Tag Archives: France


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. 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 the 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 lion. 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 America. Her writings extended from historical romances to 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 a woman of the time. 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 to 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 Birmingham, the most recent 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.  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.





These French Protestants were driven out of their homeland in the 17th century. In 1598 the Edict of Nantes had given this minority a degree of protection from persecution. Its revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV led to the emigration of many French Calvinists, particularly from the north of France, now the French-speaking part of Belgium. Many of them ended up in Norfolk, where weaving the local wool was already a flourishing industry. Weaving was the trade that many of these French immigrants pursued, and they naturally gravitated to Norwich.

Many of their names were Anglicised, often in a quite ruthless way; Blanc became White, while Petit became Little and Langlois became English. The Martineau family retained their French name, which remains as the name of part of the Norwich Ring Road, Martineau Lane. The Martineau family retained their connection with the cloth trade well into the nineteenth century. Harriet Martineau became well-known in the country as a writer.

Other evidence of the importance of the Huguenots may be found in a church near the centre of the city. This is the church of St Mary the Less in Queen Street; you can easily miss it among all the shops, unless you raise your eyes to roof level, where the tower may still be seen. It was originally closed in 1544, at the time of the Reformation, but in 1565 it was given by the city fathers to the Dutch religious refugees who were already valued for their weaving skills. They appear to have used it for selling cloth rather than as a church, holding their religious services in Blackfriar’s Hall, a tradition which continued until 1929.

In 1637 the church of St Mary the Less was transferred to the Huguenot congregation; prior to that they had worshipped in the Bishop’s chapel in the Cathedral Close. They continued to hold services in French there until 1832. By then nearly all the Huguenots had been incorporated into the non-conformist community of Norwich. The Martineaus for example who had once worshipped at St Mary the Less were by then Unitarians, worshiping at the Octagon Chapel in Colegate.

You can find hints of Huguenot influence outside the city too. The nearest farm to my birthplace in Poringland is called French Church Farm. When and in what circumstances it acquired this name is unclear, but it is plainly a reference to the Huguenots. So too is Strangers Hall in Norwich, which got its name from the incomers or ‘Strangers’ who settled in the city from the mid 16th century. This term included both Dutch speaking Flemings and French speaking Walloons. These immigrants may have accounted for over as many as a third of the population of Norwich at their height, but by the end of the 16th century an outbreak of plague, prompted by their poor living conditions, reduced their numbers. You can tell the mass immigration had already begun before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes increase the persecution of the Protestants by the Catholics.



Religious persecution persisted in France almost up to the Revolution (in the 1780s), and for almost a hundred years after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes the emigration of Huguenots continued. Many of the introductions by these Protestant immigrants from Northern Europe resonate down the centuries. It was for instance the Strangers who first brought the canary to Norwich. De Solempne, a Calvinist refugee, became the first printer in Norwich in the mid 16 century and was made a Freeman of city. The Florist’s Feasts, competitions among local horticulturalist held at Norwich inns, were a feature of local life  from the 1630s for two hundred years, and were an immigrants’ innovation. In the brewing industry the introduction of beer rather than the English unhopped ale is down to the Strangers. The word ‘Plain” used across Norfolk (but nowhere else) to mean a square or wider part of a street is common in the Netherlands as “Plein”. This use of the word must have been introduced by the Strangers.

Although, as we have demonstrated, other industries were influenced by the Strangers; it was the weaving industry that acted as magnet for the Huguenots. More of them may have settled in London in absolute terms, but as a proportion of the population they were more influential in Norfolk than anywhere else in the kingdom. Immigration may be currently unpopular among the English people, but in our part of the country they have had a huge effect, and all to the benefit of the  natives. We East Anglians would have been a poorer people without the Huguenots, both in wealth and in culture.





Tom PaineHe was born in 1737, and his quaker father was able to send him to Thetford Grammar School. His turn of phrase that made him such a popular pamphleteer in America must have been nurtured there. Thetford is an historic town; the first reference we have to it is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and dates from the year 870, before Norwich even existed. It was the see of the bishops of East Anglia at the time of William the Conqueror. Thetford Grammar School is possibly the oldest school in the country, going back some 1400 years.

Thetford and Norwich held the two Assize Courts in Norfolk, where the most serious cases were tried. Thomas Paine grew up in the shadow of Gallows Hill, something which undoubtedly led to his lifelong opposition to the death penalty. He voted against the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a member of the National Convention. As a result he himself came with a whisker of being executed during the Terror.

His schooling ended when he was twelve, when he was apprenticed to his father as a corset maker. He left home as a young man and spent a year or so working in the Norfolk town of Diss. Although he lacked experience as a sailor he went to sea as a crewman aboard a privateer at the age of nineteen. The voyage was a success and his share of the booty netted him a small fortune. This gave him the means to further his education in an informal way in the lecture halls and coffee shops of London.

