This year of 2018 should be another good year for the foxgloves, which have started their blooms early in June and should still brightening the woods and hills over many weeks to come…….
Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of “folksglove,” associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as “fox fingers,” its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a “gleow” being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.
Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:
“An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one
evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.”
“After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.”
Girl With Foxglove by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904)
Foxglove by Christie Newman
From Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist. William Curtis (1746-1799)
Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a domestic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from Foxglove bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and pixies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.
In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since — as well as with “white witches” (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks. In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.
A lovely old legend told in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.
Whifflers and Snap Dragons are still about – but not in the rolls that they once had! Nowadays, the ‘whiffler’ name is confined to one public house on the Norwich Ring Road at Hellesdon, to a road opposite the pub and to an open air theatre in the shadows of Norwich Castle. This is not to overlook its use with the present-day enthusiasts who keep the character alive in the public’s consciousness by appearing in public processions and local events from time to time.
‘Whifflers’ went out of use in much of England long ago, but survived in East Anglia, thriving particularly in Norwich. It was the Whifflers, supported by Snap, who played such a major role in past Norwich Civic Ceremonies.
The origin of the word ‘Whiffler’ is 16th century and comes from the word ‘wifle’ for battle-axe and came from the Old English ‘wifel’ of Germanic origin: it was applied to attendants at processions who carried weapons to clear the way through crowds. It was a word which was once in general use and appeared in Shakespeare’s play Henry V;
“The deep-mouth’d Sea, /Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King, / Seems to prepare his way”.
The Norwich Dragon, known affectionately as ‘Snap’, is preserved in a remarkable present-day collection at Norwich Castle Museum. This collection totals three old snapdragons which are more or less complete; one is the last of the Civic Snaps with the other two being later copies.
Snap was designed and constructed to be carried by one man, using straps over his shoulders. The form of the body is barrel-shaped, formed around a horizontal pole (head at one end, tail at the other) and two small wings concealing the man’s face. His hands are left free to operate the head and hinged lower jaw (this makes a loud click when it shuts, hence ‘Snap’.
In an old and long established Civic ceremonial, which persisted until the mid 19th century, included Snap who acted as the herald for the grand annual Guild Day procession which was held at the inauguration of a new Mayor. This cavorting dragon was a source of amusement and entertainment for the crowds who watched these processions. However, in earlier times, Snap took on a more religious significance as part of a pageant performed by the Guild of St. George in Norwich.
St. George riding on horse-back and fighting the dragon was the centre-piece of these Processions, with a third figure representing the maiden who was, supposingly, rescued by St. George. She was recorded as ‘The Lady’, ‘The Maid’ or ‘The Margaret’ – “the lady of the Gild“ and believed to be based on Saint Margaret of Antioch. A Sword bearer, carrying the Guild sword led the procession with priests, the City Waits, Cantors from the Cathedral and the City and Guild officials following.
In Norwich’s Great Hospital, St Helen’s Church, has a fine example of the devil depicted as a dragon. It is said the a dragon swallowed St Margaret of Antioch but her cross irritated the dragon, allowing her to break free.
The Guild of St. George 1385-1731
The history of the Snap was inextricably linked to that of The Guild of St George, founded in 1385; its aims were religious, charitable and social: to honour St. George, to keep his feast day, to pray for its members past and present and to offer alms to the poor and needy within the Guild. The principal event for the Guild was the feast day ceremony held annually on 23 April which began as a simple religious celebration of the feast day of St. George. The event grew steadily in size and importance as the Guild’s relationship with the City Corporation deepened. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the event was no longer a civic religious ceremony but a civic secular ceremony which celebrated the coming to office of the new Mayor. For this no expense was spared.
Although the form of the procession changed over the centuries, Snap the dragon remained as part of the pageantry for over 400 years. The earliest reference to him comes from the minutes of the Guild Assembly of 1408 at which it was agreed:
‘to furnish priests with copes, and the George shall go in procession and make a conflict with the Dragon, and keep his estate both days’.
In 1585 the two separate celebrations, that of Guild Day in April and that of the swearing in of the new Mayor of Norwich in June, were combined to create one grand event on the Tuesday before Midsummer’s Eve. Over the next 150 years the pattern of the Guild Day celebrations remained the same but the scale and splendour of the occasion increased, gradually reaching its height at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The three pictures above are copies of postcards published by the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage trust which are taken from glass roundels in the Dragon Hall, Norwich – http://www.dragonhall.org/
Then came 1645 and a setback which interrupted Snap Dragon’s progress: the Puritan government ordered that at the next procession there must be ‘no beating of drums or sounds of trumpets, no Snap-Dragon or fellows dressed up in Fools Coats and Caps; no standard with the George thereon, nor no hanging of Tapestry Cloth and Pictures in any of the streets’. However, in 1660, the monarchy was restored and all the old ways returned – including Snap and Whifflers. Their appearances continued and, in time, Norwich became quite famous for the scale and spectacle of its processions. However, the Guild found it expedient to make certain modifications to the form of the ceremony. They agreed that on the following feast day ‘. . .
“there shall be neither George nor Margaret; but for pastime, the Dragon to come and shew himself as in other years”.
A local historian, Benjamin Mackerell, has left us a description of the Guild Day festivities in the early years of the 18th century,
“On Guild Day the old Mayor, Sheriffs, Aldermen, the St George’s Company and Common Councillors met at eight o’clock in the morning at the house of the newly elected Mayor where they enjoyed sugar rolls and wine. The whole street (formerly the whole parish) where the new Mayor lived was decorated. The street was strewn with green sashes and planted with trees. The outsides of the houses were hung with tapestries and pictures, particularly the new Mayor’s house. From here the dignitaries then paraded on horseback to the house of the retiring Mayor where a substantial breakfast of pasties, roast beef, boiled legs of mutton and wine were provided. The procession then set out for the cathedral. The way was cleared by six Whifflers and two Dick Fools accompanied by the Dragon. The Dragon, carried by a Man in the body of it, gave great diversion to the common People: they always seemed very much to fear it when it was near them, but always looked upon it with pleasure when it was a little distance from them’.
As for the Whifflers, they were dressed in a distinctive costume of scarlet satin breeches, white satin jerkin and a hat decorated with a cockade of feathers and ribbons. They carried swords which they brandished and tossed in the air. Helping them were the Dick Fools, who wore painted canvas coats with red and yellow cloth caps adorned with fox or cats’ tails and small bells”.
With the demise of the St. George’s Company (formerly the Guild) in 1731, Guild Day continued, but on a much more modest scale. Although the Company was disbanded Snap the dragon, Dick Fools and Whifflers were kept on and their wages paid by the Corporation. Pagan Snap became Civic Snap, the property of the local authority and appeared on Guild Day when the Lord Mayor was inaugurated. Then, with the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835 much pageantry of corporate boroughs disappeared and that year saw the last Guild Day Ceremony.
It was George Borrow, writing in 1857 in his book ‘The Romany Rye’ who lamented their passing in these words:
“The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago ….. from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art…….since the discontinuance of Guildhall banquets”.
There was, however, one final outing of the Whifflers and Snap in 1846. It was during the ‘crowning’ of Jeremiah Colman, the mustard manufacturer, when two Whifflers met a royal Duke off the train at Trowse Station and led him and the procession up Bracondale Hill into the city. The two of them taking it in turns to run ahead, leaping and twirling their two handed swords.
It was fortuitous that the Whifflers lasted into the age of photography so it is still possible to see the costume that they wore with breeches and white socks tied with fancy garters, a bowler styled hat with a cockade to the left hand. The whole uniform was completed by a white jacket. Maybe it was on the 1846 occasion that the following Whiffler photograph was taken?
As for Snap, he continued to appear occasionally up to around 1850 after which he was adopted by the Pockthorpe Guild, more as a publicity gimmick than anything else. By the 1880’s much of the mock pomp of the past had gone and the appearance of the Snap had degenerated into just a boisterous money-raising stunt for the Guild which used it alongside members carrying collection boxes. Even so, Snap continued to cause much hilarity when used to chase people with the intention of grabbing their hats or caps between its jaws and returning them only after a penny ransom had been paid. Young boys would taunt the Snap by running close by and chanting
‘Snap, Snap, steal a boy’s cap, give him a penny and he’ll give it back’.
Although much of the pageantry disappeared after the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835, a defiant tradition emerged: the people of Pockthorpe, a part of Norwich outside its walls and over the water, created their own dragon and their own mocking, subversive imitation of the Lord Mayor’s street procession. So the tradition of faux Snap terrorizing the people of Norwich continued in the district of Pockthorpe and in the nearby village of Costessey. This 1887 photograph of the Costessey Guild Day suggests the fun that accompanied the election of the ‘mayor’.
These annual revelries continued until early in the twentieth century, according to oral history, up to the First World War, but Snap lived on. In the 1930s, ‘Snapdragon’, was a magazine aimed at raising money in aid of hospitals. Then, the Festival of Britain in 1951 saw the Pockthorpe dragon come to life again for a procession of ‘Norwich Through the Ages’. Co-incidently, it was around this time that another very dilapidated dragon was found, this time in the Backs Bar in Norwich.
These Snap Dragons are the remnants of a medieval pageant play banned at the reformation (saints being denigrated as icons of papism). Snap meant something, for though its official role ceased in 1835 it persisted in a community based in both city and outskirts. Since the mid 1980s Snap occasionally accompanies the Lord Mayor, and at least three have materialised from the community, so the dragons clearly do still have significance for Norwich.
