Category Archives: Norfolk

The edges of England awash with water


image of spigot mortar mount in Norfolk
Last line of defence: redundant spigot mortar mounts at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk
Travel into East Anglia my friends and the world suddenly feels less certain. The sky, whether blue or grey, reduces your size to a pinprick on this orb and the land is flat and unremitting.

We are nothing in this landscape and churches pray to heaven lest, one day, the sky should fall in and we are crushed by a firmament of stars. Thus it was I found myself once again in Norfolk; Le Gringalet had brought me to new pastures: the flat beaches of the Wash where (I recall) King John had a lucky escape not so long ago.

What was most strange is that my visit to these marshlands was almost 795 year to the day when the king fell ill and instructed his baggage train to cross the Welland estuary at Fosdyke. I am sorry to say that as well as losing his baggage he also subsequently died of his illness himself, at Newark-on-Trent on the 19th October 1216. Little wonder that these lands, at times, make you wonder when the world will stop for you…

And that’s because the land here moves, like a swamp snake. Clearly, since they were drained from the 1400s (and most dramatically from the seventeenth century onwards) both the land and the waters have changed much since when I first ventured here. Indeed, the marshy reed-land of the Fens has largely disappeared now but, imperceptibly, this soil is alive beneath its calm surface and I have no doubt that when man stops thinking, the world will move again and those waters will rise…

And the waters, whether flowing here or not, have created a strange, melancholy aloofness among the denizens of the Wash. People here could hide for years and never be found at one time and well I recall some local folk wandering around on stilts from place to place. Little surprise – the reeds revealed nothing: staunch guardians of dark secrets, home to the booming bittern and nasty ends in dark pools.

Travelling here too was a leap of faith in those days. Navigation beyond the road to Lynn was very much one of following your horse’s nose. For the traveller heading north, once the isle of Ely was behind you, the horizon was but a sea of reeds, your only hope to turn back and use the great lantern of Ely cathedral as your guide; ever taking you back to God – or at least you hoped.

And in those reeds, then as now, the people – water-crinkled by nature – were sullen folk, proudly independent and tending their lands in summer, surrendering to the floods as they rose in winter months. Black and dangerous were these lands when John last rode this way. And as the anonymous “Fen Parson” was to write in the 1770s:

The moory soil, the wat’ry atmosphere,

with damp, unhealthy moisture chills the air.

Thick, stinking fogs and noxious vapours fall,

agues and coughs are epidemical;

Hence every face presented to our view

Looks of a pallid or a sallow hue

So that was then but what of today? Lest you journey to Wicken Fen, reader, there is little left to tell the story of this landscape of rustling and silence. But in its place comes still a flatness and a threatening calm. In place of the stiltmen you have the sugar beet lorry, wending its lonely path up clogged arterial roads. In place of the rustling reeds you have the endless horizons. In place of the marshes, you have the brown murk of the Wash – only navigable by the Lynn river among the dangerous sandbanks.

Yet it’s on the beaches of the Wash that, perhaps, nothing has changed and this is where threat of this brooding place still breathes roughly. At the mouth of the Wash by Holme-Next-The-Sea, walking beyond the village and over the dunes, the salt marshes and lowlands are just as I remember them, just as they have always been.

Look along these beaches and touch the sheer futility of the concrete mounts for spigot mortars – a last hopeless line of defence against German invaders; now forlorn and forgotten in the sands. And then look behind the dunes to the village beyond. It is lonely, quiet and flag-less, in the autumn evenings, flickering lights are turned on in living rooms just as serfs gathered in hovels in my time: their company sole comfort against the uncertainty of the unknown.

Holme-Next-The-Sea hides behind the dunes but it does so on borrowed time. It lies on land which appears lower than the sea beyond the dunes. These lands are beyond the Fens but not beyond the power of water. Water, like the dunes of the Sahara, waits and moves imperceptibly. One day soon these waters will rise again and England will lose yet more treasure to the Wash.

As the Fen Parson writes of the life of man in these places: “His varied scenes of life, now make him see, Nothing is certain but uncertainty“.

