All Shook Up

IMG_4261On 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.

IMG_4247Low 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.

IMG_4251Further 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.

IMG_4308One 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.

 

Posted in Cities, Norfolk | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Osh Bazaar

IMG_9760The first thing to know is that it isn’t in Osh. Rather, it is in the capital Bishkek. Why this bazaar shares the name of Kyrgyzstan’s second city is uncertain. Perhaps it’s because it is here that you come to look for a shared taxi ride south to Osh; or maybe it is something to do with the shout of the porters as they work their way through the crowd asking shoppers to move out of the way – “(b)osh, (b)osh”? No matter, there is no confusion when you get here as the bazaar’s name is spelled out in big red letters on the large arch that marks its entrance. In Cyrillic script OSH looks more like OW, but there’s no exclamation mark à la Devon’s Westward Ho!IMG_9761Osh Bazaar, just west of the city centre near the main bus station is Bishkek’s best known market, although not its largest – for that you need to travel just north of the city limits to Dordoi Bazaar where you’ll find thousands of stacked shipping containers serving as shops. Osh Bazaar is more traditional – no shipping containers, just hundreds of small shops and a couple of huge hangars that have stalls selling everything that you might imagine along with a few items that you might not. Mostly though, it is food and drink – fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods. This is the place to come for Kyrgyz specialities like kumys (fermented horse milk) or kuruut (sour yoghurt balls) but pretty well anything can be found here with diligent searching. If it is angels’ tears or unicorn ham that you need then Osh Bazaar is probably your best bet in the city.IMG_9763My last visit was early last summer on a scorching day with temperatures nudging 40 degrees centigrade. Osh Bazaar has something of a reputation for dodgy plainclothes policemen who home in on obvious foreigners to ask for passports and the handing over of foreign currency ‘to count’. Perhaps it was just too hot to bother that day – or maybe I just looked like an ethnic Russian local (unlikely) – but there was no sign of them. Just heat-frazzled shoppers and exhausted stall holders dozing between customers.IMG_9737IMG_9756IMG_9753IMG_9748untitled

 

The third edition of my Bradt Kyrgyzstan guide will be published later this week.

 

 

Posted in Central Asia, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Murmuration

IMG_3939Norwich, 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.

IMG_3933For 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.

IMG_3980

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.

Posted in Cities, Norfolk, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Whittlesea Straw Bear

IMG_3903

If you venture to Whittlesea, at the edge of the Fens near Peterborough, during the second weekend in January you cannot help but notice that strange straw animals and oddly attired people have taken over the streets of this small market town.  The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival was re-established in the town in 1980 after having been outlawed for over 70 years. Hitherto, the last sighting of a straw bear in these parts was in 1909 when the annual winter festival was stopped by local police because it was seen as a form of unwanted cadging from the public.
IMG_3851
No-one seems to know how far back the tradition goes but it was once the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress a ploughboy in a straw suit and parade him through the town. The ‘straw bear’, attended by a keeper, would dance for gifts of beer, money and tobacco that would be later enjoyed by the local ploughing fraternity who were always short of cash at this slack time of year.
IMG_3708

IMG_3869

Similar winter traditions once existed elsewhere – in other parts of England and also in central Europe and Germany. There are clear connections, too, with ancient pre-Christian wild man traditions, and even similarities with some forms of West African tribal practices in which men are adorned in fetishistic animal or demon costumes. There’s also a plain link with agricultural fertility, and the desire for a bountiful harvest, as only the best quality straw from the previous year’s harvest is used to dress the bear, which is paraded around the town’s squares and taverns on the Saturday before the straw suit is taken from its occupier and ritually burned on the Sunday.

IMG_3760

IMG_3856

Whilst clearly revivalist, the modern festival has a vigour and joie de vivre that is at odds with the sombre post-Christmas, mid-winter gloom that tends to characterise this time of year. Perhaps its joyous atmosphere has a lot to do with  the unselfconscious high spirits of the English whenever they get a chance to dress up in silly clothes and clown around. Such behaviour is aided and abetted by widespread music and dancing by brightly costumed dancing sides that go under exotic monikers like Gog Magog, Pig Dyke, Old Glory and Ox Blood Molloy, Kemps Men Morris, Red Leicester, Pretty Grim and Black Pig Border Morris. The fact that all of the town’s pubs are open all day really does not hurt either.