It was publicity that led to curiosity and from that the dragons found themselves conserved and are now on proud display in Norwich Castle. The publication of an important book about ‘Snap The Norwich Dragon’ by Richard Lane in 1976 led to Snap’s reappearance in the Lord Mayor’s Procession in the early 1980s and since that time the dragon has become well loved again, very visible in the culture of the city – and joined by newcomers.
For those who want to know more: Click on the following links:
The thing about waterways is that they have bridges – nothing surprising about that because people and vehicles need to cross them and keep dry at the same time. Very occasionally, when these waterway are diverted, for whatever reason, a second bridge is necessary to span the new cut. What happens to the older structure? Well, depending on circumstances; if the old course is not needed then, presumably, it is filled in and put to other uses. If, of course, water still has a need to flow along that old course then the old bridge remains to do its job.
That was a case in point here, in Norfolk where the River Bure flows near Coltishall at Horstead with Stanninghall. As with other parts along the Bure’s lower reaches, the road crossings here tend to be both large and infrequent. For those travelling up stream, there are various examples of bridges built to connect Coltishall with Horstead and beyond, but the one that we are interested in is Mayton Bridge, or to put it more accurately, Mayton Bridges – plural, near to the now disused Coltishall RAF airbase.
The first and widely recognised Mayton Bridge is the flat topped construction with two cylindrical holes cut in the abutments to increase flood water capacity. This bridge was never part of the Aylsham Navigation although an earlier bridge must have stood on the site. This bridge occurs mid way along a long straight canalised section of the river, with the old watercourse winding off to the west as it approaches Buxton. Many in the past must have spent their summer days swimming or wading around this bridge for the depth of water under the span is rarely anything more than 18 inches, with the bridge itself originally built on a raft of huge oak logs.
It is a matter of pure speculation whether the original bridge collapsed as a result of a past flood, or was torn down and rebuilt during World War II to allow heavy lorries to move between a local sand quarry on the west bank and the RAF base being built on the east – to become ‘RAF Coltishall’. The current bridge certainly seems to sit on top of a huge pile of rubble.
But the real interest of the ‘Mayton Bridges’ lies a couple of hundred yards to the west of the main, straight flowing, river where the road rises over a second bridge; this much older bridge comes complete with a couple of very unusual little shelters. This bridge has two arches spanning what some believe to be the original course of navigation. The bridge itself is very fine and in an excellent state of repair for its age although it was repaired in 1984. It is unusual in that it’s two arches are peaked in a manner not seen elsewhere on the river. Maybe this was how they were all built originally, or maybe this was a one off – it’s anyone’s guess!
Very little seems to be available to describe Mayton Hall and I have not be able to find any photographs of it. For the moment, and until a kind and knowledgeable reader can provide something, I am left with the following brief outline: – Mayton Hall stands on the site of an earlier medieval moated manor and parts of the moat still remains. The earliest parts of the Hall date from the 15th century. This timber framed building was extended to the north in the late 16th century, further alterations were made in the 18th century, and a new façade was built in the 19th century. It was severely damaged by fire in 1984.
As for the old brick bridge, this dates back to around early to mid-16th century; it is a scheduled monument. It has two arches, although it has been suggested that it has four; only one of these now crosses the stream. On west side there is a large central cutwater with a sloping top. The water which used to flow beneath it is thought to have been an outflow from the moat at nearby Mayton Hall, once keeping the water fresh and preventing it from stagnating. The moat inflow was some distance upstream from the bridge. The suggestion that the bridge was built over the original course of the river is considered by some to be improbable. On each side of the bridge and facing the road are small shelters which may have been for the toll collector to sit.
To the more nostalgic amongst us, it is easy to imagine wherries being quanted (poled) up against the current and those in charge thankful for a second arch to relieve the water pressure against the bows – Dream on!.
Faced with an unfamiliar city, the temptation for many visitors is to head straight for the city centre. This is particularly true in Norwich and for those who arrive by train – the station forecourt seems to point you towards the bridge over the river which will lead to Prince of Wales Road the shops, castle, museum and much more. Those who resist this temptation and take the river path instead will find, just a stone’s throw away to the right, a real gem of the city’s history – Pull’s Ferry, sitting pretty on the River Wensum and one of the most famous landmarks in Norwich.
Pull’s Ferry is a 15th century medieval Watergate but it came centuries after a more ancient waterway was dug by monks. You see – both before and during the medieval period, transportation was a persistent problem, especially the transportation of heavy building materials. Roads were poor – if they existed at all, so bulk item were, of necessity, transported by boat. So it was in Norwich. Before any work could begin on building the proposed Priory and the 11th century Cathedral such a canal was needed to bring the materials direct on to the site. As well as stone, there was timber from the Baltic and iron from Sweden. But it was not only building materials that came via the canal; peat would also arrive, from what were to become the present-day Norfolk Broads, to be used as fuel in the Priory kitchens. However, it seems that over the centuries, the heavy stone used to build this holy place received most, if not all, of the publicity. Maybe this was because it’s journey was so long and arguably hazardous – for it came from France.
To be precise, this stone came from the quarries near Caen and would travel up and across the channel and onwards along the rivers Yare and Wensum to the Norwich building site that was to become both a Priory and Cathedral. This new Seat for a Bishop would serve as the central church for the Norwich Diocese, the work starting in 1096 and completed sometime between 1121 and 1145. During all this time, there was no port at Yarmouth and because sea-going ships were comparatively small they were able to make such a complete journey from France to Norwich. This must have certainly made the rivers Yare and Wensum places of great activity, because not only was materials being brought in for the Cathedral, but also for the Castle too.
The present short dyke which connects the river to Pulls Ferry itself is all that remains of the waterway which existed until 1772 when it was filled in and built upon. Before then, this same waterway flowed under the arch of the Watergate and deep into the Cathedral Close; having given its assistance to construction, it was the means by which river traffic was able to bring on-going goods and materials right up to the Cathedral and the accommodation thereabouts.
It was in the 15th century that the arched Watergate was built across this canal; it is this same structure that is the most obvious historical feature of Pulls Ferry today. The Watergate served to guard the approach to the Cathedral, and it was not until the Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century that the current Ferry House was built in 1647, thus incorporating the Watergate. The house itself was both an inn and the home for the ferryman who transported people across the Wensum. The first ferryman was named Thomas Howes, or Holmes but Ferry House was never named after him. Instead, it had been known as Sandlins or Sandling’s Ferry, a name that it would keep for at least 200 years, presumably after a 17th century predecessor. Certainly, at the time that Blomefield was writing his ‘Topographical History of Norfolk’ in the 18th century it was still called Sandling’s Ferry.
A Little Anecdote!
On the 13th July 1758, a short but severe thunderstorm wrought its fury on a house standing alone on the causeway near Sandling’s Ferry in the city of Norwich. Lightning struck off the roof tiles and pierced the house where it ‘tipt off the top of an old chair…… snapt the two heads of the bed posts, rent the curtains, drove against the wall…… forced out an upright of a window frame a yard long and sent it a right line into a nearby ditch’. This shaft of electricity peeled plaster off the walls and melted a row of pewter dishes. ‘An ancient woman’ sitting in a passageway was scorched all over, ‘her skin almost universally red and inflamed…… her shift burnt brown, stocking singed…… her shoe struck off’. The lightning missed:
……. another woman, sitting knee to knee with her companion as it shot along the passage. Those nearby heard a violent explosion and thought the whole house would collapse. It turned red, as if on fire, but it remained standing and the whole smelled as if fumigated with brimstone matches.
(Cooper, S., ‘Account of a Storm of Thunder and Lightning’,
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1683-1775)
Then along came 28 year-old John Pull to become ferryman and publican for the next 45 years – between 1796 and 1841; probably the last licensee to do so. Apparently Pull got married the year after he took the post, to Ann Haywood who lived for only a few years, dying in 1800. The couple had a son, John, in 1798, who was baptised at St John Timberhill. John Pull married again in January 1802, to Ann Steers. A child was born to the couple in the June, which suggests that it was either very premature, or the marriage was one of necessity! But, there were tragic consequences – that child died only a week after being baptised. The Pulls, however, went on to have five more children but only three survived beyond childhood. Ann Pull ‘the second’ died in 1837 at the age of 52, and her husband, John Pull, followed in 1841, aged 73.
The pub closed sometime before 1900, and the building became derelict. As for the ferry, this operated until 1943, although with Bishops Bridge only a stone’s throw away one wonders why there was ever a need for a ferry. The answer may lay in the historical fact that Bishops Bridge had been a toll bridge into the Middle Ages and that Pulls Ferry was a cheaper way for foot passengers to cross the river. However, by the middle of the 20th century all other ways of crossing from Norwich were free. It should also not be forgotten, if one ever knew at all, that before the building of Riverside Walk, the way to the Bishops Bridge involved a lengthy walk through the Cathedral Close. But, it still seems difficult to imagine who would have used the ferry, unless they actually lived or worked in the Close – particularly since the ferry could not have been free. Maybe, and some possibly think this, the ferry was kept open by the request of the Cathedral Dean and Chapter?
