PRINCESS MARGARET’S WEDDING DAY
The 6th of May 1960 was a Friday and, in my third term at boarding school, I would normally have been hard at work on Paginae Primae, my Latin text book. However they made quite a fuss of this special day; it was for instance the first Royal Wedding to be televised and commanded an audience of 20 million. I was not one of them, but the day was also a national holiday, and as such my parents were able to take me out for the day.
It being May it was the time for bluebells which formed a carpet of blue on the south facing slope of Cantley Hill in Caistor St Edmund. We did not know it as Cantley Hill in those days but as the Bluebell Wood. Nowadays it is part of High Ash Farm, although not a public part. The long distance footpath the Boudicca Way now skirts the Bluebell Wood at the opposite end but does not enter it. In those days we knew this farm as Howard’s farm, and High Ash Lane as Howard’s Loke. Mr Howard had been known to my father for a long while and was perfectly happy for us walk in the wood and to pick the bluebells too if we wanted to; it was not considered vandalism then. We spent the day of Princess Margaret’s Wedding among the bluebells in Caistor Lane. We gave not a thought to Antony Armstrong-Jones or the things going on in London. It was within easy walking distance of our home in Poringland, and I don’t remember us taking the car. It would have been difficult to park anywhere very near, but you parked wherever you could in those days, so we have driven there. My mother was only 49, and my father a year younger, so we were all young enough for a brisk summer’s walk.
On the hill there were a number of beech trees with their branches easily accessible from the ground, yet because of the steep slope they rapidly became quite elevated as you climbed along them. Because I was a young lad of eleven I naturally crawled out along the boughs of the trees. (Note that I was wearing short trousers, as most pre-teenaged boys did in 1960.) To me it was just nice to be home, and I gave not a thought to the wealth of history that lay beneath my feet as climbed those branches. Venta Icenorum was the Roman name for Caistor, and that was the principal town or civitas of East Anglia, and the regional capital, which is what the word civitas signifies. York was the civitas of Northumbria, and Canterbury of Kent, and these places continued to be referred to in this way after the Romans had left. The town of Venta Icenorum was under a mile away from the Bluebell Wood, on lower ground by the river Tas. The valley which takes Caistor Lane past Cantley Hill was apparently the town’s religious quarter. The foundations of Roman temples used to appear from time to time when deep ploughing brought bricks and mortar to the surface. No doubt they still do. This area must have fallen into disuse and the temples became abandoned as the Romans were converted to Christianity. The area has much still to reveal about its past, and has not been thoroughly investigated by archaeologists.
To me the Anglo-Saxon history of Caistor – spelled Castre at the time – is even more interesting and much less well known. Religion continued to play a prominent part in what happened there. A pagan Anglo-Saxon burial ground was excavated in a field between Cantley Hill and the Roman town in 1932. This was early in the post-Roman period before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. About three hundred years later, when the locals were once more all good Christians, eastern England was again attacked by pagans – Vikings this time. Under their leader Ivar the boneless they landed in East Anglia and killed the king, Edmund; but first they had to find where he was.
They attacked a town by night and slaughtered most of the inhabitants in their beds as they slept. The frightened remaining inhabitants of the town were made to reveal their king’s whereabouts. The story of this event, written in Latin, does not reveal the name of the town but refers to it as the civitas of East Anglia- in other words Caistor. That it now has the name Caistor St Edmund (the dedication of the church) is not I think an accident. The church just across the river Tas in Markshall was also dedicated to St Edmund. Having destroyed the town of Caistor the Vikings built up Norwich into a major town. It had not existed (apart from a few villages like Westwick and Coslany) when Edmund was killed in 869. The centre of Norwich is full of Viking names – Fishergate, Pottergate and Tombland for example. By destroying the town of Caistor, Ivar incidentally preserved the site for today’s archaeologists. But I have strayed a long way from Princess Margaret’s Wedding Day. Cantley is itself an Anglo-Saxon word signifying an open wood. Over all these stirring events which I have mentioned, down to the peaceful present day, the towering beech trees and ancient bluebells of Cantley Hill have looked down. What stories they could tell.
(See my other blog entries on Caistor, Aug 7 and Aug 11 2011.)
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
My sister Christine writes from Calgary: I love your blog on the bluebell wood. I remember going there with Tiggie and the parents years ago–possibly before you were born as I don’t remember your being there. Tiggie looked into a hollow in a tree, and out came a very cross owl! About Mr Howard: at one time he used to drive round the district in a pony trap with churns of milk warm from the cow. We used to go out with jugs to get it. . . . I believe the Seven Foot Paths ended somewhere near the Bluebell wood. I don’t suppose anyone walks them now. . . . I didn’t realize that Venta went on being inhabited for so long. I thought it perished with the Romans. . . . Do you know anything about the Arminghall Wood Henge? And do you know why the Saints villages just east of Bungay have such an evil reputation?