West (or Little) Poringland was pronounced ‘West Pauling’ or ‘Little Porland’ in the days when it existed as a separate medieval parish. It lay between East Poringland and Shotesham. The church of St Michael had fallen into dereliction before the Reformation. It had formerly been administered under a curacy and in 1540 the spiritual needs of the small population were taken over by the Rector of Howe, although the church of All Saints in East Poringland was in fact slightly nearer. The poor of the parish were looked after by East Poringland, who also took care of the roads. The hamlet of West Poringland remained as a churchless parish for over three hundred years.
The site of St Michael’s church is in a farmyard off Shotesham Road, the only remaining vestige of the ancient West Poringland village. I imagine that the large pond and meadow between the farm and the road are what remains of the village green. All traces of the church have now been lost, but the walls still stood at just over shoulder-height in 1800. It was at this time that the land in the village was enclosed, and no doubt that was when the village green was incorporated into the local farm. In 1845 the village had a population of 57, compared with 520 in East Poringland. In 1840 there were four tenanted farms in West Poringland, all owned by the Lord of the Manor.
All the principal buildings and businesses were located in East Poringland – pubs, two windmills and a National School, set up in 1841 and still taking pupils a hundred and twenty years later when I was a lad. In the nineteenth century the surnames of Minns and Tubby were already known in the village, and both families were distant relatives of mine. My connection with Poringland arose from my parents moving there shortly before I was born, and the fact that it was also the home to these relations is coincidental.
Leafy Oak Lane was a popular dog walking place for me and my sister nearly fifty years ago. This is in West Poringland. Dove Lane, which leads off it, and eventually ends up at the Dove Public House, was a green lane (i.e.not made up) and so no traffic passed that way; it was perfectly safe for our dogs who would happily run and sniff along the lane. Leafy Oak Lane is a lovely name, but most of the oak trees must have been felled a hundred years ago or more, and the fields now do not even have hedges. It is near where the Poringland Oak is said to have been, and as there is a pond where Dove Lane meets Leafy Oak Lane this may have been the exact spot where Crome painted his famous picture.
Unfortunately the local farmer had taken to dumping farm effluent in the pond some forty years ago, and the result was not pleasant. Luckily nature soon recovers, and although I have not been there for many years I am sure that the scene is again tranquil and serene.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
This village near Newmarket is well served by transport links, and it has been for thousands of years. In prehistoric times it was served by the Icknield Way that went from Wiltshire into East Anglia. The ancient trackway runs along the edge of Kentford village. The name hints at the Iron Age tribe the Iceni.
In the Middle Ages the river Kennett was a much more substantial waterway than the weed-choked stream that now runs through Kentford. The river was wide enough to require a ferry to aid those who needed to cross it, although (as the name suggests) it was originally traversed by a deep ford. Until the beginning of the 17th century, when the first bridge in Kentford was built, traffic from Newmarket went across the bridge in the adjacent village of Moulton, upstream of Kentford. This 14th century packhorse bridge (which still exists) has four arches and was, apart from ferries, the most northerly crossing point into Cambridgeshire from East Anglia. The little village of Moulton was historically of major importance; the bridge carried medieval travellers to the great centre of pilgrimage (Bury St Edmunds) from the west. I am sure a toll was payable, and doubtless a chapel too existed to safeguard those who used the crossing. Today it is very near to its modern replacement, the A11/M11, the route from Norwich to London. Those who pass by have no idea of this long march of history as they speed along. It is also close to the A14, a much newer road that runs from Felixstowe to the midlands, built in the 1980s. In the Middle Ages the river Kennett allowed boats to pass up the Great Ouse river basin via the river Lark to Kentford and beyond. The head of navigation on this watercourse is now just above the confluence of the river Lark with Lee Brook, which leads on to the river Kennett.
The village is also served by Kennett railway station with its two hourly service from Bury St Edmunds to Cambridge, via Newmarket. From Kennett station it is under an hour and a half’s journey to London Kings Cross, and the fare to Liverpool Street Station can be as little as £10 one way! It is also on the line from Ipswich to Peterborough via Ely, but trains on this route do not now stop at Kennett; perhaps they should? I am sure there used to be trains to Ely in LNER days. Under the Great Eastern it was possible to catch a train from Kennett to Ely without changing, but you had to call at Newmarket first and then reverse; the short link south of Soham to the Bury St Edmunds line must have been built in the 1930s. You can still trace the old line if you use the satellite view on Google maps. It is a very basic station today, but back in the nineteenth century it had a resident stationmaster and several staff – a ticket clerk, porter and someone to load the goods vans. From 1930, until it became an unstaffed halt in 1967, there was just a porter at the station, and a signalman in the adjoining signalbox. The old station has been demolished and the signalbox was removed to the Colne Valley Railway Museum after the semaphore signals were replaced in 2011. Before the days of Dr Beeching it had a freight service, and even after the general cargo of coal trucks and goods wagons was discontinued, it retained a siding and freight service to the adjoining granary store. This continued until the 1980s, and there is still a siding to the east of the station, though I doubt it is much used if at all. It provides access to a facility for aggregate produced from the stones discarded in the processing of sugar beet by the local British Sugar factories.