He married, but his first wife died in giving birth and the child also perished. A second marriage ended apparently without ever being consummated. By his late 30s his life appeared to be going nowhere. He was living at Lewes in Sussex when he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, the American philosopher, diplomat and inventor. This meeting changed his life. He decide to take ship to Pennsylvania where his lively mind soon threw him into the burgeoning intellectual life of the Colony. He became a popular journalist.

His was the major influence in the wording of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  With peace declare and the British acceptance of American independence in 1783 he was able to return to England. He had been completely unknown when he left these shores, but he certainly was not upon his return. His ability to put across his democratic sentiments in an unmistakable way earned him many friends among the common people and enemies in the establishment.

The developing situation across the channel in France presented Thomas Paine with the opportunity to attempt to put his mark on another revolution. Although ignorant of the French language he was elected the National Convention. In the Terror he was very nearly sent to the Guillotine. His uncompromising dedication to the truth as he saw it earned him enemies wherever he went. A brief period of peace in 1802 enabled him to return to the United States; he was unable to return to England having been convicted of seditious libel in absentia.

He was a free-thinker in advance of his time. His views on religion were very controversial during his lifetime, but they now seem rather moderate in our own more agnostic age. “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” He was a Deist, not an atheist, and believed in one God.

His call for free and universal education, old age pensions and family allowances – the Welfare State in fact – took well over a century to come about, and then only in parts of the developed world. His opposition to slavery did not bear fruit in the United States until more than fifty year after his death; his opposition to the death penalty is still only very partially reflected in legislatures around the world. Naturally he was opposed to any form of monarchy. In many ways he reminds me of Jeremy Corbyn. It is true that Tom Paine did not advocate the nationalisation of railways like Corbyn, but only because railways had not been invented; had they been I’m sure he would have wanted them in public ownership. Come to that, so do I.





View from the carriage

View from the carriage

Le Chemin de Fer de la BAIE de SOMME. This Heritage Railway along the estuary of the river Somme is in Northern France. The 4’8½” and metre gauge dual gauge line was finally abandoned by SNCF in the 1980s, but the narrow gauge section was closed by the early 1970s. The first 3 miles of the railway, which eventually ran for over 10 miles, was opened as a horse-drawn line in 1858. In 1969, with closure immanent, the PRESERVATION SOCIETY was formed.

The principal traffic had been agricultural goods but also included stone (beach pebbles) and shellfish. A passenger service provided access to seaside resorts for tourists. The First World War was a period of heavy use with the Somme valley seeing some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Although part of the line is dual gauge, the preserved railway is run as a metre gauge line exclusively.

A day trip to the railway was organised by the M&GN Railway Society for September 24 1977. The special train began from North Walsham on the Cromer line but my friend Bill Wragge and I joined it in Norwich.  It was an early start – I got dressed at 3.30 in the morning! The train left Norwich at 4.30 and we went to London via Ely. Luckily I was able to snooze on the way. As we crossed the river Thames at Fulham we was saw two herons despite it being central London; it must have been because of the early morning mist that they felt more secure. Then on past the oast houses and hop fields of Kent.

The metre gauge railway

The metre gauge railway

We sailed from Folkestone to Boulogne at 10.30 a.m.. Although Dover to Calais remains as a sea route to France this cross channel service was ended by the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and both the English town and the French one are no longer ports for ferry vessels. In 1977 however such developments were far in the future and the harbour branch at Folkstone was well used. We got on the ferry Vortigern (this vessel was launched in 1969 and was sold by Sealink to Greece in 1988, finally being scrapped in 2005). We had our breakfast of shrimp sandwiches and a lager on board. The ferry had to alter course as we nearly collided with a bulk carrier. At Boulogne we were loaded onto four coaches for the next leg of the journey, about an hour’s drive, to the steam hauled metre gauge line from Le Crotoy to Noyelles-sur-Mer and back. We went through a nice little town called Rue, but this area of France is very flat and there was nothing to see but fields.

Bill on the boat

Bill on the boat

On the return journey we were surprised to find ourselves aboard the Caesarea. This vessel, together with her sister ship Sarnia, had run the mail boat service from Weymouth to the Channel Islands during the 1960s and they were much used by me on visits to my sister Tig who was a teacher on Guernsey from 1963. The mail boat had been taken off the Channel Island run when that was converted  to a roll-on roll-off service in 1973. Before that any cars going to the Chanel Isles were craned up in nets and deposited in the hold. (Sarnia and Caesarea were the Roman names for Guernsey and Jersey.)

Back in England the journey home was rather a nightmare. The train was delayed going through London and at Ely we had to get off altogether and board buses to Shipppea Hill. Then we got on a DMU but Bill had the bright idea of travelling in the First Class section, where I was able to sleep till we reached Norwich. We finally got home 24 hours after we had left. I had arranged to leave my dogs in kennels on Friday and rushed off to get them back at 9.30 on Sunday morning.