Modern train in the country where it all began

I have been to many parts of the country by rail in my lifetime; some so long ago they are barely remembered, and some much more recently. When steam was king I took the railway from Norwich to Barnstaple in Devon. I was under ten at the time, and can remember nothing of the journey. Fortunately there were still steam engines on the tracks when I was a little older and I can well remember them. I was 19 before dieselisation was complete on British Rail. I rather lost interest in railways after the demise of steam, but I should’t have done, because the rolling stock was still from the 1950s or even pre-war, and it is the rolling stock that you are mostly aware of as you travel by rail.

The plush elegance of the coaches was something you will never now experience. You may get a hint of it on a heritage railway, but that is a short journey on a special occasion. The lovely feeling of establishing oneself in a compartment for a journey of two or three hours is hard to convey. This was completely normal for us  back in the day; the trains were still well supplied with staff but under used by passengers. It couldn’t last, nor did it. The last compartment coach I travelled in was on the way back from Chester to Norwich in the late 1980s. That was highly unusual by then, and most coaching stock was open throughout.The high backs of the seats in the compartment, the clean anti-macassers, the pictures above your head, even the air that rushed in from the ventilator and occasionally covered you with smuts from the coal fire, all these things have utterly vanished. Air conditioning is fine until it ceases to work; then you might hanker for something a little less high-tech.

Bill and Joe have dinner on the train, 1980

I must say that the reliability of the rolling stock continues to improve in matters like doors closing, but in other respects the quality of service has declined. The refreshments available are awful; a trolley may appear bearing sandwiches and instant coffee, but where is the three course meal served by a steward in a white jacket? It has gone, together with all the other things which made up the romance of travel. Or most of them at any rate, though I would still like to take the night sleeper to Aberdeen.

But this blog is meant to be about the places I have been to on the train. I have been to all the mainland countries of the UK, but I have never travelled the trains in  Ireland. I have used the trains in much of Europe; France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Portugal, Denmark and Norway. I have even been for a train journey in Canada. (My friend Jill has been to China on the Trans Siberian Railway!) Holland and Poland I have been to but never used the trains there. In 1967 I spent an interesting morning inspecting the steam trains in a motive power yard in Rimini, but again I have never been on any Italian trains.

Back in the UK I have taken a Castle class to West Wales back in the days when you really could go behind such an engine without relying on preserved locos. (It shows how old I am.) I took the train to several places in Scotland in the early 60s, but although I saw plenty of steam engines, those I travelled behind were all diesels; their were no electric trains in Scotland then. I went to Weymouth behind a Merchant Navy class Pacific, which was a great experience. More recently I have been on the High Speed Train from London St Pancras to Brussels. Because I went first class I did have lunch on the train, but it was only a two course meal. It was served by a waiter, but he didn’t wear a white jacket. It was all served in plastic trays and none of it was hot. Still, for the 21st century, it wasn’t bad; it would cost you a fortune unless (like me) you were disabled – I went business class for a second class fare!





Edith Cavell’s childhood home

The British nurse who was born in the Rectory on the edge of Swardeston common did great work in the provision of modern nursing services in Belgium. However her name would be utterly forgotten today had she not been shot by a German firing squad a hundred years ago. Most people will be aware of her story, and how she tried to help the soldiers on both sides. ‘Patriotism is not enough’ was her cry; but that does not mean she did not feel that patriotism was important.

Although her work to aid the German injured is undisputed, there is controversy over the precise nature of Cavell’s contribution to the Allied War effort; did she merely help British soldiers to escape the Germans, or was her involvement with British Intelligence more substantial? This attempt to cast her in a less favourable light is entirely misplaced, although utterly in accord with modern mean-spirited scepticism. As a patriotic Englishwoman her intention was unmistakably to aid the British, whether in the escape plans of personnel or with intelligence. Strictly speaking, even her work in aiding fugitive Britons to escape Belgium was clearly illegal to the German occupation force. The question should not be whether or not they were right to shoot her; this raises many problems, not least whether the Germans had any right to be in Belgium in the first place. The question should rather be ‘were the Germans wise to shoot her’? And the answer to this is that they made a monumental error.  The contrast between her kind and caring but patriotic nature and the unfeeling brutality of the German High Command could not have been more marked. Is it any wonder that observers across the world have, ever since her death, taken her side?