Kentford is on that narrow isthmus of Suffolk that is sandwiched between Kennett to the north and Ashley to the south, and both these villages are in Cambridgeshire. The river Kennett flows through the village of Kentford and formed the border here, although the course of the river has varied slightly since the border was fixed. The river gives its name to both villages, Kennet and Kentford (the ford on the river Kennett).
Like the river Kennet that flows into the Thames (and is familiar from the Kennet and Avon Canal) the word is of Celtic origin. However, in the Domesday book the Suffolk village is spelt Chennit, while the Wiltshire river was formerly known as the Cunnit.
Kentford is fifteen miles south of the market town of Brandon, which is on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, so all three East Anglian counties are close together here. Coming into the 21st century, the most modern form of transport, air travel, is available only 35 miles away at Stansted Airport in Essex. This has services to Europe and the USA. It truly is a transport hub, but that is not the reason why I am writing this blog. Although it is only a couple of miles from the A11, I never even knew that the village existed until this year.
The only reason that I found out about it then is because there is a large veterinary hospital there, belonging to a charity The Animal Health Trust. Our dog Wesley had a slipped disc in March this year, and we had to take him there for surgery to repair it. Wesley was in a bad way, unable to move his back legs at all, and until recently there would have been nothing we could have done for him. Fortunately, modern surgical techniques mean that a remedy is now possible, and he is well on the road to recovery.
There is an attractive looking pub on the corner of the road to Red Lodge; the old half-timbered building (which is in fact in Kennett) also offers accommodation. I would like to sample a pint of beer there, but I doubt I will ever again pass that way, except when Wesley has his check-up, and he will not wish to wait while I indulge myself in this way. Perhaps when we go again in May the weather will be pleasant enough for us to sit outside and take a drink while Wesley sits at my feet.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY of EAST ANGLIA
This pretty village has some dark periods in its history. At the time of the Black Death Ringland was used for burying the dead of Norwich; on the way to Costessey, Ringland Lane used to be known as Black Lane and the Woodland behind is still known as Blackhill Woods. The area was a huge charnel pit, where after more than 600 years this grisly memory is kept fresh. The bodies would almost certainly have been brought here by boat, as this part of Ringland lies adjacent to the river Wensum.
The village has a population of 260; in the year 1845 it was half as big again. In 1920 it was a larger village than its neighbour Taverham, where the major paper mill had closed twenty years before and the non-resident squire had yet to sell the land in the village. Now Taverham has a population of over 10,000 and is a dormitory for Norwich. The nature of Ringland has changed too, from a community of poor farming families and tenants to one of wealthy owner-occupiers.
Ringland Hills are unusually steep for Norfolk and were formed as a terminal moraine in the ice age. My earliest memory involves being taken to Ringland Hills in my father’s Singer car. By the time I was 8 he had bought a brand new Hillman Husky, so I can’t have been more than 7 and was probably much younger. Now the grassy slopes where I used to picnic are overgrown with brambles. During the 1930s they were a popular place for holding both motorcycle trials and sports car events. Since then Ringland Hills have fallen into dereliction; even the assault course which at one time used the hills is now no more. Now cars squeeze along the narrow lanes of Ringland and cut up the verges. They use the road as a short cut to the A47; a sign says ‘NO ACCESS TO TAVERHAM’, but however much the authorities would like this to be true it is a lie. There is no law that I know of which only allows residents of Ringland to use the road; it is either a public right of way or it is not, and Ringland Road is a public right of way.
During the First World War my father was brought to Ringland Hills for a Sunday afternoon treat. They are fairly close to the city and so Ringland Hills were a popular place for a stroll from Norwich. In those more energetic days when there were no cars for ordinary folk, a hike for a few miles into the countryside from the city meant a few hours well spent. My grandparents and their two young children walked all the way from the last tram stop on the Dereham Road; I think it must have been too far for the little legs of the boy, who must have got over tired. Anyway, he misbehaved himself, and was rewarded by his father removing the leather strap round his waist and giving his son an almighty belting. Corporal punishment was the norm in those days; nevertheless it must have made a deep impression on my father, as he still remembered it fifty years later, when he used to recount the experience to me.
A hundred years ago, when my father was taken to Ringland Hills, the bridge across the river Wensum was just a flimsy wooden footbridge, as it had been for many years before that. A field was rented out to provide funds for its upkeep. Anything heavier than a pedestrian had to ford the river, and you can still see where the road went across the green opposite the Swan pub. This popular Ringland pub is where we took our daughter Polly for a meal on her 18th birthday. The setting was marvellous, but the meal was disappointing. Then it was Australian themed cuisine called ‘The Taste of OZ’. The owners have since returned to the Antipodes, but the quality of the dining has not improved to any extent.
