk; before the great land grabs of enclosure and dust storm robbery of the sheep walks, before hangings and suicides cursed the brackish waters of the Blyth.

Now only the names on the map gave the clue: Deadman’s Creek, Bloody Marsh. And Angel Marshes – did this expanse of reed and tidal water take its name from the wooden figures that graced the roof of Holy Trinity Church, angels that you might just imagine taking flight at dusk to quarter the marshes crepuscular as owls? A chance to flex stiff wings and dust themselves of woodworm and Puritan shot; a flight to taste the brine of the incoming tide before following the creek back to settle like beautiful bats in their resting place in the rafters. Did anyone see them, even catch a glimpse? Or did they steal between the cracks of the day, visible only to curlew and estuary ghosts?

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Three estuary haiku

Through slats of pale wood

Green spears of reed thrust skywards

To taunt passing clouds

Mud oozes over reed

In the shade of green-gold oak

A memory lives

Reeds scratch like tinsel

Piping redshanks stitch the air

A dull groan of cars

 

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Space is the Place – Shakespeare and Sun Ra

IMG_6581Still 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. IMG_6568The 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. IMG_6589If 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. IMG_6602Theatre 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. IMG_6591Shakespeare 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.

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The Turning of the Year

IMG_4891(This winter’s berries)

The turning of the year. These past few days mark the interregnum that sits uncomfortably between Christmas and New Year – a week of virtual Sundays and a period when some of us – those who are self-employed at least – do not know whether they should be at work or not, whether they should carry on regardless or surrender to the seasonal zeitgeist of calorific leftovers, television repeats and relentless retail opportunity. This is a living limbo marked by the dull ache of too much alcohol and rich food, and too little sunlight: rural Scandinavia in a parallel universe on a bad day, where Disneyesque fibre-optic conifers and tattered tinsel replaces the glittering white rime of pines, chain store neon glare subs for the aurora borealis and the petrochemical chug of cars queuing for city centre parking space drowns the imagined crooning of fur-clad carollers, the glassy tinkle of falling icicles and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath sensible Nordic footwear. We are now so far removed from the traditional Christmas tropes that any sense of irony has long been lost, and the multiple identities – spiritual and otherwise – of the winter soltice are now commonly, if erroneously, perceived as having been replaced by Winterval, a quasi-mythical simulacrum close to the hearts of apoplectic ‘PC-gone-mad’ bashers.

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(Last winter’s icicles)

The weather doesn’t help, of course – too mild, too wet, too windy this year. At least some sort of status quo continues in the back yard where non-denominational  (or possibly JW) goldfinches arrive in pairs to feast on niger seeds as they do every day, a suitably attired mirror-image illusion of avian dandies on opposite sides of the bird feeder. Meanwhile, out in the dun damp arable fields that surround the city beyond the new-build green belt, fieldfares flock – newly arrived winter visitors from Scandinavia, the real place that is, not the parallel universe version. Elsewhere, the TV flickers like a well-behaved heart monitor as a nation prepares for the ritual liver damage and rictus-grinned high spirits that signify New Year’s Eve. Or, rather, the younger ones do: most older folk ensure they are safely tucked up in bed by the witching hour when a nation stumbles forward, arse over tip, across the calendar date line. The circle is, as they say, unbroken. Happy New Year.

Norwich Gorillas

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Over the past few days a large number of gorillas have taken over Norwich city centre. No leaf-munching friends of David Attenborough these, the Norwich gorillas are fibreglass but compensate for their inanimate nature by coming dressed in a wide range of outlandish outfits. The splendid beast above – ‘Chromilla’ – can be found in front of the library in The Forum.

IMG_2802IMG_2861 With over 50 gorillas scattered around the city there is considerable variety and plenty of local flavour. There’s even an ‘Ivan the Iconic  Norwich Gorilla’ outside The Forum who bears the canary logo of Norwich City FC in addition to a representation of the city’s Norman castle and Stephen Fry’s clever avuncular visage. There is also a ‘Mr Carrow’ gorilla dressed in the yellow and green strip of Norwich’s Premier League heroes. I could probably live without Freddie Mercury reincarnated in gorilla form, and sadly there is no sign of local antihero Alan Partridge aping about, but you cannot have everything.

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For some reason there is always something rather cheering about gorillas. Perhaps it is their power and intelligence, their ‘gentle giant’ demeanour? Maybe it is simply because they remind me of the first Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band album released way back in the late 60s – Gorilla – which was ‘Dedicated to Kong because he must have been a great bloke’.

For more information go go go to Gogogorillas.

Fiesta

 IMG_1467Small town Spain at the end of Whitsun. In Alhama de Granada, a hill town midway between Malaga and Granada in Andalucía, the celebration of Corpus Christi on the first Sunday in June takes the form of a religious procession through the streets of the old Arab town. The event is announced by a stirring peal of bells from the huge earthquake-scarred tower of the Church of La Encarnación. Temporary flower-decked altars have already been set up strategic points along the processional route, the course of which is marked by a wide swathe of horsetail gathered from the nearby gorge.

IMG_1531Musicians carrying trombones and drums saunter across Plaza de la Constitución to assemble outside the main door of the Iglesia del Carmen that overlooks the gorge. Eventually, the congregation files out of church and after a fanfare of deafening fircrackers the procession leaves to make its way around the town’s narrow streets. Leading the entourage along with the priest are girls in white dresses carrying baskets and boys in sailor suits, then comes the heavy wooden float carried on the shoulders of a rota of 28 men followed by the band and what seems like most of Alhama’s population dressed in their Sunday best.

IMG_1567IMG_1585It takes an hour or two to make the circuit, stopping for blessings a long the way, and then, after returning to the starting point, the crowd slowly disperses. Already, municipal workers in high-visibility jackets have swept up the horsetail and rose petals and Alhama is returned to tranquil whitewashed normality. Now, it’s just like any other another sleepy Sunday afternoon – muy tranquilo: a stroll and chat in the square, an unhurried meal, a drink, a sun-drugged siesta.

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Dacha

Reading a recent article on the excellent Earthlines blog about Gerry Loose, and then finding out more about the Scottish hutting movement and specifically the Carbeth hutters community in Stirlingshire, I have come to the conclusion that I am probably something of a closet hutter at heart. The best that I can ever probably hope for though is to have my own shed one day.

It is a common enough passion – indeed, books have been written about British (predominantly male) shed culture. But, with no rear garden and a backyard too small to comfortably squeeze a shed into, the closest I currently get to fulfilling my fantasy is my city allotment where I have inherited a tumbledown structure without door or window glass that is filled with garden tools and grumpy secretive spiders. Too small and decrepit to serve as a comfortable retreat, this shed is clearly no place to linger but at least I have a plastic chair en plein air for whenever I need a rest from wrenching couch grass out of the ground. 

In northern Europe, and especially in Scandinavia and Russia where even the middle classes live in apartment blocks,  the situation is quite different. Here, many city dwellers have a wooden hut and a patch of ground to call their own – a simple rural haven where they can enjoy a little R&R and temporary respite from urban life. No nation embraces this tradition more than Russia, where a country dacha is seen not only as a place to grow vegetables but something akin to a holiday home: a base for collecting berries and mushrooms in autumn, for fishing, for sunbathing; a place for friends and family to gather around food, to drink vodka, play games and sing. A dacha is a place to spend summer weekends al fresco, a place where city children can learn about nature. In Russian society, a dacha serves a function that is a combination of allotment garden, beach hut and social club. To have a dacha is not a Walden-like solitary pursuit but, rather, something that proudly shouts out ‘community!’

I was lucky enough to visit a dacha a couple of years ago on a long, late-summer Russian journey from Pskov, close to the Estonian border, to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. At Krasnoyarsk, 18 hours west of Irkutsk on the the Trans-Siberian railway, I had arranged to stay in the family apartment of a local tour guide and political science lecturer called Anatoliy. After picking me up at the station and meticulously showing me all the permutations of the city bus route to and from his identikit Khrushchevki apartment block (the very last stop, thankfully) he took me out to show me his country dacha that, coincidentally, was close to the railway tracks that I had just travelled along. 

There is more to Siberia than gulags and permafrost but life is hard nonetheless. In the few months of the year when the ground is not snow-covered there are plenty of other things to contend with, notably predatory mosquitoes and nasty infective ticks everywhere in the grass. Given such limitations, I was hugely impressed by the size and vigour of Anatoliy’s cabbages and also by the efforts he took to tend them given that we had driven for more than an hour to reach the dacha. Even more  impressive was the air of autumnal tranquility that seemed to hang over the place like a healing balm. In Siberia, autumn may be just a brief golden precursor to a long dark winter but  September is the most glorious of months.

