HARDLEY – THREE YEARS OF TRANQULITY
BY BAS KYBIRD
From September, 1989 until September, 1992 I was fortunate to rent a small cottage at the village of Hardley. It was ideal for what I needed at the time, complete peace of mind. Here I started painting seriously in water colours.
My experiences were rare and well worth writing about. For company there was just my best friend Ben. Ben was a male cross collie/Alsatian. He had a lovely long golden coat and when I had given him a brush he was very proud of himself. I rescued him from the R.S.P.C.A Dogs Home in Norwich a few years previously. At that time he was unmanageable, having been returned to the home twice. He was so pleased that at last someone wanted him and he was at last able to leave the dogs home. How he pranced about to show what a good, lively dog he was!
With patient training and time he accepted that I was the boss and we built up a complete understanding of each other, almost reading each other’s thoughts. He was more human than animal. Wherever we went he was greatly admired and I am sure he knew it. The only thing he could not do was talk but his squeals of delight said much and he made me understand a lot. Where I went so did Ben. My friends were his friends; all knew him and fussed him.
Hardley is an old English name meaning ‘Hard Clearing’. It is a very small hamlet in the vale of the Rivers Yare and Chet. It is situated about twelve miles E.S.E. of Norwich and two and a half E.N.E. of the market town of Loddon. There are about 1,400 acres of land. There is also Hardley Street about a mile away which I suppose is part and parcel of Hardley. The Hardley Estate which surrounded ‘my cottage’ comprised of about 1000 acres.
Along the narrow winding country road to Hardley from Chedgrave is Cross Stone Road on the left. At the road junction is a boundary stone or part of a cross. It is classed as post medieval. Legend has it that a woman in red sits on it on certain nights but I never came across anyone who had seen her, although one morning I found a dead Little Owl there. It seems that in 1547 King Edward VI granted Hardley its own swan mark.
A mile further on is Hardley Church, St. Margaret’s as so many Norfolk Churches dedicated to Margaret of Antioch. The story goes that she was the daughter of a pagan priest who scorned her for her Christian beliefs. He turned her out and she lived with a foster mother and looked after sheep. An important Roman was attracted to her and offered to marry her if she gave up her faith. Her refusal led to her being cruelly tortured and eventually put to death in AD 304. Antioch was an ancient city in Syria near Turkey.
The church has a round Norman tower. The church was given a make-over in the 15c and the church registers commenced in 1715. Inside, on the south wall facing the entrance in the north wall is a large painting of St. Christopher with a heron beside him and fish round his feet. As Vicar’s Warden I had a monthly duty to perform pumping the organ and occasionally read a lesson. Sitting against the west wall in readiness to leap to my feet and pump I had ample opportunity to study the painting. I admit to being negligent on the supply of wind on occasions which incurred a glare from the lady organist!
I believe the wood pews were erected in the 1700s. Roughly carved into the backs of some were line pictures of sailing boats no doubt representing those which travelled between Gt. Yarmouth and Norwich. These sailing vessels, especially the wherries, would trade along the Yare delivering various supplies including coal and take on board sugar beet at the village staithes en route. There is a staithe at Hardley which no doubt was used by the trading vessels. There are old photographs showing there was a beer house called the Chequers, licensed before 1836 and possibly closed in 1896. With it was a malting, house, and store buildings. It was also mention in some papers of 1796, a similar date given to the church farmhouse. Today those buildings are gone and the staithe is used to moor small private craft.
Opposite the church is a pair of modern cottages, one occupied by the parents of Philip the farmer and the other by Colin the gardener. Just round the corner is the large farmhouse occupied by Philip. The house is of red brick, a listed building of the 18c. Turning right at the church the road leads toward Hardley Hall, a listed building described as an Elizabethan country house with parts dated 16c. At Norfolk Record Office there are papers relating to the Court Roll for the Manor of Hardley dated from 1549 to 1632 in the name of Beauchamp – Proctor family. I was commissioned to complete a water colour of the house but had little to do with the owners. At the end of the track past the hall is an expanse of water known as Hardley Floods. I believe it was in the 1950s the River Chet overflowed onto three or four small meadows and never returned. Gradually wild life took over and it became a haven for many breeds of birds and other wild life. Before the hall there is a crossing in the tracks. By turning left and a few yards along towards the River Chet is the cottage where I lived with Ben for three happy years.
I completed a number of water colours at Hardley, some were commissions like that of a pig farmer’s house in Hardley Street which was a yellow colour, and others I did for my own enjoyment. Sometimes I painted outside from life but usually I worked from photographs – it was usual for me to take around thirty six photos a week.
