A Solstice Walk – Boudicca Way

In recent years I have got into the habit of taking a walk on the day of the winter solstice, December 21. Yesterday’s walk was along the section of the Boudicca Way that lies between Venta Icenorum and Norwich.

Venta Icenorum, which lies a few miles south of the city close to the village of Caistor St Edmund, was a walled Romano-British settlement that served as the civitas or capital of the Iceni tribe. The town was laid out sometime after Boudicca’s violent uprising against Roman rule in the winter of AD61 and so there is no chance that the famously vengeful Iceni queen was ever connected with the settlement itself. It is also debatable that Boudicca ever walked this precise territory but the Iceni queen is certainly local enough to at least deserve a mention.

Like many recently, it is a drearily grey day and there are few other visitors to the Roman town. I walk a little way along the walls before leaving the site to head uphill along one of High Ash Farm’s permissive paths. Damp and dreich, low cloud has largely expunged any colour from the landscape. The fields are harvested and bare, and the sense of midwinter inertia is strong despite the reasonably mild temperature and lack of snow. Light is at a premium; but the days are changing and more light will be here soon.

At the top of the hill a planting of Scots pine marks the site of an Anglo-Saxon graveyard, a situation that offers views down to St Edmund’s church and the low flint and brick walls of the Roman town. The Southern Bypass buzzes with cars and lorries in the distance. Beyond this, the impassive concrete cuboid of Norfolk County Hall marks the entrance to the city for traffic from the southeast.

The way traces a minor road for a while before dipping downhill into a valley. It then follows a footpath uphill to arrive at Caistor Lane and the curiously named French Church Farm. Another footpath leads north away from the road climbing gently up the valley side. Here, I pass a family – mum, dad, granddad, two kids – eating sandwiches on a bench halfway up. These are about the only walkers I have seen so far. In a field to the right, keeping well away from the mobbing crows that predominate the landscape around here, is a lone pair of Egyptian geese. At the top I emerge at Hallback Lane, a delightfully green, ancient trackway lined with coppiced hazel and ancient oaks. Halfway along is a wizened old oak that is familiar to many who live around here. Dubbed ‘the Africa Tree’, it bears a hollow in its trunk that delineates a fairly accurate outline of the Dark Continent. French Church, Africa Tree, Egyptian geese – something seems slightly out of kilter here.

A path to the right takes me up around the top of Caistor Chalk Quarry, close to the fence that protects it from public intrusion. The quarry is far larger than I had imagined. Steep sandy cliffs frame a deep hole and wide expanse of scarred earth; scattered extraction apparatus, storage hangars and piles of gravel and flint sit on the exposed chalk bedrock. The quarry, I later learn, is the last remaining inland section of the Beeston Chalk formation of the Upper Cretaceous. The exposed seam here is directly connected to the chalk pavement seen thirty miles away at Beeston Regis on the north Norfolk coast. Although this is the first time that I have actually seen it, I already have a connection with this place – a few echinoid fossils gifted to me over 30 years ago by an erstwhile neighbour, a lovely man called Russell who used to work at the quarry.

I join the Arminghall Road and follow it over the Southern Bypass, which is, as always, frantic with commuter traffic. Soon after, I leave this behind to take a footpath across a damp meadow towards the Arminghall henge. Truth be told, the Bronze Age henge probably looks a lot more impressive seen crow-eyed from a drone overhead. Originally, a horseshoe of wooden posts open to the southwest, now it is little more than a symbol on the OS map, a vague rise and depression in a pylon-spanned field. There has been a suggestion* that the henge may be orientated to the winter sunset over Chapel Hill to the southwest. Today though, no sun is visible, and the summit of the low hill, which once bore a church dedicated, like that at the Venta Icenorum site, to St Edmund, is engulfed by the Norwich to London railway line.

A footpath leads along the River Tas behind the large electricity substation that occupies the field next to the henge. A little way along this, the brutalist bulk of County Hall emerges through the trees beyond the railway line that hugs the opposite bank. I pass under the graffiti-adorned pillars of the rattling A146 to emerge just shy of the bridge at Trowse Millgate. Across the ring road roundabout, is Bracondale and my route into the city centre. I am almost home now. Only 3.30pm and darkness is starting to fall, Tomorrow, at least, there will be a little more light.