I am afraid that it is still part of the German psyche to pursue legalistic correctness in disregard of the wider decencies of life. Even today the Germans (and it is they who run Europe) are inflicting apparently endless economic punishment on Greece. The Greeks may have acted extremely irresponsibly in the past, but what is the point of loading extortionate loans onto them, loans that they have no prospect of ever repaying? Individual Germans may be delightful people, but as a nation they appear dour and humourless. Even their sports cars are dedicated to speed and performance rather than fun. Perhaps it is this trait that has made the nation such an economic powerhouse.

Edith seems to have been an exemplary character, whether as a student of French, an amateur painter, mistress of her beloved dogs, nurse to her ailing father or matron of a hospital in Brussels. In spite of her life in Belgium, she was quintessentially a middle class English spinster of a type that no longer exists. These women had grit. It is in no way to denigrate her courage and fortitude to say that any number of her contemporaries would have behaved exactly as Edith Cavell did, given the same circumstances.

I sometimes reflect on the fact that Edith and I attended the same school in Norwich (though 75 year apart). This may seem a little odd as it was the Norwich High School for Girls, but as I have explained elsewhere, the school briefly accepted boys for the first two years of their education. Swardeston common itself was a popular dog-walking spot during my youth, and despite often passing her former home I scarcely gave the poor lady a second thought. My son must have passed her statue daily on the way to school, but such regular attendances soon blunt any deeper consideration. It is as well to take some time to examine the significance of the life and death of nurse Edith Cavell.






The family originally came from the village of Gresham in North Norfolk, and must have got their Grasshopper crest from being the village squires in the middle ages. The similarity of sound suggests as much. James Gresham is referred to as the local agent of the Paston family in the Paston Letters. In the mid-fifteenth century they migrated all of five miles to the market town of Holt. Richard Gresham was born there in 1485; he was apprenticed to the Worshipful Company of Mercers of London in the last years of Henry VII’s reign. He later went into partnership with his brothers John and William and between them they began to make money hand over fist.

Mercers were dealers in textiles, and this formed the principal part of their trade, but the Gresham brothers were interested in anything which would turn them a profit. As well as exports of woollen cloth they imported grain from Germany, wine from France and exotic goods from Turkey and Russia. All were handled by ships belonging or lent to the Greshams.

Richard became especially close to his fellow East Anglian Cardinal Wolsey, and did much to find the continental wall hangings that decorated his new palace at Hampton Court. When the Cardinal was on his death-bed, abandoned, alone and charged with High Treason, he wrote of his ‘fast-friend’, Richard Gresham. Richard paid for the funeral of Wolsey, although this was a muted affair at Leicester Abbey, where the Cardinal was interred without ceremony or memorial.

Richard and John were influential in the City Corporation of London, both becoming Lords Mayor, Richard in 1537 and John ten years later. Both were knighted in recognition of their services. The brothers were not ashamed to indulge in dubious financial arrangements; these would be regarded as sharp practices today, and even in the sixteenth century these actions got them many enemies. But their great wealth protected them; the government was permanently short of money and the Gresham brothers were experts at negotiating foreign loans. Richard was elected MP in the mid 1530s, and served again in the Parliament of 1545; both he and John acquired titles in the Royal Household.

Richard’s son Thomas went on to even greater heights during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was apprenticed to his uncle John and was admitted to the livery of the Mercers’ Company in 1543. As their agent in the Low Countries Thomas became adept at financial arrangements and was able to rescue the pound from impending disaster. For this the government was extremely grateful and rewarded him with grants of land. All the Greshams benefited enormously from the Reformation, as plenty of the Church’s former lands came their way, either as gifts from the Crown or by purchase. Thomas Gresham provided the capital needed for  the Royal Exchange building, which was officially opened in 1571. It was modelled on the Antwep bourse and became the focus of London’s burgeoning importance as a financial centre, a position that it still retains. A few years before his death in 1579 he established the first successful paper mill in England, on the river Brent in Middlesex. Before this corn mill was converted to produce paper all the books printed in this country had to use imported material. This paper had to come from the Low Countries, where Gresham would have got the skilled workers the mill needed.

For all the ruthless business practices displayed by these family members, they all had an abiding interest in education. Richard sent his son Thomas to university at Cambridge, a highly unusual course of action for someone destined for a life in trade. They bequeathed much of their wealth in endowments that have provided for education in England down the centuries. Sir Thomas left instructions to establish Gresham College in London, which was to provide lectures on academic subjects. These lectures are free to all members of the public; the college has no formal students and awards no degrees. It is a highly democratic institute of Higher Education, and is unique in its constitution. This opened in 1597 and has been giving lectures ever since.