The cottage was Victorian, about half a mile past the church, was one of a pair and I rented that on the right of the two which had a lovely view overlooking the marshes and the River Chet. In fact the lane went down to the river. The cottage was painted off-white . It had three up and three down rooms, the third one downstairs had been added as an extension to provide a bathroom and toilet to the rear. It had only one external door and this faced the lawn and hedge which helped to give shelter from easterly winds. On one occasion I looked out of the kitchen window to see a Sparrow hawk staring at me from the closest hedge. This accounted for feathers and down which I had seen on the ground previously.
After Philip had kindly pruned the hedge the other side of the lawn with his hedge trimmer on a tractor the hedge bore ample crops of Marabella plums each autumn. From the kitchen window were views of the marshes, river and even Reedham Swing Bridge. In the kitchen was a large pine table, two bench seats, fridge cooker, washing machine and cupboards. I added a microwave cooker. There was a fireplace but this had been boarded up. Carrying on through another door was the sitting room which had an open fire. In the winter I kept this burning night and day as it was the only source of warmth. This room had a window facing toward the river although it wasn’t possible to see it. Another window faced out toward the front lane. I made it cosy and ‘cottagey’ with a cane three piece suite, round coffee table and book case, also a cherry red carpet. At each side of the fireplace were cupboards, one which I kept stocked with fire wood. To the right of the fireplace was a flimsy, creaky pine wood door. It had an old fashioned latch and gave access to the creaky narrow stairs which curved round to the left leading up to a small landing. Ben climbed these stairs with some difficulty but at times he liked to sleep at the foot of my bed.
Off the landing were the three bedrooms. The main room , the largest, was at the front. The second bedroom was to its left, with a window looking out to the rear. Beside it was the smallest in which I stored my art clobber and stuff. I did use it sometimes as my studio but ridiculous as it may seem, it seemed lonely! The view from both these rear rooms was across fields and in the far distance was Cantley sugar beet factory, at times the chimney belching out smoke.
Out the back of the cottage were two outhouses one of which was originally a toilet and perhaps the other with a copper for wash days. I stored my coal and main wood supply in them. The previous occupants had left behind a ladies ancient cycle which I used sometimes. It was this which I used to cart the third dead swan up to the cottage which you will read about later on.
I read somewhere that during W.W.II there was a decoy set up to attract German aircraft to Hardley and Langley marshes on which to drop their bombs rather than Norwich. It was then decided this decoy was too close to Cantley factory and its operation ceased.
The other side of the cottage was let out to holiday makers, mainly people on fishing trips. The last summer I was there a South African by the name of Coertz, wife, two daughters and mother in law stayed for a week. Most evenings he would join me for a whiskey or two. I believe he was glad to escape from the females. He would walk about bare footed on the stony track out- side then sit picking whatever from between his toes, not a particularly pleasant sight! They returned to South Africa but every year since we have exchanged Christmas cards and sometimes photographs.
From what I have read it appears the area is steeped in history. Near to Hardley Hall several Roman coins have been found, some dating from about AD 364 to 378. Not far from the cottage was Broom Hill, believed to have been the site of an old windmill. Also marks were found suggesting there may have been a Roman farmstead and even one of the Iron Age before that. A silver wire medieval ring was found there and there have been other signs of ancient occupation found all over the area.
Another antiquity is Hardley Cross, situated on the banks of where the River Chet joins the Yare. This stone cross marks the boundary of jurisdiction of the City of Norwich and Great Yarmouth. Ben and I used to walk along the river bank to get to it. The cross is said to date back to 14th or 15c. It seems that a Charter of King Henry VIII refers to it. It is a Grade II building and had been restored several times since 1676. Once a year the civic dignitaries of Norwich and Great Yarmouth would meet there arriving by boat for a picnic or whatever! In the early 1950s as part of my police training I experienced a journey on a police launch as far as Hardley Cross and return. Little did I think some forty years later I would be living near it for a while ! Along the banks of the River Yare number of old Drainage Mills or Wind Pumps can be seen, at least one dating 1797 or before. They are no longer in use and falling apart although I believe one has been restored.
Once a week I went to the Co-op in Loddon for my food supply, also to the local garage for petrol and two hundred weight of coal. Every day, twice a day Ben and I would go off for our walks in different direct ions and always with my camera, camcorder, or both. When eventually I left Hardley for good I came away with twenty eight albums of photographs and many many hours of film, all taken on our walks!
I did have occasional visitors but I felt they were outside the scope of my story of Hardley with three exceptions, Standley and Aleck in the story of the swan and my old friend Dick across the river at Reedham although Dick never came to the cottage.Before I relate some odd or unusual happenings which Ben and I enjoyed I think it appropriate to write a few notes of the people of Hardley, our friends and neighbours.
