The Crossing Place

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A pinch of the River Clyde; a squeezing of the water that flows west through Glasgow towards the sea; a watery place where shipyards once dominated the shoreline and the air shook with the hammering of rivets, the scrape and spark of steel plate, the blinding blue light of arc welding. Across the river, south of the here, lies the city district of Govan, depleted of industry now but once the hub for shipbuilding in the region. Here on the northern bank, at Glasgow Harbour on the site of a former shipyard on the edge of Partick, we stand outside the city’s Riverside Museum. The museum is an arresting zinc and glass structure with a steeply curving roofline that resembles a cardiogram – a late work by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

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Afloat in the water in front of the museum, in purposeful contrast, is the handsome three-masted sailing ship Glenlee, a trading ship that after circumnavigating the world four times (and rounding Cape Horn 15 times) ended her nautical life as Galatea, a training vessel for the Spanish Navy. Abandoned and forgotten in Seville the ship was eventually saved by a British naval architect and in 1993 was towed home to Glasgow to end her days on the river of her birth. From the deck of Glenlee we can make out the old buildings of Govan across the water. But there is no way to cross, not outside the summer months anyway, as the seasonal ferry has stopped operating. So it means a retreat on foot back to Partick Subway station to take the Inner Circle beneath the river to reach our goal on the other side.

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Emerging from the subway into the bright sunlight of a gleaming autumn day, the Govan streets seems quiet, provincial even; not quite what we had been expecting. The Victorian buildings have a patina of age but are well-scrubbed, made of sandstone the colour of ginger cake. Govan’s Old Parish Church is built of the same stone.

Govan is the oldest part of Glasgow. Until 1912 it was a separate burgh that was historically part of Lanarkshire. Once a centre for the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde or Alt Clut, it was the northernmost part of the Cumbric (a variant of Brythonic or Old Welsh)-speaking region of Hen Ogledd* or the Old North. A monastery was founded here in the 7th-century by King Constantine (later to be canonised as St Constantine of Strathclyde and Govan), to whom the Old Govan Parish Church is dedicated. In the early medieval period Govan was ruled from Dumbarton Rock at the mouth of the Clyde on the opposite shore until it was destroyed by Vikings in 870AD. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, the only part of the Old North not to be conquered by Anglo-Saxons, eventually became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in the 11th century.

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Govan Old Parish Church is home to the Govan Stones, a remarkable collection of 31 grave markers that date back to the 9th century. The church, a fine Scottish Gothic Revival building, is not so old but it stands on a sacred site that was in existence long before the Normans came to dominate the lands to the south. Our timing is impeccable – October 31, the Celtic festival of Samhain – is the last day of the year on which the church is open. As our enthusiastic Scottish-Canadian guide explains, it is too expensive to keep the church heated for the winter months and so it is locked up for the duration.

IMG_7566 The stones are arranged around the church interior so as to make a circuit. There is intricate Celtic lattice work on the first two – the ‘Sun Stone’ and the Jordanhill Cross – and on the third, the ‘Cuddy Stane’, a representation of a man on a horse, or possibly a donkey (‘cuddy’) bearing a Christ figure. A group of five Viking hogbacks, dark and heavy, and resembling those giant slugs that sometimes venture out along garden paths after rain, dominate the transept.  Unnoticed until is pointed out to us, the paws of a supine bear clutch one of the stones at its corners, a complex symbol that combines animal strength and tenderness and might, perhaps, relate to the high-ranking Viking it commemorates. The highlight of the collection is probably the Govan Sarcophagus, the only one of its kind from the pre-Norman era, which was unearthed in the graveyard in 1855. This intricately carved structure is thought to have once held the remains of King Constantine himself, although its symbols suggest that is more likely to have been made a couple of centuries after his death. Elsewhere are ancient stones that have been recycled as markers for later graves – palimpsests where earlier detail has been erased to allow a new name to be cut into the stone.

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The stone for each of the grave markers, like the church itself, comes from the hills across the Clyde. The feat of moving such a heft of stone might seem Herculean in its endeavour but a millennium ago the river would have been shallower and narrower and there would have been a ford across it; there may even have been stepping stones bridging the two shores. Later, in the medieval period, a ferry would have run between the two banks to transport Highland cattle drovers and their stock across the river to markets south of Glasgow.