Recently the church held a medieval festival with an exhibits of some of its ancient records. There was a concert of medieval music, and the church was almost full for the performance on Saturday, which was great. (It was well attended for the medieval Songs of Praise on Sunday evening too.) In the chancel was displayed a piece of the medieval rood screen, severely damaged by the sixteenth century iconoclasts, but still hauntingly beautiful. Also on display was the marriage register from the 1780s, where one may see the signature of James Woodforde, parson of the adjoining parish of Weston Longville. The current marriage register dates back to 1843, and the church warden has recently had to buy a replacement! The church was begun after the Black Death, except for the tower which is slightly earlier in date. Some churches are austere and rather forbidding, but Ringland church is a friendly place. It has a peaceful airy quality and has a high number of original stained glass panels. The glory of St Peter’s church is the wonderful hammerbeam roof, and it has many carved angels looking down on the congregation.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
When I was in my thirties I would sometimes spend an evening in Aylsham, playing chamber music in the home of a retired butcher. Butchers are not normally notable for their musical tastes, and this one was no exception; he was a plain, hones, down-to-earth Norfolkman. However, his wife had longings for the more refined side of life, which is why she played the violin. To find a young string player of a similar cultivated background (who had been to a Public School and Oxford no less) obviously impressed her greatly, and so I was invited to her soirées, although my instrument (a double bass) was not the ideal member of a string quartet! Butchering had been kind to the family, and they lived in fine style in a detached house in its own grounds in Aylsham.
I would already have been very familiar with the town, because the road from Norwich to Cromer went right through the middle until the bypass was built the 70s. My first plain memory of Aylsham goes back to middle 1960s, when I attended the wedding of Sandra, my father’s receptionist at the time. In fact she was only a few years older than I was, although she seemed very mature to me. My father had two receptionists at this period, and the other one, Helen Keller, was even nearer my age. Sandra’s wedding took place at St Michael’s church, which stands just north of the market place.
My frequent attendance at the Aylsham Sale Yard was mostly in search of second-hand books; Keys, the auctioneers, developed a special line in book sales. However I have bought all sorts of other things there too; everything from musical instruments to rolls of wire netting. I have never bought ‘Three Chairs’ though; this announcement was always made preceding the sale of a lot of these articles of furniture, and it always brought the response from the crowd ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray’. This joke is probably obscure to those unfamiliar with the ‘Broad Norfolk’ dialect. To let you ‘furriners’ in on the joke, the word ‘cheers’ is pronounced ‘chairs’ in the local tongue.
There is no longer any livestock sold at Aylsham sale yard, but when I first used to go there calves and pigs were still being auctioned every week. This part of the sale ground has now been built on as a housing estate. Live chickens and rabbits lasted rather longer.Now the only bullock you will see there is when they hold a picture sale of eighteenth century livestock.
The fine thatched pump in Aylsham was erected to commemorate John Soame, who died in 1910. He was a farmer from Spratts Green, an area towards Brampton near Marsham, and was undoubted a relative of Soame the steam engine maker from Marsham. We no longer require water to be drawn from a public well, but back in 1911, when it was built, both horses and people were glad of the artesian bore that was sunk some 50 metres into the subsoil.
There is still a railway station at Aylsham, but this is now the terminus of the narrow gauge tourist line that runs to Wroxham from the town. This follows the route of the standard gauge line that was opened in 1880 and finally closed in the 1980s. Regular passenger services were withdrawn in 1952. This was the GER branch line from Wroxham to County School near North Elmham. Aylsham had two railways serving the town; Aylsham North was on the M&GN main line from Leicester to Great Yarmouth, and lost its passenger service when the former M&GN closed in 1959.
My most recent visit to Aylsham was during last summer, when I spent a pleasant hour or two in the Black Boys pub on the Market Place. The market is not to be confused with the sale yard; the Market Place is the centre of the town, where the Town Hall and the church look down on the vegetable and flower stalls. A market still take place there. I had known this pub the Black Boys for as long as I can remember, but this was the first time I had been inside. It was already long-established in the 18th century, when it was supplied by William Hardy from his brewery at Letheringsett. The interior has been much altered over the years, but the oak staircase running to the first floor from the bar is as old at the property itself.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
VIEWS OF THE CITY
These are all pictures of a Norwich that has long gone.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF NORWICH
This club was established by the Norwich painters John Crome and Robert Ladbroke in 1803. Before we go on to examine the artists of the Norwich School, let us first look at the state of Norwich in the early years of the 19th century. The aristocracy still held sway in the county, but it was the middle classes who ran the city. Richard Bacon had been for twenty years the editor of the Norwich Mercury newspaper, that he and a colleague had bought in 1785. He would shortly retire and his young son would take his place. At No. 18 Gentleman’s Walk a new insurance company, the Norwich Union Fire Office, was slowly establishing itself under the guidance of its founder, the Kentishman Thomas Bignold. The botanist James Edward Smith (later to be knighted) had recently returned to his native city having founded the Linnean Society in London. People were regularly hanged in the Castle Ditches, and nearby the cattle market was thronged every Saturday with buyers and sellers of sheep and cows. Coaches left daily from the Angel in Gentleman’s Walk for London, the brightly dressed guard blowing his horn as the coach rattled along the cobbles to the open road. Most of the city gates which had stood since the middle ages still protected the town.