It is assumed that the brothers Richard and John Gresham were educated by the Augustinian canons at Beeston Regis Priory near Sheringham. This school closed as the result of the seizure of Church lands by Henry VIII. To address the ensuing shortage of educational facilities in North Norfolk Sir John established a Grammar School in Holt. In 1546 he began to purchase land around Holt with a view to endowing the school. As a younger son he had not inherited the Manor at Holt, and so he had to buy the property that was to form the basis of the school. He passed this endowment to the Fishmongers’ Company shortly before his death in 1556, and they still govern the school today. For more than three centuries this country Grammar School provided a modest education for the sons of the local gentry, sending one or two scholar every now and then to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, from which they would emerge as doctors, lawyers or clergymen. But in the last years of the nineteenth century it was transformed into a  Public School of national acclaim. A number of leases on property in central London had fallen due for renewal, and this provided the huge sums of money that were invested in the school. New boarding houses and a chapel were built. Just one pupil of the old foundation remained. The recently opened Holt railway station became a magnet for pupils from across the land. Since the refoundation of the school Gresham’s  has produced such figures as the Scot Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, the Yorkshire born poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and inventor Sir James Dyson. Although most pupils of the Public School are the sons (and since the latter part of the twentieth century the daughters) of the wealthy, the school provides scholarships to members of the local community who have the wish and ability to benefit from the education provided. This in the spirit of the original Free Grammar School, which would educate any suitable candidates from the Holt area gratis, although the boarders had to pay.

Widely despised during their lifetimes, the Greshams have been responsible for much good done since their deaths.





Robert Ransome was the son of a Quaker, born in Wells-next-the-Sea in 1753. Wells was still a centre of Quakerism a hundred and fifty years later, when my wife’s grandmother moved there and became an enthusiastic member of the congregation. The town was not however home to a conventional brand of Quakerism; instead of opting for silent worship the Wells Quakers were namely for their singing. Indeed in the nineteenth century it was known that members of the Quaker community attended Church of England services in order to sing in the parish choir!

The Society of Friends (their official title) had met in the town since the very first flowering of the denomination in the middle years of the 17th century. The community bought the Meeting House (on its present site) for twenty pounds and one guinea in 1697. Robert Ransome’s father was a teacher, instructing the children of Quakers in the town. When Robert himself left school he was apprenticed to a local ironmonger. Even while still at Wells his inventive nature was apparent. From Wells he moved to Norwich where he established a brass foundry, and his first patents were granted.

Norwich had a number of flourishing Non-conformist denominations, including Unitarians and Baptists as well a Quakers, but Robert seems to have found that the Cathedral city stifled his religious convictions. Ipswich had been a hotbed of Puritanism in the 17th century, and this put the Suffolk town on a collision course with the Quakers, but by the 18th century this animosity had subsided. In 1789 Robert Ransome moved his business to Ipswich.

Quakers being both industrious and  frugal became one of the wealthiest religious communities; the Barclays who founded the eponymous bank were Quakers, and other old Quaker names still appear in the field of business (think of porage oats). Ransome was no exception and his capital was £200, a considerable sum in the early years of the 19th century. He and one employee established a foundry at a disused maltings in St Margarets Ditches. As result of a mishap in his iron foundry a hot casting came into contact with cold metal, resulting in an extremely hard product. Ransome patented this discovery which he put to use in making ploughshares. Agricultural machinery became the company’s bread and butter, although railway equipment was also made by an associated firm.

The RANSOME threshing machine demonstration 1972.

In 1845 the firm moved to Orwell Works, whose riverside location provided access to the sailing ships and steamers which carried their burgeoning export trade across the globe. The following year Ipswich was connected to the growing railway network, which opened up further the national market. One of my relatives was an engine driver for Ransomes in the 19th century; the firm had its own network of lines to  transport goods from Orwell and Waterside Ironworks to the docks and railway station.

After over two hundred years it is not surprising that independent existence of the firm came to an end in the late 20th century, but the name Ransomes survives. They still make lawnmowers in Ipswich. The first mowing machine was made in 1832; before then any lawns had to be mowed by hand with a scythe, or else grazed to a smooth appearance by sheep. In the past the firm had a much more varied product range, from traction engines to large astronomical telescopes. During WW1 they made aeroplanes; by then the firm must have abandoned its historic links with pacifist Quakerism.





