Tag Archives: France


RALPH HALE MOTTRAM and other writers

When we consider the poets of the First World War, it is as a part of history that they are now remembered. All through my school career however, when I was I was studying the poems of Siegfried Sassoon (and others) he was still living. So too was another of his contemporaries, Robert Graves. They remain a part of my literary environment, and are not to me historical figures. The poetry is what first drew the public’s attention to these writers, but it is their autobiographical works that I most remember. In Graves’s case this was Goodbye to All That, and in Sassoon’s it was the trilogy that begins with Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.

R. H. Mottram

Another trilogy which concerns experiences in France and Flanders during World War One begins with The Spanish Farm. It was written by a local man, Ralph Hale Mottram, who was brought up in Bank House in Norwich. There his father was Chief Clerk and Ralph too began his career as a bank employee. He had already published two books of poems before the war; in 1915 at the age of thirty two he volunteered for Kitchener’s Army.  The Spanish Farm was his record of the war and was published in 1924. It went on to win the Hawthornden Prize* in the same year.  The trilogy was published in single book format in 1927.

Mottram lived into my era, although as a young man I did not appreciate him. His star was no longer burning brightly in the literary firmament compared to other writers of the wartime years.  Everybody has heard of Wilfred Owen, but few beyond Norfolk know the name of R. H. Mottram, and fewer still are familiar with his work. This a great shame because he wrote most engagingly. This lack of recognition may have something to do with the fact that, although he had been friendly with the author of The Forsyte Saga John Galsworthy (and even wrote his biography), he never fully joined the metropolitan literary establishment. He preferred to spend his life involved in the affairs of his native county. He was of the same generation as my great-aunt Ruth, and became Lord Mayor of Norwich four years after her, in 1955. He died in Kings Lynn in 1971.

The Spanish Farm is a novel, although it draws heavily on Mottram’s experiences as an officer in the Great War. There is one small point that would not be worth mentioning, had not the centenary of the Royal Air Force recently been celebrated; he mentioned members of the RAF being among the crowd at horse show held in 1916. He was two years too early. How careful authors must be to avoid these little mistakes! This small error in no way detracts from the pleasure I take in the unfolding story, though pleasure is perhaps the wrong word. With the horrors of war always lying in wait, the proper description would be anticipation, tempered with a sense of dread. (A horse show might seem a strange thing to occur within a few miles of the Front Line in Flanders, but that is to ignore the position held by the horse in the affections of the English Officer Class.)

The three parts of the trilogy begin with the war as experienced by the civilian residents of Spanish Farm, especially the youngest daughter of old Vanderlynden, Madeleine. She was about twenty-one when the war broke out. This volume is grim, but the story is not as awful as that of life and death that occurred on the Front. This forms the plot of the second book. I can relate to a few (very  few) parts of this, as the main character returns home for a week’s leave, after many months in France. The place is obviously Norwich, and home is  the Cathedral Close and the architect’s practice there. A few decades later my cousin was that architect; the frisson of recognition is mixed with a sense of the continuity of life. Wars may come and go, but the architectural demands of the diocesan church buildings will remain.

Why was the conflict so prolific in producing great writers? As well as those already mention there was the playwright R. C. Sherriff (Journey’s End), and we should not ignore that great comedic production, written under the appalling conditions of the Front Line, The Wipers Times. They were mostly British authors, but we must not forget Ehric Maria Remarque. This German novelist’s best known work is known in this country by its English title, All Quiet on the Western Front. No war before the Great War had produced anything comparable, nor did the Second World War repeat the example. The poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee is the aviator’s favourite poem, and that was written in the Second World War, but that was a one-off. Was it the horrors of the trenches or the large number of literate young people who were thrown into them that led to this outburst of creativity? It was certainly both of these things, but it was something else as well. It was the last flowering of the Victorian age, and the war both revealed this great literary tradition in its awful climax, and destroyed it for ever.

*The Hawthornden Prize was established in 1919; authors to have won it include such well-known names as Graham Greene, Vita Sackville-West, Lord David Cecil and Henry Williamson. Both Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon also won the prize, but Mottram was one of the first to do so.







Britannia; a coin of Antononius Pius (138-161) 

You think that we first joined Europe in 1973? Think again. You are out by about two thousand years. Britain was invaded by the troops of the Roman Emperor Claudius in AD 43. Until then we really had been separated from Europe, although the Continent already exerted a strong influence on the offshore island. For example, the advanced technical development of the coinage of the Iceni tribe must have had European assistance in its production. The country was soon incorporated into the Empire of Rome, which stretched across all of Southern Europe and into North Africa and the Middle East. The Pax Romana (the Roman Peace) lasted for hundreds of years, putting the most recent attempt to develop a European Union into the shade. (It has taken us less than fifty years to decide we do not like the experiment.) Latin was the common language of the Western Empire; these were years that saw the creation of a road network that remains the basis of our communications even today.  The towns that still dominate the landscape –  places like Colchester, York, Chester and (above all) Londinium – were first established by the Romans; before that Britain had been almost entirely a rural country. The settlement that formed the centre of the Iceni tribe at Caistor near Norwich is one of the very rare exceptions to this rule. This was later developed into the Roman regional capital Venta Icenorum, and remains as a uniquely preserved reminder of governance in this distant period in history. Eventually the Roman Empire in Europe unravelled, and invaders from Northern Europe took over the island.

