The first hint of the coming revolution in road transport came with the Puffing Devil, a steam-propelled road engine built by Richard Trevithick early in the 19th century. This was in Cornwall, where Trevithick was also engaged in the development of the high-pressure steam engine. Steam traction engines were being built all across the country (including East Anglia) by the middle of the 19th century.
There were several producers of this invention in Norfolk, and two firms in particular produced many machines. Charles Burrell of Thetford was making self-propelled road engines by the 1850s. Burrells did not survive and went bust in the first half of the twentieth century, but at one time their Norfolk built traction engines were exported all over the world. Frederick Savage of Kings Lynn’s steam Juggernauts were in production by 1855; the firm moved on from making farm equipment to corner the market in fairground rides and showman’s engines, even before the 20th century dawned. They were still in business in 1973, when the firm closed.
Norfolk is a rural county, which may explain the early enthusiasm for steam engines, that were used in farms to power threshing machinery. Traction engines, which were self-propelled versions of the stationary engine, were later employed to move goods about the farm and drive ploughing machines. The steam-powered wagon made by Samuel Soames in Marsham was an early example of an automotive road engine for personal transport, but it was a one-off.
Norfolk is not particularly notable for its place in the history of the motorcar, but that does not mean it was not involved at all. The firm of Mann Egerton in Norwich was involved deeply in the production of motor cars, building the bodywork for Rolls Royce chassis before the First World War. With the coming of war the firm moved into the production of airframes for the burgeoning aircraft industry. Two Norwich firms were involved; as well as Mann Egerton, who were commissioned by the Government to build aircraft to the deigns of others.This activity ceased with the coming of peace, but the other company who made aeroplanes during the First World War continued making aircraft throughout the Second World War. This was Boulton and Paul, whose Defiant was the most famous British night fighter of the Second World War, although by then production had been shifted to the midlands where the factory was deemed less exposed to enemy action. Earlier planes designed by Boulton and Paul had been the Overstrand and Sidestrand biplane bombers, and they had been made in Norwich.
Even railway locomotives were made in Norfolk. The Great Eastern made all its own locos, but their workshop was at Stratford in East London. When the M & G N was formed their works was in Melton Constable; although mot of their motive power was provided by other manufacturers, they did produce some of their own design of locomotives under their Chief Engineer William Marriott.
Before the coming of these mechanised forms of transport, the horse was the beast that moved men and goods on land. Before that it had been the ox, because horses were only used by the most exalted travellers; for the use of oxen as beasts of burden we must cast or eyes back to the middle ages. The great East Anglian horse was the Suffolk Punch, but this breed was apparently not popular in Norfolk.
With all the waterways in Broadland, water transport was the way we carried out trade before the coming of the railways. The high point of the development of boats for this trade was the Norfolk wherry. With just one sail to handle, this vessel could be sailed by one man, although the assistance of boy was helpful. Wheat and malting barley were taken downstream for transhipment to larger craft, or upstream to Norwich, while coal was carried by wherry upstream from Yarmouth. Lime was another common cargo.
Although the use of the wherry for transport had ceased by the middle 20th century, the importance of water transport continued on the river Yare well into living memory. Sea-going coasters carried coal and timber up to Norwich, and fruit juice from South America to Carrow Works for Robinson’s Barley Water; scrap metal was exported from Wensum wharf. This trade petered out about thirty years ago, and now all the river transport beyond the sea ports is leisure craft.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
APRIL 2 – JUNE 14 1982
This is the story of how the war developed. These extracts from my diary will, I hope, give you an idea of the facts as they unfolded, together with the daily round of ordinary events that carried on as usual.
We listened to the nightly bulletins to learn what was going on far away across the Atlantic Ocean. The first reference to the coming conflict came at lunch time on Saturday the 3rd April:
We had corned beef for lunch; I was deeply suspicious that it came from Argentina. That evening I was anxiously watching TV to learn what was happening; I continued to follow the news closely through the following weeks. On Thursday I watched Question Time, which in those days was still hosted by the bow tie wearing Robin Day; there is no doubt what was on everybody’s mind. The spring proceeded nonetheless; the sloes were beginning to blossom on Alderford Common.