At first the Society of Artists met at the Hole in the Wall, a long-vanished pub that was built into the remains of a disused church somewhere near Bedford Street. There the local artists would meet to discuss techniques and recent developments in art, while supping a pint or two of ale. It was not at first an exhibiting organisation; this was a natural expansion of the group’s activities that occurred in 1805. These successful art exhibitions continued for over 20 years, by which time John Crome himself was dead. The origin of the Society was brought about during a brief lull in the Wars with France. We should remember this conflict was the backdrop to the many sketching trips that the members of the club undertook to villages within walking distance of Norwich. Great Yarmouth was another popular source of subject matter, of fishing boats and the sea; this town too was easily reached by wherry from Norwich. John Crome travelled to France once the defeat of Napoleon made this possible, but the vast bulk of his pictures are of local scenes.
John Sell Cotman was another member of the Norwich School, from 1807 when he joined the club, but he frequently painted in other parts of the country. Whereas Crome and Ladbroke were self-taught working class artisans (a sign painter and printer respectively) Cotman was from a higher class of society. His father was a successful silk merchant, and he had been educated at the Norwich Free Grammar School. It was at this ancient school in the Cathedral Close that Crome himself was engaged to teach drawing. He was remembered by one of his pupils as an engaging and amusing man, quite different from the normal schoolteachers of the day who dourly imposed the rules of Latin grammar with a stick. Norwich School was advanced for the time in giving art lessons
There were many other members of the Norwich School of Painters, although none so famous as Cotman and Crome. Two members of the Society I will mention, both of them unusual men. One was the editor of the Norwich Mercury, already referred to in the opening paragraph of this article. His name was Richard Mackenzie Bacon, and although his son-in-law and grandson were to become influential painters in London, he himself was not an artist. As far as I am aware, he was the only non-practising member of the Society, but I am sure he had plenty to say at their convivial meetings. The other member was Benjamin Robert Haydon, a West Country born artist who worked in London. He was much fêted when he came down to Norwich to unveil his portrait of the Mayor. He was elected an honorary member of the Society and was one of the few non-locals to belong to the Norwich School of Artists.
We normally associate the school with landscapes after the Dutch manner, but portraits were favoured early in his career by Ladbroke. Still life and genre paintings do not appear to have been popular among the members of the Norwich School. Although Benjamin Haydon was best known as a painter of historical subjects, he did not submit any canvases for hanging at the annual show.
This was a remarkable flowering of local talent in a provincial city. There was no great history of artistic endeavour in Norwich, and its founders were humble working men. The movement was encouraged by the local elite, the doctors, lawyers and businessmen of Norfolk, men like Dawson Turner the Yarmouth banker and Samuel Bignold of the Norwich Union. The Society folded in 1834 when the President, John Sell Cotman, removed to London, where he was appointed drawing master to King’s College School. By then the Society was known by the cumbersome title “The Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts” It ceased to operate as a group, but the many members like John Berney Crome and James Stark continued to paint, although the draw of London diluted the Norfolk concentration of artists.
FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
I lived in South Norfolk as a child, and I got to know East Suffolk better than I knew North Norfolk or even Broadland. I went to school in Suffolk, and we went for a fortnight’s holiday to the Suffolk coast every August throughout my childhood. These are some pictures that remind me of those times.
This pub was called the Southwold Arms from 1839 until it closed in 1996. It was subsequently used as accommodation for Adnam’s hotel employees. It has since 2013 been converted into a menswear shop.
The Tide Mill at Woodbridge was being restored when this picture was taken in 1973. It had closed about ten years earlier as the last working tide mill in England. It never used internal combustion engines, as many watermills did before finally going out of business. In its final years it produced animal feed, no longer flour for human consumption. It was not yet open to the public in 1973. The steamer which you can see alongside the mill briefly ran trips on the river Deben.
The Aldeburgh lifeboat had been involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. Aldeburgh still has an RNLI lifeboat station. The lifeboat is launched from the beach; although the river comes within a few hundred yards of the sea in Aldeburgh, it only reaches open water at Shingle Street, some five miles to the south.