A thousand years after the rebellion of Boudicca (the last indigenous attempt to thwart the Romans) another European power took the southern part of Britain again into the European orbit. This part of Britain was by then known as England after one of the races that had invaded this corner of the Roman Empire. This time it was not Rome but Normandy that imposed its will on the land. With the Normans it was not towns and villas that the invaders left behind, but castles and abbeys. The architecture of the Romans has vanished, but many of the Normans’ heavy stone buildings survive. Although not so widespread or unitary in structure as the Roman Empire, the Norman influence extended to Seville in Spain, Malta, Sicily, the Canaries and North Africa.

After this second attempt to set up a united European entity splintered into many competing lands, Britain remained largely detached from most subsequent attempts to re-establish the organisation of a European empire. The time it was known as the Holy Roman Empire, and although it had long before lost any real power, this was only formally abolished by Napoleon.

One way of uniting England and the Continent that might have succeeded was through marriage rather than conquest. Had the union of Philip II of Spain and Mary Tudor produced a male heir the whole future course of Europe would have been very different. Historians don’t work in what might have been, but it is worth considering how England would have been drawn into the orbit of Spain, which was then in a far stronger position than England. The European Catholic Church would have returned to this country; the Puritan settlements in North America would not have happened. The Spanish king was already dominant in the Netherlands and much of Italy, and also had a worldwide empire of colonies to exploit. With the addition of England the creation of a Spanish ruled Europe would have been unstoppable; but as you are well aware, following his English wife’s death, Philip II’s attempted conquest of England by sending an Armada ended in disaster for him, and a new beginning for this country.

During the first half of the 17th century the continent of Europe was torn apart on religious grounds by the Thirty Years War. The religious conflict extended to England too, as we were racked by Civil War. First Oliver Cromwell and then James II tried to pull the country in opposite directions, while any thought of uniting the continent seemed utterly futile. The marriage of the Dutch King William to the English Princess (later Queen Mary II) was another childless attempt to produce an heir, so the union of the two Protestant crowns was only temporary. By the 18th century the strength of Britain made the union with the Electors of Hanover a one-sided affair and, in spite of this connection, the British turned their backs on Europe and looked to overseas conquest instead.

Following the French Revolution Napoleon made another attempt at creating a European Empire, with himself at its head. It was only the opposition of Great Britain (with some help from Russia) that prevented this empire from becoming permanent. Invasion from across the Channel became a real possibility. The loss of most of our North American colonies (finally acknowledged in 1783) and the major distraction of the Napoleonic War brought our attention back to Europe, but this was only temporary. Another British Empire, this time including India, Africa and Australia, again concentrated our gaze across the world and away from our own backdoor.

The creation of a united Germany in 1871 brought a major new player into the Balance of Power in Europe.  Even before its formal creation, Germany’s initial bid to push back the power of France ended in success in the treaty that ended the Franco-Prussian War. The German Army’s mobilisation in 1914 seemed set to establish that country’s hegemony in Europe. A united opposition defeated this German effort to rule Europe, but within a generation the country had  re-emerged to try again. The whole of Europe would have fallen under Hitler’s spell had it not been for the resolute opposition of Britain, which stood alone against the power of the Nazis in 1940. Had we given in after the Dunkirk fiasco the whole might of Germany  would then have been directed against the Soviet Union, and they too would have fallen to the Nazi onslaught.

It is nasty picture, and it is no wonder that following WW2 the principal countries of Western Europe made the attempt to create a different kind of union, one based on consent rather than conquest. In spite of our technical victory in the Second World War, our overseas empire and influence was completely destroyed by the cost of Total War in Europe. It took only three years for India to be granted Independence, followed by the disaster of Suez and our divestment of our colonies in Africa.  With no Empire to look to, it was inevitable that our thoughts should turn again to Europe. However, the inclusion of Great Britain in this growing superpower of the Common Market was problematic from the start. Unlike the rest of Europe, which was just emerging from years of German domination, the UK had not been occupied for nearly a millennium. To put ourselves voluntarily under the yoke of Brussels was irksome to say the least; even those politicians who were basically in favour of the EU were reluctant to follow most of Europe into the common currency; nor did we join the open borders policy of Schengen.

While Europe was divided between the European Community to the West and the Communist Bloc to the East, the economies of the EC could co-exist without any becoming overly dominant. The reunification of Germany, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, raised the spectre of the German nation finally establishing that overwhelming power that it had been moving towards for 150 years.  In the popular mind it is the immigration from Eastern Europe that has driven Brexit, but we and the rest of Europe have never been threatened by Poland. How far has it been the growth of Germany that has pushed us out of Europe? From a feeling of European unity that was evident in this country in 1975, we have lost confidence in the direction in which Europe is taking us. Whether we have the unity of purpose to re-establish ourselves as an independent nation is a matter of debate. If history tells us anything, it is to expect the unexpected; nobody expected the result of the Referendum for one thing. These are exciting, if rather disconcerting times; I for one anticipate great changes in the future. Whether they will be for the better or worse remains to be seen, but whatever happens, our complicated relationship with Europe will continue.





