The Shrieking Pits

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Tucked away in the north Norfolk coastal hinterland, close to the villages of Overstrand and Northrepps, is a group of small ponds known as the Shrieking Pits. More of the same can also be found a few miles further west near Aylmerton close to Felbrigg Hall. Thought to be early medieval excavations for iron ore, the resultant pits have long been filled with water and softened by vegetation to allow them to blend in with the scenery as if they were natural features in this gentle post-glacial landscape.

Seeking them out, we made our way on foot from Overstrand, following the Paston Way inland through dark woodland and prairie-sized fields of barley and oilseed rape. The pits lie amidst arable land just beyond a farm at Hungry Hill, a name that points towards agricultural impoverishment at some time in the past. The pits stand beside a green lane, a byway of some antiquity that may have been here as long as the excavations themselves.

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The first one we come across is small, surrounded by willows of a uniform height. In the ring of tree shade that encloses the shallow pond, a wooden palette left over from some undefined farming business lies next to the water liked an abandoned raft. The main ‘pit’ is nearby, an altogether larger and more impressive pond edged in by semi-recumbent oaks. The water is glassy and ink-black, suggesting great depth and perhaps a little menace. On the far bank the surface is coated with pond weed the colour of puréed peas. A small wooden notice board has been placed next to one of the oaks is but it is bare, its writing long gone to leave it devoid of information other than that which can be told by wood grain alone. Despite this unwitting redaction, a tangible sense of genius loci suggests that there is something to be told of this place other than a chance meeting of trees and water.

Naturally with a name like Shrieking Pit there is a strong likelihood of dark legend. The mundane answer is that the name alludes to the sound emitted by the exposed gravels. But does gravel really shriek? It scrapes and it crunches but does it make a noise quite so dreadful? Shriek is a loaded word, a term that evokes emotion – fear, dismay, even terror. It is these qualities that inform the folklore associated with the place.

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The story goes that a grieving young woman haunts the locality. It tells of a heartbroken 17 year-old called Esmeralda who was seduced and then abandoned by a duplicitous local farmer. Inconsolable, the desperate young woman is said to have thrown herself into the water of the pit one dark night before immediately regretting her decision and crying for help that did not come. Her unheard cries are said to be heard at the spot each February 24th, the anniversary of her death.

Another story tells of a horse and cart vanishing without trace in the pool’s murky depths. Looking at the black unreflecting water it seems perfectly possible. Places such as this, although mere dust specks on the map, are the bread and butter of rural folklore. Such places inevitably become repositories of legend – features where the landscape can be painted with tales of intrigue, romance and horror. As the notice board is currently blank perhaps we should feel free to write our own story.

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References:

http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF6787-Shrieking-Pits

https://www.hiddenea.com/norfolkn.htm#northrepps

All Fall Down

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Two weeks ago I read a news article about the demolition of the cooling towers at Ironbridge on the River Severn in Shropshire. Their final demise was witnessed by many who came to see the four great towers collapsing after a controlled detonation. The towers had stood for exactly half a century. Opened in 1969, the power station they belonged to had stopped generating electricity in November 2015. At one time it had provided enough electricity to power the equivalent of 750,000 homes. The space that will be made available by their removal should be sufficient for around 1,000 new homes, a park and ride, a school and leisure facilities.

Before they came down the towers received a musical farewell when Zoë Beyers from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire performed a solo violin piece on one of the tower platforms. The music was elegaic, an echo of the mournfulness felt by local residents and former power station workers for whom the towers had been a large part of their life. Reduced in seconds to a mere imprint of memory, the Ironbridge geography was instantly transformed for those who lived there. Particularly poignant was the fact that a little way downriver was the original Iron Bridge built in 1781, the first major bridge of its kind in the world. It was no stretch of truth to infer that it was here in Shropshire at Ironbridge and nearby Coalbrookdale that the Industrial Revolution really began.

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In my, admittedly limited, experience cooling towers have always stood for something. They were markers on the landscape that held deeper meaning than just supersized industrial chimneys. Travelling north up the A1(M), the cluster of eight towers at Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire always seemed to mark an arrival in the North far more effectively than any roadside sign could. Their presence spoke of a cultural transition as much as a geographical one, a shift of emphasis from pastoral to industrial. But these too were earmarked for destruction, and in 2019 five of the towers were demolished. The remaining three will be removed by summer 2021. Similarly, the pair of cooling towers that used to stand outside Sheffield at Tinsley overlooking the M1 motorway always seemed like an omphalos for Don Valley industry – a centre of gravity for the steel, coal, fire and dirt of South Yorkshire. These were of particular significance for me as they were visible from the classroom where, in a previous life, I had my first practical experience as a geography teacher. These twin towers – the ‘salt and pepper pots’ as they were sometimes known – had been redundant since the 1970s, although they managed to remain standing until 2008. Despite a scheme to convert them into giant works of public art they could not be saved. Now they are gone, redacted from the landscape, as are the steel foundries of Sheffield’s Brightside – the industrial endeavour of generations of Sheffield lives reduced to little more than memory and a plaque at a shopping mall

I do not wish to romanticise coal-fired power production – it is undeniably dirty, polluting and a significant contributor to climate change – but I cannot help but find some of the fabric of its production strangely beautiful. Smoke-belching cooling towers may well be the embodiment of Blake’s dark satanic mills but, once abandoned, the heft of their curving brickwork seems to take on an eerie beauty. Silent witnesses of the recent industrial past, their inhuman scale and brooding presence make them emblematic of the hubris that persists in these uncertain times.

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