The attractive area by the river Blyth was for 50 years on the line of the narrow gauge Southwold railway, until it closed in 1929. The old railway track is still a popular path where walkers may go between Southwold and Blythburgh.
The baker at Stradbroke was my great-grandfather William Rutter. The bakery only passed out of the family’s hands in the 1940s. Although William moved into the shop in about 1860, it was still the Stradbroke bakery when I called there a couple of years ago, over 150 years later. William Rutter died in 1904, but the current owner showed me his will, which he keeps among his documents. Although I have always been a Norfolk ‘bor’, both my mother and father had Suffolk blood in their veins.
Apart from the ancient motor cars (which could be parked almost anywhere in the days before yellow lines) this view of the lighthouse is still much the same. A couple of canons have appeared on the green in the last 50 years.
This ancient medieval castle was built as a Royal Castle in the late 12th century. It is well preserved externally, but unlike another Royal Castle (at Norwich) it has not been used to accommodate anyone for centuries. Part of the building was however used as a radar station during WW2.
Although it is now converted into private flats, this inn was once a stop on the coaching route from Great Yarmouth to London. Eye lost much of its importance when the mainline to Norwich was routed through Diss instead. A branch line to Eye was an early casualty of the growth of the motor car.
The maltings at Snape had been built by the Garrett family in the 19th century. The matings were still in operation after WW2 as this photograph (taken in 1958) shows. Shortly afterwards it closed and was taken over by the composer Benjamin Britten of nearby Aldeburgh as a Concert Hall.
This pretty Market Place is dominated by the 17th century Buttercross. Every morning from the age of five I alighted from the bus here on my way to school. What a delightful start to life; but I only felt dread as I headed down the street to Arithmetic as first lesson!
The Martin Luther had spent most of her working life on the river Medway carrying cement into London. She spent her retirement settled in the mud on the river Blyth at Southwold. By 1960 she had been broken up.
Lowestoft was once a thriving fishing port. It may have reached its zenith in the days of sail, but it was still flourishing when I was a young man. Regular fish trains went from there to Norwich and beyond. Will BREXIT lead to a revival of fishing? Don’t hold your breath.
The canon were by no means new when the government approved their purchase in the 18th century, having originally been commissioned in Elizabeth I’s reign. They were last fired in 1842 to celebrate the birth of the Prince who was later to become Edward VII. Unfortunately a young man had his head blown off – perhaps the only fatality these guns ever produced.
Much excavation followed the discovery of North Sea Gas in the 1960s, to create a National Grid of gas pipes. Gas was brought ashore in North-East Norfolk, and from there distributed across the country.
Bungay Bypass now runs along this stretch of the railway line; a few years earlier the line between here and Harleston was intact. Then there was a daily goods train from Tivetshall on the London mainline to Beccles. Passenger services had been withdrawn on the Waveney Valley line in 1952. By 1966 there were no steam engines left in East Anglia, but the line still reached to the water tower in Bungay.
This is a recent view of Aldeburgh. As you can see there is a flourishing inshore fishing trade in the town. For reasons we have already examined, all boats have to be launched from the beach at Aldeburgh.
Saxtead mill was built in the late 18th century and was last used to grind corn in 1947. It remains in working order. When I went in the early 60s you could only access the upper floors by climbing long wobbly wooden ladders. I am sure that modern Health an Safety legislation has caused these to be replaced by rather more permanent structures. The young lady with a camera in the picture is my sister Tig, but the moped has nothing to do with our family.
These two enamel signs used to stand outside the door of Miss Hurr’s shop in Southwold High Street. She no longer sold Elliman’s Embrocation when this picture was taken, although I understand it is still available. By the 1960s her main stock-in-trade was kites, buckets and spades.
This is how the house used to be furnished when it belonged to the Vanneck family; they had built the property in the 18th century, but disposed of the house and contents in about 1969. The view below is of the exterior. The house was briefly open to the public in 1970/71.
FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
The Inland Waterways system links much of the country by canal, and narrowboats may make their leisurely progress from the Thames to Birmingham and on to Liverpool or York; but one does not normally associate them with Norfolk. The Norfolk Broads make their own independent system of waterways, with no link to the wider canal network. They used to be synonymous with the Norfolk wherry, a type of trading vessel unique to the Norfolk Broads, and now they are typified by the broads cruiser, a leisure boat of restricted headroom to negotiate the low bridges. The absence of locks on the Norfolk Broads means they are not restricted to 7 ft wide, as narrowboats are.
However West Norfolk is bordered by the Great Ouse, and that river is part of the national inland waterways system. To gain access from the Great Ouse to the canal network you must use the Middle Level Navigations to the river Nene, and thence to the Grand Union Canal at Gayton Junction. There is a proposal to build a 20 mile link from the Great Ouse at Bedford to the Grand Union at Milton Keynes. There are no towpaths through the Fens, and before powered craft became common all progress depended on sail.