Ultimately, both house and archway were saved by a bequest from Camilla Doyle and money raised by Norwich Girl Guides Association; that was in 1947. Over the next two years, restoration was undertaken by builders R. G. Carter and the architect Cecil Upcher. Today, Pulls Ferry and Ferry House remains privately owned; the only reminder of the history of the site is a small plaque at the top of the drive leading down to the ferry. Whilst there is a footpath along the river from the railway station Bishop Bridge which passes directly by Pulls Ferry, the best view of it is from the opposite side of the river, on Riverside Road. This view has been used in so many tourist brochures that Pulls Ferry has long been one of the ‘signature’ views of Norwich. It goes back over 900 years.
Now, it’s difficult to imagine that at the start of the 19th century the land opposite Pulls ferry was largely countryside but, like all things urban, much of this saw the start of building projects which grew apace during the next fifty years. Along came Riverside Road, the Norwich gas works, Rosary Cemetery and, inevitably, the Railway Station, turning this once tranquil area into a suburb of the city centre with all its noise and activity. Between Riverside Road and the river bank opposite Pulls is now the Norwich Yacht Station, much used by Broads and river holiday visitors. Painters and photographers ever since have recorded a more industrial river bank, with boat building yards, a mustard factory and much else besides.
Will o’ the Wisps are not unique to Norfolk – but the ones who frequent this County have their own special characteristics and tales. Today, we know that the name is given to little flickers of marsh gas, which many in the distant past thought to be evil spirits waiting to lure lone night travellers to their deaths! Our ancestors were ignorant of the fact that Will o’ the Wisps were the spontaneous combustion of marsh gas which occurred on warm nights in rotten swamps and bogs. Nowadays, better drainage has turned these apparitions into memories. We are told that past folk called them by various names like Hob o’ Lanterns, Corpse Candles or Jenny Burnt Arses.
In Norfolk there used to be a 19th century wise women by the name of Mrs Lubbock who lived in Irstead, near Neatishead. According to her, Will o’ the Wisp, or Jack o’ Lantern if you prefer, was often to be seen walking around her village before the Irstead enclosure of 1810. Today, Irstead is still an isolated village by the side of the river Ant, but unlike in Mrs Lubbock’s time the village is now a very desirable place, parts of which looking like an archetypal English village. It has held on to some of its thatched cottages and its church is a delight. Up until the 20th century’s better methods of drainage the village and surrounds would have been a very damp and unhealthy place, miles away from towns and the city of Norwich. It should be no surprise therefore that such remote communities were full of tales of the supernatural and paranormal.
Mrs Lubbock’s view of those Will o’ the Wisps was of the spirit of a man named Heard, who turned into this Lantern Man and was frequently seen in and around the village on a misty or ‘roky’ night, but particularly at a spot called Heard’s Holde in the Alder Carr Fen Broad, on the Neatishead side. We are told that it was there that a man of that name, and one who was guilty of many terrible crimes did drown in the peat stained water. In Mrs Lubbock’s own words:
“I have often see it there, rising up and falling and twisting about, and then up again – it looked exactly like a candle in a lantern”. What would be the ignition of natural gas to us was, to her, the unhappy man’s spirit. “If anyone were walking along the road with a lantern at the time when Jack appeared and did not put out the light, he could come against it and dash it to pieces; and that a gentleman who made a mock of him and called him “Will o’the Wisp”, was riding on horseback one evening in the adjoining parish of Horning, when he (Jack) came at him and knocked him off his horse”
Mrs Lubbock also remembered that, as a small child, her father had told her that once when he was returning from money spending at the end of the harvest, in the company of an old man who whistled and jeered at Jack, the spirit followed them home and ‘torched up’ at the windows. However, many local folk were keen to lay Heard’s spirit to rest and did visit the places frequented by Heard when alive. Three men, in particular, tried to exorcise the ghost by reading verses from the Scriptures, but Jack always kept a verse ahead of them! Until, that is, a boy brought a pair of pigeons and laid them down at the apparition’s feet. Jack looked down at those birds and lost his verse, the one opportunity for those three men to “bound his spirit.”
Another tale relating to a Norfolk ‘Lantern Man’ comes from the seaside town of Cromer on the north-east edge of the County, as told by an old fisherman; this appeared in the Eastern Counties Magazine in 1900:
“There’s no saying what that will du to you, if that light on you! There was a young fellow coming home one evening and he see the Lantern Man coming for him and he run; and that run and he run again; and that run again! Now there was a silly old man lived down there who didn’t believe in none o’ them things and this young fellow he run to his house and say “O Giles, for Heaven’s sake, let me in – the Lantern Man’s coming!” And old Giles he say “You silly fool, there ain’t no such thing as a Lantern Man.” But when he see the Lantern Man coming for him, Giles let the young fellow in, and that come for them two, till that was the beginner of a pint pot!”
“And old Giles, he thought he would play a trick on the Lantern Man so he got a candle and held that out right high; and the Lantern Man, he come right low and the Lantern Man he come up above it. And then he held out right steady, and the Lantern Man he come for that and he burst it all to pieces. But they du say, if the Lantern Man light upon you, the best thing is to throw yourself flat on your face and hold your breath.”
Is Norfolk England’s most secretive and strange literary County?
Critics and commentators are always prey to big ideas – the bigger the better, in fact – and so tend to overestimate certain factors in the production and formation of books, preferring to emphasise the influence of some particular social, historical, political, institutional, linguistic or psychological fact or force and to ignore certain others. These explanatory fashions come and go. Thus we currently have cognitive poetics, ecocriticism, and post-colonial theories all being successfully applied to explain various aspects of our national literatures. But as yet – alas – we have no County Theory of English Lit. This is my big idea.
If we were to apply some of the quantatitive methods for analysing literature developed by the great maverick literary theorist Franco Moretti, a map of the UK as a whole adjusted for size according to literary production might produce a hunched, swollen-headed creature with an enormous Scotland, a bulging Northern Ireland, withered limbs, an empty heart, and a vast and protuberant Norfolk.
In popular culture, Norfolk represents nice but naff, a kind of watery, dandelion pleasantness. And yet the literary landscape of this most remote and unassuming of the English counties – just over 2,000 square miles of agricultural land, rivers, fens, towns and forests – is subtly strange and wild. In 2012, Norwich became England’s first and only Unesco city of literature (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa, Dublin and Reykjavik). The title alone suggests the panoramic sweep of the county town’s literary achievements and associations, extending all the way from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books published by a female author, to the UK’s first MA in creative writing, established in 1970 by Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. An untiring advocate of the joys and merits of his adopted home county, Bradbury figured Norfolk as a place of writing parsons, farmer-writers and sensitive poets: John Skelton, Rider Haggard, John Middleton Murry, William Cowper, George MacBeth, George Szirtes. Bradbury’s Norfolk rather resembles John Betjeman’s, in fact, in whose poem “Norfolk” the lanes “recall lost innocence” – a land untouched by time.
But there’s more to literary Norfolk than the merely bucolic. My own first encounter with Norfolk in literature came in the form of the heroic and crime-solving adventures of Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club, a plucky little gang of boys and girls who live around Horning on the Norfolk Broads, in the Swallows and Amazons series of novels, a world as far from my own upbringing as was imaginable. For me, Norfolk became a place of fantasy, derring-do and detection – a place of mysteries and obscurities. In perhaps her greatest novel, Devices and Desires, (1989) PD James sends off the lugubrious Adam Dalgliesh to a fictional remote Norfolk community, Larksoken, somewhere on the coast between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, where he has inherited a windmill – but of course! – and is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Norfolk Whisperer. James dwells not only on the conflicts between the people of Larksoken but also on the continual interplay between sea and sky, where the “never-ceasing moaning of the tide” can be forever heard below lowering clouds. Norfolk-based writer Henry Sutton explores similar dark territory in his novels, which one might describe as droll Norfolk gothic. Sutton’s Bank Holiday Monday (1997) should be required reading for any middle-class couples considering renting a holiday home in Norfolk this summer. Ditto Ali Smith’s characteristically odd, delightful and polysemic The Accidental (2005).
Even more off-putting and alluring is WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), where the mysterious narrator begins the book in a “state of almost total immobility” in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, and so begins to write his great account of his wanderings through East Anglia. His memories and musings begin with a lengthy discourse on the fate of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull. In Sebald, Norfolk is never the focus but rather the beginning of a digression.
There are writers, however, who have made the county explicitly their subject. The excellent Ruth Galloway series of crime novels by Elly Griffiths are all set in Norfolk, with Galloway, the head of forensic archaeology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, digging deep into Norfolk’s past to solve the crimes of the present.
But perhaps the Norfolkest of Norfolk novelists, the Norfolkiest of them all, is DJ Taylor. Born in Norfolk, living in Norfolk, often writing about Norfolk, Taylor has waged a one-man campaign against smug, shiny literary metropolitanism since his first non-fiction book ‘A Vain Conceit’: British Fiction in the 1980s (1989). Proud to be a “provincial” writer, in his novel Kept (2006) Taylor begins with a bravura passage describing his home county: “A land of winding backroads and creaking carts and windmills, a land of flood, and eels and elvers and all that comes from water, a land of silence and subterfuge, of things not said but only whispered, where much is kept secret which would be better laid open to scrutiny.”
In my own new novel I hope to contribute in some small way to the subterfuges of what may be England’s most secretive literary county. My protagonist, Swanton Morley, is named after a Norfolk village. Morley lives in Norfolk, in a house called St George’s – which I suppose is intended to suggest all of England. The novel is titled simply The Norfolk Mystery in honour of the many hours of dark-bright pleasure that the county and its writers have given me. “Do different” runs the Norfolk motto: I have done my best.