Sir Thomas Browne, Hay Hill in Norwich

THOMAS BROWNE was a native of London; he was born in Cheapside in 1605, the son of a silk merchant from Cheshire. He studied medicine at Oxford, and later went on to several European universities, obtaining his final qualification from Leiden in 1633. He came to Norwich in 1637 and remained there as a physician for the rest of his life.

He was not a great practical scientist, even in his chen field of medicine, but he was the foremost scientific writer of the 17th century. His introduction of the word ‘electricity’ to describe the developing study of the effects of static is probably his most important contribution to the world, but other coinages like hallucination, cryptography and incontrovertible have become part of the fabric of the English language. As a physician he is more important for his contribution to the vocabulary of medicine than for any medical advances he advocated; the word pathology is one of his neologisms, as indeed is the word medical itself.  The state of knowledge in the sciences was just about to explode; Isaac Newton was already working on his great advances, although he did not publish his ground breaking works until after Browne’s death. It was the older man’s sceptical methodology which marks him out as a truly modern thinker.

It was for his opinions on religion that he was first read, and these form the basis of his book Religio Medici (in English the Religion of a Doctor). The scientific discoveries of the Renaissance were throwing up all sorts of uncomfortable questions for traditional theology, and was these that he addressed in this work. This circulated widely in manuscript during the 1630s, and a pirated copy was published in 1642. His own version, which had the more controversial elements of the privately circulated copy removed, was published a year later. His view of the unhistorical nature of the story of Noah’s Ark was influenced by the then recent discovery of the New World. No North American beasts were present among the animals that disembarked on Mount Ararat, and this gave him pause for thought.

Like all his contemporaries, he believed in witches and magic, and the evidence he gave in 1662 to the trial in Bury St Edmunds of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny may have helped the prosecution in convicting the women of witchcraft and their subsequent execution. It is a fact that these so-called ‘witches’  also undoubtedly believed in witchcraft, although they were (in most cases) probably convinced of their own innocence of the charge. It is nevertheless a blot on the memory of a man who was an advanced and modern thinker in most of his opinions.

A work called Notes and Letters on the Natural History of Norfolk was published by Jarrold’s in 1902, based on Browne’s manuscripts. It shows the inquisitive nature of the physician’s mind that such a book could be compiled. It deals with fishes and paricularly the birds he saw as he travelled the count. He gives the first known reference to many of the birds associated with the county, and to those that have since disappeared. The Great Bustard was frequently seen and heard in the Fenlands of Norfolk in the 17th century, and was (according to Browne) deemed a ‘dainty dish’; so much so that by 1832 it became extinct in England, when the last one was shot. It has only been reintroduced from Europe in recent years. Writing before Linnaeus introduced the binomial nomenclature method of defining the species of the natural world, it is sometimes not obvious what bird Browne is referring to, but the ‘woodspeck’ is clearly the woodpecker. Browne recounts specimens recovered from Horsey mere in North Norfolk and Thetford Heath near the Suffolk border, showing that his interest ranged widely across the county.

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) Browne dealt with the Vulgar Errors commonly believed in the 17th century. He used three ways of determining the truth – past authorities, reason and experience. Book Three treats the common misconceptions concerning the Animal Kingdom. On the existence of the unicorn for example he used reason to demonstrate that the position of its horn would make it impossible for the animal to eat. The similar horns of the rhinoceros and narwhal do not have this feature, and Browne accepts these beasts as genuine. In all three instances he was absolutely right, although his other methodology of empirical observation was not available to him in Norwich. None of these beast had ever been found in Norfolk.

He was knighted in 1672 by King Charles II on his visit to Norwich. Sir Thomas Browne continued to practise medicine in Norwich until his death aged nearly 80.





Artificial intelligence is an unnatural version of the real thing.  There has been much talk  lately of artificial intelligence and the threat that this may present for us, but as far as I can see it presents no threat whatsoever. Artificial intelligence is a misnomer anyway; although it is undoubtedly artificial, there is nothing remotely intelligent about any computer software that I have ever come across. Whether it is attached to a robot, or to something like correcting this blog, it is highly unintelligent. Robots are good at doing simple repetitive jobs, like filling boxes, but no one would ever claim that this involves any intelligence at all. Even a simple job like polishing my shoes is a mind bogglingly complex task. It involves finding the polish in the first place, making sure it is the right colour, ensuring any spots are removed from the leather and polishing the shoes to a suitable sheen. A robot might one day manage it, but it would still not be intelligent in any meaningful sense of the word.