In theory the Norfolk town of Downham Market has access to the world of the canals, although in practice few narrowboats venture there. The river Wissey, which joins the Great Ouse at Fordham just south of Downham Market, does have some moorings for canal boats however. Perhaps the nearest place to central Norfolk that has resident narrowboats is Wissington, some ten miles upstream from the confluence with the Great Ouse. This hamlet is adjacent to Stoke Ferry, the upper limit of navigation on the river Wissey. Together with the light railway the river was once the only way to access the large Wissington sugar beet factory; there was no road until 1942.
Brandon on the Little Ouse is accessible by narrowboat. Athough Brandon railway station is in Norfolk, Brandon town is in Suffolk, so even that rural county of minor streams may lay claim to a link with the inlaid waterway system. Until 1920 the river Lark used to be navigable right up to Bury St Edmunds (in the middle ages the stone for the Abbey was brought that way from Barnack) although now navigation ends on the river just beyond the River Island Marina, which is in Cambrigdeshire.
In Norfolk at Thetford you can see a narrowboat on the river, but the Little Ouse is no longer navigable to the town. The upper reaches of the river needed staunches (a primitive form of lock), and these fell into disuse in the 20th century. It used to be a major waterway, bringing rags for the paper mill and many other things like coal for the town. In the 19th century a paddle steamer ran trips to from Thetford to Cambridge. This was before the arrival of the railway in 1845 brought a faster route for traffic. The upper limit of navigation is now Stanton Downham Bridge.
Hockwold-cum-Wilton is a small village on the southern border of Norfolk, some miles downstream of Stanton Downham; it was an important place in Roman times, and the Hockwold Treasure of second century silver tableware may be seen at the British Museum. Hockwold Fen on the Little Ouse river is another place in our county with a clear and indisputable claim to connection with the inland waterways of England. Canal boats regularly cruise to the village, and there is even a public mooring place for narrowboats, but I doubt you have ever heard of Hockwold Fen. It is scarcely a hub of nautical activity!
Sunday 4 May 1980.
Our canal holiday did not start in Norfolk. We picked up our canal boat (named Chelmer) in Northamptonshire, from the boatyard on the Grand Union Canal in Weedon. This is very near to Daventry, the geographic centre of England. The party consisted of my friend Bill Wragge, my sister Tig, our two dogs Fido and Suki and me.
We were complete novices, but after a short spell being shown the ropes by the man at the marina we set off along the canal. The operation of the locks was a skill soon mastered; the most tricky thing was the mooring spike. This had to be hammered into the bank, and I left our hammer behind at Norton, the first place where we stopped. I was unable to buy another one, and had to resort to bashing the spike in with a large piece of driftwood. Then Tig, who had for some reason removed the spike from its mooring line, dropped it in the canal! By the greatest good fortune I was able to fish it out again.
After spending Sunday night at Norton Junction we went through the one and a quarter-mile long Braunston tunnel. It seemed a long way in the dark, proceeding at no more than 4 miles per hour, and it was. Emerging again into the daylight is like being reborn; after endless darkness the light returns, and all is once again bright and fine. Braunston is a major junction on the canal network, where the Oxford Canal meets the Grand Union.
We had all mod cons on the barge; hot and cold running water, a shower, a gas hob, electric light and even a telly. When moored up for the night we erected the TV aerial, and after a bit of fine tuning we could settle down for the night’s viewing. We were watching the events unfolding that were later known as the ‘Iranian Embassy Siege’. The stand-off involved six armed Arabs seeking independence from Iran, and the siege had begun when they seized 26 hostages at the embassy in South Kensington. Events had begun on the 30 April, reaching their climax on Monday the 5 May. Mooring up for the night we watched spellbound as the SAS men stormed the embassy, live on television. They abseiled down from the roof and forced their way in through the windows. We saw the whole building apparently well alight. One hostage had already been killed and one died in the assault; five of the six hostage-takers were shot dead and the sixth was prosecuted and imprisoned for 27 years. The refusal of the government to negotiate with the terrorists was an early indication of Mrs Thatcher’s firmness in the face of violence. Although we did not realise it at the time, this was to be a feature of her premiership. It was shown unmistakably by the Falklands War in 1982, and the Brighton bomb outrage in 1984 was another example of Maggie setting her face against adversity.
We had all felt rather cold on Sunday night, so we put the central heating on for Monday night. We walked in to the village to have a drink at the Kings Head and when we returned played dominoes. The next morning we has bacon and tomatoes for breakfast. We had to work 22 locks that day. In the afternoon we moored and walked into the Post Office at the village of Itchington and did some shopping. I found some wild thyme which we rashly ate with Irish stew for supper. We were really living off the land! I saw many more cowslips than I had ever seen before in my life, and a water vole.