C. E Rivett in RFC uniform

The RAF came into being one hundred years ago, following a report of the previous year by General Smuts. The Royal Navy Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps were amalgamated to form the new service, the Royal Air Force. The subsequent complete lack of any flying capability in the other two armed forces was eventually rectified, with the creation of the Fleet Air Arm in 1924; the Army Air Corps had its first incarnation in 1942 and was reconstituted in 1957. The Fleet Air Arm was officially part of the RAF until 1939, when it became part of the Royal Navy.

The RAF is the oldest dedicated military air service in the world. In America they had to wait until 1947 for the United States Air Force to be formed; all through the Second World War the air wing was called the United States Army Air Force – the USAAF. In other parts of Europe the French Air Force (Armée de l’Air Française) was formed in 1934 and disbanded by the Germans in 1940; the Service Aéronautique had been established in 1909 as a branch of the French Army. Italy instituted its independent air force , the Regio Aeronautica, in 1923. In Germany the two branches of the air service that corresponded to the RFC (the Luftstreitkräfte) and the RNAS (the Marine-Fliegerabteilung) were disbanded in 1920 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The German air force (the Luftwaffe) was established in 1935 as one of the Nazis’ violations of that treaty.

My family has been involved with the Royal Air Force right from the start, on April 1st 1918. Among the members of the RFC who transferred into the RAF was my grandfather, Charles Rivett. In fact the process took several months to organise, and Charles was issued with his new RAF number (123243) on the 29th January 1918. I have heard a story that the blue uniform of the RAF came about through an order for uniform cloth for the Russian cavalry being cancelled by the Bolsheviks. Charles however would have continued to wear the olive-green tunic and trousers of the RFC for the remainder of the war. Charles was thirty-six years old at the time; he had signed up two years earlier, abandoning his previous job of Sub-postmaster in the Norfolk village of Cawston. I do not know what exactly his occupation in the Flying Corps was; he would have worked in some administrative capacity – not involved in actually flying the flimsy aircraft of the time. I never knew him because Charles died before I was born.

Coming forward to the Second World War, my first cousin once removed Derek Osborne was serving as a Flying Officer in the Voluntary Reserve of the RAF. In 1942 he was based in the East Riding of Yorkshire. On the night of Saturday June 27th he was the pilot of a Wellington bomber on a raid over Bremen, attacking industrial targets. It was while he was over the Netherlands that the aircraft he was flying came under attack from a German fighter. It was hit and blew up with loss of all on board. The fact that his plane exploded in mid-air suggests that it had not yet dropped its bombs. Pilot Heinz Vinke and his gunner Karl Shödel claimed the downing of the bomber. Heinz Vinke did not survive the war, and I have no information on the fate of Shödel. Derek’s memorial is on Runnymede island on the river Thames, with all the other similarly lost-in-action airmen who have no known grave. He  had not even reached adulthood under the law at the time, being just twenty years old. He had one son, Christopher, who was six weeks old when his father was killed.

During the Cold War my cousin David Anderson was the Education Officer at RAF Marham in Norfolk. He had avoided National Service by claiming exemption on moral grounds, but subsequently changed his mind and volunteered in the RAF.  Marham was at the time home to the new aircraft collectively known as the V bombers – the Victors, Valiants and Vulcans. Marham was equipped with Valiants; severe metal fatigue led to them all  being retired by 1965. They were sub-sonic, having a maximum speed of 550 mph. In 1956 the base at Marham had hosted a visit by the Soviet leaders ‘Crush’ and ‘Bulge’ – Khrushchev and Bulganin. On 17th September 1960 the base had a display on Battle of Britain Day that I and my family attended as guests of David. As guests of a serving officer we had a rather better view of events than the rest  of the crowd. David had a fine job as Education Officer; one of his tasks was to go into Kings Lynn to buy LP records to play to the personnel as as part of their  instruction!

Guard Room, Stoke Holy Cross.

No other close members of my family have been in the air force, but when I lived in Poringland our next-door neighbour had been in the RAF police, guarding the radar base at Stoke Holy Cross. This base was closed in 1956, so you can tell I am talking of many years ago. The guard-room he is seen standing outside (with his guard dog) is still standing, now housing a museum of the base. Graham Macrobert came from his native Scotland and was housed in the camp in Framingham Earl. There he met a local girl, and having married her, he has live in our neck of the woods ever since.





Caister Castle

The rise and fall of the Pastons would not be so well known were it not for the preservation of a series of letters which chronicle the progress of members of the family through the period in the fifteenth century that we call the Wars of the Roses. This was a family of Norfolk country gentlemen who later rose to the aristocracy. If you know where to look you can still see the remains to show the wealth and power they once possessed. Only the servants’ wing of their one-time home in Oxnead now stands, but even this provides an impressive residence for someone in these slightly more egalitarian times. The imposing tithe barn in the village of that name is a remote memorial of the Pastons. The Paston family originated from the village of Pastonon the North Norfolk coast.