*See: https://archive.uea.ac.uk/~jwmp/CAA2003.pdf


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.



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.



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.


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.


IMG_4934Edgelands are everywhere, orbiting our towns and cities like unbeautiful rings of Saturn: non-places, junkspace, transitory transition zones that lie between that which is unequivocally urban or rural. Transitory because they are spaces in flux, with fluid geography that today may be brownfield site or landfill but tomorrow could be new housing, an out-of-town shopping emporium or a bypass. I hesitate to use the term ‘liminal’ here, that overused adjective beloved of psychogeographers, but … oh go on, I will. Edgelands are, if you’ll excuse the trope, zones of liminality, thresholds of the urban world. They might also be defined as those places that people pass through but do not usually stop at. They represent the view from the car  on the daily commute, that untidy marginal landscape glimpsed flashing by through the grimy window of the morning train.

IMG_4921Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in Edgelands, their definitive book on the subject, quote a long list of names associated with waste landscapes of this type in the United States, a lexicon that starts with ‘boomberg’ and ends with ‘world city’. My favourite though is ‘stimdross’, which sounds like some sort of propriety brand of exfoliant cream.

IMG_4944Like anywhere, Norwich, the city where I live, has its own edgelands. These take on a different character depending on which side of the city you look. To the north, the city sprawls for miles through ‘30s council estates, Tudorbethan suburbs and rural fringe new-build with leadlight windows and double garages. Heading in this direction from the centre, it is only after the airport is passed that the city finally gives way to the arable farmland that continues all the way to the Norfolk coast.

IMG_4946Heading south, the transition comes much sooner. A little way beyond the ring road the landscape changes abruptly as it crosses a railway line and the River Yare. Here, where the traffic of the southern bypass creates an ever-present thrum, is an edgeland par excellence: a territory that has elements of both urban and rural but belongs to neither camp. The rough grassland here is too poor for arable crops but supports both grazing horses and a vast imposing electricity substation. Lofty pylons march across the landscape, dwarfing the horses. The scene is a strange juxtaposition that shouts of marginalisation but the horses do not seem to mind. Who owns them? Travellers probably, or is it wrong to make such an assumption?


The OS map of the territory reveals a henge in the field here, right next to where the electricity substation and horses are. The Arminghall Woodhenge, which was discovered in 1929 thanks to crop marks on an aerial photograph, was excavated in 1935 and discovered to be a Neolithic monument orientated on the mid-winter sunset. All that remains now is a vague bump and dip in the ground but once this was a place of power, a place of knowledge, ritual and observation. Now that power is reduced to a ghost of landscape, forgotten, returned to the earth – a palimpsest overlaid with electrical distribution hardware and grazing horses. Most of the motorists speeding by on the southern bypass avert their eyes from the unsightly pylons and transformers and do not give these fields a second glance. How can they ever know of the henge if they do not even notice the horses?


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

Mappa Mundi – but whither Norwich?


This summer I visited Hereford for the first time in decades. I have long wanted to see the famous Mappa Mundi at the cathedral there and so this was an opportunity. The ancient map, along with the almost as well-known chained library, is on display in a special exhibition area beside the cloisters. With an entrance fee to pay, the map is clearly a nice little earner for Hereford Cathedral, as is the gift shop where visitors can purchase souvenir posters, books, and fridge magnets – ‘mappa money’ perhaps? It is all the more surprising then to learn that not so very long ago Hereford Cathedral was considering selling its precious artefact to raise cash and the map was saved at the eleventh hour by generous donations from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and long-time Anglophile John Paul Getty Jr.

The Mappa Mundi was made by a man called Richard de Haldingham e de Lafford from Lincolnshire, whose real name was Richard de Bello, a prebendery (senior member of clergy) of Lafford (Sleaford) in the diocese of Lincoln Cathedral. Richard was promoted to a stall in Hereford Cathedral around the end of the 13th century. The map is thought to have been drawn sometime between 1276 and 1290.