On Wednesday we had one lock to work before reaching Leamington Spa. I walked ahead to operate it, only to find that Bill and Tig had run aground! Tig’s resulting headache was cured by our cruise into Leamington. We moored very near the centre of town and explored the Pump Room and Jephson Gardens. (I had been there some years before, with my pal Andy Parkes and his wife Ros, who still live there in 2016.) The wallflowers and tulips made a fine display. We went as far as Warwick and glimpsed the castle from the canal. We filled up with water at the boatyard. Then we turned back through Leamington Spa. Fido was getting very bold at balance walking across the lock beams, rather to Tig’s annoyance; he was much better at it than she was. There were lots of sedges along this stretch of canal bank. As we played cards in the dusk a nightingale sang sweetly to us. Rather less romantically the frogs were croaking loudly in the canal.
Before we could cook breakfast on Thursday the gas cylinders needed changing over. Energetic Bill went for a run along the towpath; last night’s nightingale was still filling the air with his song. We went up the Stockton flight of locks with a family from Ipswich. The banks of the canal are a mass of apple blossom, the trees no doubt grown from the many apple cores cast aside by bargees as they worked the cut. I stood on the deck steering, but the others (including the dogs) walked along the towpath all day. I saw many more cowslips (and cows as well). We had a cheap and cheerful bottle of wine with dinner; Bill had bought it in Leamington Spa. There were no nightingales on Thursday night, only the hooting of owls.
Friday was a very warm day and Tig had to walk down to the lock to buy a bottle of milk before we could have our breakfast of Alpen. We met a dredger filling up some barges with mud, but little else as we made our way along the canal. We went shopping in Braunston and Tig dropped a tin of dog food into the canal while going aboard. She is quite good at losing things in the water.
We went for a walk along the Rugby section of the Oxford Canal. In places the towpath had almost fallen into the canal; it was a lovely day for such a walk, but because of the bad state of the towpath we decided to return from Willoughby via the A45. We ate ice creams on the way. The day’s wildlife included several rabbits, a dead stoat and a Jackdaw. The hedges along the canal had recently been neatly laid. We decided to go through a couple of locks before nightfall, but were told by a Waterways official that we had to go through them all or none! We went through them all, and consequently it was 7.30 before we moored for the night. After omelette we walked to the Admiral Nelson for a drink.
On Saturday I got up soon after dawn to the song of the cuckoo. Bill took the helm through the Braunston tunnel and in spite of meeting two narrow boats coming towards us did not collide with either of them, nor with the wall. We explored up the Leicester arm, a shallow canal and very peaceful, despite being sandwiched between the mainline railway to the north and the M1 motorway. The Stags Head pub was kept by a Portuguese man, dressed impeccably in a dinner jacket and bow tie.
And so our holiday ended at half past nine on Sunday morning. We bade farewell to Bill who drove off to the hospital where he was manager in Whitby, while my sister and I (plus dogs) drove back to Norfolk. What strikes me now is how delightfully rural it was, with wildlife in profusion; flowers, mammals, birds and doubtless fish too (though these were harder to see). And all this was so near the midland towns and transport arteries. I hope this is still the case, and I believe that this is so.
MEMORIES OF TIMES PAST
J. R. R. Tolkein was still living when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, but he had retired to live in Bournemouth. Tolkien was still teaching at Oxford while my sister was at LMH reading English in the 1950s, but the Eagle and Child had long since ceased to be the meeting place of the Inklings. His youngest son Christopher, who later prepared the Silmarillion for publication, was still lecturing at New College however, and I attended a series of lectures he gave on the Vikings during my first year. Since then I have become very interested in the Vikings, but of course I have entirely forgotten what his lectures were about.
The Tolkien name was already world-famous well before I went up to university; in this article I intend to refer to those people who were then completely unknown to everyone (except to those who were undergraduates at Oxford in 1970), but who have subsequently become household names. Even back in 1969 most of the people I will mention were obviously going to be stars in the world of the media. This was because they were already columnists in the university organs such as Cherwell. There were many university rags at that time, most that lasted only a term or two.
Libby Purves was at St Anne’s in the days before all the colleges became co-educational, as they were by the 21st century when my son went up to the college. Libby was a regular writer in 1970, who we all followed on a weekly basis, and she is still a regular broadcaster nearly 50 years later, together with her husband Paul Heiney; but she came second in importance to Gyles Brandreth. He was a real star from the start. His journal was another long-running university periodical named Isis. He was also President of the Oxford Union in 1970. Gyles has been principally a journalist all his life, but he was for a period in the 1990s a Tory MP. Another even more prominent Tory parliamentarian has been Ann Widdecombe, but although she too was a contemporary of mine I did not come across name her during my Oxford years. She obviously did not write for the student press.