Reader, though times have changed, some things forever remain the same.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, English History, English Landscape, Gawain and the Green Knight, Norfolk, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England

Castle Rising – my favourite keep in Olde England


Caslte Rising Norfolk

Castle Rising in the County of Norfolk - surely the finest keep in all the land? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

In the many years I have spent traversing this kingdom of Logres, from Camelot in the west to the depths of Staffordshire, I have always been impressed by accommodation offered to me. Whether hall house or manor, whether some lowly stable or some vast tower, I have seen them all. Yet few places stand out so much as the keeps and donjons in which it has been my pleasure to lie.

Now, of course, you will know well of my stays with lord and lady Bertilak and my meeting with the Green Knight up near the Staffordshire Roaches. And, of course, for reasons of my shame, I cannot say that my stay in their castle brings me great joy – save to say that it challenged my purity and my arrogance and is therefore worthy of remark. The best place for that castle is in my memory, befogged and dim of view – but there are others, dear reader and here I share my favourite with you, Castle Rising near King’s Lynn in the County of Norfolk, England.

To my mind, there are several great houses and all of them worthy of note: The Tower of London or Windsor, both great Royal keeps; Conisborough, surely the greatest circular keep in the land; Rochester, one of the tallest; Warkworth, one of the most striking; Peveril, one of the most dramatic; Orford, one of the most ingenious; Dover, one of the most impregnable; and Middleham, one of the most solid. Yet, for me, Rising outshines them all.

Rising is a veritable palace, a fine Norman keep of c.1140 set among rolling sandlings and built within great earthworks and – indeed – dwarfed by them. From the outside, it is difficult to gauge the sheer scale of the place; from the village, the tower is scarcely visible. But press on into the bailey and thence to the inner bailey and surely one of the finest keeps in all Albion awaits.

The keep at Rising is a statement of grandeur: a home above all others and the home in my day to William of Albini, the second of his line. The keep is approached up a flight of stairs all within a forebuilding which I would describe as probably the most magnificent in all the land: exquisite arcading, ornate craftsmanship and execution of the highest quality. To enter this building is to be impressed from the moment you walk through the door.

And now, once atop the stairs within a vaulted vestibule, turn left and enter the main building itself – sadly now without its floors but in my mind I recall well the feasts of pork, ox, venison and mutton we ate there with great joy. Oh what majesty! A lofty hall, well equipped with its own private kitchen and – unique possibly – garderobes split between lords and ladies. William respected the privacy of all his guests and built for that accordingly.

But there is more. In my day, few could enter the lord’s private rooms but today you can see within theme clearly. The private garderobe, an ante-chamber, a private staircase and also the keep’s own exquisite chapel. This is a building which clutches you and warms your spirit. It was – and is – a statement of power in the landscape, and quite rightly so.

Lord William was a powerful man, with other possessions (now sadly much depleted) at New and Old Buckenham – including, at the former, a most unusual planned town with a vast motte at one end surmounted by the stump of a round donjon in the continental style. When he built his castles he built them within earthworks so vast – especially in the huge flatness of East Anglia – that they brooded on the land, surveying his territories and visible for miles.

He was nothing if not adventurous in his experimentation in building but he was also a fine huntsman and sportsman which is why, for me, Rising is so special. What is not clear to today’s visitor but which for me kindles the magic of the place, is the great Chase, or park all around it, encompassed by banks some 15 miles long. Rising was a statement within a planned landscape of feudal lordship: proud from without, proud from within.

Oh what pleasant days I had there riding with Sir William, talking about the joys of the hunt, of chivalry and of his beloved Norfolk lands! And so it is, dear reader, that I recommend this place to you if, on your travels, you venture east into Norfolk.

Little wonder that the duke of Norfolk himself in later years, writing a letter to the duke of Suffolk in 1538 took time to say that it was “written on a molehill in Rysyng Chase, 8 August, 11 o’clock”. It’s that sort of place – you’ll like it so much that you’ll want to tell your friends.

Note: until recently, Castle Rising was in the care of the State under the auspices of English Heritage. It is now managed by Lord Howard of Rising although I shall say that I have not been hunting with this gentleman. For information, visiting times and entry charges (not levied in my day but, then again, you had to know the owner personally), click this link to Castle Rising.

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Filed under British Landscape, Castle Rising, Castles, Castles of England, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Norfolk, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England