There is obviously much further to go along the road before we can apply even the term comprehension to any computer program, let alone intelligence. The auto-correct facility that tries to put right spelling mistakes is pretty good at spotting the sort of typos I might make by misplacing a single letter in a long word, but with short words it always gets it wrong.  Where a human being would immediately see the correct word from the context, it make ridiculous assumptions based merely on the nearest spelling.

What I am extremely dubious about is any originality of thought ever coming from a computer. Even in purely scientific terms, take for example the ‘Higgs boson’;  the existent of this sub-atomic particle was postulated in 1964 by the eponymous researcher, acting on what I can only call intuition. It was only proved in recent years by the use of the CERN particle accelerator. I do not claim have any knowledge of this abstruse branch of physics, but  I do not see artificial intelligence coming up with similar revelations any time soon. Perhaps artificial intuition might. But because science can eventually be demonstrated by number crunching, it may be theoretically possible to accomplish anything scientific without human input. With the arts the prospect of computers coming up with any truly innovative results is impossible. A computer may appear to be creative, but it will always be merely a mechanistic device. The original insights of a writer or an artist, or even of a musician (although music relies on mathematics to large extent) I do not see as being within the grasp of artificial intelligence.

In the arts I see no prospect of computers supplanting human beings. I can contemplate the imagination being imitated by a non-imaginative machine, but I think the results would be bizarre rather than valid. As I said earlier, we are so far from even basic tasks being accomplished by artificial intelligence. I do not foresee even my grandchildren’s grandchildren needing to be unduly concerned by the threat of artificial intelligence. On the other hand,  if advances will eventually take care of all spelling errors so much the better. If artificial intelligence can answer all the questions thrown up by molecular physics I would be amazed but not concerned. But if artificial intelligence could explain the value of a Shakespeare sonnet or a Keats ode I would be flabbergasted. For one thing, in such an ‘intelligent’ discussion there is no such thing as a ‘right’ answer, although there is an almost infinite number of ‘wrong’ ones. Or how about sarcasm or irony, where you say the opposite of what you intend; try getting a computer to understand that!





NANNY – my paternal grandmother – gave me £15 for Christmas 1962; I was thirteen. She and Uncle Laurie were living in a retirement flat in Recorder Road in  Norwich. Uncle Laurie was her second husband, her first husband, my grandfather, had died before I was born. Quite why she decided to be so generous I don’t know; fifteen pounds was a king’s ransom in 1962 – at least £250 in today’s prices. I believe she preferred to give me my inheritance while she was still alive; certainly there was nothing for me in her will when she died three years later, but that was fine. I rather doubt if she had intended me to spulge it all at once; no doubt she would have preferred me to squirrel it away in a bank account.

Paillard Bolex 8mm ciine camera

However this gift enabled me to buy an 8mm movie camera. ‘Super Eight’ had not then come available, and in retrospect I believe the old ‘Standard Eight’ (as 8mm was thereafter called) equipment was being sold off at a discount to make way for the new models. Although Super Eight was promoted as far superior, the main difference was that the four minutes of film did not require turning over half way through. The 16mm film had to be split  when it was sent off for processing (which had already been paid for as part of the purchase price). You had to send off your Kodachrome film to the lab and then wait for the postman to call. At least the pictures were in colour by 1962; the previous generation would have had no film at all (it was wartime), and before that it was all black and white. Movie cameras were powered by clockwork, so no batteries were required.

Gregory’s camera shop in Lower Goat Lane had a Paillard Bolex camera going cheap, and this Swiss make was very good. I had hankered after it as soon as I saw it in the window, and thanks to Nanny I was able to afford it. I must have written her an effusive thank you letter, but I am sure I did not reveal my purchase to her. Inflation was soon to gather pace, and soon the £15 would only have bought the family a good meal at a restaurant, so in retrospect it was a wise decision.

Although still cameras were quite plentiful among my school acquaintances, none had a movie camera. They were not common in the 1960s; many of my peers came from much wealthier families than I did. Their fathers were directors of national organisations like Norwich Union, and could easily have afforded a movie camera for their offspring had they wished to indulge them.  I’m glad that I had the imagination to make my purchase; I took full advantage of my new toy, and my first film was used photographing the severe winter of 1963. There is a view of us youngsters building an igloo on the snowy wastes of what should have been the junior school football pitch.