The map is certainly a wondrous thing – a single piece of vellum measuring 1.58 x 1.33 metres and tapering towards the top like an upside down shield. It depicts the world that was known in the late 13th century, a world of fact and fiction, of the familiar and fantastical, of uncanny accuracy and cartographic howlers. More than anything it is a map that superimposes the oceans and landmasses of the known world with the fantasmagorical topography of the dark medieval psyche. At the centre, of course, is Jerusalem surrounded by the continents of the Old World. Asia, the orient, lies at the top, Europe at bottom left hand corner and Africa to the right of this. Superimposed on this are drawings of famous cities and towns, Biblical events and personalities like Noah and his family at sea in the Ark, and figures from mythology like the Golden Fleece and the Cretan labyrinth. There are images of peoples of the world as well as plants, animals and disturbing weird creatures that belong to ‘Here be Dragons’ territory like Gangines, Grifones and the Sciapod, who shelters himself from the sun by the shade of a single enormous foot.

The British Isles lie at the extreme lower left hand edge of the map. England and Scotland are pinched at their join to be depicted almost as separate islands. Some of the rivers – Severn, Thames, Humber – have taken on an Amazon-like width. London and Oxford are pretty well where they should be, although Durham is clearly in the wrong place, located here south of Carlisle and west of York. There’s clearly a degree of local bias at play in the drawing of the map. Lincoln, thought to be the home town of the map’s creator, is depicted as an elaborate castle that nearly equals the Tower of London in status, while the representations of Winchester and Oxford are both rather puny in terms of their relative importance at the time. Hereford is shown as you might expect, and even nearby Clee Hill (Môr Clee) looking something like a cartoon jelly, a humble bit of topography but perhaps included as a local detail in a nod to the map’s Hereford home.

Studying the map (there’s a much clearer English equivalent on the wall opposite to facilitate this) we did what I am sure most visitors do; we looked for our own city of residence, in our case Norwich. There is no sign of it. Indeed, even the bulge of East Anglia is unrepresented as if cartographically redacted like a revisionist face on a Stalin-era photograph. The map maker, a native of Lincolnshire, would surely have known of the existence of Norwich. The city was, after all, the second largest city in England at the time. With a magnificent cathedral, a Norman castle and a large city population, the city was then a far more significant urban centre than it is today. Far more important than Hereford, Gloucestershire or even York, all of which are represented on the map.

This deliberate omission seemed a mystery until I reflected on the date of the map and what was taking place around that time. In the late 13th century several violent confrontations took place between the aggrieved citizens of Norwich and the clergy incumbent at the city’s Cathedral. As a result, Norwich has the distinction of being the only English city ever to be excommunicated following a particularly bloody riot between citizens and monks in 1274. The Etheldreda Gate to the Cathedral, which still stands today, was constructed as penance by Norwich citizens. Was it this excommunication that led Richard de Bello to ignore the city and omit it from his map? After all, the map was drawn to show the creation of God not the world of Man. Norwich, excommunicated at the time, may simply have been considered insufficiently God-fearing to be included as part of His world.

This God-less tradition may have continued to some extent. The 2011 census revealed that Norwich had the highest proportion of respondents in England and Wales saying they were of ‘no religion’ – 42.5% of the population against an average of 25.1%. There again, the city, which historically is strongly non-conformist, claims to have an above average churchgoing rate, and of the 56,268 who proclaimed no religion in the census nearly 800 were Jedi Knights.

Norwich Gorillas


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.

IMG_2811     IMG_2814     IMG_2852


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.

Scratching the Earth

To begin the New Year, here is a piece on something close to home and close to heart – allotments. I touched on this subject briefly last year in my post on Dacha.

The feature below originally appeared in Issue 3 of the very excellent EarthLines magazine last November. The issue content for the forthcoming February edition can be seen here.

Scratching the Earth: a celebration of the English allotment

Words and images by Laurence Mitchell


I am a scratcher, a scraper of earth. Not a full-time farmer but a fair-weather organic vegetable grower. ‘Urban smallholder’ might be a better description, but what I hold is very small indeed and, despite the regular print of my boots, I do not have possession of my own patch of dirt. What I have is something altogether different: temporary stewardship of that quintessentially English tract of land, a city allotment plot.