Philip the farmer, then about forty, lived alone in the 18c church farmhouse. He was in partnership with the owner of the estate. He did the work and the owner shared the profits with him. Philip’s Mum and Dad lived opposite the church. His Dad Donny would do a lot of the tractor driving. Eileen his Mum would regularly take, at speed, Philip’s dog for a walk. She was always scuttling about. Relatives of theirs are buried at Felthorpe Church next to Drayton where I live now.
Philip’s brother Kevin would travel in from Harleston and he employed driving, crop spraying and at harvest time driving a combine harvester. In the school holidays he would sometimes have his young son and daughter with him, the son waiting hopefully for a ride on the combine. Kevin would have his lunch with his parents Donny and Eileen.
Shirley the shepherdess, a separated lady, living with her parents in a neighbouring village. She was busy building up a business with her sheep but also helped with the farm work when it was busy and in return Philip helped her. When the sugar beet had been cropped the sheep would be turned out onto the fields to rummage for the beet roots. At lambing time the expectant yews would be in stalls in a big barn down Staithe Road. During this very time Shirley lived in a caravan inside the barn so she could keep an eye on things and help with deliveries. She would often be almost asleep on her feet through inevitable broken and busy nights and lack of proper food but it meant more animals to put into the business of many hundred. The other very busy times with the sheep was when they were being put through the sheep dip or being sheared.
Shirley’s Dad would sometimes be seen on the farm putting up fencing and her mother would help her to move the sheep, also be on hand at lambing time. I would look out for Shirley’s father’s van and Ben and I would draw down to where he was working for a mardle. He had a young collie which Ben liked.
Wally the reed cutter lived at Rockland St. Mary. At certain times of the year he came onto the estate to cut reeds along the river bank also at one end of the Floods. He had a beat-up old Land Rover loaded with all sorts of bits and pieces in connection with his trade.
Sharon the Post Girl, about twenty years of age, lived in a village the other side of the Chet, Nogham End, and worked from the post office in Loddon. Whenever she was on the Hardley round she always made time to call on me, whether she had mail for me or not. She would ‘blow’ in, sit at the kitchen table and busily make herself a roll up cigarette while I made coffee. Always she asked ‘What’s been happening then ?’ and liked to hear about what Ben and I had seen or done, look at photos I had taken or relate our problems to each e other. After a holiday or a visit to the Royal Norfolk Show she turned up wearing a wide brimmed leather trilby hat . It really suited her and I told her so. From then on she wore it on her rounds! Her visits were important to me because she, an attractive young woman, took the trouble to visit me especially in the winter when it got a bit lonely.
Dick the Gamekeeper lived in an isolated cottage at the far end of the Floods. I didn’t see much of him apart from when he had organized a pheasant or duck shoot. When we did meet we would have a chat and exchange information. He once gave me a hare already hulked, ready to cook.
I believe it was the first Spring that I was there, 1990, that the River Chet broke its banks and flooded some of the marshes which were already seeded. Philip the farmer took me in his Land Rover to see the river pouring over the breached bank. The noise was quite deafening and I was a bit concerned in case we got stranded. When there are high tides sometimes salt water comes up from Yarmouth mixed with river water. Should this happen it is harmful to any crops already sown on the marsh land or in fact to be sown in the near future.
On the other side of the River Yare and a bit downstream is the village of Reedham. Here lived an old police colleague and good friend Dick. We often spoke on the phone and kidded each other we had been on the other river bank at night waving a torch, but of course we never did. However it was nice to think that a colleague from the past was not too far away. I suppose I could have gone to see him by crossing the river on the ferry at Reedham but it was a bit of a trek from Hardley so I never made the effort. To get to Reedham without using the ferry meant a thirty mile detour. The ferry is a chain ferry capable of holding three cars at one time. There are papers at Norfolk Record Office relating to the ferry dated about 1870. There are two paintings by a Revd. James Bulwer of a rowing boat in use as a ferry. He died in 1879.
There are many stories recorded of ghostly happenings like ‘Will of the Wisp’ and ‘The Lantern Man’ haunting the marshlands and causing deaths in Victorian times. These ‘ghosts’ were most likely to have been patches of marsh gases drifting about. In fairness these happenings were on the grazing marshes on the other side of the Yare and Chet, not on the cultivated areas at Hardley. No matter what time I was wandering about I never saw a ghost or heard stories of one at Hardley!
Spring was the most special time when I lived there, there was so much wild life to see. On the river there would be Great Crested Grebe paired off, displaying in a ritual of dances. One would dive and be under the surface for several seconds then surface again where I least expected. After their young had been hatched I would see the mother carrying them on her back concealed between her wing feathers. In this way the young were protected from their main enemy, the pike. Other ducks would be seen with maybe a dozen young swimming dutifully behind. The mother would uncannily know if one of her clutch had strayed and about turn to look for it. Proud parent swans would be seen gliding along with two or three offspring.