Ian Sansom’s ‘The Norfolk Mystery’ was published by Fourth Estate
The cold fact of the case is that George Granville Barker was born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex, England in 1913; he was the elder brother of the painter Kit Barker. George was raised by his Irish mother and English father in Battersea, London and was educated at an L.C.C. school and at Regent Street Polytechnic. Having left school at an early age he pursued several odd jobs before settling on a career in writing.
Having said that – George Barker’s birthplace is not a place of pilgrimage, simply because Barker is one of those forgotten poets – well at least for the last decade or so. During all that time and possibly to the present day, hardly anyone has read him, most of his work is out of print, and has been barely mentioned in literary histories. Yet he was no minor poet. His work was passionate, intellectually challenging and highly original. At 22, Barker was a literary phenomenon. T.S. Eliot declared him a genius and Yeats thought him the finest poet of his generation.
Apparently, many critics thought the young Barker a better poet than the young Dylan Thomas, who had called Barker’s poems “masturbatory monologues”, a term which may have been a clue to the possibility that Thomas was madly jealous. Barker’s output never flagged for he regarded poetry as a full-time occupation and, save for a few visiting university lectureships, never had anything resembling a full-time job. He composed poetry until the day he died.
If you like your poets to be wild, irresponsible and dangerous then Barker would make you feel ecstatic! He was a prodigious drinker, womaniser and an habitual user of Methedrine and Benzedrine. He never owned a home – his sole attempt at property purchase ended when a fraudulent estate agent absconded with his entire savings – and he scarcely had a fixed address. As a young man, he accidentally stabbed his brother’s eye out while they were fencing, an episode that haunted him all his life. Also, for years, he was at the heart of the bohemian crowd in London’s Soho. He fathered 15 children by four different women. One of them, the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, determined to marry him and bear his children when she discovered his poetry in a London bookshop in the 1930’s – long before she met him.
He quarrelled bitterly and sometimes violently with friends as well as lovers and once threw one of his works on the fire – because, he said, his then partner had read it with a sneer. When a visitor tried to rescue it, he hit him over the head with a shovel. The same partner threw an ashtray at him and broke his teeth. Another bit his upper lip so firmly he required 40 stitches. A third partner, who left him for his nephew, was so terrified of the consequences that she settled and married in Birmingham. In America Barker wrote pornography with Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. His poems, read on the BBC Third Programme, were criticised for obscenity, and he never lost the capacity to cause outrage. Brought up a Catholic by his Irish mother, he took confession not long before he died, for the first time in 30 years. He had broken every commandment, he told the priest, except the sixth, “thou shalt not kill”.
So why did he fall so out of fashion. Why, despite settling for the last 24 years of his life in the idylic hamlet of Itteringham, Norfolk, just 15 miles or so miles from Norwich, the University of East Anglia and pioneer of creative writing courses, never invited him to take a single class? His second wife Elspeth once said:
“he never did anything to promote himself, never went to literary parties, and was too difficult and argumentative to belong to anything like a literary school”. He was, she said, “a very perverse poet who would often bugger up a perfectly good poem with a pun in the last line”.
By the mid-1950s, he was out of tune with the age. “He remained “mystical and mythical” when the new mood among poets stressed common sense,” wrote his biographer, Robert Fraser. Despite his neglect of church attendance, and frequent assertions that he didn’t believe in God, Barker feared hellfire and damnation; he was “a very superstitious Catholic,” observed Elspeth. Even at the age of nine and inspired by Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”, he first resolved to be a poet: “While other urchins were blowing up toads with pipes of straw stuck in the arse, So was I, but I also wrote odes.”
Barker was also conscious that “I had been cast a little low in the social register.” and, after he left school at 15, was never very comfortable with better-educated writers. Writing of Auden he said “behind the poetry I discern a clumsy interrogatory finger questioning me about my matriculation certificate, my antecedents and my annual income”.
Discovering his girlfriend Jessica was pregnant, he married at 20. Since she, too, was from a Catholic family, the child was born in secret and given up for adoption, another source of lifelong guilt. Though they lived apart from the mid-1940s, she and Barker never divorced. Only when Jessica died, two years before Barker’s own death, did he marry Elspeth, his last love.
Barker had little time for politics and was apparently only dimly aware that Japan was allied with the fascist powers when he agreed to take a university lectureship there, starting in March 1940. His lectures were attended by only three students.
Then, when receiving fan mail from the affluent and well-connected Elizabeth Smart, Barker appealed to her for financial help in escaping to America. She readily agreed and so came about their first meeting, which forms the celebrated opening passage of “By Grand Central Station”, a fictional re-creation of their turbulent and passionate affair. Barker’s account of it was less nuanced: “I stepped down into your lap, just as truly as I stepped down from my mother, and I have loved you completely and perfectly from that moment.” Cynics would say Barker really fell in love with the freedom of classless America and that Smart was an infatuated groupie. But their on-off affair ranged over four countries and 18 years, and produced four children.
Barker didn’t formally leave most of his women. Rather, he drifted off, seeming to believe they should wait patiently in the kitchen while his absences grew longer. “Poets are terrifying people to live with,” wrote one daughter, then 15. “They rush off at odd moments and are neither seen nor heard of for months. Then . . . they suddenly appear on the threshold as if nothing had ever happened.”
From 1959, Barker lived in Italy with Dede Farrelly, estranged wife of his friend John Farrelly. Then he met Elspeth Langlands, a 22-year-old from the Scottish Highlands, on a visit to London in 1963. “He asked me what I thought of his most recent volume,” she recalled, “and I said I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as some of his earlier ones. He flew into a rage.” But his relationship with Dede was deteriorating and, when Elspeth arrived in Italy with a young painter called Tony Kingsmill, Barker prised her away.
From 1967 he settled with Elspeth at Bintree House in Itteringham, Norfolk, a flint and brick house which lies just off the main street – close to the River Bure. The couple were able to acquire the house with financial support from the novelist Graham Greene who was a long-term admirer of Barker’s poetry. In her essay ‘Thoughts in a Garden’, Elspeth Barker describes the watery location of the house.
‘Mine is a riverine garden, and even indoors one is aware of this, not just by gazing through the window but by simply sitting still, committing words to paper in the intense cold, while a great numbness seeps up through feet and lower limbs. Hemlock and the death of Socrates come forward in the mind. The tiled floor is laid straight on the earth in the manner of 17th century folk, and beneath this floor and a thin layer of earth lie the black sullen waters of an underground lake.’
They had five children and, for the first time, Barker lived with a family more or less uninterruptedly. According to Elspeth he became disciplined enough to stay off drink and rise at six to start work. She flushed the drugs down the lavatory; only on Saturday nights, when it was open house for friends and relatives, did he indulge and fight as of old. “People wanted to sit next to him,” Elspeth recalled. “Then they knew they wouldn’t have anything thrown at them.” It seemed that he prided himself on being an outsider.”
It seems the Barker was a notoriously uneven writer and in describing the difficulties in writing his own biography, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve stirred the facts around too much ……. It simply can’t be done.” In 1969 his visit to All Saints Church, in the village in Thurgarton and only a short distance from Itteringham, inspired George Barker to write one of his finest later poems “At Thurgarton Church” (see below). The poem concerned Barker’s sense of sin and his fear of Judgement day.
On his grave at St Mary’s Church in Itteringham, Norfolk, a stone book – erected by a young bank robber whom Barker had befriended – states: “No Compromise”. It was a phrase Barker often used, and it is a good epitaph for both his extraordinary life and his attitude to poetry.
At Thurgarton Church
by George Barker
To the memory of my father:
At Thurgarton Church the sun
burns the winter clouds over
the gaunt Danish stone
and thatched reeds that cover
the barest chapel I know.
I could compare it with
the Norse longboats that bore
burning the body forth
in honour from the shore
of great fjords long ago.
The sky is red and cold
overhead, and three small
sturdy trees keep a hold
on the world and the stone wall
that encloses the dead below.
I enter and find I stand
in a great barn, bleak and bare.
Like ice the winter ghosts and
the white walls gleam and flare
and flame as the sun drops low.
And I see, then, that slowly
the December day has gone.
I stand in the silence, not wholly
believing I am alone.
Somehow I cannot go.
Then a small wind rose, and the trees
began to crackle and stir
and I watched the moon by degrees
ascend in the window till her
light cut a wing in the shadow.
I thought: the House of the Dead.
The dead moon inherits it.
And I seem in a sense to have died
as I rise from where I sit
and out into darkness go.
I know as I leave I shall pass
where Thurgarton’s dead lie
at those old stones in the grass
under the cold moon’s eye.
I see the old bones glow.
No, they do not sleep here
in the long holy night of
the serene soul, but keep here
a dark tenancy and the right of
rising up to go.
Here the owl and soul shriek with
the voice of the dead as they turn
on the polar spit and burn
without hope and seek with
out hope the holy home below.
Yet to them the mole and
mouse bring a wreath and a breath
of the flowering leaves of the soul, and
it is from the Tree of Death
the leaves of life grow.
The rain, the sometime summer
rain on a memory of roses
will fall lightly and come
among them as it erases
summers so long ago.