The first two volumes of the letters were published 230 years ago and caused a minor literary sensation at the time. Parson Woodforde passed favourable comment on the letters in his diary, but the fame of them went well beyond Norfolk; they even earned the editor a knighthood from George III. They have been studied ever since, and I recall them being cited by my history tutor at Oxford. This was particularly fascinating for me, as I could picture the places being referred to in the letters. The part played by the Pastons in national affairs was a minor one, but has been rendered important by the records of their daily affairs that have survived.

Paston Tithe Barn built by Sir William Paston in 1581

As I write I am only a mile or two from Drayton Lodge, where Margaret Paston’s men were besieged by the forces of the Duke of Suffolk. Meanwhile the Duke of Norfolk was attacking her retinue at Caister Castle: (Letter from Margaret to her son John, Sept. 12, 1469). “I greet you well, letting you know that your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister, and lack vitual . . . and the place is sore broken by the guns of the other party; so that, unless they have hasty help, they are like to lose both their lives and the place, to the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman, for every man in this country marvels greatly that you suffer them to be so long in such great jeopardy without help or other remedy.”


In the same period James Gresham acted as the family’s land agent in the North Norfolk village of Gresham where he lived and where the Pastons were the landowners. The Gresham family too were upwardly mobile, and (like the Pastons) went from humble beginnings  to positions of great wealth. Sir Thomas Gresham founded the Royal Exchange in London and left instructions for the setting up of Gresham College, which remains a uniquely democratic seat of learning. The family crest of the Grasshopper still stands atop the tower at the Royal Exchange. His uncle Sir John left the Holt Grammar School (now known as Gresham’s School) as his legacy to the children of Norfolk. Sir William Paston built the North Walsham Grammar School. This is better known as the Paston School where the young Horace Nelson was the most famous  pupil. Although the Holt Grammar School was much closer to Burnham Thorpe where Nelson lived it was not considered suitable by his father; until it was refounded as Gresham’s School in 1900 it was not regarded as more than a minor establishment for local boys. The Paston College is still a feature of North Walsham although now on a different site and a sixth form college in the state sector. Gresham’s also boasts the Grasshopper as its crest. The Paston Coat of Arms is topped by a more conventional heraldic beast, the Gryphon.

Robert Paston was born in 1631 and educated at Westminster School. He was at Cambridge at a difficult time, when many of his contemporaries were staunch Puritans. He spent the years of the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate abroad, much of it in France. He was thus able to avoid the difficulties (including imprisonment and sequestration of their wealth) that befell many Royalists who remained in England. On the Restoration of the monarchy he was elected to Parliament.

OXNEAD HALL as it was

During the reign of Charles II Robert Paston (1631-1683) was created Earl of Yarmouth. The oil painting ‘The Paston Treasures’ (now held at the Castle Museum in Norwich) shows the objets d’art collected by Robert Paston during his travels in France and elsewhere. They were held at Oxnead Hall.

Under James II Robert’s son William converted to Catholicism and was created Treasurer of the Household. However, despite returning to the Anglican fold after the Revolution that deposed James II, he fell on hard times under William and Mary. He died heavily indebted and without living heirs in 1732 and the title became extinct.





Czechoslovakian railway engine in Communist era.

Barnstaple, Devon 1958. My first long distance trip, starting from Norwich Thorpe as the station was then called, to distinguish it from the other two termini  in Norwich. Steam engines ruled the tracks in those days!

Glasgow, Scotland, 1962. With my sister Tiiggie we stopped off at Glasgow en route to Malaig, where we were to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We had gone up to Edinburgh on the night sleeper.

Ostend, Belgium, 1965. School trip to Eastern Europe.We went by train from Waterloo. After catching the ferry to Belgium we caught the train at Ostend. There were no electric trains on the European railways then, but in the capitalist West the expresses were already diesel hauled. In Communist Europe the trains were still steam hauled.

Cologne, Germany, 1965. Our first change of trains at about midnight. The workers were still busy digging up the road outside the cathedral (a dedication to getting the job done unheard of in England in those days, and even today). We had to stop at the border with Czechoslovakia where we were thoroughly checked by the Communist border guards. The border was heavily defended by machine gun-toting soldiers. It was strictly prohibited to photograph near the railway, but I managed to sneak my camera there to take this picture!

 Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1965. After an overnight sleep in the couchette car of the train we arrived at Prague, our first destination in the Communist East. In the hotel I experienced my first night under a duvet; such things were then unknown in Britain.

Budapest, Hungary, 1965. We spent several days in Czechoslovakia before going on by train to Hungary. We stopped off at the border to view the Danube Bend. In Budapest we rode the ancient electric underground railway which was then still using the original carriages from the 1890s.

Vienna, Austria, 1965. Our last stop was  back in the West, and rather flat in comparison to Communist Europe. It was dire in the East for the inhabitants, but as visitors from the wealthy Capitalist part of the world we were treated very specially indeed, almost like Royalty. They needed our cash!

Montreal, 1969. While visiting my sister in Canada my mother and I caught the train from the suburbs to downtown Montreal. We went with my sister and her children. It was single car train, but it had an observation deck (which I used of course). There was another railway visible from my sister’s house, one with plenty of freight trains going past.