With incredible speed a Task Force of 100 ships was assembled at Portsmouth and was ready to sail by the 5th of April. There had been no contingency planning before the invasion; everybody thought such a thing against British Territory impossible. After the initial flurry of activity there was a lull while the Task Force made its way across the equator and into the South Atlantic. My diary concentrated on other things, notably the week’s performance I was giving playing the double bass in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. My friend Bill came down to the Saturday performance and recorded it on his little tape machine.
On St George’s Day I drove to Oxford, where I took my landlady from my student days out to a meal at the Cherwell Boat House, a rather superior restaurant. I must have been feeling well off, because I spent £25 on the meal for two. This was a sum that I would feel a little excessive, even today more than thirty years later! Penelope enjoyed it anyway. The next day I joined a meeting of the Recorder Society (of which I was a member) at Magdalen College and played (so I said at the time anyway) rather well! Back at Penelope’s house we continued to listen to the news, and it was on Sunday the 25th April that we heard of the outbreak of fighting on South Georgia. I had earlier been enjoying the Botanical Gardens by the river Cherwell, and had a drink at the Welsh Pony in George Street. This had been my favourite pub as a student, and in 1982 it was still open (it has long gone now). In the evening Penelope, Ian (her fiancé) and I pored over the atlas to discover more about South Georgia. I learned that Ian and Penelope had been a couple for eight years. Ian, who is disabled, works for British Aerospace. He lives in Stevenage, so theirs is long distance relationship during the week. They get together at weekends.
On Monday I returned to Norfolk. The windscreen of my car already had a crack in it, but at Thetford a pheasant crashed into the car, which made the crack much worse. Back in Norwich I had fish and chips for supper with my sister Tiggy. The primroses were out, and the cuckoo was singing; in the South Atlantic winter was coming. On Saturday May 1st things were beginning to happen, as the Task Force approach the islands: We saw the News to keep up with developments in the Falklands. During the next few days the TV was full of updates. On the 4th of May I saw the News, which was rather bad (this was following the sinking of the General Belgrano, the Argentine battleship). The sinking of HMS Sheffield followed shortly afterwards.
The Government spokesman was a man called Ian Macdonald, and he gave daily updates on the BBC; the eyes of the nation were glued to him. My sister Tiggy and I drove up to Yorkshire with our dogs to spend a few days in Bill’s house near Whitby. (Bill was manager of Whitby hospital.) Naturally we had to visit the North Yorkshire Moors Railway while we were there, and an evening was spent at the Spa Theatre in Scarborough. It is rather strange how serious things were going on across the world while we were enjoying ourselves in the British summer.
Victory for Britain came in the middle of June. The Falklands War demonstrated among other things the great abilities of the Harrier jump jet, without which we would have struggled. The war provided the Vulcan, the last of the three V bombers to remain in front line service, with its only taste of real conflict. Mrs Thatcher, who had been far from popular in the months leading up to the Argentine invasion, drew huge and approving crowds in the aftermath of victory. Following a successful war, for the outbreak of which the UK was in no way to blame, the outcome of the 1983 general election was never in doubt. It was of course a Tory landslide.
The liner Uganda was converted from a cruise ship (taking schoolchildren on education voyages) to a Hospital Ship, for dispatch to the South Atlantic. Like all the work needed to prepare for the distant conflict, this was done in record time. That summer, when she returned to the UK to a hero’s welcome, she was again fitted out as a school cruise ship in September. After just two months she was chartered as a supply ship for the Falkland Islands. When her charter ran out she was taken to Taiwan for breaking up. My friend Bill Wragge (who we had visited in Yorkshire in the summer of 1982) is a long-standing member of the World Ship Society, and members contributed to the definitive history of the ship. The book was published twenty years ago. Bill contributed the chapter on her time as hospital ship.
It was the Falklands War that persuaded me to join the TA, but that is another story, which I have already told. Click here to read of my time as a private in the RAMC(V).