And the voices of those
once so much loved will flitter
over the nettled rows
of graves, and the holly tree twitter
like friends they used to know.
And not far away the
icy and paralysed stream
has found it also, that day the
flesh became glass and a dream
with no where to go.
Haunting the December
fields their bitter lives
entreat us to remember
the lost spirit that grieves
over these fields like a scarecrow.
That grieves over all it ever
did and all, all not
done, that grieves over
its cross-purposed lot:
to know and not to know.
The masterless dog sits
outside the church door
with dereliction haunting its
heart that hankers for
the hand that loved it so.
Not in a small grave
outside the stone wall
will the love that it gave
ever be returned, not for all
time or tracks in the snow.
More mourned the death of the dog
than our bones ever shall
receive from the hand of god
this bone again, or all
that high hand could bestow.
As I stand by the porch
I believe that no one has heard
here in Thurgarton Church
a single veritable word
save the unspoken No.
The godfathered negative
that responds to our mistaken
incredulous and heartbroken
desire above all to live
as though things were not so.
Desire to live as though the
two-footed clay stood up
proud never to know the
tempests that rage in the cup
under a rainbow.
Desire above all to live
as though the soul was stone,
believing we cannot give
or love since we are alone
and always will be so.
That heartbroken desire
to live as though no light
ever set the seas on fire
and no sun burned at night
or Mercy walked to and fro.
The proud flesh cries: I am not
caught up in the great cloud
of my unknowing. But that
proud flesh had endowed
us with the cloud we know.
To this the unspoken No
of the dead god responds
and then the whirlwinds blow
over all the things and beyond
and the dead mop and mow.
And there in the livid dust
and bones of death we search
until we find as we must
outside Thurgarton Church
only wild grasses blow.
I hear the old bone in me cry
and the dying spirit call:
I have forfeited all
and once and for all must die
and this is all that I know.
For now in a wild way we
know that justice is served
and that we die in the clay we
dread, desired, and deserved,
awaiting no Judgement Day.
On the scenic north-east Norfolk coast road is the village of Bacton, Norfolk, England, better known these days for its gas terminal bringing in a vital source of energy. However, in medieval times it was a very different continental import which put this place on the map. On the edge of the village, leading to a modern farm, stands the gateway to Bromholm Priory, once a centre of pilgrimage for royalty and a place renowned for healing the sick and bringing the dead back to life. But for centuries the Priory has not simply been a spectacular ruin but one that has retained a hint at majesty long since claimed by time. It also holds a secret, one which concerns a holy relic, once said to be so powerful that it could raise the dead. But, before more is said on that, we must really go back to the very beginning of Bromholm Priory and to the William de Glanville (circa. 1090 to +1135).
William de Glanville was born about 1090 in Bacton and was to hold the title of Lord of Bromholm & Bacton. It was he who, in 1113 founded Bromholm Priory which, over time became known as ‘Baketon’ Priory, Bacton Abbey, Bromeholme Priory, Broomholm Priory but more consistently as Bromholm Priory. From the outset, William made the Priory subordinate to the Clunic Monastry at Castle-Acre and dedicated it to St Andrew, probably on account of its nearness to the sea, which rolls on in full view. He also endowed Bromholm with lands in and around Bacton and ‘Ceswick’, where there was also a smaller Clunic priory, dedicated to St Sepulchre, which was founded by a previous G. de Glanville and valued at £149.19s and 1/2d per annum. Bromholm itself was designed for seven or eight Cluniac monks who came from the Priory of Castle Acre. After William’s death, around 1135 his eldest son, Bartholomew de Glanville confirmed the grant his father had made to Bromholm and added considerably more grants of his own to it. He also bequeathed further lands to the Priory his death around 1167 –
‘all given in honour of God, the Virgin Mary, and St. Andrew, for the health of his own soul, his father’s, and the souls of all his friends living and dead’.
King Henry I (1100 to 1135) was also a benefactor of Bromholm Priory, for he granted the Manor of Burgh to the Priory, free of any charges but reserving the advowson (the right of presentation of a candidate to a benefice or church office) to both the Crown and the Dowager Alice, widow of Roger de Burge, for her life. In return for this royal bounty, the Priory released to the King a rent-charge of 5 marks a year from their exchequer which the King had granted. Other donors of this period included Sarah, widow of Joceline de Burge of Yarmouth; John de Annok and Milisentia, his wife who donated certain buildings in Yarmouth ; Agnes de Rollerby, Elstan Kemp of Lowestoft; Walter de Blundeston donated Lambcote and a marsh there; Richard, the son of Ralph de Paston, gave rent in Paston and Gilbert, son of Nicholas de Repps, who gave rent in Reppe.
Stephen of Blois followed as a supporter of Bromholm Priory; he was a nephew of Henry I. It was Henry I who championed Stephen, having accepted him into his Court at a very young age. Under Henry, Stephen rose in prominence and was granted extensive lands in both England and France and became one of the wealthiest persons in England. Following the battle of Tinchebray in 1106, Henry I confiscated the lands belonging to William of Mortain and the ‘Honour of Eye’, a large lordship previously held by Robert Malet of Norfolk; within this lordship was the Manor of Bromholm. In 1113, Stephen was granted both the titles and the honour of these and this allowed him to add his confirmation of the donation which William de Glanville had made to the monks of Bromholm that same year. Significantly, Stephen narrowly escaped drowning with Henry’s son and heir, William Adelin, when the ‘White Ship’ sank in 1120; this freak accident eventually opened the way for Stephen to become king.
At Bromholm, as elsewhere, the Cluniac monks were governed by a set of rules or customs based on the Rule of St Benedict but modified to permit a closer prescription of the daily routine of monastic observance. Cluniac monks did not participate in conventional manual labour; instead they undertook work such as the copying of manuscripts in order to fulfil the work requirement of the Benedictine Rule. Cluniac monasticism in Europe originated in 910 with the foundation of the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. One hundred and sixty-seven years later the Lewes Priory, Sussex was the first to be founded England. This was followed over the years by an eventual total of thirty-three new Cluniac priories of varying sizes being established in both England and Wales. This constituted the largest number of Cluniac foundations in any country outside France.
Despite the grants and favours bestowed on Bromholm in its early years, the Priory was little more than a staging post on the pilgrim’s route to Walsingham for the first 90 years, or so, of its existence. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and chronicler (c.1200-59) was to describe Bromholm as being at that time ‘very poor, and altogether destitute of buildings’ But in 1205 the Priory’s fortunes changed, thanks to a tiny wooden cross no bigger than a man’s hand which, it was said, was a relic of the True Cross on which Jesus died. Soldiers of the Fourth Crusade had ransacked Constantinople in 1204, bringing back a horde of treasure, both spiritual and secular. A local priest who had been with the emperor in Constantinople brought back the two pieces of wood which he offered to the Cluniac monks at Bromholm on condition that he and his sons were admitted to the priory. The monastery, poor in worldly goods but rich in faith, believed the priest and agreed to his terms – his cross, said to have been made by St Helena from the part of the cross to which Christ’s hands and feet were nailed. It was set up in the church and proved to be Bromholm’s salvation; certainly, the brethren there believed that from the acquisition of this valuable relic the greatest profit would accrue to Bromholm. Matthew Paris’s illuminated medieval manuscript ‘Chronica Majona’ contained information about the cross which drew from Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover in his annals for 1223 it reads:
“In the same year divine miracles became frequent occurrences at Bromholm, to the glory and honour of the life-giving cross on which the saviour of the world suffered for the redemption of humankind”.
Matthew Paris also gives his own delightful account of how the monks of Bromholm became possessed of the relic:
“The substance is that Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was from a Count made Emperor of Constantinople, at which place he reigned with vigour for many years. It happened that at one time he was dreadfully harassed by infidel kings, against whom he marched without deliberation, and on this occasion neglected to take with him the Cross of our Lord and other relics, which were always carried before him by the Patriarchs and Bishops whenever he did battle with the enemies of the Cross. This carelessness cost him dear, for when he charged the enemy with his small army, paying no regard to the multitude of the foe, which exceeded his own followers by tenfold, he and his men were surrounded by the enemies of the Cross and slain or made prisoners. The few who escaped knew nothing of what happened to the Emperor, or whither he had gone. A certain chaplain of English extraction who, with his clerks, performed Divine Service in the Emperor’s chapel, had charge of the Emperor’s relics, rings, and other effects. When this chaplain heard of his lord’s death (for all said he was dead), he left the city of Constantinople privately with all the Emperor’s effects, and came to England. On his arrival here he went to St. Albans and sold to a certain monk there a cross set in silver and gold, two fingers of St. Margaret, and some gold rings and jewels, all of which are now held in great veneration by the monks of St. Albans.
The chaplain then drew from his mantle a wooden cross, and showed it to some of the monks, averring on his oath that it was a genuine piece of the true Cross on which Christ suffered. His assertion being disbelieved by them, he departed with his priceless treasure. This chaplain had two children, about whose support and preservation he was most anxious. He offered the Cross to several monasteries. Having endured repulse from the rich in many places, he at length came to a chapel called Bromholm, very poor at that time and destitute of proper buildings. There he sent for the Prior and some of the brethren, and showed them the cross, which was constructed of two pieces of wood placed across one another, and almost as wide as a man’s hand. The chaplain implored the brethren to receive him into the monastery and their order with this cross and other relics which he had with him, as well as his two young children.