I was also able to capture some of the last of the steam engines on East Anglian railways. Diesels had already taken over in Norfolk and steam had vanished from the Norwich shed, but the steam depot at March was still operational. On January 1st 1964 my cousin David Anderson (aged 32) organised a trip to the Cambridgeshire station, where we were conducted on a tour round the extensive sheds by a member of British Railways’ staff . The party consisted of David, my father and me, plus a young train spotter who had been jotting down numbers at March station and who tagged along. David’s children were unfortunately too young to join us.

No longer being cared for, the steam engines were all extremely dirty, but at least those in steam still possessed their nameplates; many of those that stood cold and abandoned had already had their identification plates removed. Even then a brass  number was being avidly sought out by collectors. A Jubilee class (Barham) steamed past us, and is recorded on film. The Britannia class Oliver Cromwell stood cold and out of commission but under cover. She would undoubted have gone to the scrap yard like Barham, which succumbed to the blow torch in 1965; however Britannia herself, which had been destined for preservation, was subsequently vandalised. Oliver Cromwell was therefore substituted for preservation instead. As things turned out both locomotives were eventually preserved, Oliver Cromwell as part of the national collection.

I also took pictures of my canoe, Red Squirrel, taking to the river Blyth at Southwold and the sea at Snettisham. Two people could sit in the cockpit, and both my cousins Jill and Tony Sansom went out in her with their father Uncle Arthur. We explored the river Waveney at Bungay. It’s all captured on film. Picnics and picking primroses also feature among my early movies, as does the visit of my sister from Canada with her young family. My cine camera was a marvellous purchase, and fifty years later I am so glad to have this moving record of times long past.

Compared to modern videos the 8mm camera was basic. The definition was not great and you could only shoot very brief scenes; the film was expensive. Now you can record hours and hours on-line or on DVD for virtually nothing, and sound is included. Once exposed the film had to be sent away for processing, so there was no possibility of checking what you had photographed – no instant rewind in those distant days. It was a matter of guess-work. Should it be f 16 or f 22? It depended on how bright the weather was. These arcane terms all passed out of use and out of memory many decades ago. Now you can whip out your smartphone and get a much better sequence than you could ever have done with a 8mm camera; but now that anyone can take a movie, what’s the point?  When I was recording my teenage years my ciné camera was a real novelty.






I used to regard myself as quite an artist. As an adolescent I even imagined making art my career. I produced many paintings in the 1970s, heavily influenced by my father’s expectations of what a picture should look like. Painting is a solitary activity, and by the time I was thirty I had abandoned it for the more gregarious pursuit of playing in an orchestra. Music also has the advantage that once it has been played it has gone, vanished into the ether, leaving no scraps of paper and paint to dispose of.

I did not leave art behind completely; I continued to doodle a few sketches, but my main artistic endeavours turned to woodcarving. This was a big change; I didn’t use paint brushes or palette knives any more, but I needed chisels and gouges instead. I was fortunate in having a few already, which I had inherited from my father; he was not really a woodcarver (although he did produce a charming scene on the door a grandmother clock that is now in the possession of my sister), but he was an inveterate collector of tools. I could have done with more of them, but I had enough. These tools had to be kept sharp, so a grinder was useful and an oilstone essential.


I had been taught the basics of painting and drawing by my art master Stuart Webster, but as a woodcarver I was entirely self-taught. I worked out a few principles for myself; in doing full 3-D objects the technique was very different from doing low-relief carvings (my preferred method).  In this you were essentially drawing in light and shade, and this meant exaggerated undercutting to produce the necessary shadows.

The type of wood used produced very different results. Lime wood was the medium used by that masterly carver of the 17th century, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).  Some of his best work may be seen at Chatsworth House. I don’t wish to minimise his achievement, but is so easy to carve in lime that it is rather like cutting cheese. The grain of the wood is not an issue, and does not affect the resulting carving in any way. With oak this is an entirely different matter; oak is a very hard wood, and an intractable material; the grain is very important. An oak carving is robust and often you can see the way the chisel was used centuries after the carver laid  down his tools. This not the case with lime. Objects in oak and lime are the two extremes, but they are also the most common woods used by the woodcarver. Other woods are also carved, but those with contorted grain (like burr walnut), while giving an excellent surface texture for furniture, are impossible to carve.