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE 1980s
In Victorian times, and even into the 1950s, the weather and the changing seasons seldom disrupted train services. Flooding may have been a problem, but there was no difficulty about leaves on the line; trees were kept well back from the track to avoid conflagrations arising from sparks from the chimneys of steam engines. If the wind blew a few leaves under the train the large wheels and heavy superstructure of these locomotives would make short work of them.
The 60 ft rails held together with fishplates could accommodate the most extreme temperatures without buckling. Now we have welded rails the passage of the trains is quieter it is true, but every year on hot days there are delays and cancellations caused by the expansion of the track.
Most recently we have had a catastrophic failure of all the colour-light signals on the Norwich to Cambridge line, caused by lightning strikes. The whole system was permanently stuck at red (which I suppose is slightly better than being stuck at green). To make things worse, the spare parts required had to be ordered from Germany. Semaphore signals never suffered in this way; these old signals were only removed from this stretch of line a few years ago, after more than a hundred and fifty years of faultless service. It hasn’t taken long for the modern signalling infrastructure to reveal its flaws.
The collision between a Cambridge bound train and a farm tractor, which happened about a year ago, was caused because (with the ending of semaphore signalling) the number of signal boxes on the line was drastically reduced. The signalman in the box at Cambridge made a mistake because, when called on the trackside phone, gave the tractor driver permission to cross. The train was already nearly upon him, and although luckily no one was killed, there was a terrible collision. Being so far from the scene must have had an effect; no signalman who had just let a train past his box would have allowed someone to cross. Also, having so much more work to do, with all the other signal boxes closed, it is perhaps not surprising that the mistake was made.
These problems are the result of recent updating on the railway. They haven’t made the trains run any faster, but they have certainly saved money on wages. Do not get me wrong; I fully accept the need to modernise a method of transport that was begun almost 200 years ago, but these improvements should be to enhance safety, not solely to protect the bottom line. They should result in a better service at all times. It should not be so easy for the vagaries of the weather, or the tiredness of the operatives, to disrupt things so badly. It ought to be possible to devise systems that would end the problem of leaves on the line for example; it might be a start to return to the old procedure of cutting back the undergrowth on embankments and cuttings along the line.
As to the problem of the rails expanding in hot weather, it might be that with the increasing warming of the climate, is it time to go back to a slightly shorter length of rail? I wonder how they manage things on the new high-speed line from Djibouti to Addis Ababa? The variations in temperature between night and day must be far greater than anything we experience in this country. There are certainly clever people working in the rail industry who could come up with much more innovative solutions to these problems than me, but at present they do not appear to be doing so. Rather we are told that it is just one of those acts of nature, and we must learn to accept it. A surprising number of badly served customers do accept this, but not me. In the 21st century we should be able to travel with comfort and reliability, nor should it cost a fortune to do so; in all three respects we are worse off than our great-grandparents.
THE BLOG FOR THE FUTURE OF THE RAILWAYS
Norfolk; it is impossible to talk of Norfolk politics without acknowledging the great divide between Norwich, which has been Labour inclined since the birth of the Independent Labour Party in the last years of the nineteenth century, and the rest of the county which has (in the popular imagination anyway) been painted Tory Blue since time immemorial. This, particularly the latter part, is not true by any means.
For hundreds of years the tiny area of Castle Rising in West Norfolk returned two MPs. Some well-known figures sat for Castle Rising, including Samuel Pepys and Robert Walpole. The elections were never contested although they could be bought and sold. Following the Reform Act of 1832, which abolished most of these notorious Rotten Boroughs, some of the smaller boroughs remained until 1867/68; both Great Yarmouth and Thetford returned two MPs until that date. These Rotten or Pocket Boroughs were in the ‘pockets’ of the local landowner and did not respond the changing political mood in the country at large. After 1832 Norfolk was divided into two constituencies, East and West; previous Norfolk had been one. Each constituency in the country returned two Members of Parliament. The bigger constituencies of East and West Norfolk regularly changed their allegiance between Tories and the Liberal Party.