The prior and brethren were delighted to possess such a treasure, and by the intervention of the Lord, who always protects honourable poverty, put faith in the words of the monk, and with due reverence received the Cross of our Lord, and carried it into the oratory, and with all devotion preserved it in the most honourable place there ; and immediately Divine miracles began to be wrought in that monastery to the praise and glory of the life-giving Cross ; for the dead were restored to life, the blind recovered sight, and the lame walked, the skin of lepers was cleansed, and those possessed of devils were released from them, and any sick who approached the Cross were made whole”.
John Capgrave (21 April 1393 – 12 August 1464 later recorded that “that no fewer than thirty-nine persons were raised from the dead and nineteen blind were restored to sight by the virtues of the Cross of Bromholm.” Pilgrims came from near and far, including distant countries to pay reverence it; as a direct result the monastery became abundantly rich by reason of the gifts and offerings made to it by these pilgrims.
The work ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’, written by William Langland (c 1370-1390) – or rather, some think it was written by ……. alludes to the pilgrimages to the cross in his vision: “But wender to Walsingham, and my wif Alis And byd the Roode of Bromholm bring me out of dette.” The cross is more clearly mentioned in The Reeve’s Tale, the third of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in the 1380’s – Miller Symkyn lives near Cambridge and steals the wheat and meal brought to him for grinding. Two students set out to get revenge for their college steward who fell victim to Symkyn and orchestrate a farce-like situation involving wives, daughters and bed-hopping. At one point the miller’s wife is woken when her husband falls: “‘Help!’ she screamed, ‘Holy Cross of Bromeholme keep us! Lord into thy hands!’
The 13th and 14th centuries were good for Bromholm Priory, the shrine becoming a fashionable venue from being patronised by Henry III (28 October 1216 – 16 November 1272), Edward I (20 November 1272 – 7 July 1307), Edward II (8 July 1307 – 20 January 1327) and Edward III 1 February 1327 – 21 June 1377) who also paid tribute to the glorious cross of Bromholm and received, in return, an honourable mention in the Vision of Piers Plowman. These kingly visits were expensive affairs, and were often made in search of ready money.
It was, in fact, barely 28 years after the relic first arrived at Bromholm in 1205 that King Henry III made his first royal visit to this coastal retreat. He was so impressed that he granted the monks many additional privileges, including a two-day fair to be held at Bromholm on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, plus a weekly market on Mondays – as well as some welcome tax breaks. It would also appear that earlier benefactions were confirmed by Henry III during his 1233 visit the Priory.
During the time when Bromholm was accruing its wealth, there appears to have been some dispute between the monks of Bromholm and Castle Acre. The Priory of Castle Acre claimed over lordship on Bromholm, which was, as stated above, at first only a cell of Castle Acre. At an early period it was agreed between the two convents that Bromholm should raise the rents of the fee-farm of Wilton, which they held for the monks of Castle Acre, ten shillings a year; the monks of Castle Acre on their part were to remit and quit all other claims whatsoever which they had upon the monks of Bromholm in the form of ” aids” and “recognitions.” Later, a further controversy seems to have arisen between the Priors of Lewes and Acre and the Prior of Bromholm as to the choice of a Prior for Bromholm in succession. It was Pope Gregory XI., in 1229, who decreed that the matter should be resolved by the Abbot of Osolveston and the Deans of Stamford and Rutland. These decided that the Prior of Acre should nominate six monks, three of Acre and three of Bromholm, from whom the Monastery of Bromholm should choose one for its Prior. Then, after many years of arguments and negotiation, Pope Celestine granted complete emancipation of Bromholm from Acre in 1298. From this date, little information can be gathered respecting the Monastery of Bromholm, except the acquisitions of property in various places. The records of these gifts are faithfully recorded in the chartulary of the house, which may still be seen in good condition in the Public Library at Cambridge.
Nevertheless, the scope of Bromholm during its years of plenty must have been impressive, having been considerably enlarged as a result of the acquisition of the relic. As well as a church there would have been buildings for the monks and their servants. A monastery was a self-sufficient business as well as a religious entity. No doubt the priory would have been lavishly decorated – but it was not to be without its problems, not least of which was its proximity to the sea. Records show that during the reign of Richard II (22 June 1377 – 29 September 1399), the Priory was in crisis. In 1385 a legal document shows that the priory lands had been much wasted by the sea and their house recently burned, and that if not relieved they would shortly have to cease divine service. By that time there were just 18 brethren at the priory, down from 25 brethren at Bromholm in 1298; despite reduced numbers, they were still responsible for conducting five daily masses, three of which were sung and two were said throughout.
Clearly at this time, a wealthy patron was becoming necessary – and low and behold he happened to be just down the road in the form of a Clement Paston who, together with his family, came from the nearby village of that same name. Born in 1350 to William Paston and Elizabeth Staleham. Clement Paston married Beatrice Somerton and had one child. From this point, the Paston family became great patrons of Bromholm Priory and it was its Prior who was to be a witness to Clement’s Will of 1419, the year of his death.
History has taught us that it was by hard work and assiduous land purchases that the Pastons were to build a dynasty that would thrive in Norfolk for more than three centuries. But, it was John Paston senior (1421–1466; Clement’s grandson), who was to take the ultimate gamble during the 15th Century, which saw the family rise through the ranks. During this period, members of the Paston family, notibly Richard, son of Ralph, was still supporting the Priory by way of giving annual payments to the Priory for repairs. As for John Paston, he befriended the ailing Lord Fastolff, and eventually found himself as the knight’s lawyer. Somewhat suspiciously, John Paston was the main beneficiary of Fastolff’s Will after he died, starting a feud between him and Fastolff’s ‘cheated’ heirs. The Paston family gained land and riches, but began years of disputes, both in and out of the courts. Sir John Snr died himself in 1466, leaving these unsettled matters in the hands of his wife and children.
When John Paston died in London in 1466, in the midst of his fruitless efforts to recover Caistor Castle from the Duke of Norfolk, his body was brought back to Norfolk and buried lavishly at Bromholm Priory. The expenses of his interment are recorded in a quaint roll of accounts penned by Blomfield who, as the author of the “History of Caistor Castle” gives a very interesting sketch of the information contained in the roll, thus :
“For three days one man was engaged in flaying beasts. Provision was made for 13 barrels of beer, 27 ditto of ale, one barrel of beer of the great assyze [no doubt extra strong], a runlet of wine of 15 gallons.” This amount of liquor did not seem sufficient, for we read of five coombs of malt at one time and ten at another being brewed up for the great occasion. Meat, too, was in proportion to the drink ; there were huge supplies of geese, chickens, capons, 1,300 eggs, 20 gallons of milk, 8 of cream, 41 pigs, 49 calves – 10 neat slain. What a wake the priory was able to present! bread seemed to be at a discount, for it apparently bears the same proportion to the meat. Many pounds of wax were also made into candles to burn over the grave, and no less than 20 pounds worth of gold—a very large sum in those days—was changed into small coins for showering among the attendant throng, and 26 marks in copper being used for the same purpose in London. A barber was occupied five days in smartening up the monks, and the “reke of the torches at the dirge “was so dense that two panes had to be broken to let the fumes escape. According to Henry Harrod (1857), John Paston was buried at the east end of the priory church, either in the north or south aisle of the choir. The Prior had a ” frogge of worstede,” or cope, presented to him on the occasion, and the tomb was covered with cloth of gold.
But the time was approaching when the party would be over for Bromholm, in more ways than one; the writing was on the wall for the Priory’s claim to fame. A decline crept upon it over a number of years, long before Clement and John Paston’s demise. It was in 1424 that Sir Hugh Pie, a protestant chaplain from Norwich, was tried before the Bishop of Norwich for having thrown the Bromholm relic on a fire. In The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe of 1424, it says that Pie was brought before the Bishop on July 5 1424:
“for holding these opinions following: that people ought not to go on pilgrimage, that the people ought not to give alms……that the image of the cross and other images are not to be worshipped.” Pie denied the charges “……
whereupon he had a day appointed to purge himself by the witness of three lay-man, and three priests. That so done, he was sworn as the other before, and so dismissed.” Two years later, the Bishop recalled Pie regarding the death of William White, who had been burned at the stake for heresy and had been associated with White, a fellow Lollard. Pie was reprieved yet again, but Bromholm Priory had lost its miraculous attraction and never again attracted wealthy visitors keen to part with gifts in return for touching wood.
Bromholm Priory was dissolved in 1536, one of the smaller religious houses which surrendered tamely to Secretary of State Thomas Cromwell and his commissioners; its yearly value estimated at £109 0s. 8d. At that time there were just four religious brethren and 33 servants and although demoralised, its Prior, Lakenham, was probably happy with his guaranteed pension. As for Cromwell, he had the land and, questionably, a claim that he had the fragments of the True Cross – the eventual fate of the relic remains a mystery to this day. During the following year of 1537, Robert Southwell, solicitor to the Court of Augmentation was granted Bromholm Priory by royal warrant, along with all its manors, lands, advowsons, and pensions. He wrote to Thomas Cromwell saying that he had delivered the cross of Bromholm to the late prior of Pentney! As with most dissolved monasteries the valuable materials were stripped, its fine bells probably going towards making Henry VIII’s cannon, the rest left to rot or be used as local building material. On June 5, 1547, the King granted the site, with the manor lands, appropriated rectory, and patronage of the vicarage to Thomas Wodehouse, Esq. of Waxham and the buildings shared the usual fate of becoming the quarry of the neighbourhood.