Along one ditch I discovered a Marsh Orchid, much whiter and larger than any I had seen before. Sometimes I would come across a water rat and it was difficult to keep Ben out of the water. Once young swans – cygnets – had grown a bit and become independent the parents would drive them off as much as to say ‘go find your own feeding area’. The parents would do this quite aggressively.
Early one morning I was privileged to witness thirty swans all take off from The Floods at one go. The noise from their wings was incredible, a rhythmic ‘whistling’ beating sound. I was able to photograph them. Sometimes Ben and I would find a pair of swans quietly feeding in a ditch. When disturbed they would make a snorting, hissing sound, especially at Ben.
Beyond The Floods and the River Chet I was able to see the thatched roof of the little church of St. Gregory’s at Heckingham. I understand one of my ancestors was christened there. I did visit it but it was locked. It is a Norman church of flint with a round west tower and an octagonal top. It is one of 124 round tower churches in Norfolk and is Grade 1 listed. Over the entrance carved into the stonework are some heraldic shields.
Along the edges of many of the ditches were Moor Hen and Coots nests sitting precariously in the edges of the reeds. The nests would often hold up to a dozen eggs although all these would not hatch, being targets for vermin. The noticeable difference in appearance between the Moor Hen is its red and yellow beak with the white bill and forehead of the Coot.
Down the lane from the cottage was a marsh meadow which Lapwings (Peewits) seemed to favour. When they had a nest on the ground one would fly above, circling, making a plaintive cry, and in flight pretending to have an injured wing, tying to draw Ben and me away from the nest. It was not unusual to see a kestrel hovering high in the sky and then suddenly drop like a stone onto its prey. One lovely sight was when the new lambs and their mothers were put out to grass. The lambs leap about, jumping over each other, playing chasing games and head butting, all so happy. It was most noticeable how the yews knew which were their children and told others to try elsewhere for food! Mothers were very protective of their young, coming forward a few paces and stamping their front feet in a threatening motion. Unfortunately this wonderful happy state could not continue for long as the lambs had to be weaned from their mothers. When separated, for two or three days and nights the lambs set up a most unhappy racket calling for their mothers.
On a sunny afternoon Ben and I were walking along the ‘beach’ at the edge of The Floods. At one spot in reeds close to shore the water was being churned up as if there was a gale. When we got closer I could see the reason – very large bream were spawning. They were massive, swimming round and round after the females. This happened again the next day and then it was over. What a sight! I had occasionally found skeletons of large fish but had no idea of the real size. Normally Ben and I didn’t go t o The Floods too often as it was a very special place, familiarity breeds contempt perhaps.
Ben just loved to splash about in the water chasing the sticks I threw in. There was no telling what bird life there would be there, especially in the spring, swans, cormorants, terns, grebe, geese with their young, ducks with an amazing number of chicks, perhaps a dozen or more. In certain quiet corners I would see a heron standing motionless on one leg patiently waiting for a fish or eel to come within range of a quick strike from its long neck and beak. On the end of one wooded area , Hall Carr, high up in the trees was a heronry where these large birds nested and had their young. They lay their eggs as early as February. Once I was lucky enough to hear the ‘boom’ of a bittern coming from a reed bed along the river bank. Along the edge of The Floods I would often see a pair of Oyster Catchers grubbing in the shallow water for food but I never saw their young. Way out across The Floods posts sticking out of the water. On these a small colony of Cormorants would sit drying their plumage after diving for fish. Not too far from these was a man made float of some sort constructed for and used by terns for nesting. It was interesting to see how the adult terns ‘dive bombed’ the cormorants if they went too close to their young. They, like the cormorants, dived into the water for fish. By autumn the terns had gone, leaving the cormorants to fish in peace.
At one end of The Floods was a wood. Ben and I would explore in it by climbing over a stile. In the Springtime there was a carpet of bluebells with patches of primroses. The aroma from these wild flowers was quite heady. We were so fortunate to be able to enjoy nature at its best on our doorstep. Ben enjoyed rummaging about, nose to the ground, following the scent of rabbits. At one point a plank was positioned across a muddy ditch. In his enthusiasm, Ben once slipped and fell in which meant a hurried walk home, sluice down w the hose pipe and then a rub dry with towels. Walking along a lane one spring morning, on a slight rise across a meadow were five hares at play. Ben joined in, chasing after them but did not have a chance. It was amusing to see how the hares involved him in their game of chase. At first one would taunt him to chase it, letting him almost catch it and then another would take over. They all took turns teasing him. This game went on for several minutes until they all went off and Ben came back to me his tongue hanging out, completely exhausted.