I had some success with my woodcarving; I entered a carving of a trout in a competition that was run by the Post Office for its employees. Although their number is large (well over a hundred thousand), postmen are not namely for their artistic ability, so perhaps it not surprising that I won first prize. This entailed a trip up to London (on a rail warrant provide by the PO) to the Post Office HQ, which was then still in its historic hub of St Marin’s Le Grand (it later moved to Old Street, which I also had occasion to visit on a different matter). What the prize was I have forgotten (it wasn’t much) but the occasion was special. I was presented with my prize by a man who later became Managing Director of the Post Office. He was a very unimpressive character; he may have had hidden depths, although the progress of that venerable institution into the 21st century suggests that he was as mediocre as he appeared to be.


I subsequently entered another work in the competition few years later, but this time I only came second, and that did not entail another trip to the capital. The winning entry was a sculpture of female nude, which some of my colleagues suggested had more to do with its success than genuine artistic rigour. My declining health gave me other things to think about, and woodcarving was at an end.






The family had owned the property at 29 Surrey Street in Norwich for over 20 years, and the house itself had stood for over 200 years without mishap, but in 1982 there was an unwelcome visit from the Fire Department. They informed me that the internal arrangements were a fire risk, and alterations were required; the stair well in particular needed modification. There was a degree of conflict between the government agencies on this matter; the Planning Authority wanted this listed building left in its original state, while the Fire Authority demanded the changes. In this case fire precautions trumped listed building consent. For once I was entirely in agreement with the planners, to leave everything well alone, but that was irrelevant; what the owner of the building would have preferred counted for nothing. The Fire Department juggernaut pressed on.

At least asbestos had been identified as a hazardous substance by then, or this ghastly material would have been introduced to this old building, only to be removed at a later date. As it was, there were a lot of unwelcome changes – all to be financed by me of course. The first was the demise of our lift. This was only a small Victorian affair which you pulled up on a rope, originally intended for taking trays of food up from the kitchen in the basement to the dining room on the first floor. It went beyond that to the third floor, to take bed linen etcetera down to be washes. It went up the stair well, but in the opinion of the inspectors, this was chimney flue to funnel flames up the building, and the lift shaft had to be sealed off at ground floor level. This was niggling change to the building, but it did not modify any original features, so it as not too bad; the next alterations certainly did.

In the entrance hall, where formerly the eye was lead from the front door through an elegant arch to the staircase, now a fire door with an automatic closure mechanism blocked the view. A prominent sign saying Fire Door – Keep Closed met the eye instead. The elegant six panelled doors were one of the finest features of the house, but they were unsuitable to be fire doors; the chamfered panels were apparently too thin to arrest the flames. All the doors opening onto the staircase had to be covered with a fire-retardant layer on the inside. I had these plain panels decorated with wooden mouldings to imitate the original, but it was a poor alternative. These doors also had to be fitted with automatic closers, and FIRE DOOR signs in red affixed. These changes demonstrate the problems that arise when modern ideas of Health and Safety are applied to an old building, constructed in a different age to very different principles. Put brutally simply, the understated elegance of the Georgian house was ruined by these blunt instruments. If I had limitless resources I could have made these modifications slightly less intrusive, but not much. With my shallow pockets these changes led severe expense, with no financial return. Of course I would not have wished to be burnt to a cinder when the house caught fire, but in the case of a conflagration I wonder if such fire precautions would have saved me? Perhaps, but most likely not. Personally I would have much rather have taken the risk.

I am glad that the arrival of the fire inspectors happened after my father was no longer alive. The property at Surrey Street was a great source of pleasure to him, and to see these touches of beauty stamped out with such a heavy hand would have distressed him enormously. It distressed me too, but it made the wrench of having to sell the property about a decade later somewhat less of a catastrophe. The house would never again be the Georgian gem I had known.

       FIRE DOOR

                                                 KEEP CLOSED





Henry Rider Haggard was a solitary figure; a man of little or no small talk, he was at his most relaxed when discussing agricultural matters with the workers on his Ditchingham estate; then he would open up. He would perambulate the fields with his walking stick, finished off with an iron ‘spud’ made by the local blacksmith on the corner of Drapers Lane. He had few acquaintances, and his  closest friends (like Andrew Lang and Rudyard Kipling) he seldom met, being immersed in rural Norfolk life. His task as the author of many tales of high adventure he kept to the privacy of his study, and to Ida Hector his secretary.

