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.

Crossing the Bridge

A little south of Ipswich, the vast concrete span of the Orwell Bridge stretches across the eponymous river like a conveyor belt to Hades. Well not Hades exactly, but the Port of Felixstowe. A constant rattling procession of lorries shunt to and fro the port, their drivers barely aware of the river they are crossing or the county town they are skirting by. The ciphers that identify their payloads have become household names — Maersk, China Shipping, Cosco – those magic metal boxes that contain the necessities of 21st-century life. Well-travelled, and more often than not coming from the Far East, the containers are the camels of the latter day Silk Road: a trade route, which, as any historian will tell you, was about a lot more than just silk.

The bridge might appear to be no place for pedestrians, but they are tolerated, and walkers intent on completing the Stour & Orwell Walk between Languard Point and Cattawade, and wishing to avoid the extra six or so miles of the alternative ‘Ipswich Loop’, are obliged to cross it on using the walkway on its southern side. The approach on foot from Orwell Country Park is intimidating – the noise, speed and volume of traffic all contributing to the inevitable feeling that this is an unnatural place for hikers to be setting foot. The 30-metre drop to the Black Ooze (yes, it really is called that) of the River Orwell below is held at bay by just a concrete ledge a little more than a metre high. This is certainly not comfortable strolling territory, nor a place to suddenly become aware of a hitherto undiscovered acrophobia.

Steps lead up sharply to the bridge walkway, past a Samaritans sign that bears a short but kind message and a phone number. Like steps to the gallows, the certainty that you are shadowing the last steps taken by some desperately unhappy souls is chilling. At the top is a free phone, proof that someone cares, although the lorries flying by seem wholly indifferent. The views along the Orwell estuary are pleasing – green fields, houses snuggled in woodland, little boats bobbing in silver water – but the constant thrum of the traffic, and a tangible sense of alienation, do not encourage lingering. The walk across takes around 15 minutes.

Bridges are powerful metaphors for the journeys of life, for transformation. The novelist Ian Banks wrote an entire novel – The Bridge, no less — using an enormous industrial super-complex of a bridge as the dream environment of his comatose crash victim protagonist. Religion and mythology make good use of the bridge as metaphor too and the crossing of a body of water — the River Jordan, River Styx — is ascribed a spiritual meaning. Most of the time though, our concerns are more mundane: if crossing the Orwell Bridge on foot is disturbing then it is because of its height and heavy traffic as much as its psycho-geographic imprint.

Elsewhere in the world, where health and safety concerns are not held as sacred as they are here in the West, dodgy-looking footbridges have been used daily for generations without much fuss. The one illustrated here is over the Hunza River in the far north of Pakistan. To be honest, it is a little nerve-wracking to traverse, especially when local villagers join you and the bridge sways nauseatingly above the rapid rock-filled glacial river beneath. More alarming still is to cross halfway only to discover a missing slat and the necessity of making a jump to the next complete one.

In contrast, this footbridge feels much safer; nurturing even. Perhaps it is its solid organic nature that reassures, and also the surprising realisation that it hardly sways at all? This remarkable feat of bio-engineering, which resembles something that Frodo might have encountered in The Lord of The Rings,  is one of many living root bridges found in the deep, rain-washed valleys of Meghalaya, northeast India. Fashioned from the living roots of fig (Ficus elastica) trees that grow alongside the region’s turbulent monsoon streams they take decades to build but last for centuries. You can read my article on them in Geographical magazine here.

Returning closer to home, to the Waveney Valley in fact, here is a short extract from Slow Norfolk & Suffolk that describes an encounter on the bridge across the Waveney at Mendham on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. Perhaps bridges do affect us psychologically more than we might credit?

This is classic Waveney Valley scenery — the sort of thing Munnings might have painted if he had not concentrated on horse fairs or attacking modernism quite so much. It’s the kind of landscape that brings reverie. The iron bridge crossing the Waveney seems like a giant staple attaching Norfolk to the Suffolk mainland. Brown cows wandering the meadows contentedly graze and flick flies away, keeping their eyes on a pair of locals fishing beneath the trees and catching nothing. As poplars rustle in the breeze, the very English sound of an accordion drifts down from the Munnings pub. It could almost be the 18th century, if it wasn’t from the fishermen’s car parked by the road. As I am taking all this in, a man who is clearly the worse for drink ambles down the road towards the bridge. He stumbles exactly halfway across, pauses for a moment, then goes back the way he has come. It is as if he is fearful to place his feet on Norfolk soil, or there is some sort of invisible barrier. Two minutes later, a sleek Jaguar arrives from the north to pick the man up. Then it turns around and ferries him back across the bridge… into Norfolk.