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By the 19th century Govan became better known as a centre for shipbuilding. It would go on to achieve fame as the birthplace of strong-willed characters like Jimmy Reed, Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish. But long before any ship was launched, Govan was a strategic and spiritual centre where Britonnic, Celtic and Scandinavian worlds overlapped thanks to an important crossing place on the river. If the Govan Stones could speak of those who carved them they would, of course, tell you this… in Cumbric naturally.

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*Hen Ogledd is also the name of an excellent Newcastle-based musical combo whose work sometimes references the early medieval Brythonic world their name suggests

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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The Minster in The Saints

IMG_4925The Saints is a small, loosely defined area of northeast Suffolk just south of the River Waveney and the Norfolk border. Effectively it is a fairly unremarkable patch of arable countryside that contains within it a baker’s dozen of small villages with names that begin or end with the name of the parish saint:  St Peter South Elmham, St Michael South Elmham, St Nicholas South Elmham, St James South Elmham, St Margaret South Elmham, St Mary South Elmham, St Cross South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham, Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Lawrence, Ilketshall St Margaret, Ilketshall St John and All Saints Mettingham. The area is bisected in its eastern fringe by the Bungay—Halesworth road that follows the course of Stone Street, a die-straight Roman construction, one of several that can still be traced on any road map of East Anglia. On the whole though the roads around here are anything but Roman in character: narrow, twisting, often bewilderingly changing direction, and marked with confusing signs (too many saints!), it is a good place to visit should you wish to humiliate your Sat Nav. John Seymour in The Companion Guide to East Anglia (1968) describes The Saints as ‘a hillbilly land into which nobody penetrates unless he has good business,’ which is perhaps hyperbolic but there is undoubtedly a feel of  liminality to the area that persists to this day. IMG_4891The village names conjure a medieval world where saint-obsessed religion loomed large. Such a tight cluster of settlements suggests a concentration of population where parishes might eventually combine to form a town or city – with 13 villages and the same number of churches (eleven of which are extant), there were more churches here than in all of Cambridge. But The Saints never coalesced to become a medieval city – none of the villages had a port, defensive structure or even significant market to its credit and consequently the area would slowly slip into obscurity as the medieval era played out and other East Anglia towns and cities – Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and, of course, Norwich – took the baton of influence and power. IMG_4903It was not always so: one of the villages in particular held great significance in its day. The land covered by the South Elmham parishes was once owned by Almar, Bishop of East Anglia and the late Saxon Bishops of Norwich had a summer palace here at St Cross, now South Elmham Hall. The most intriguing of the churches lies within the same parish. It is not in any way complete but a ruin framed by woodland a good half mile from the nearest road. South Elmham Minster, although probably never a minster proper, is veiled in mystery regarding its origins but its appeal owes as much to its half-hidden location as it does to its obscure history.  South Elmham may have once been the seat of the second East Anglian bishopric (the first was in Dunwich, the sea-ravaged village on the Suffolk coast), although North Elmham in Norfolk seems a more likely contender. Whatever the ruin’s original function – a private chapel for Herbert de Losinga, Norwich’s first bishop, is another possibility, or it may even be that a second bishopric was founded here – the church in the wood just south of South Elmham Hall dates back at least to the 11th century. It is probably older in origin – a ninth-century gravestone has been unearthed in its foundations. The site itself is undoubtedly of greater antiquity: a continuation of an earlier Anglo-Saxon presence that occupied the same moated site, which, earlier still, was home to a Roman temple and perhaps, even earlier, a pagan holy place. IMG_4918We leave the car in a muddy parking area alongside another vehicle and a dumped piece of agricultural machinery. Nearby stands a weather-beaten trestle table that suggests that this once might have served as a designated picnic spot. Now half-submerged in grass and thistles, the table did not look as if any sandwich boxes had been opened on it for some time. Things have changed here a little in recent years: the permissive footpaths that once threaded through the South Elmham estate are no longer available for the public, and the hall itself has been re-purposed for use as a wedding and conference venue. At least the minster was still accessible by means of a green lane and a public footpath across fields. IMG_4930The green lane is flanked by mature hedges frothed white with blackthorn blossom. Reaching its bottom end we turn left to follow a footpath alongside a stream, a minor tributary of the River Waveney; strange hollowed-out hornbeams measure out its bank. Soon we come to the copse that contains the ruin, a rusty gate gives admission across a partial moat and raised bank into what can only be described as a woodland glade. The ancient flint walls of the church stand central, striated by the shadow of hornbeams still leafless in late March. There is no sign of a roof but the weathered walls of the nave are clear in outline, as is the single entrance to the west. On the ground, last year’s fallen leaves provide a soft bronze carpet that is mostly devoid of ground plants. IMG_4920Church or not, there is a timelessness to this place in the woods. And a strong sense of genius loci, the sort of thing that put the wind up the Romans with their straight lines and four-square militaristic outlook. I wander off to explore the bank to the west and discover the opening of a badger sett that looks to be newly excavated. Without much expectation, I rummage though the spoil musing that there might just be the remotest of chances that, burrowing deep beneath the mound, the animals have thrown up some treasure long buried in the soil below: an Anglo-Saxon torc, a Roman coin perhaps? I would even settle for a rusty button, but nothing. No matter, the mystery of the place is enough for now. We leave the bosky comfort of the site and retrace our steps along the beck and green lane back to the car. The other car has gone – we never did see its occupants. IMG_4933IMG_4951IMG_4945