Scotland also has them but, like beech trees, they tend to be thin on the ground north of the border. But travelling by train across England or Wales you cannot miss them, especially as you make the final backyard run into towns and cities: a few acres of long thin plots with ragged lines of vegetables, tumble-down sheds, compost heaps and algae-stained green houses. In winter, there will probably be stands of frosted Brussels Sprouts (contrarily, the most singularly English of vegetables, which you would be hard-pressed to find in the Belgian capital); in summer, you will inevitably see vines of runner beans entwined up wigwam frames of bamboo, scarlet flowers scrambling for the sky. From your window seat you might witness solitary figures hunched over tending the soil, or red-faced individuals dressed in old clothes clutching a fistful of leaves or a plastic container of soft fruit.

You will not find these oases of fecundity anywhere else in Europe – not quite like this, anyway. True, Germans and Danes have some sort of equivalent with their tidy city gardens, but these have the well-ordered feel of suburbia about them: neat gingerbread cottages, straight lines, pampered lawns and picket fences. In contrast, there is more than a touch of anarchy about the English counterpart: an improvised, hotchpotch character that comes partly from the inherited hubris of surviving maritime blockades and aerial attack, along with the earthy pragmatism of having to live on wits and scraps during wartime. But they have a role to play in times of plenty too; allotments serve as places of refuge for those fleeing latter-day consumer culture. With garden sheds cobbled together from builder’s waste and unhinged old doors, allotments resemble nothing less than Third-World shanty towns – squatter settlements, bidonvilles or favelas. That is, of course, minus the misery: there are no drugs, guns or mudslides to torment their part-time occupants. The worst that can happen here is a plague of aphids, potato blight or tools stolen from sheds.

There is a freedom that comes with all this, this make-do and mend, this non-reliance on throwing money at anything; this quiet undemonstrative snub of consumerism. These are not private gardens after all, where such messy improvisations might snobbishly be seen as a decay of civic pride – the abandoned fridge reverting to nature on the untended scrap of lawn. Rather, they are communal spaces where the individual can do much as he or she wishes. This is not to say that there are no rules of engagement – there are – but these tend to be unwritten yet universally understood by anyone who have served enough time on a plot. Newcomers who fritter away good money on smart sheds and new tools are viewed with suspicion and are seen as unlikely to stay the course – this is usually the reality. Neophyte allotment holders are often viewed as fly-by-night lightweights. To be accepted and, harder still, to be taken seriously, it is necessary to earn one’s spurs, to prove oneself worthy of the respect of the old hands. A decade or so will probably do it, although not necessarily. As well as a place where old-fashioned neighbourliness and community spirit can shine, this is also the sort of territory where traditional English bloody-mindedness can also be freely and wilfully expressed.

Lengthy tomes have been written concerning the history of the English allotment. Suffice it to say, they mostly came into being during one of the nation’s more enlightened interludes when the paternalistic powers-that-be saw fit to grant plots of unused urban space for the use of the city-dwelling working class. The urban allotment was devised as a place where the poor could grow fruit, flowers and vegetables, take health-giving exercise and practice the sort of rosy-cheeked temperance beloved by Victorian philanthropists who, well-meaning though they might have been, felt it necessary to offer a firm guiding hand to the lower orders lest they fall prey to temptation and collapse helplessly in an orgy of gin, laudanum and sexual vice.

Ironically, many of the workers that swelled Britain’s new industrial cities in the Victorian period came because they had already been disenfranchised from the soil they had been sweating over for generations. The Enclosure Movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries meant that many country dwellers had ended up as landless labourers, subject to the whims and requirements of the landowning class. It was only a savage depletion of their number as cannon fodder during World War I that led to agricultural labourers becoming a scarce-enough commodity for their value to be begrudgingly appreciated once more. Nevertheless, farming declined through the first half of the 20th century, and when it did finally recover after World War II it was with the assistance of power machinery not horny-handed men with teams of horses.