Oxford, 1967. I went to Sheringham from school by bus, to catch the train from the station.  This was already the new BR built halt. The North Norfolk Railway had purchased the adjacent former station, but as yet no trains were running and it stood derelict. This was in December for my interview for a place at university. From Norwich I caught the train to Liverpool Street, and from Paddington I went to Oxford on a train full of fellow candidates. 

The metre gauge Baie de Somme railway

Folkestone, 1977, en route for the  Baie de Somme, France.  With my friend Bill I went on a day trip to ride the Baie de Somme narrow gauge preserved line. The return trip entailed changing trains after midnight at Shippea Hill of all places!

Aarhus, 1982. In Denmark me and my friend Bill travelled from Aarhus in Jutland to the island of Zealand, which at that time involved the entire train being hauled on the ferry for the sea crossing. (Since then a bridge has been built.) The door at the end of the last carriage on the train had a widow, from which you could watch the track disappearing into the distance.

Copenhagen, 1982. Arriving by train, we spent a few days in the Danish capital, where we did all the usual tourist things like visiting the Little Mermaid. We flew back to Manchester airport from there.

Aldershot, 1986. Stopped off for a haircut en route to my RAMC recruitment assessment.

Ash Vale, 1986. To RAMC HQ at Keogh Barracks for basic training.

Windermere, 1986. Just married, Molly and I went on a special to Lake Windermere in the Lake District; on the way we went over the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line. We  stopped off at Ribblehead station for a look over the valley.

Bournemouth, 1996. I caught the train down to Bournemouth where I had a week’s training at the Elstead Hotel as rep for the Union of Postal Workers. Saw the QE 2 at Southampton.

Paris, France,  2001. Our first overseas family holiday; Molly, Peter, Polly and I went by Eurostar from London. This was before the high-speed line was built, and we left from Waterloo.

Bruges, Belgium, 2002. With our children we went on a day trip by train to Bruges from the Midi Station in Brussels.

Estoril, 2005. On a family holiday to Portugal (when we flew to Porto) we arrived at our hotel by train from Lisbon.

Cascais, Portugal, 2005. We travelled to the beach for a morning sunbathing at the terminus of the line. Sunbathing is something I almost never do, and this was not a success. The railway line was lovely though, and runs along the sea throughout its length.

Flam, 2011. On our Norwegian cruise we travelled this steep electric railway line from sea level (the fjord) up to the mountainous country. There, despite it being August, there was still some snow about.

Me on the footplate at March shed, 1964.

Brussels, Belgium, 2015. Molly and I travelled on Eurostar from St Pancras and spent a few days with Peter and Alex in Brussels. It as February, and Peter was due to move back to England later in the month. We went first class (as by then I had  suffered from a stroke) and were entertained to a lavish meal as we were whisked through Kent.

Wymondham, Norfolk, 2015. I went solo for the first time since suffering from my stroke.I got on the train at Wymonham and travelled to Cambridge, where I was met by my cousin William. I also returned unaccompanied to Norwich.

I have been on many other railway journeys, mostly to London. Over my lifetime I have been by train to Wales, March in Cambridgeshire, Weymouth, Liverpool Street (all of these in steam days), to name but a few. I have travelled on lines that were axed by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1960s. This article includes all my travels abroad.




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Gaston Martineau was a Frenchman who arrived in Norwich in the year 1686; he was a surgeon from Dieppe. The year before king Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes; this enlightened piece of legislation had been promulgated in France under king Henri IV in 1598. This king had been brought up a protestant himself, but had been forced to convert to Catholicism to inherit the throne of France. The Edict of Nantes allowed French Calvinists (Huguenots) a degree of protection from persecution. The removal of this protection caused many French Protestants, including  Gaston Martineau, to emigrate across the English Channel; many ended up in Norwich. There was already a sizeable presence of continental Calvinists in Norwich, principally Flemish weavers, who had been migrating since the 16th century. Flanders was then part of the Spanish Netherlands, and the Spanish court was not as accommodating as the French court had been until 1685.

Woods near Norwich (John Crome)

Well over a quarter of the population of Norwich was made up of these ‘Strangers’ (as the continental Protestants were called) at one time. Many Huguenots worshipped in French in their own church, which had been granted to them by the City Corporation, but the Martineaus soon converted to Unitarianism and some became Anglicans. One of Gaston’s great grandsons was called Philip and he was also a surgeon. Philip Meadows Martineau (1752–1829) it was who bought Bracondale Woods just outside Norwich City walls, where his elegant residence Bracondale House was built. The House was demolished in the 1960s and County Hall was erected on the site. The connection with the Martineau family is remembered in the name Martineau Lane, now part of Norwich Ring Road, which runs alongside County Hall. The original lane was just that, a narrow country lane, part of which was left as a tree-lined footpath when the new Ring Road was built to the north. From the lane one used to be able to see Bracondale House displayed against a backdrop of trees.