In the House of Commons Norwich was a separate constituency from the first establishment of Parliament in the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century one of the Members for Norwich was called Thomas Sotherton, a name that may be familiar to the residents of Taverham; his family provided all the squires of the village from 1623 until squires as such disappeared at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Norwich returned George Roberts as its first Labour MP in 1906. He had stood unsuccessfully in 1904. George Roberts lost his seat in 1923, but by then he had ceased to represent the Labour Party.
At the same election Norwich returned one of the first three female MPs to represent the Labour Party. Her name was Dorothy Jewson and she was hardly a typical member of the working class. Her father had been a prosperous coal merchant, and her educational background was Norwich High School and Girton College Cambridge. She was firm in her principles however, and was a pacifist who had opposed the First World War. It was a time of political turmoil nationally, and she lost her seat in the 1924 General Election, although she came closely behind the winning candidates. She stood again in 1929 and 1931, but she never again entered parliament. She sat on the City Council as an Independent Labour Party member, at a time when my Great Aunt Ruth Hardy- a woman of authentic working class roots – was establishing her career in local politics, which led to her becoming Lord Major in 1950.
In the General Election of that year the constituency of Norwich was abolished, to be replaced by Norwich North and Norwich South. The number of representatives did not increase, as the old two member constituencies were replaced by single member ones. The ‘first past the post’ electoral system that we regard as a basic (though controversial) facet of British politics is in fact not that old. I can claim to older than it is, though only just.
In Norfolk the picture is more varied than that in Norwich; West Norfolk has been a Tory stronghold pretty consistently from the nineteenth century onwards, but East Norfolk has swung more between the major parties. North Norfolk has long struck an independent course; throughout much of the twentieth century it returned a Labour MP, and in the twenty first century it has loyally stood by its Liberal Democrat representative, Norman Lamb.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
My great-grandfather Charles Mason was brought up as a Primitive Methodist. This branch of Methodism grew from a large open air meeting of the working class held at Mow Cop in Staffordshire in 1807. (Mow Cop, on the border of Staffordshire and Cheshire, is a ‘ruined castle’ on a hill; actually a summer-house built in 1754 by the local landowner.) The organisers of the meeting had no wish to establish a break-away denomination, but were merely trying to re-assert what they regarded as the basic tenets of Methodism; particularly its missionary outreach to the poor and dispossessed. It this sense it mirrored the creation of Methodism itself, which arose as a branch of the Church of England dedicated to the lowest orders of society. In spite of these views, John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement) remained a clergyman of the established church all his life.
The Church of England was firmly entrenched as the church of the Establishment, and the concentration of the ‘Methodists’ on the less well off proved too controversial for the C off E, and the ‘enthusiasts’ split into a separate denomination. There were also some technical disagreements about church organisation, but the rigid class barriers which existed in society proved to be more divisive. A major development was when the founder John Wesley appointed preachers in North America outside the normal ordination procedure as practised in the Church of England. This action in 1784 inevitably led to the setting up of new denomination after John Wesley’s death.
It was less than twenty years after the birth of Methodism as a new church that the Primitive Methodists were divided in their turn from the Wesleyans. Again it was social rather than religious differences that proved insuperable obstacles to unity; the Baptists and the Quakers (for example) have huge disagreements in matters of belief, but in theological terms there was little to choose between the two branches of Methodism, or indeed between them and the mother church, the C of E. To put it crudely, the Established Church was upper class, Methodists were middle class and the Primitive Methodists were working class. The result was that the Wesleyan Methodists refused to countenance the inclusion of such low-class congregations in their ranks. Such camp meetings as those held at Mow Cop were ‘highly improper in England’ they maintained. Thus it was propriety rather than dogma that stood between them.
Living in Staffordshire the Masons were at the epicentre of these developments and were among the first adherents of Primitive Methodism. Before 1800 the residents of Stoke on Trent and the surrounding area were regarded as a bunch of godless and benighted individuals. The Primitive Methodists provided these people, who had been seen as the ignorant and worthless dregs of humanity, with a path to salvation. The movement rapidly spread around the country from its Staffordshire beginnings. By the 1820s there were Primitive Methodist chapels springing up across Norfolk.