Working men had already taken a stand some centuries earlier. At the outbreak of the English Civil War, the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, were Christian nonconformists who wished to reform the existing social order with the introduction of egalitarian rural communities. True to their name, they dug; cultivating common land with the claim that the people had been robbed of their birthright by the ruling class that had become established six centuries earlier around the time of the Norman Conquest. The Diggers would fail in their quest, of course, as would their contemporaries, the Levellers – so-named because of their early tendency to raise hedges in rural enclosure riots. What has persisted, though, is Winstanley’s belief that ‘true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth’ and the notion of ‘the Earth’ (note the capital this time) ‘as a Common Treasury for all’. Effectively, the provision of allotments would represent a form of benign tokenism: the equivalent of scraps from the kitchen for the poor, a handful of coins from the Common Treasury that only a small élite held the keys to.

The earliest allotments were founded in rural areas during the reign of Elizabeth I when the first enclosures of the commons were partly compensated by allocations of land to tenant cottages. The General Enclosure Act of 1845, anticipating civil unrest as a result of earlier sweeping enclosure legislation, made provision for landless poor in the shape of so-called ‘field gardens’ of a quarter of an acre, but only a tiny fraction of land was effectively provided from the enclosed territory. A later act of 1887 obliged local authorities to provide allotments if there was sufficient demand, and this was strengthened by a follow-up act of 1908 that imposed more binding responsibilities.

Allotments came into their own in times of hardship. During World War I, the food blockade imposed by the Germans resulted in greater demand for allotments. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployed coal miners in Wales and northeast England would somehow manage to feed large families on potatoes, cabbages and leeks grown on exhausted soot-begrimed plots. Later, during World War II, food blockades and a lack of farm workers meant that allotments would be the only source of fresh greens for many poorer city dwellers. ‘Dig for Victory’ became the watchword, although food rationing, which continued until 1954, was an equally strong imperative. Following the Allied victory in 1945, allotment numbers declined dramatically right up until the 1970s, when an upsurge of interest in self-sufficiency caused a blip in the overall trend. Since the 1990s the decline has been relatively slow, despite enormous pressure to sell off prime urban sites for building land.


The most controversial allotment story in recent years concerns the fate of the Manor Gardens allotments in East London. These allotments, once a green refuge of tomatoes and turnip, carrot and coriander next to the River Lea, were cleared in 2007 to make way for landscaping for the London 2012 Olympics. They were fêted in the British media, and painted and photographed by inner city archivists. It does not take much imagination to understand the sense of loss felt by a poor inner-city community for which allotments such as these had long provided a vital social space. Serving as a combined place in the country, picnic spot and community centre for its multi-cultural tenants, it is hard to envisage a better tribute to social cohesion, cultural and class integration and eco-cuddliness. ‘It was an island surrounded by water. Lea Valley Park made a nature reserve at the back of it. You walked out of lousy old Hackney… into Shangri La,’ as one former allotment holder confessed who had inherited his plot from his father back in 1948. Several former tenants have even had their ashes scattered quietly here – a sacred site in the hidden urban core desecrated in the name of progress and ‘urban renewal’, air-brushed and landscaped as part of the warp and weft of the 21st century ‘Olympic’ capital. Since the allotments were cleared, and a temporary alternative site offered, an agreement has been made to reinstate them on the original site once the Games are over. Unfortunately, Marsh Lane, the makeshift new site to which the plots have been temporarily relocated, has, as its name suggests, very poor drainage.

My own humble plot in Norwich took an age to acquire. I placed my name on a waiting list and bided my time for several years before an unexpected telephone call one wintry morning offered me an allotment a couple of miles from my home. I was required to act quickly, as the city council needed a decision that same day. It was hardly perfect – a large rectangle of coarse grass fringed on one side by a long-neglected plot buried in head-high bramble thorns. The plot was close to the edge of the allotments, near to a boundary fence that had been breached by residents of the surrounding council estate, who had chosen the plot next door as a convenient spot to deposit their unwanted household rubbish – shattered television tubes and dismembered bicycles, broken glass and metal detritus. Naturally, I said ‘yes’ immediately, excited that finally I had my own scrap of land to do with as I wished. It may have been in the blood: my grandfather had worked as a gardener and his immediate Victorian ancestors were among those who had exchanged tilling the land and work ‘in service’ to the gentry for more profitable but soul-destroying work in the mills and factories of the English West Midlands. Undoubtedly, there was something primordial in my craving: an atavistic urge to work the earth and practice the alchemy of producing food from dirt, sweat and a packet of seed.