Keswick All Saints

IMG_5265A little way south of Norwich, standing atop what counts for a hill in these parts, is a tiny roundtower church nestled amidst trees. All Saints Church stands above the small village of Keswick  in a crumpled corduroy landscape of wintry ploughed fields. Like most of the territory of this urban fringe, the church lies within the acoustic shadow of the city’s southern bypass and the dull thrum of traffic melds with the chatter of birds in the trees and hedgerows – mostly finches, tits and blackbirds at this time of year. Across the valley, a thread of pylons leads inexorably north towards Norwich where they will deliver electricity to power the city’s PlayStations, fridge-freezers and TiVo boxes. IMG_5289A narrow track leads from the main road up to the church but this is impassable in a car as a collapsable central barrier has been installed. With nowhere to park, we sneak into a bus lay-by on the main road in the knowledge that, this being Sunday, there won’t be one along for at least an hour or so. Arriving on foot at the gate, the church noticeboard informs us that services are held once a month on the last Sunday of the month, an impressive boast for such a small church in this day and age. In fact, a quick look at Simon Knott’s highly commendable Norfolk Churches website tells us that this is probably the smallest working church in all the county. And, as Norfolk has the lion’s share of Europe’s roundtower churches (124 of 185 in the whole of the UK), Keswick All Saints is probably the smallest functional roundtower church in Britain, if not in Europe. Not today, though – today, the church door remains firmly locked.

IMG_5277  IMG_5320  IMG_5282Keswick Hall just across the valley was once the home of the Gurney family, a local dynasty with farming and banking interests. The mossy tombs of several family members look down from the vantage point of the graveyard towards the hall that was once their earthly domain. The original church fell into disuse in the 16th century and was later partly demolished to repare the church at nearby Intwood (also All Saints) when the two parishes were united. Nearly four hundred years later in 1893, it was the Gurney family who came to the rescue, restoring the ruin and adding a short nave to create a mortuary chapel, which eventually became a church once more when services were authorised in 1934. IMG_5311If the earlier church was small, the Gurney restoration is tiny, just half the size of the original. But we could not get inside this ecclesiastic doll’s house to see the stained glass window or roof angels. No matter – on a sunny and unseasonably mild February day that already bore the promise of spring it was enough to enjoy the snowdrops in the copse and watch a pair of buzzards circle overhead on the thermals that rose from the sun-warmed fields.IMG_5322

Walking in Norfolk

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My new Cicerone walking guide, Walking in Norfolk is going to be published in a week or two’s time and so here is a small taster of what to expect. The book contains 40 circular walks in all, and covers all parts of the county from northeast Norfolk to the Waveney Valley to the Fens.

Here’s a bit from the Introduction:

‘Very flat, Norfolk’, asserts Amanda in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, reflecting pretty much the commonly held view of the county: a place, with attitude perhaps (think of its heroes – Horatio Nelson, Thomas Paine, Delia Smith, Stephen Fry…Alan Partridge), but certainly not with altitude. The stereotyped view, although misleading, is understandable enough, as most people have some sort of image of Norfolk even if they have never visited the county. Many will have seen the vast sandy expanse of North Norfolk’s Holkham Beach in films like Shakespeare in Love or TV programmes like Stephen Fry’s Kingdom. Many more will think of boating holidays on the Norfolk Broads, or make associations with the low-lying Fenland region of the far west of the county: aspects of Norfolk, certainly, but not the full picture by any means.