Philip’s brother Thomas went into the textile trade as a manufacturer. One of his daughters was Harriet, and although he married in Northumbria, she was born in Norwich in 1802. She was a famous 19th century writer.  As a young woman she moved to London where she became something of a literary celebrity. She spent some time in the United States, and on her return to England she wrote some critical comments on the American attitude to slavery, and the poverty of female education in that country. Her writings extended from historical romances to tracts on political economy. She moved to the Lake District during the latter part of her life; she supported herself out of the proceeds of her writing, which was highly unusual for he time, and particularly so for a  woman. Her philosophical disposition was favourable to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin; at an earlier period in her life there was even the suggestion that she would marry into the Darwin family. A period of serious illness led her into a life of celibacy instead.

Meanwhile other members of the family had become established in Birmingham. From 1846 five Martineaus have been Lord Mayor of that city, the most recent being inducted in 1986. The Martineaus were related by marriage to the Birmingham dynasty of politicians, the Chamberlains. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was one of their number. It was revealed in 2014 that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is descended from the Martineaus. Her ancestor, Elizabeth Martineau, was elder sister to Harriet, and  so Prince George also is directly related Gaston Martineau of Dieppe.  The Martineau bloodline has in this way reached the very highest status in the land.




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Alfred John Mason was born on January 3rd 1898. He was one of the ten children of Charles Mason who survived beyond infancy. He was the second child (of five) his mother Alice had with Charles; she was his second wife. Alfred grew up at 25 Russell Terrace in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. Like his brothers and sisters he was educated at the village school. On leaving at the age of fourteen he worked in the mustard mill at Colman’s Carrow Works where his father and eldest brother were also employed.

When the First World War broke out two years later he was too young to enlist, but as soon as he was old enough he enrolled in the army. He was kept in England as in 1915 (aged just seventeen) he was still too young to fight, and so he was trained in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After basic training he was transferred to the Service Corps in 1916 and deployed to France. He finally made it to a front line fighting unit, the 6th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment. This Battalion had been formed in 1914 and after serving in Gallipoli and Egypt they returned to France in July 1916, where Alfred joined them in 1917. After fighting for months in France he had returned to Trowse on leave in September 1918. During his stay he took the opportunity of visiting old friends and colleagues at the mustard mill. His smart military appearance and his concern for the goings on back home made a definite impression on the workers he met.

In Northern France, at the end of October 1918 his Battalion were in training at


Trowse chuchyard

Valenciennes, but with just two hours notice they were ordered to the front line. On the 1st of November their fellow combatants in the 9th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters were ordered into battle, with Alfred and his unit held in reserve. On the 4th the Foresters made a successful attack on the hill at Sebourg with the Lincolnshires in support. On the sixth the Lincolnshires experienced some resistance from the enemy, but on the seventh the Germans were forced back; they were in retreat and disarray, and the war was rapidly coming to an end. However Alfred Mason had already been hit by shrapnel, and on the 3rd of November 1918 he had died of his wounds. By a cruel irony he was the only member of his Regiment to be injured by that shell blast. A week later the Armistice was signed on the 11th November to general rejoicing back home in Norwich, and many people thronged the market place. Alfred’s sister Edith met her future husband on that happy occasion. At the family home in Trowse this delight turned to despair three days later when the news of Alfred’s death arrived. His oldest brother was 38 and his youngest sister was only 11 at the time of his death. It was a very cruel circumstance that he so nearly survived the war.

He was buried at the St Vaast cemetery near Cambrai. There are 45 graves of British soldiers in this military extension to the communal cemetery; for much of the war this village was in German hands. Compiègne were the Armistice was signed is about half way between Valenciennes, where Alfred died, and Paris. Cambrai, where his body lies, is between Valenciennes and Compiègne. In 2014 on the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War a display was mounted in Trowse church, with details of the twenty one villagers who gave their lives in the conflict. A photograph of Alfred Mason was among them, and two of his nieces attended the exhibition.





South Devon

It is the sheer variety of the English landscape that fascinates me. France and Germany have varied landscapes too, but they are larger countries. We in England have such diversity crowded into our small land.

I contrast the picturesque beauty of Kent (the Garden of England) with the featureless expanses of the French scene just across the English Channel.  I regard this division as emblematic of the charm of the English landscape. There are beautiful parts of France, but these do not include the land around Calais.

I am sure you know what I mean, but to demonstrate this let me take you on a virtual tour of the country. We will start near the centre of England, where the Grand Union Canal makes its leisurely way through rural pastures. From there we pass across the verdant Cotswolds, the Malverns and the Mendip Hills to the bleak grandeur of Devon’s Exmoor and Dartmoor. The rocky cliffs of North Cornwall stand against the Atlantic rollers that frequently pound the coast. Returning through Dorset there are the marvellous sweeping green headlands and crumbling Jurassic cliffs that meet the English Channel. The North is a combination of moors and dales where livestock graze the landscape; further south the lower lying fields of Lincolnshire and Norfolk are the bread basket of the country, with acres of arable land punctuated by commons, streams and woodlands. Finally in the North West are the majestic mountains and still waters of the Lake District.

There is little countryside in England that could be described as boring.  In contest to the interest of England Canada has vast tracts of snowy wastes to the north; there you experience a brief summer, but the vanishing snow and ice only reveal scrubby grass, firs, myriads of flies and no people. The shifting sands of Arabia consist of dunes and hills but no greenery, apart from the occasional oasis. In England the wide expanses fertile but flat lands where the watery Fens have been reclaimed by ingenious Dutch drainage experts might appear a bit dull, were it not for the towns such as Wisbech and Ely that provide such beautiful relief.