The grant given to Thomas Wodehouse is thus shortly noticed in the fee.
Farm-Roll of the County of Norfolk remaining in the Augmentation Office. Seal and Arms of the Monastery or Priory of Bromholm.
” The seal of the Prior,” says Blomfield, ” is round and large, and about 3 inches in diameter of red ware, the impress being the west end of the church. Under an arch in the centre is the figure of St. Andrew, seated, a glory round his head and a cross in his elevated right hand, supposed to represent the cross or rood of the priory. Above, in the arch, is the bust of the Virgin, with the infant Jesus in her arms.” The legend, ” Sigillum Prioris et conventus Sci. Andree De Bromhold.”
Whatever was left of Bromholm Priory a century later is said to have been bombarded by Oliver Cromwell’s artillery from nearby Butt Hill during the Civil War. A favourite tale about Butt Hill was that when the Priory was under siege, the attacking force carted earth from Bacton Green to make the mound, upon which they stood their cannon to bombard the Priory. However, they found that the mound was sited too close, and a local woman betrayed the Priory by telling the artillery that its weakest part was on the western side. They therefore moved their cannon further west, to the rather low but natural eminence of Butt Hill from which they successfully struck the Priory and took it. Along the southern edge of Butt Hill runs Bloodslat (or Bloodslade) Lane, where attackers and defenders are supposed to have met in a skirmish so fierce that they fought in blood “up to their ankles”. Another version of the story claims that it is linked to Oliver Cromwell and his forces that were besieging the priory – Who knows?.
Little also is known of the post-dissolution history of the Bromholm. Finds of Elizabethan and later coins which were concentrated north of the Priory church and west of the trackway to the main gatehouse indicated commercial use of the site, possibly the continuation of a market. Any use of the old Priory appears to have quickly decreased in the early 17th century, after which it became a farm. By the time of Buck’s View of 1738 the buildings had become ruinous. The north transept was used as a dovecote and is depicted with a pyramidal roof surmounted by a lantern. The east window in the chapter house still remained at this date, as did part of the west end of the church as high as the clerestory. In 1834 the priory was being used as ‘a quarry for agricultural buildings and edifices’ by Col. Wodehouse (Woodward, S., Correspondence vol. II folio 67v, 1834, p. 59). The Tithe Apportionment of 1845 makes it clear that most of the monastic precinct was under full cultivation.
When Henry Harrod, FSA, visited the ruins in 1854, he saw the corn waving high over the position of the altar. He described the south side of the north transept, which originally opened into the main body of the church, as being bricked up, along with most of the windows, and wooden floors put in. The transept was used as storage for agricultural implements and wood, and the lower part was appropriated for a cart-shed. According to Harrod, the original building at Bromholm was very small and no portion of it remained (Gleanings Among the Castles and Convents of Norfolk, 1857, p. 220). The oldest building to survive was the remains of the north transept which dated to the late 12th century. We know that early in the 13th the priory was considerably enlarged as a result of the acquisition of the relic and Harrod produced a plan of its layout in 1854 that incorporated a plan made by Mr Spurdens in 1822 depicting the foundations when they were much more distinct.
This shows that Bromholm had a typical Cluniac layout, very similar to that at Castle Acre Priory. At the north end was the priory church with the tower flanked by north and south transepts and the choir at the east end with north and south aisles. To the south of the south transept there was a slype (a covered passageway) and then the chapterhouse. Adjoining the chapterhouse on the south side was the dormitory, and on the west side was the cloister. The refectory was parallel to the cloister on its south side. Spurden marked an enclosure to the east of the chapterhouse and thought it was the cemetery. This is likely as the cemetery is in this position at Castle Acre. In 1935 a stone coffin containing a skeleton was found nearby in the east field. The main entrances were through the north and west gatehouses which both date to the 15th century. Harrod found the gatehouse in fairly good repair, but only a few building fragments remained on farmland of the north and south transepts and parts of the chapterhouse, dormitory and refectory.
Given the Priory’s proximity to the coast, it was heavily fortified during the Second World War. A gun emplacement was built into the ruin of the north transept and a loopholed wall was built to the north of the farmhouse. A pillbox was built at the north end of the garden to Abbey Farmhouse, it was a variant of the Type 22 pillbox. These are hexagonal in shape with walls around 30-60cm thick. The internal measurement between opposite walls is around 3m and usually there are rifle loops in five of the six walls and an entrance in the sixth.
It is highly likely that the flint rubble and red brick used to camouflage the pillbox were salvaged from old priory or farm buildings on the site. On the west side of the pillbox is the base of a spigot mortar which has been displaced as it would normally be in a pit and surrounded by ammunition lockers. Various other spigot mortar bases were also established around the site to create a line of defence. Sections of the priory have collapsed since the 1960s, notably the window at the east end of the south wall of the chapter house and the arch in the east wall of the chapterhouse. More of the dormitory also remained, at least as rough masonry, with walls extending to their original two-storey height in some places and one particularly well preserved window. The priory precinct is currently under arable cultivation.
Legend has it that from the ruins of the priory runs a tunnel to the site of Gimingham Hall, four miles along the coast. Midway between the two, the tunnel is said to be divided by a huge pair of golden gates. Another passage apparently leads from the hall to the sea. With all these things, there is also rumoured to be the remains of a secret tunnel linking the priory with St Margaret’s Church, complete with golden gates in existence. Take your pick!
The present location of Bromholm Priory is at Abbey Farm, Bacton, Norfolk, NR12 0HA. Unfortunately, the ruins are on private land and therefore not, generally, open to the public.
According to Blomfield: “Such is, as far as can be traced, the history of the monastery, which it is hoped will lead many to visit the interesting old ruin, and do what in them lies to preserve from further decay the work of ages when men’s hearts burned with the religious fervour, happily, though slowly, reviving in this present age. Every year serves to dispel the absurd notion that the examination and preservation of these old religious houses will foster or create a desire to return to forms of superstitious usage. But as Bishop Stanley so elegantly puts it: “We do not dream of retracing our steps to carry back humanity to the darker periods of history ; we seek to glean from them all that is good, and to go forward with a swifter, firmer foot.”
Followers of Broadland Memories on Twitter and Facebook will have seen mention of the recent purchases for the archive of two sets of photographs of the Norfolk Broads from the late 19th century. These fascinating images document family holidays during the early years of the boat hire industry, providing a wonderful snapshot of boating during that era, and they include some incredibly rare photographs of pleasure wherries and the Broadland landscape.
The first collection were bought as a group of three lots of loose pages from an album which had been split apart by a dealer. It’s always sad when that happens, but I was fortunate to be able to buy the three Norfolk Broads lots which means that they will at least remain together. Precise dating has been difficult, but researching the landscape scenes via contemporary guide books, census returns and trade directories, and the subtle changes in ladies fashions during the latter decades of the 19th century, led me to the conclusion that they are c1885-1889. The presence of a photograph of the 1885 Norwich Angling Club annual dinner menu also provided an initial starting point for that date. The collection features a very well to do, probably extended family group aboard two pleasure wherries and a larger steam ship called Phoenix. I think they they were possibly taken during more than one trip. Sadly, there are no names, or real clues to where they came from. Other photos from the pages I bought include three or four which were taken on the Dutch and Belgian Canals, plus a couple of London scenes.
The first wherry is named as The Eagle – not a wherry name that I have come across before, nor can find mention of in the usual book sources, but it looks to be a quite rough and ready conversion from a trading wherry. The family group are pictured aboard The Eagle in the photograph above. The second pleasure wherry (below) which accompanies the family clearly displays the name boards of Gladys, which Roy Clark lists as being a converted trader in his Black sailed Traders book. What is unusual about Gladys is that she has a counter stern, something you would be unlikely to find on a trading wherry, the fitting of which would have required quite a major rebuild. She is rather magnificent and a wherry, it seems, that hasn’t appeared in any previously published photographs, which makes this quite a rare find. The collection also features a photograph of Buckenham Ferry in operation with the now derelict Buckenham Drainage Mill seen clearly in the background, sails intact and painted white, like Thurne Mill. These have now been uploaded to the gallery pages of Broadland Memories and can be viewed here: http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk/pre1900gallerypage4.html#bm_1880s
The second collection is a virtually complete photograph album, inscribed by the photographer as being “The Cruise of The Mayflower” and dated to August and September of 1895. Although I know nothing about the background of the photographer and his family, I do at least have a name – D.W. Brading. Mayflower was built by Robert Collins & Sons at Wroxham. Once again, it’s another beautiful set of personal photographs of a boating holiday on the Broads which will appear on Broadland Memories in the coming months. A couple of previews from the album appear further down in this article. A massive thank you to those kind people who have sent donations to Broadland Memories over the last year which have helped towards the purchase of these incredible pieces of the local history which will now be available for all to view online, and will eventually be passed on to the Norfolk County Council Archives.