IMG_3839

IMG_3826

Some may find it contrived but, revivalist or not, there is something atavistic and primally English at work here. The good cheer and high spirits are infectious and it seems the easiest thing to instantly become part of this transient happy community. Whatever the precise truth of its historical tradition, the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival is a weekend of conviviality and broad smiles accompanied by daft dancing and the plentiful consumption of real ale. A time of gentle eccentricity, it is an occasion when, for once, it actually feels quite good to be English.

IMG_3740

IMG_3786

IMG_3769

IMG_3726

IMG_3775
IMG_3887IMG_3884IMG_3901

Posted in Folklore, History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Thingvellir

IMG_4329a

The winter solstice marks the dark frontier of the annual cycle: that time of year when days are at their shortest; the period of feasting before the corner of the year is turned and daylight and warmth return to awaken barren nature with voluptuous spring. Perhaps it is appropriate to represent this seasonal turning point with images of another type of frontier – a geographical one?

Thingvellir in southern Iceland lies at the meeting point of two continents and two major tectonic plates – the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. Rather than a violent collision of rock, as in the case of great mountain ranges like the Andes or Himalayas, here the plates are pulling apart in opposite directions – the rift valley between the two is actually becoming wider by approximately 7 mm every year. This is, in fact, the only place on earth where seafloor spreading of a mid-ocean ridge can be seen on solid land rather than at the bottom of an ocean. Elsewhere in the world this might seem remarkable but in such a newborn baby of a landmass as Iceland, where it is possible to witness the creation of new terra firma before your very eyes, such phenomena seem almost commonplace.

IMG_4352a

By what we can only imagine was serendipity the earliest Viking settlers in Iceland chose this very place for their annual outdoor assembly. Thingvellir and the beautiful lake of Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in the country, lie at a natural crossroads that connects the south and west of Iceland and so make for a convenient location for large gatherings. It was undoubtedly a pragmatic choice but, even so, the landscape here seems to glow with an inherent magic that goes beyond mere aesthetic appeal. Such magic of place seems to be at its most powerful during the short days of mid-winter when these images were taken. Those early Icelanders clearly knew what they were doing.

Happy Christmas

IMG_4356a

Posted in History, Islands, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Snettisham

IMG_3195

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 breakIMG_3208fast 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.

IMG_3247

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. IMG_3218

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.

IMG_3244The 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.

IMG_3282IMG_3269IMG_3265

IMG_3267

IMG_3313 IMG_3344

Posted in Norfolk, Travel, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 20 Comments

Fountaine’s Folly

IMG_2883

October 31, 2014. Samhaine – All Saints’ Eve – Halloween – take your pick. Old-school seasonality seems to be in retreat as autumn suddenly slips back a season in denial of shortening daylight hours and the termination of British Summer Time. This is the swan song of a flighty Indian summer that has had thermometers teetering at 20°C. Records will be broken – but that is nothing extraordinary in this unpredictable inter-glacial in which the inevitability of climate change obligingly reveals its hand to blinkered, consumption-addled humanity. Whatever the omens, the summery warmth feels benign– a good day for a walk along the Nar Valley Way between Castle Acre and Narborough.

West of Castle Acre, pyramidal bonfires are piled high in west Norfolk fields awaiting Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th. Or maybe a day or three earlier, or later – national celebrations tend to be movable feasts these days. After an enjoyable tramp  alongside fen and through autumn-blazed  woodland I arrive in the small village of West Acre.

IMG_2797The village’s All Saints’ Church (an appropriate dedication given the date) is approached through a shaded corridor of dark yews, the skull above the door bidding a slightly macabre welcome. Above this, the tower clock face bears the legend: Watch and Pray. This is serious stuff, old time religion – no place for dilettante church visitors.

IMG_2804

The graveyard to the church’s south – a suntrap in which a climatically confused cherry tree is bursting into flower – seems altogether more friendly. The ruins of a priory lie in the field next door guarded by brown bulls and a barbed wire fence. Just a gateway and a fragment of wall remain; the rest of the remains lie beneath turf, bulges like furniture draped beneath green baize.