The mountains in England do not provide the spectacular crags that those of Scotland and Wales do, let alone the majesty of the Alpine peaks. Grass rather than snow graces their summits for most of the year. Nature has smiled on us, and the great variety of our geology gave our island people a head start in the push to modernity. All around our shores ports flourished as first canals and then railways connected the inland regions of England with an avid export market.

Coal mines blighted many areas of the landscape, but most of the activity took place underground and out of sight. Lead and tin mines were places of early industrial hardship, but have left behind the picturesque ruins of pumping stations on the Cornish coast. At regular intervals the cathedral cities from Canterbury to York, Wells to Lincoln and Salisbury to Durham provide centres of elegant restraint. The people of England have grown to resemble their landscape; industrious, various but accommodating and friendly; so at least I like to imagine.

Surrounding it all is the sea, that greatest boon to the country. This scenic backdrop to the countryside provides us with a bulwark against foreign invaders, an ocean highway to the wider world, a food resource in the form of fish, a place for the production of green energy from the winds and (maybe) tides.

There is so much to be grateful for in the landscape of England. Let us try to preserve it.




‘This creature, when Our Lord had forgiven her her sin . . . had a desire to see those places where He was born . . . and where He died . . .’ This passage sums up the Book of Margery Kempe. She is forever seeking forgiveness for her sins, but rather annoyingly she never tells us what those sins were. From her earlier life we may take it that they concerned thoughts of a sexual nature. Once the sins were out of the way, her mind turned to thoughts of travel. It could be to Canterbury, or York,  or further to Rome and Jerusalem. No modern-day tourist could have a more packed itinerary, given the necessary restrictions of the time -the early fifteenth century. For some reason, among all these journeys she undertook, she frequently fell into fits of weeping, though what so seasoned a traveller could have had to weep about is not entirely clear.

As you might have guessed, it is easy to find Margery Kempe a little tiresome at times, but if you step back from her privileged prayerfulness and concentrate on what she reveals of the history of her period, the Book of Margery Kempe is fascinating. Coaches were unsprung affairs in the Middle Ages, and roads were miry and rutted, so travel by wheeled transport was uncomfortable. If you had a heavy load to carry you had to use an ox-cart, but otherwise the poor walked everywhere while the wealthy went on horseback. The distances involved could be staggering.  For the more far-off destinations going by ship was unavoidable, for at least part of the way. This had its advantages as well as its drawbacks; the passengers had no option but to sit back and enjoy the ride (if possible), either in the open air or below decks; on the other hand the waves could make the passage not only rough but perilous, for the small ships then in use. You could easily endure seas sickness, or even end up drowned.

With the choice of going by car or train it is quite a trip for me to go from Norwich to Ipswich, but without such modern means of transport Margery thought nothing of going there to see her daughter-in-law off en route to Germany. Upon bidding her son’s widow farewell and leaving the Suffolk port, Margery had almost reached her home when she was seized by an overwhelming desire to accompany her relative abroad. This volte face she naturally attributed not to herself but to the will of the Holy Ghost. The master of the vessel readily agreed to take her aboard, and only her daughter-in-law, who was looking forward to returning to Danzig, was unimpressed; I wonder why?

Margery Kempe was born around the year 1373 in Bishops Lynn – now called Kings Lynn. Edward III was coming to end of his long reign; his ambitions in France had led to the Hundred Years War, a problem for those wishing to travel in Europe. Margery’s family were rich merchants, and both her father and husband were prominent members of the local Corporation. Wool was providing great riches across East Anglia, and Wool Churches were springing up in villages around Norfolk. Her wealth enabled Margery to travel with an entourage of confessors and hermits, despite having fourteen children; she had plenty of servants to care for the youngsters back home. Her education was fairly basic, and she authored her autobiographical work through dictation.

Wherever she went she was able to call on the local vicar, friar or Prior to discuss religious commonplaces with him, which she recounted in her book. No doubt the prospect of a charitable donation made these pleasant chats mutually rewarding. Charity was expected but not demanded of the public. It is revealing to read what Erasmus has to say on the subject; although dating from a hundred years after Margery Kempe’s time, it could be just as true of today’s charitable giving.  He says that people were likely to be more generous if observed in the act, and there were nimble fingered pilgrims who could remove a coin from the altar while apparently depositing one.

Castle Acre, a stop on the way to Walsingham

In all her travels Margery Kempe did not neglect a pilgrimage to nearby Walsingham. Starting from Lynn she would have joined pilgrims from abroad who had landed at the port there, before journeying on to Fakenham; there other pilgrims from Norwich, the Midlands and London all met up before going on to Walsingham. Once there the devout would visit the chapel built as a replica of the House of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The building was draughty, having no doors or glass in the windows. More congenial were the dramas enacted in the Common Place, the market just outside the chapel. Margery went for spiritual solace, but many of the pilgrims were the sick, in search of a miraculous cure. Walsingham is again a place of pilgrimage, the medieval streets drawing tourists from around the rest of the country.  [I am myself due to visit Great Walsingham in the near future, but that is to visit a relative who farms there.]