I could write of various youthful indiscretions of these now-famous writers, but on these matters I will remain mute. The children’s poet Michael Rosen was another well-known character during my student days, but more for his politics than for his verse. Whatever out later political affiliations, we were all at the time rather left of centre. I cannot remember Michael Rosen writing in Cherwell or Isis, only for a piece of rather amusing but slightly rude graffiti he chalked on Balliol wall in Broad Street. He may not have written in the student press, but he was certainly written about in it.
Another writer was the late Christopher Hitchens. His politics were very left-wing then and he remained a strong atheist until his death. His 21st century conversion to American Foreign Policy (although not to President Clinton, another Oxford contemporary) was certainly something that I would not have anticipated from his university days. I have never been a Trotskyist as Hitchens was, but my left-wing opinions had been quite marked. I had however already begun to grow out of such juvenile attitudes by the time I left university; it is a puzzle to me how many of my fellow baby-boomers have never abandoned their childish political and musical tastes. Christopher Hitchens was another personality who was obviously going places, even in his student days. I remember squeezing into a pub near the Examination Schools on Oxford High Street during Finals in 1971. He was there with a voluptuous young lady, a fellow-student who was bursting out of her sub-fusc. He was always keen on the delights of the flesh.
MEMORIES OF OXFORD
This water-mill stood on the river Bure at Coltishall until it was burnt down in January 1963. Horstead mill in Norfolk was the upper limit of navigation on the river until March 1775, when the wherry Grampus became the first vessel to use the newly constructed lock at Coltishall . The town of Aylsham was reached by the canalised stretch of the river in 1779. Coltishall was an important inland port on the Norfolk Broads until that time, being the principal unloading place for coal from Gateshead-on-Tyne. Oats, barley and malt made the return journey to Great Yarmouth and by sea-going craft to points further away. Lime from riverside kilns was also carried down the river. The lock enabled river traffic to pass beyond the mill, but it made Coltishall a less busy place (as a surveyor from Cambridge noted in 1805).
Near the King’s Head, a pub a bit further downstream from the mill on the common, the boatbuilder Stephen Wright laid down the keel of a new wherry on April 11th 1776. The growing timbers were regularly inspected by the new owner William Hardy, and on Sunday he went to the boatyard twice, on the second occasion accompanied by his children. A wherry was the most up-to-date form of river transport in the 18th century. Most water traffic from Coltishall still used the older ‘keels’ to transport grain from rural Norfolk and return with bricks or sand. These vessels had square sails, while the more efficient wherries had fore and aft sails.
The new wherry was ready to launch in late August, and the owners entertained their friends to tea on board. Back at home they had a good dinner and then the gentlemen drank large amounts of alcohol until well after midnight. Needless to say William Hardy had a dreadful hangover the next day. Meanwhile his wife Mary had to go and pay for all the wine glasses and crockery that the revellers had broken the previous night. The new vessel was named the William and Mary, not after the late King and Queen, but after owners William and Mary Hardy. It was soon loaded with malt to be taken downriver to Yarmouth.
Horstead mill was rebuilt in its final form a few years after the completion of the new lock. It was built of white painted weatherboarding. The mill had belonged to St Benet’s Priory until the Reformation (together with Coltishall and Horstead Manors), when this was all given to King’s College Cambridge by Henry VIII. The mill remained in the college’s ownership until 1910, when it was bought by the local millers Reads of Norwich. I remember Reads, and the packets of their flour that you could buy at local shops. A video that includes views of the mill in operation is available on the Suffolk Local History website. The canalised section of the river Bure from Horstead mill to Aylsham remained in use until the floods of 1912 damaged the lock at Buxton. It proved too costly to repair; by then there were two railway lines to Aylsham and the canal was no longer essential.
The nearby pub in Horstead, the Recruiting Sergeant, was where the local Lodge of Freemasons met in the eighteenth century. It is still a popular watering hole, and the King’s Head in Coltishall is even more so, especially on a summer’s evening. Then you can sit by the river’s edge enjoying an evening drink, while the light drains from the sky. In the eighteenth century both pubs were frequently visited by William Hardy, for he was the local brewer, besides running a farm. He was a Yorkshireman who had been living in East Dereham as an Excise Officer; there he met Mary Raven, a Norfolk farmer’s daughter, and they married before moving to Coltishall.
I was a regular visitor to the parish of Horstead about ten years ago, when my son was himself rather keen on a farmer’s daughter. Her father worked the land around Lound Hill, where over 200 years before William Hardy’s men had sown their oats and barley. Unlike William Hardy’s attachment to a farming family, nothing came of this liaison. He is now in a long-term relationship with a charming Dutch girl who is training to be a lawyer. One of William Hardy’s descendants went into the law in London and eventually became Master of the Rolls in 1907. He was ennobled in 1914.