In the UK the Primitive Methodists were finally reunited with the Wesleyans in 1932, but in other parts of the world they maintain their independence. As well as providing the nascent Labour Party with many of its members, the ‘Prims’ were instrumental in the formation of the Trades Union Congress. The Primitive Methodists even more than the Wesleyan Methodists were deeply involved in supporting hospitals, providing education (particularly in Sunday Schools which taught children to read and write before the advent of Universal Education) and were foremost in promoting women as preachers.
After leaving Staffordshire to get married in 1879, Charles Mason was already well established in Trowse at the beginning of the twentieth century, but unfortunately there was no Primitive Methodist chapel in Trowse. (Neither had there been one in the first village in which he had made his home in Norfolk, Easton.) The nearest one to Towse was in Queens Road in Norwich, which had been built in 1872. This remained a church after Methodist Union, finally closing after the Second World War. No doubt Charles occasionally attended these popular services, but mostly the family went to the Mission Chapel (associated with the Congregational Church) in the Street in Trowse. This was demolished in 1970. A hundred year after that first meeting at Mow Cop a grand anniversary was held there in 1907. Charles attended the celebrations in Staffordshire, which suggests that he had not entirely lost touch with his family in his birthplace. One of his granddaughters (there are still grandchildren of Charles Mason, not much older than me) has a plate issued to commemorate the occasion in 1907, and this would have been brought back to Norfolk by Charles Mason.
William and Emily Mason (my grandparents) brought their children up as ‘Congs’, no doubt reflecting their own upbringing in the chapel in Trowse. The youngsters went to the morning service at the Princes Street Congregational Church in Norwich, followed by Sunday School in the afternoon. They had time walk home for tea before it was off again to the evening service; it was not a very restful day of rest. Primitive Methodism did not survive into the next generation of Charles’s family, and six years before his death the church had ceased to exist as a distinct entity.
THE HISTORY OF METHODISM
This Norfolk village is hidden away in the depths of the countryside. It is twenty five miles south west of Norwich; it is not exceptionally picturesque but pleasant enough. It comes under Breckland District Council. In summer it is surrounded by green hedges and fields of corn. The church of St Michael is set back on a bend in the road and the bell rings the hours; when we were there in June the clock was a quarter of an hour fast. It has a fine display of 15th century Norwich School stained glass and five remaining figures set in brasses on the floor.
The river Wissey passes through Great Cressingham and rises a few miles north at Bradenham. You are a long way from the Norfolk Broads here, and further downstream the Wissey is home to narrow boats that have come to Norfolk from the Midland canal system. It has more in common with the river Severn that the river Bure in boating terms – almost a foreign country!
Molly and I were there to watch our daughter Polly compete in a British Cycling road race. Although this was held in Norfolk the competitors came from far away; several from London and one from Shropshire. The field was therefore a strong one and Polly did well to finish around half way down the field – there were 30 in the women’s race. It was her first road race, previously she had competed in a Mountain Bike contests near Brandon which we had also gone to watch. On that occasion we never even found the venue! This race started at the village hall and there were seven laps of the surrounding roads, each one taking about 20 minutes to complete. Along the Watton Road the villagers had turned out in force to watch. They probably don’t get very much entertainment in the village. My wife could get no signal on her phone – maybe it would be better on another network.
The nearest town is Watton and for ninety years until 1964 that was their nearest railway station, on the Swaffham to Thetford branch. Great Cressingham may have felt a little less cut off before the Second World War because southwards the Stanford Battle Training Area now blocks off Great and Little Cressingham from the Thetford area. In all five villages (plus a deserted medieval settlement) were taken over by the War Office in 1942 and remain out of bounds today. STANTA is used for regular training exercises by the Paras and others, and soldiers from Europe are frequently to be seen there. The former habitations have been wrecked by decades of neglect and gunfire, but the churches have been preserved. The fine church at West Tofts was largely rebuilt in the 19th century by Pugin, at the expense of its millionaire vicar. It is described as one of the finest Gothic Revival churches in the country and so it is doubly sad that it cannot be visited. However occasional services have been held there since the 1980s.