…and here’s a snippet from Walk 10: Burgh St Peter and ‘The Triangle’:

039‘The Triangle’ is a local name that was sometimes used to refer to the parishes of Aldeby, Wheatacre and Burgh St Peter in southeast Norfolk. Bound on two sides by a bend of the River Waveney and on the other by the now-dismantled Beccles to Great Yarmouth railway, the triangle of land so defined has something of the feel of an island to it. There is no through road here, just a quiet single-track lane that links the farmsteads on the marshland edge. To the north, east and south a large flat area of marshes lies between the relatively high land of ‘The Triangle’ and the river itself.

041Burgh St Peter’s Church of St Mary the Virgin is one of Norfolk’s oddest churches as its tower is in the form of a five-section ziggurat (or, as some have fancied, a collapsible square telescope). The body of the church dates from the 13th century but the tower is an 18th-century addition, supposedly inspired by the Italian travels of William Boycott, the rector’s son. A dynasty of Boycotts served the church for a continuous period of 135 years and Charles Cunningham Boycott, the son of the second Boycott rector, gave the term ‘boycott’ to the English language when he behaved badly over absentee rents in Ireland and was socially ostracised as a result.

Petersburg

Petersburg. No, not that one – this Petersburg is in the Alaska panhandle, south of Juneau, north of Ketchikan. This is the first time in a week there has been any phone signal or internet access; the first time since leaving Juneau almost a week ago that there has been any sort of town in fact. Petersburg is named after its Norwegian founder Peter Buschmann who settled here just over a century ago to found a fish canning business. The town still has a Scandinavian character, with Norwegian-style rose-mailing prettifying its streets.

The Alaska Inner Passage cruise began in Juneau last Friday. Getting to Juneau was fun – taking 34 hours of travel time between leaving my front door in Norwich and checking in seriously jet-lagged at the hotel in Juneau. Three flights, one overnight coach journey, a long layover in Anchorage and at least of couple of hours sitting on runways awaiting permission to take off. The biggest chunk of the travel was the flight between Frankfurt to Anchorage, which instead of flying west across the Atlantic as you might expect, headed almost due north into the Arctic Circle and arced west close to the pole. It is, after all, a three dimensional world and flight routes don’t necessarily follow Mercator’s projection. Flying non-stop Frankfurt to Anchorage takes 9½ hours and because of time zone changes you arrive in Alaska thirty minutes before you left. But, if this was the secret of eternal youth then it certainly did not feel like it.

We flew over Denmark, southern Norway and then the North Sea before curving west over the northern edge of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic to hit the north Alaska coast and pass over the Denali National Park before our descent to Anchorage. Just north of Bergen, the cloud lifted to reveal the glimmering sea beneath us, with little flecks of white that I thought might be fishing boats…or whales. Is it possible to see fishing boats from 36,000 feet up? Like a living atlas unfolding, under the clear blue skies of northern Greenland it was easy to see where solid rock gave way to the pack ice of the North Pole – nothing but mountains, ridges, snow, ice and water beneath. Halfway across Alaska we flew right alongside the peak of Mount McKinley, which loomed proud above the clouds, the highest mountain in the USA, before descending over glorious golden lake country down into Anchorage. I like to think that I saw my first Alaskan bear on the final descent – it may well have just been a rock but it is perfectly feasible.

Once US immigration decided that I was respectable enough to enter their country there was a whole afternoon to kill in Anchorage. I took the local bus into town – a modest grid of low rises against an impressive mountain backdrop, with a handful of shops selling tacky souvenirs in the city centre that advertised their presence with stuffed grizzlies on the sidewalk. These were not the bears I fancied I had seen from the air. The city has something of a frontier feel about it, with small clutches of native Alaskan drunks and shifty-eyed men with baseball caps and ZZ Top beards. A surprising number of blacks and Hispanics too – but perhaps it was my use of public transport that skewed this impression. Public transport in the US tends to be mostly the preserve of the poor and disadvantaged.