IMG_2817

IMG_2821

From West Acre the way leads alongside fields of sheep and through dense woodland before emerging at a clearing that has views of Narford Hall across a lake to the south. Narford Hall is the pile of the Fountaine family and the previous incumbent, Andrew Fountaine,  who died in 1997, had quite a reputation for flirting with extremist politics. Disowned by the Conservatives for what were perceived as anti-Semitic views, he became a founding member of the National Front in 1967, standing for election on three occasions and organising “Aryan summer camps” on the grounds of his estate. His nephew, Tony Martin, the farmer who achieved nationwide notoriety for shooting and killing a 16-year old burglar at his home in the Fens back in 1999, was once a regular visitor.

IMG_2881
North of the clearing, tucked behind trees, is a curious neoclassical building, an obvious folly. I duck beneath pollarded lime boughs to investigate. It’s a simple affair, yet a grand gesture: a summer pavilion positioned to take in the view over the lake to the hall, a place from which to gleefully survey all of one’s domain. Behind the pillars, there a niche surrounded by attractive Art Nouveau tiles, some of which have been prised away from the wall.  Broken tiles and crumbling bricks litter the floor. A closer inspection of the niche tiles reveals a number of ladybirds taking the sun, stirred from hibernation by the unexpected warmth. Folly indeed.

IMG_2894

IMG_2915

Posted in History, Norfolk, Walking | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Kyrgyz Graveyards

IMG_8525You see them everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. From afar they resemble hillside villages of mud-brick dwellings but a closer look reveals them to be cemeteries. Usually located a little way outside a village, sometimes on top of a low bluff, they are often more impressive than the villages they serve. With a mixture of mud-brick, shrine-like tombs, gravestones with etched images of the deceased, and Islamic crescent moons intermixed with communist five-pointed stars, they represent an odd amalgam of funerary styles. What makes them unmistakably Kyrgyz, though, are the large, wrought-iron, yurt structures that mark many of the graves.

IMG_8249

A nomadic people until well into the 20th century, the Kyrgyz used to be buried without fuss wherever they died. Although important nobles and warriors were sometimes honoured with showy mausoleums, most Kyrgyz graves were simple and basic. However, when this nomadic lifestyle was forcibly abandoned during the Soviet period the erection of large memorials to the dead started to become fashionable with the newly sedentary Kyrgyz. It may seem ironic that a wandering people like the Kyrgyz should choose such an earth-bound dwelling after death but a new practice emerged in the 1930s of erecting monuments that recalled their former nomadic lifestyle. As well as the wrought-iron yurt frames that reflected nostalgia for the old way of life, etched portraits – a Russian custom – also started to feature on gravestones. Traces of an altogether more ancient culture became prevalent too: the tradition of pre-Islamic shamanism in which antlers, animal skulls and horses’ tails are used to decorate tombs.

IMG_8530In Kyrgyz graveyards disparate traditions – shamanistic, Islamic, communist – intermingle freely. Gently crumbling as their mud-brick mausoleums slowly decay back into the earth, such cemeteries can be seen far and wide in this central Asian country. Some of the finest are those that can be seen in villages along the Suusamyr Valley in Chui Province. The photos here were taken in two villages in this isolated valley – Kyzyl-Oi and Suusamayr.

IMG_8229IMG_8545IMG_8536IMG_8240IMG_8247IMG_8340

untitled

There will be more on graveyards and many other aspects of Kyrgyz culture in the forthcoming third edition of my book Kyrgyzstan: the Bradt Travel Guide, which will be published early next year.

More information on Kyrgyzstan, including photographs and extracts from the forthcoming book, is available on the Kyrgyzstan page of the Bradt website.

Posted in Asia, Central Asia, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

At Covehithe

IMG_1981The day before the autumn equinox: the setting, the beach at Covehithe. We have gathered here at the north Suffolk coast to walk and talk. A literary walk to celebrate W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, no less, organised as part of the Waveney & Blyth Arts festival. The weather – hazy grey skies, mist, light drizzle – is suitably Sebaldian.