As a civil parish Great Cressingham is combined with Little Cressingham and two villages together had a population off 421 in the last census. The village school close in 1992 and there is no longer a shop, but the 17th century pub (the Olde Windmill) remains. It seems a popular place with a dining room and guest bedrooms as well as wide range of cask ales.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
There used to be many ferries across the rivers and estuaries in Norfolk. Now there are only a few; Reedham ferry across the Yare and the ferry across the Great Ouse from Kings Lynn to West Lynn. There are also the ferries to Blakeney Point; these popular trips to see the seals leave from Morston Quay and Blakeney Harbour. Going back into history, in Roman times Holme-next-the-Sea (where Peddars Way reaches the coast) used to be the base for a ferry across the Wash. Its destination was the Roman station of Vainona (now called Wainfleet) in Lincolnshire. About forty years ago Norfolk Line used to run two ferries a day from Great Yarmouth to Holland; these ferries, the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Holland, were mostly for commercial freight, but they were also used by the general public.
In Suffolk, since the MoD left the Orfordness peninsular in 1973 there has been a ferry service to allow people from Orford to explore the sand dunes and derelict military buildings across the river Ore in the Nature Reserve. There is a ferry service between Felixstowe and Harwich on the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour, linking these major ports of Suffolk and Essex. There is still a rowing boat that ferries people across the river Blyth from Walberswick to Southwold, though it only operates in the summer season. It only costs a pound. I have used the Walberswick ferry (many years ago) and also went across the Deben ferry which goes across the Deben estuary from Bawdsey to Felixstowe, with my new wife (and our bikes) in 1986.
The rowing boats that used to ferry people across the river Yare were common before the 20th century. They had all been abandoned by the time I was aware of my surroundings, but many of the boats themselves survived, as battered and unloved hulks pulled up on the riverbank. One such boat was at Pulls Ferry on the river Wensum in Norwich (it was broken up by vandals around 1970). Why a ferry had lasted so long there is something of a mystery. Bishops Bridge is only a few hundred yards away, and it had ceased to charge a toll in the mid 19th century; yet Pulls Ferry only ceased to operate within living memory, during the Second World War.
The boat which used to link Brundall with Surlingham at Coldham Hall was by repute going into the 1970s, but whenever I saw it the boat always appeared disused. I was a not an infrequent visitor to Coldham Hall in the 1960s, where my father would buy his half pint on a Sunday. I dare say we should have gone during the week to see the ferry in use. There was also a ferry that linked Surlingham with Postwick at the suitably named pub, the Surlingham Ferry. Between there and Norwich was Whitlingham ferry, and although I have never heard of a ferry at Bramerton, I am sure that at one time you could take a boat from the Wood’s End (as the riverside pub used to be called) to Hall Lane in Postwick.
The ferry at Buckenham was always remote from human habitation, although across the river was the Ferry Inn. The Ferry Inn (now rebuilt and called the Beauchamp Arms) figures prominently on this picture from 2oo years ago. It is across the river from Buckenham in Langley near Loddon. It is still a popular place of refreshment, although it draws almost all its trade from thirsty holiday makers who arrive there by boat. The only difference with the nineteenth century is that then its customers were working wherrymen. Note that in 1826 ten sheep, two cows and three people were waiting for the ferryman to pull the pontoon across the river to pick them up; two sailing boats are tied up at the pub. I went there as a teenager with my cousin Andrew, when we spent day sailing my dinghyfrom the Buckenham Sailing Club. Despite being an almost uninhabited location, the hamlet of Buckenham still boasts its own railway station, although it served by only a couple of trains a week.
The layout of the roads shows that once it was possible to take a ferry from Cantley; in fact there were two routes across the river Yare from there, but all traces of them have been lost. Reedham car ferry has already been mentioned, and it remains in use. It was almost the last ferry before you reached Great Yarmouth; the last one was a marshland ferry near the Berney Arms pub. Heaven only knows who used it, as the pub must accessed by railway or river boat, unless you walk for miles across the marsh from the A 47; what sort of income did the ferryman earn I wonder? The steamer which used to ply the river between the South Quay in Yarmouth and Gorleston saved holiday makers a long walk via Haven Bridge.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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.
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!
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF RAIL TRAVEL
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.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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.