Where Anchorage was fairly humdrum, Juneau was pretty and quaint, with wooden houses climbing up steep streets beneath tall bluffs. Anchorage may have been a place that shot and stuffed its bears but Juneau, with its liberal nurturing atmosphere, was a town that seemed more likely to cherish them. Juneau was wet too, pouring that first night with pounding rain that looked as if it would never stop. Thankfully, it did, and the rain was followed by four days of glorious Indian summer sunshine – ‘a bluebird summer’ as they say here.

Since embarking at Juneau last Friday I have experienced the whole gamut of classic southeast Alaska experience: walking in temperate rainforests thick with velvety moss; hikes alongside waterfalls and even on glaciers like that at Baird Glacier yesterday afternoon. There have been hot springs and bald eagles; sea lions, countless orcas and hump-backed whales – one even appeared blowing a steamy plume whilst we were out paddling kayaks. There have been bears too – some black but mostly brown – and a couple of close (but not too close) encounters at forest streams and on beaches where they greedily snatch up migrating salmon from the mouths as streams as easily and as casually as if they were picking flowers.

Dancing about Architecture

St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich, May 19

Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme included a short feature on the 73 year-old American jazz bassist Charlie Haden. In the interview Haden discussed his musical history and how he had started out singing with his family in the Midwest but after contracting polio had taken up double bass and embraced the church of jazz. There was also talk of his political activities and his arrest by police in Portugal in 1971 just before the revolution there. The feature concluded by saying that Charlie would be performing in London this weekend. True enough, but it failed to mention that he would also be performing with his Quartet West at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival that same night.

St Peter Mancroft’s Church next to Norwich millennium-old Market Place is a wonderful place to hear music, even if its pews are unforgivingly Calvinist. Charlie Haden took the stage more or less on time and after introducing his fellow musicians announced that he hoped we would all be able to see them play in London too as there the band would be accompanied by a female singer or two and perhaps even a string section. He held his new Sophisticated Ladies CD aloft to indicate the 1940s and 50s material they would be performing with the fuller line-up – not here, though. Nothing against the Great American Songbook, female jazz singers or violins but I was quite pleased to hear him say, “Tonight, there’ll just be the four of us. We’ll be playing some beautiful music for you; some old and some new.”

The quartet set off on a series of four tunes, each one with plenty of space for solos. On the first composition Haden’s bass seemed a little lost and meandering, as if he could not quite find his way, but I sensed that it was a sort of practice lap for muscle memory as he tried out different progressions and constantly readjusted his tuning. By the fourth song of the sequence, the gorgeous First Song (For Ruth), he was really in his stride, playing a beautifully developed and poignant solo before handing over the creative reins to tenor man Ernie West. West, whom I have since learned was responsible for providing solo saxophone on many of Marvin Gaye’s 1970s recordings, has an impeccable technique, enviable musicality and what appears to be enormous stamina. A genial, gentle-looking man who seems able to breath through his ears, West moulded clusters of quicksilver notes into a procession of aural sculptures, each one rising like bubbles to float up to the hammerbeam roof and make the wooden angels on the mediaeval frieze smile. It was also around this time that the sun must have set outside, lighting up the sandstone pillars and high clerestory windows with a warm golden glow that seemed to give approval to the music rising from the nave. Fifteenth-century English Perpendicular architecture and 21st-century American music go surprisingly well together.

During a break to talk to the audience Haden announced that they would be playing something he had first recorded in 1957. “1957!”, he exclaimed, “Why, that’s way back in the 20th-century!” He was wrong in fact, by my reckoning Lonely Women was actually recorded with Ornette Coleman in 1959 and released on the iconoclastically modal (and prescient) The Shape of Jazz to Come, but why quibble? An angularly dark musical refrain led into more wonderful slow-cooked solos, from Haden, West and pianist Alan Broadbent, while new drummer Rodney Green kept time in the same sensitive and understated way he had been doing all evening.Ten, maybe fifteen, minutes elapsed before some sort of natural conclusion was arrived at. The audience, almost in shock, erupted into thunderous applause.

An encore was maybe too much to hope for but musicians that play in churches have nowhere to hide. “Thank you for listening so carefully. You’re good listeners; you’re an audience with good ears,” said Haden, genuinely moved. A lengthy, heart-aching Blue in Green ended the evening. More beatific tenor saxophone, more bass solos that sounded more like compositions in the making than mere exercises in dexterity, more lush piano that on occasions hinted at Bill Evans and at other times, Keith Jarrett without the self-importance. More rapturous applause. Haden was right: we did have good ears.