Proceedings begin at Covehithe’s St Andrew’s Church – itself a curiosity, a church within a church –the large medieval shell of the original church sheltering the tiny 17th-century thatched-roofed replacement that was built when the former became too expensive for villagers to maintain. The fine 15th-century tower abuts the later build, dwarfing almost mockingly its dinky proportions. Before taking a pew to hear an introduction by UEA lecturers Jo Catling and Barbara Marshall, who both knew and worked with W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald, some of us examine the font, recycled from the earlier church, which has stylised lions and hairy human-like figures that have had their heads chiselled off. Headless or not, these strange decapitated figures are recognisable as representations of the woodwose (wild man), a creature that belongs to the same fabulist stable as the Green Man, the crude anti-masonry no doubt the handiwork of William Dowsing’s men as it was these same arch-puritans who did for the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the original church.

IMG_1978

We drift down to the beach by way of Covehithe Broad – the direct road from Covehithe is closed and fenced-off these days thanks to the coastal erosion that constantly depletes this shoreline. The broad’s brackish water is alive with Canada geese that honk plaintively, their voices coming through the mist even before we can see them. The geese take off sporadically in small groups to circuit and survey the parish before returning to the watery comfort of the broad. At the shore, the tide is out and the beach is deserted but for the presence of a distant dog-walker and our own gaggle of muse-seeking Sebaldians. To the north, the curve of the coast at Benacre Ness near Kessingland can just about be discerned. Southwold lies to the south: a distinctive profile that stretches from sea to land – first pier, then low town roofs and blinking lighthouse before a water tower marks the point where the town ends and the Sandlings and marshes begin.

IMG_1984

We walk north along the beach in small amorphous groups exchanging thoughts on Sebald’s gloomy oeuvre. The cliffs of Covehithe feature in The Rings of Saturn, albeit briefly, which is of course why this was chosen as a suitable territory for the walk. It was here that the author stood on the cliffs and gazed out on the leaden-coloured water of what he describes as the German Ocean (a rather archaic term for the North Sea that went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century but chosen by Sebald for his own, anything but nationalistic, reasons). As he lowered his gaze to the beach below he inadvertently spied a couple making love and noted that “it seemed that the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. Overcome with panic at the sight of this “many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species” he left to walk to Southwold.

IMG_1998

Thankfully, no such sexual shenanigans affronted us on Saturday. In fact, the only other living thing on the beach other than a desultory parliament of herring gulls was a lone figure scrutinising the foreshore for Paleolithic flint hand tools that we were assured sometimes turn up here. The walk’s turning point was probably somewhere in the shadow of Covehithe church, although we could not see its landmark tower from our position on the sand beneath the cliff. Having examined some of the evocative bleached tree stumps that decorate the beach here like Arts Council sculptures, looked at the ever-receding cliffs with their abandoned sand martin burrows and observed a solitary craft out to sea just as Sebald had done, we turned to face south. With Southwold’s low skyline now silhouetted on the brightening horizon we placed the North Sea/German Ocean to our left as we ruminated and slowly ambled our way back to Covehithe’s church within a church. In half a century or so, this may well be gone, a victim of the ferocious erosion that defines this coastline. Covehithe and its church will have vanished forever, living on only in memory and books – a place of legend.

Posted in History, Literature, Suffolk, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Burston 1914 – 2014

IMG_1372Earlier this year I wrote of Norfolk’s radical tradition and how this would be the centenary year of the Burston School Strike, the longest running strike in British history that lasted from 1914 to 1939.  Last Sunday the annual rally took place in this quiet south Norfolk village and folk came from far and wide to particpate and celebrate. As always, there were stalls selling political literature and T-shirts, brass bands entertaining the crowd, and musicians and speakers on the small stage. IMG_1297As usual the sun shone obligingly. Sadly this year, those old stalwarts of the Left, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, were no longer here to speak but Owen Jones (a ‘braying jackal’ according to Fox News, an honorable plaudit indeed) proved a worthy successor making a stirring speech before the procession around the village ‘candlestick’ took place. IMG_1321IMG_1327Rural south Norfolk might not seem the most obvious place to see trades unionists and brass bands marching under banners but they are used to it here at Burston – it’s been going on for 30 years. A necessary reminder for what is usually considered a true blue county that zombie neoliberalism is not the only narrative. Long may it continue.

IMG_1350IMG_1364

IMG_1377

Posted in History, Norfolk | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments