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.

W.G.Sebald, In Memoriam

The UEA-based German writer, W. G. (‘Max’) Sebald, died just over nine years ago in a car accident close to his home south of Norwich. One of his most famous books, and certainly the one most closely connected with the East Anglia region, is The Rings of Saturn, published in 1999. Superficially a post-illness walking tour of east Suffolk, this labyrinthine unclassifiable work delves tangentially into deep history to discuss episodes as wide ranging as the import of silkworm cultivation into Europe, the writings of 17th-century Norwich polymath Thomas Browne, Nazi concentration camps in Croatia and the scurrilous private life of the Suffolk-based translator of Omar Khayyam.

Focusing unhealthily on the dark, isolated and horrific, Sebald’s writing is hardly what one might describe as ‘feel-good’; indeed, it is often gloomy to the point of verging on the morose. His literate, hang-dog style can almost seem self-parodying on occasion, especially when it circles down to earth to confront the quotidian as in the case of an hilarious description of a disappointing dinner in Lowestoft – only Sebald could disparagingly describe the ‘breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish’ and sachet tartare sauce ‘turned grey by sooty breadcrumbs’. Although he veered towards the hyper-melancholic, his writing was always elegant and elegiac, not to mention meditative, lapidary, dream-like and solipsistic. Interweaving memory, fiction and observation along the course of his walk, there is a Proustian quality to his writing that questions the transience of life and suffering.

Clearly, The Rings of Saturn has sufficient devotees for others to want to walk in Sebald’s footsteps, seeking out the Suffolk landscape that inspired such beautiful gloom along the eastern reaches of the Waveney Valley and the Suffolk coast between Lowestoft and Dunwich – a landscape that seems oddly devoid of people in Sebald’s book. Aldeburgh Music at Snape Maltings recently held a weekend devoted to a celebration of Sebaldia that involved the American rock chanteuse Patti Smith no less. It remains to be seen whether the film Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee that was also screened during the weekend will be available to general view in the near future.

Here’s a short film and a piece in the Guardian.