The eighth of ten children, he was born in 1856 at West Bradenham near Dereham in central Norfolk. His family was of the Norfolk gentry class, but with a hint of the exotic; the Haggard family derived its name from the founder’s Danish origins, and Henry’s grandmother was a Russian who his grandfather had met in St Petersburg during his banking career.

West Bradenham was only three miles from Wendling railway station on the Kings Lynn line, which had opened in 1848. It was not much further to Holme Hale, on the branch line from Swaffham to Thetford, which took its first passengers when he was thirteen. These lines opened up the whole railway network, with Thetford providing trains to London, Peterborough and the North. The Varsity Line ran from Cambridge and gave him easy access to Oxfords and the country rectory where he was schooled by a family friend. The education of so many sons was a considerable strain on his father’s resources however, and Henry was not a bright scholar; he was the only one of his brothers not to receive a Public School education. His father transferred the boy to Ipswich Grammar School, and thence to a crammer in London to finish his studies. It was intended that he should apply to enter the Foreign Office.

Ditchingham House c 1910. 

As it was far from certain that Henry would pas the exam, his father William instead packed his 19-year-old son off to Africa to serve as secretary to the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of Natal, Sir Henry Bulwer of Heydon Hall in North Norfolk. Once there he ventured into the Transvaal, where the Boers, Zulus and British were vying for supremacy, leading to bloody warfare. The experiences of these years provided him with much of the raw material for his later work. Already in childhood he had picked up the names of acquaintances that would feature in his novels.

He returned to England in 1879 to give official reports on events in Africa. At home in Bradeneham Hall he was introduced to a school friend of his sister Mary. Within a week he was engaged to Louie Margitson; as an orphaned only child she was to inherit the estate when she came of age in October of that year. After determined opposition from some of her relatives the couple were married in Ditchingham church in 1880.  They began their honeymoon by travelling to Norwich in a coach and four. They passed the Kings Head in Brooke and Poringland’s Dove before transferring to a train which took them to the Lake District. They returned to South Africa later in the year. Henry’s African adventure was curtailed by the success of the Boers, which led to the return of the Transvaal to the Dutch.

Henry Rider Haggard returned with his wife to Norfolk to live.  Her family were long established at Ditchinham House; they had acquired the property in 1817. At this stage the future course of Henry’s career was still uncertain, but he already possessed (through his wife) a fine mansion which would remain his home for the rest of his life. He studied the law, intending make his way in the legal profession. In his leisure moments he began some writing, but with little success. The enormous popularity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1885) showed him the direction his future writing should take. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was written in six weeks and published in the same year, 1885. It was an immediate run away success. He was thereafter a prolific author and became perhaps the world’s best-selling writer of the late nineteenth century. Although some of his hand written manuscripts are preserved in the Norfolk Record Office, he preferred to dictate to his secretary rather than write his novels down himself. His lifelong interest in farming led to several non-fiction books on agriculture.

He travelled widely, going to Europe, the Americas, Egypt, New Zealand and of course South Africa. He had one son, Arthur John (Jock), who died as a boy of nine while his father was abroad. Although this dead son was never mentioned, this devastating loss overshadowed the rest of Rider Haggard’s life. He also had three daughters, among whom was the youngest, Lilias Rider Haggard, who was born after Jock’s death. She herself was the author of local books, including Norfolk Life (1943) and Norfolk Notebook (1947).

Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain novels must have enthralled me when I read them over 50 yeas ago. I have of course utterly forgotten their plots, but I have no wish to reread them. They belong to a period of my life so distant that the author himself was but a recent memory at the time. His daughters were then still living in Ditchingham. My wife’s relatives in nearby Bedingham used to work for him in the ‘Mustard Pot’, as the locals referred to Ditchingham House. For them he was ‘the master’ for whom they washed the linen and prepared the meals, not the best-selling writer.

It was a complete change from the peaceful round of changing seasons in South Norfolk to the primeval grandeur of the South African Veldt and the proud and warlike Zulu tribesemen, yet Ride Haggard’s life encompassed them both. He was made a Knight of the British Empire by King George V in the New Year’s Honours List for 1912. He died in 1925 and his remains are interred in Ditchingham church, where he was for decades the regular reader of the lesson every Sunday.