It is easy to over-romanticise the notion of an oasis of peace in an urban environment. The soundtrack to my labours may sometimes be birdsong – or more often the harsh screech of bad tempered gulls – but above the punctured-tyre hiss of tinnitus I am also privy to the familiar click-track of council estate Britain – slamming car doors, raised voices, domestic arguments. And it is not just the birds who croon: one of my allotment neighbours is an unconscious whistler, though the only tune fragment he seems to know is the chorus from ‘Hole in My Shoe’ by Traffic, a Top Ten hit back in 1967. Why is this so fixed in his brain, as repetitive as birdsong? One day the local starlings will probably also mimic the refrain – either that or ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’, which chimes metallically and repeatedly from a cruising ice-cream van – and which is, fittingly perhaps, a song about spinach.

But an allotment can be genuinely magical on occasion: a direct link with the world of nature that lies all around but is all too easy to overlook and increasingly hard to connect with whilst living in a city – a world more feral than truly wild, perhaps, but a cogent reminder of it nevertheless. Arriving early in the morning, you may be lucky enough to witness a family of neighbourhood foxes basking in the low sun – hardly tame, but not exactly fearful either. These magnificent rusty creatures, although now commonplace in urban Britain, still engender wild associations. Reviled by some for their scavenging habits, loved by others for their feral tenacity, they still manage to quicken the heart of city-dwellers with their untamed animal arrogance. And when the pigeons, who wait lazily in trees for cabbage patches to be left unguarded, scatter instantly in a slack-winged flurry of panic, you know that a sparrowhawk has been spotted on the prowl, keen red eyes and cruel talons ready to swipe at unwatchful prey.

An urban existence tends to hold nature away at arm’s length, a little offended perhaps at its unpredictable character and our frail human inability to control it. With tall buildings blocking the sun, and central heating blurring the change of seasons, a patch of dirt untainted by real estate is enough to remind ourselves of the greater seasonal dramas at work. In January, the ground may be too frozen to work and last season’s parsnips will grip the soil as if they were slaves to gravity. A snatch of early March sunshine can warm the air sufficiently to bring out hibernating butterflies from their allotment shed hideaways: gorgeous glimpses of colour – a fluttering tortoiseshell, an eye-winged Peacock, a raggedy Comma – punctuating the afternoon. In contrast, those Lepidoptera that arrive in abundance later in the year – cabbage whites and leek moths – are viewed with all the affection of barnstorming rats. In the dog days of August, drought and a stiff summer breeze is sometimes all it takes to blow away precious topsoil as we slavishly hoe away the weeds: pale dust that sticks to legs before filtering down to boots. Wet warm weather is worse: no chance to hoe away the fast-growing weeds that thrive so much better than those vegetables we try to nurture. Bindweed, couch grass, thistle, horse-tail – the lexicon of horticultural hate.

IMG_1525As allotment holders, we tend to be finely tuned to the vicissitudes of weather and the long-game of climate fluctuation. Our knowledge and memory of the year just passed is more sophisticated than a simple appraisal of ‘cold winter’ or ‘wet summer’. We know from experience that the mild spring and moist summer last year was excellent for the fruit harvest, as we remember plums and damsons that bent the branches earthwards with the weight of their juicy, skin-bursting load – a veritable jamboree that we are still enjoying preserved in jars. It tends to be feast and famine though, and that same hard-won experience tells us that a poor crop will no doubt ensue this season, the trees exhausted and needing to recoup energy following the ostentatious display of last year’s fruit-fest. Besides, it was a cold wet spring too, and so flowering trees were unable to set fruit.

Summer has fluctuations of temperature but the mere yo-yo-ing of a column of mercury discloses little useful information. The weather as reflected in the dynamics of insect populations reveals far more. A consistently warm period heralds an invasion of parthenogenetic sap-suckers: aphids – green, white or black. Warmer still, then expect a sudden boost in the population of aphids’ red-spot nemesis: ladybirds, the nation’s favourite beetle. We know – or rather, learn from old hands – that if the summer is cool and wet then runner beans will probably thrive; a hot dry August, then French beans will do better than their flat-pod British cousins – a bluff Gallic reminder of their continental provenance. Sudden weather changes – cool to hot, wet to dry – and onions will bolt, in a hard-wired urge to flower, set seed and survive genetically for another generation. Winter, too, has subtle degrees of cold that are reflected in the fortunes of the plot. A hard frost that rimes the waxy leaves of cabbages may deter hungry birds, but only to a point. Woodpigeons that generally prefer to shred young broccoli leaves will, in really hard weather, turn the attention of their serrating beaks to the normally unappealing stands of kale if all the more palatable brassicas are efficiently netted. At least we have no rabbits or deer to contend with. Winter is largely a time of fallow and reclamation, but cold weather is no barrier to hardier plot-holders, as there are many ways to warm up, and few activities are more rewarding than turning the soil on a cold misty day observed by a worm-hungry, winter-fluffed robin.

After a while working a plot, subtleties of terrain become apparent and the presence of microclimates reveal themselves. My plot lies at the corner of the block and, with the land sloping gently towards it from both north and west, it is something of a frost pocket. Arrive early enough in the day and it is possible to witness a thin layer of cold air sliding menacingly downhill like dry ice on a stage set, frost-burning tender leaves in its wake. The leaves of early potatoes curl and blacken down here when those higher up near the entrance gate stand green and firm, unaffected by overnight frost. One learns to adapt – plant a little later, earth soil up higher.

Intimacy with the vagaries of the weather is one thing, but as allotment holders we also get to know the topography of the ground beneath our feet with great precision, as years spent hoeing, weeding, digging and harvesting engender a close familiarity with our own designated patch of earth. The small territory that is our plot becomes the place on Earth we know most intimately: a microcosm of achievement, change and intent. We create mental maps of the minutiae of its landscape by repetition, by constant stalking. Without recourse to paper or plan we can map our own territories with quite alarming accuracy. These features appear on no known charts other than those in our mind’s eye. On my own: Couch Grass Hill (a two metre-high man-made round barrow – the clue’s in the name), the asparagus bed, the bramble patch, the soft fruit enclave, the ‘wildlife area’ (former raised beds now rotting under grass and wild flowers), the old pear tree (inherited – purveyor of hard, dry fruit), the apricot tree (planted – purveyor of no fruit thanks to late frosts). As inheritors of a relatively blank canvas we bring the plot into being, unwittingly creating songlines of place and event in the process: the exact location where I once saw a toad, the burrow where foxes used to lived, the place where I once cut myself on hidden glass, where I lost my Swiss Army knife (thus far, a forgotten song). Paths are marked – or rather, left un-dug. Unplanned desire paths are created by repeated footfall – the way through long grass and nettles to the shed where I keep tools (foxes, too, used to leave imprints of regular pathways through the grass before they deserted for pastures new). Each plot is a palimpsest of that which came before, previous tenants leaving marks that fade with time (or grow and mature as in the case of fruit trees). Like a river, the plot is both permanent and ever-changing.

More than anything, stewardship (and that is what it is – the land is owned by faceless others) of an allotment affords a taste of poverty – real life-on-the-edge poverty: an oblique empathy with those millions whose very existence depends on whether their crops succeed or fail. We in the West are, of course, mere dabblers – we will not go hungry – but we become attached nevertheless, and the working of an allotment gives some flavour of deep involvement with the earth and what it must feel like if environmental disaster occurs or ancestral land is stolen or gerrymandered by politics and territorial conflict.

The tenure of an allotment is a sometimes frustrating and occasionally heartbreaking business, but there’s beauty in the organic industry of it all. Leaves, weeds and cuttings rot down in time to make rich black compost. Even old clothes: this is the closest that you can get to giving a worn-out pair of jeans a Tibetan sky burial. Put your trust in bacteria and worms, organise them a little, and in a year or two they will be helping to nurture potatoes and onions. The best thing of all, though, is to see the plants grow before your eyes: the seed that transforms into a tiny plant that, before you know it, morphs into something that actually tastes good. As spring bleeds into summer, bright red bean flowers drop like confetti to reveal miniature pods; asparagus spears push upwards through the soil inviting you to savour their piss-tainting delicacy; yellow squashes swell visibly until they are almost too heavy to lift, and potatoes fatten in trenches hiding their treasure underground until it is no longer possible to resist digging up that first forkful of the season. All life is here: birth, sex and death. Naturally, as many allotment holders are well into their later years it is usually the last of this triumvirate that is foremost in their minds. All the more reason, then, to savour the horticultural equivalent of the first two.

The Tarka Trail

There’s a walk through Norwich’s western edgeland that Jackie and I must have done a hundred times. It begins close to a supermarket at Eaton, Norwich’s wealthy southern suburb, and follows the bank of the meandering River Yare upstream towards the broad at the University of East Anglia before the river veers west towards its central Norfolk source. A peaceful walk, frequented by just the odd suburban dog-walker and jogger, it is the epitome of the countryside in the city or, rather, its leafy urban fringe. Drooping willows frame the water, small fish swim, birds tweet in the bushes and reedbeds; herons and kingfishers are regularly sighted along the river. The houses on the opposite bank, with their expansive back gardens and private river frontage, give rise to occasional bouts of envy but on the whole we are simply happy to have the opportunity to walk somewhere like this so close to home.

From the car park where the walk begins, a path leads to the river next to the medieval bridge that once marked the principal route into Norwich from the south. There is an attractive white wooden mill house here, a gushing weir and a NO FISHING sign. The path follows the river under a flyover that carries the bulk of traffic into the city these days – at weekends, a constant buzz of cars speeding into Norwich for retail therapy. Compared to the fine curves and warm sandstone of the nearby bridge, this has all the charm of a multi-storey car park: quotidian concrete and murky, permanently shaded water sheltering that ubiquitous creature of the urban waterway – a supermarket shopping trolley. A Ballardian microcosm, this edgeland non-place provokes an interruption in the pastoral flow of the walk; a frontier to be crossed (or underpassed) before continuing along the riverbank beyond. The smooth round pillars that hold up the flyover are splattered with spray-can ciphers – warnings and portents perhaps? A couple spell out ANARCHY, or words to that effect. Another graffito, more considered, pronounces HAPPINESS DOES NOT HAVE A BAR-CODE.

On Monday, our walk took an unexpected and delightful turn when we spotted a solitary otter at the mill pond near the bridge. Oblivious to the sign prohibiting fishing, the animal was busy hunting – diving and then resurfacing with just its head showing above the water like a small sleek Labrador. We knew that otters were frequently seen in the area by early-worm fishermen but we had never seen one here ourselves. This time, we were privileged. We watched in silence as the animal worked its way along the water’s edge, shaking the reeds at their base and leaving tell-tale trails of bubbles as it swam underwater. It eventually disappeared somewhere near the weir, just before the flyover, and we remarked on how lucky we had been to have had such a good view.

Five minutes later, I was just about to say something sagacious like, ‘It could be a year before we see one again’, when another otter –  probably the same, earlier one displaced further upstream – surfaced beneath a drooping willow. The animal progressed through the reeds at the river’s edge for some time before swimming to the opposite bank, foraging there awhile before returning midstream to dive once more with an effortless flex of its back. We followed it upstream for a full half hour, the otter hyperactive for most of the time – diving for fish, snuffling through vegetation, occasionally sneaking a look back at the two humans and one small dog that were politely in pursuit. We drew so close that we could hear teeth crunching bone as the animal munched the fish it had caught, the otter’s noisy chewing just one aural ingredient in a soundscape that included other familiar echos of the urban fringe in May: small birds chirruping, an overenthusiastic cuckoo (the first heard of the year), chiffchaffs chiff-chaffing, a background thrum of cars on the flyover and the distant eye-ore of the Cambridge train’s air-horn.

We lost track of the otter somewhere in the wider stretch of the river that leads to UEA Broad. It did not matter: our unexpected encounter had been far in excess of anything than we might have hoped for. It didn’t even matter that I did not have my camera with me: if anything, it was liberating to simply observe without the nagging distraction of having to keep a digital record.

Walking back to the car park, I made a short diversion back to the bridge on the off chance that the animal had returned there. No sign. Turning to leave, a metallic blue bullet flashed close to the water and darted beneath the arch of the medieval bridge: a kingfisher, often spotted here but hitherto unseen on this red letter day for wildlife. Happiness does not have a bar-code. True enough.