On her travels in Italy Margery was abandoned by her fellow travellers, who only agreed to let her accompany them  if she stopped talking about God and instead devoted herself too eating, drinking and merry-making. It was in such unaccustomed riotous good company that she arrived in Venice. She stayed there for over three months, getting her spiritual refreshment by attending church every Sunday with a group of nuns. Eventually she could not resist reciting a verse from the Bible, whereupon her friends accused her of breaking her word. For the last six weeks of her stay she dined alone in her bedroom. In spite of Margery Kempe’s own religiosity, it is plain that not everyone was similarly inclined, even in the supposedly devout Middle Ages.

From Venice she took ship to the Holy Land. From the Mediterranean port of Jaffa she travelled inland on a donkey to Jerusalem. During the three weeks she spent  in the Holy Land she visited Bethlehem and the river Jordan, as countless others have done both before and since. She returned to Italy and visited Rome. Once back in Lynn her restless nature soon had her off on her travels once more, this time via Bristol to St James, Compostela, in Spain.





Cross channel adventure


We are an island race par excellence; even if you are an immigrant, once you become a British citizen you cannot help but adopt the national character in this respect. That characteristic is insularity. You have no choice in the matter. You might like to consider yourself a citizen of the world, but the sea has made other arrangements.

Compared to Britain, all the other countries in Europe (except little Malta) have rather hazy borders. At a point in recent history Denmark extended south into what is now Germany. The border area, Schleswig-Holstein, led to two wars in the 19th century. Poland did not exist at all in the nineteenth century, being divided among its neighbours; when it was briefly restored to independence after the First World War it extended far to the east. The Russian Revolution had caused the collapse of the Czarist Empire, and the borders of Poland reflected this fact. A few years later the victorious Stalin pushed the borders of his client state out of its eastern territories and focused the state into what had formerly been Prussia. The German city of Danzig became Polish Gdansk.

It is the same all over Europe; Norway emerged from centuries of foreign domination only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Portugal was occupied by the French under Napoleon; Belgium was created in the aftermath of his defeat. Strasburg has repeated changed its allegiance from Germany to France, depending upon which country won the most recent conflict. The South Tyrol changed from Austrian to Italian sovereignty after the First World War. This process is still going on; in 2014 Crimea was forcibly transferred from Ukraine to Russia. The borders of all mainland European states have moved as a result of plebiscites or wars.

By contrast the borders of this country are set in stone. This is literally true along much of the West Coast, and while the sandier shores of Lincolnshire and East Anglia may come and go, it is the impersonal actions of the waves we have to thank, rather than warlike invaders. This has given our people a wholly different perception of our nationhood. Northern Ireland is different, in having a land border with a foreign country, but the creation of Northern Ireland is a relatively recent and fractious phenomenon. Things would be rather different if Scotland ever becomes independent; but as things stand the British mainland is fixed in a way that the borders of other European countries never have been and never could be.

Australia, New Zealand and Japan are also countries whose borders are defined by the sea. Canada is largely bordered by sea, and the common heritage of the British Empire has made the land border with the USA a peaceful one. (Contrast this northern border of the US with the southern one with Mexico, where there has recently been serious consideration of building a wall.) Although their country is much larger in area and smaller in population than Britain,  Australians has a similar insular character. Although there is plenty of open space available for settlement, they have very strict immigration requirements, and that is a part of their feeling of nationhood.

This watery border has other consequences for the way we run our lives in Britain. The fact that we opted out of the Euro was in a large part a reflection of our insularity. The pound represents the country, and the coinage had been a changeless part of life for centuries. Victorian pennies regularly turned up in your change until old pennies were abolished in 1971, and the old shilling remained legal tender into the 1980s, although it was referred to as five new pence. It was no accident that the symbol on the old penny was Britannia, surrounded by sea.

The position of being surrounded by water has had other effects too; it gave the country strong borders, but it also made the sea an extension of our national reach. The Channel may have kept foreigners out of Britain, but the sea opened up the world to our Navy. The sea is why the British Empire had a global presence, and that has made the English language the global means of communication. Most of us see no need to speak any language other than English.

The sea has given our country immunity from armed foreign invasion for nearly 1000 years, and this has enabled the evolution of our constitution. The Magna Carta remained a legal milestone throughout the centuries; in other places in Europe the laws of their lands have been swept away by changing empires and foreign armies, but Britain has been insulated from such changes. We normally trace our monarchy back to William of Normandy, although it is possible to go back to Alfred the Great. It is a great history, providing a continuity unknown in the rest of Europe.

In the 21st century the strength of our maritime defensive bulwark has been to some extent compromised. In the second half of last century the great increase in air travel made the English Channel less relevant; if you are going abroad the way is to fly. We are also now bound to France by the Channel Tunnel, and this too has made a portal through our previously impregnable boundary. We are marginally less insulated from the attentions of ‘less happier lands,’ but we are still a pretty insular nation.

Since I started to write this article on our island nation much of what I said has been reinforced by the decision to leave the European Union. A lot has been made of the wider possibilities of trade after Brexit, but the overwhelming impression is of Little England pulling up the drawbridge. Like it or not, if you are English you belong to an island people.