Elveden – Gateway to the Land of Nod

So why Elveden? And why east of it? Obviously there’s the name itself – E(lve)den, close enough to Eden for a cheesy pun – and let us remember that in Biblical terms the territory that lies ‘on the east’ of Eden is the Land of Nod, where Cain was exiled after murdering his brother. Of course, as well as a place of banishment for betraying siblings the Land of Nod also has connotations as a mythical place of sleep. Given Elveden’s real life position at the western end of the Suffolk-Norfolk border perhaps one of the Snorings (Little Snoring or Great Snoring – take your pick) forty miles or so to the north in West Norfolk could substitute for the aforementioned slumberland? (A real-life Land of Nod actually does exist in the East Riding of Yorkshire – it’s a tiny hamlet apparently).

Elveden itself is not without interest. The Suffolk village straddles the A11 just south of Thetford. There are traffic lights there these days and it has subsequently become quite a well known spot for traffic delays. In the bad old days, though – before the traffic lights and imposed speed limit – the stretch of single carriageway here was an infamous accident black spot. Norfolk-knockers like that nice Jeremy Clarkson have always been quick to point out that Norfolk is one of the few counties in the country that does not have a motorway leading to it and for many years there has been a strong campaign to get the whole of the A11 dual-carriagewayed right up to Norwich. As things currently stand, the A11 between Mildenhall and Thetford is one of the few remaining stretches of single carriageway. However, now that the powers that be have finally agreed to allow road widening to go ahead around Elveden, it looks as if a continuous dual carriageway will become a reality in the near future. No doubt the five minutes that will be knocked off the current London to Norfolk journey time will quickly elevate Norwich’s currently modest economy to Shanghai-like heights.

Those whizzing past the village in the future might want to consider a little of Elveden’s, frankly strange, history as it flashes past in an automotive blur. Here’s a brief extract from my Slow Norfolk and Suffolk book:

Elveden

Situated astride a busy road just beyond the Little Ouse in Suffolk, to most people this is little more a sign on the A11 and an inconvenient bottleneck for traffic. It used to be an accident black spot too before traffic-calming measures were introduced. Some will tell you that there have been more people killed on the A11 since World War II than there are names on the obelisk-like war memorial south of the village. Elveden is a small estate village centred upon Elveden Hall, a somewhat bizarre private residence. The estate, which has the largest arable farm in the country, is in the possession of the Earl of Iveagh but the hall itself was emptied of its contents in 1984 and stands empty.                                                   

Elveden Hall is best known as the home of Maharajah Duleep Singh, a deposed Sikh prince from the Punjab who was exiled to England for his part in the Sikh Wars during Queen Victoria’s reign. The Maharajah purchased the estate in 1863 and refurbished the Georgian hall in lavish Moghul style using Italian craftsmen – a North Indian tradition apparently. He also built an aviary where he kept exotic birds and in an unselfconscious effort to outdo the English squirearchy he took up the habits of English country life with a passion, leading parties that shot thousands of pheasants on his estate on an almost daily basis. Naturally, if you have a 17,000-acre estate and a vast private fortune, you can do that sort of thing without worrying too much about the cost of it all. The Maharajah was always keen to impress the inhabitants of his adopted home and tended not to do things by halves. He was even good enough to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to QueenVictoria and to cheerfully convert to the Anglican Church such was his willingness to fit in. An equestrian statue of the Maharajah stands in Thetford and, although he died in Paris in 1893, his surprisingly modest grave lies in the churchyard of Elveden’s St Andrew and St Patrick Church.

Elveden Hall passed into the hands of the Guinness family after Duleep Singh’s death and the first Earl of Iveagh went even further, building a new wing and adding a replica Taj Mahal to the complex. If the hall sounds as if it it would make a perfect film set then you are quite right as, since its interior was emptied in 1984, Elveden Hall has been used as a location for films such as Tomb Raider, the Bond movie The Living Daylights and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The bad news is that the hall is not open to the public. You might try getting a job as a film extra here, as a friend of mine did on Eyes Wide Shut. He reports that he didn’t see much of the interior but did learn that Tom Cruise was unable to find any suitable accommodation in the area and had to be helicoptered in each day from afar for filming. You can just about get a glimpse of the hall from the rear of the village churchyard and make out its green dome.

NB: The photograph at the top of this post does not represent Elveden. It was taken east of it though – at Brockdish in the Waveney Valley. I just liked its ‘fish out of water’ feel.