As always, such photographs require a fair bit of research. My first port of call is usually the contemporary guide books and literature of the time which give great insight into how a boating holiday was conducted at the time. The allure and attractions of the region were probably not that dissimilar to our own reasons for boating on the Broads today. The adventure, the tranquillity of the rivers, the stunning landscape, the wildlife, the history and architecture … and possibly the odd pub or two along the way. The client base for the boatyards was somewhat different, however, as boating was predominantly the preserve of the wealthy and professional classes. The advertised hire charge of £10-14 per week for a wherry may seem low by today’s standards, but when you put that into context with the extra £1 or so a week paid for the services of a skipper, a cut of which may well have been taken by the boatyard before his wages were paid, you can see that it was by no means a cheap holiday. There were less costly options available to the Victorian boater, however.
At the bottom end of the scale, an open boat with an awning which could be erected at night plus a couple of mattresses, suitable for “two young men roughing it“, could be hired for around 30 shillings. Moving up in comfort levels were the cabin yachts which varied in size from a small, two berth yacht with limited facilities up to a large counter-sterned, cutter-rigged yacht like Mayflower which included a foc’sle with berths for a skipper and mate and a stove upon which to cook, two main cabins, a W.C., and storage cupboards. Costs varied from between £3 to £10 depending on the size of the craft and the time of year.
“To obtain the greatest amount of comfort it is necessary to hire a wherry, and a Norfolk wherry, let me say, is a wonderful craft;” wrote John Bickerdyke in The Best Cruise On The Broads, first published in 1895. He continued; “Wherries have for years been the trading craft of the district, but now a great many are luxuriously fitted up for pleasure parties, and on our cruise we see many happy family seated on a garden seat on the fore deck.”
Furnished with sprung berths, soft rugs, cushions and blinds, equipped with oil lamps and all the necessary crockery, cutlery, glassware and table linens one would need, the pleasure wherries certainly provided a good level of comfort, although on board facilities were still quite basic by modern standards. The saloon, according to Ernest Suffling in Land of the Broads, was; “nicely carpeted and painted, etc., with a large dining table, and, at the after end, the crowning glory – a piano. After dark, with lamps lighted, and the merry party gathered around this instrument, many a happy hour is passed away.” It should be noted that use of these small, wherry pianos was charged at an extra 15 shillings per week. He considered ladies to be “out of place” on small yachts, a separate cabin was essential, and the larger yachts and wherries were therefore best suited to mixed parties. There were lists of, and advertisements for, boat builders and owners who would let boats within the pages of some of the tourist guides and one would have booked directly with them. Suffling also offered to act as an agent for procuring suitable yachts for prospective holidaymakers upon written request.
Having chosen your boat, signed the hire agreement and paid the deposit, it was time to turn your attention to planning what to take and how to provision your holiday craft. On the subject of payment, the balance was paid upon arrival at the start of your holiday, although in How to Organize a Cruise on the Broads, Suffling recommended withholding full payment until the end of the trip “until the agreement has been properly fulfilled on the part of the owner, or his representative waterman.”
The usual suggested boating attire for gentlemen included flannel trousers, shirts, a blazer and cap or straw boater, rubber soled tennis shoes, two pairs of socks and a change of underwear. Oilskins or a mackintosh were recommended for wet weather … not that it ever rained on the Broads, of course. Little advice was given about ladies clothing, but it must be said that the long dresses, starched corsets and elaborate hats seen in contemporary photographs don’t look the most practical of garments for boating. Ernest Suffling was one who tentatively broached the subject in The Land of the Broads;
“For ladies dress (I will say little here, or I shall get out of my latitude), nothing can compare with navy serge made up in a very plain manner, so as to prevent few folds as possible for boughs of trees, oars, etc., to catch in. A little bright colour in the trimming, if you please, ladies! and be sure and wear strong watertight boots in place of dainty, fancy French shoes.”
I would add a plentiful supply of hat pins to the list in order to keep that head-wear secure during the sudden, and violent squalls of wind, known as “rogers”, which we were warned we may encounter on the Broads during the summer months.
The subject of food was covered well in the guide books and stocking up on a good supply of tinned meat was deemed to be essential. Fresh meat was difficult to source in all but the larger towns. Whilst villages may have had a butcher, the lack of refrigeration meant that the sale of meat was done rather differently. Orders would be taken for the various joints of meat and an animal would not be dispatched until the whole carcase was sold. A variety of weird and wonderful meats could be found in tins – Ernest Suffling recommended curried rabbit, ox-cheek, hare soup, spiced beef and Australian mutton. Fresh rabbits were one of the few things which might be readily found in the countryside! He also suggested recipes for any freshwater fish you might catch including baked pike, broiled bream and fried perch. A warning about a certain breakfast staple though; “Bacon, as a rule, is not good in Norfolk; some of the ‘home-cured’ being really not endurable by town dwellers.”
Fresh vegetables were difficult to find, but probably didn’t feature too highly on the priority list anyway. Potatoes, however, “must not be forgotten“, and 1lb per person, per day was thought to be sufficient. Bread, milk and eggs could be purchased quite easily from various sources. Another warning came from Suffling about buying cheese, who implored us to “remember that Norfolk is noted for bad cheese. So beware!” John Bickerdyke begged us not to grumble at being charged more for goods as a summer visitor than one would would normally expect to pay in the village shops; “The prosperity of which depends upon the summer influx of visitors.”
The photograph above was captioned, “Returning with provisions from Stalham” and is one from the D.W. Brading 1895 album, taken on Barton Broad. Mention was made of shallow upper reaches of rivers and some broads, preventing passage by craft with deep keels, a dinghy was therefore rather essential and was included within the hire of as yacht or wherry. “See that a good dinghy or ‘jolly boat’ is supplied,” Suffling entreated us in How To Organize a Cruise on the Broads,
“and that she is provided with a lug sail to fit her, and a good pair of oars; for a vast amount of pleasure is derived by small exploring excursions from the yacht, up dykes and cuttings. The ‘jolly’ is also useful to visit the neighbouring villages for renewal of food supplies, posting letters, and a hundred and one other small services.”
The holiday party were not necessarily expected to cook for themselves – this was usually the job of the skipper, or the attendant if there were two crew – although more adventurous holidaymakers were free to join in with both domestic and sailing duties on the boat should they so wish. You were, however, expected to keep the crew in food, beer and possibly even tobacco for the duration of the trip. In Best Cruise on the Broads, John Bickerdyke’s thoughts on the subject were; “It is by far best to tell a man, or men, at the outset that you will give them so much a week in respect of these items, and let them find their own. If you provide them with beer, they will either drink too much, or have a grievance in respect of not having enough. Give them money and they will hardly drink anything.”
Fresh water supplies were sourced from a village well or hand pump. This was usually stored in large stone bottles, as seen above in a photograph which was taken at Ludham Bridge c1900. Bickerdyke noted; “The places where good water is to be obtained are few and far between. Most of the county lies below the level of the rivers, and the water, though plentiful, is not very good. It is as well to take a filter, so that the water, if of doubtful purity, may be both filtered and boiled. The difficulty is surmounted by laying in a stock of mineral waters.” He continued; “It is as well to see that the man really does go to some well for the water, and does not fill the jar out of the river. River water does well enough for washing purposes.”
Other forms of liquid refreshment were of great importance too during your cruise. Whilst various riverside hostelries were recommended in the guide books (for the availability of a decent hot meal as much as the ale) you were advised to stock up on your favourite tipples before setting off as the local offerings may not necessarily be to your taste. “Beer, of the peculiar sweet flavour in vogue in Norfolk, but, nevertheless, pure and wholesome, may be had anywhere. Some of the inns keep an old ale in stock called ‘Old Tom.‘ It is exceedingly intoxicating, and costs one shilling per quart.” wrote Suffling. But if you hankered for something stronger still, then take heed; “The denizens of the coast appear to like a new, fiery spirit, be it whisky, rum, gin, or brandy, and they get what they like. Some of the whisky is warranted to kill at any distance.”
If you’ve managed to ward off scurvy due to the lack of fruit and veg, avoided succumbing to galloping consumption from drinking well water or eating the local cheese, and haven’t been left insensible (or worse!) by the Norfolk whisky, then you’ll probably be wondering what you can see and do whilst on your cruise.
Angling had become a popular pastime and prospective visitors were encouraged to bring along their tackle, with hints and tips for novices given within the guide books. Photography too was gaining interest amongst those who could afford the equipment and you may have noticed that the wherry plan further above in this article includes a dark room on board. “The artist may find anywhere, everywhere, pictures ready for his canvas of scenery that is peculiar to Norfolk.” Suffling told us:
“To the archaeologist and searcher into things ecclesiastic, there are no end of churches, priories, castles, halls, and old buildings, which will afford him a vast fund of delightful research. To the entomologist, ornithologist, and botanist, I would say ‘By all means take your holiday here, for you may bring back with you specimens wherewith to beguile many a long winter’s evening with your favourite pursuit’.”
The Victorians seem to have had an enormous appetite for shooting and stuffing anything that moved. Guns could be brought along, but the guide book authors attempted to discourage such practices. In The Handbook to the Rivers and Broads of Norfolk & Suffolk, George Christopher Davies appealed; “Let me earnestly entreat visitors not to fire off guns either at birds or bottles above Acle Bridge. The sport to the visitors is nil, while the annoyance to the riparian owners is extreme.” The Brading Family clearly ignored this advice as the photograph above shows. It is one of a series of the yacht Mayflower which were captioned as having been taken at Barton Staithe in 1895.
Ernest Suffling suggested that yachting parties bring lawn tennis and archery sets, quoits and cricket equipment with them to set up on the riverbanks, obviously with little concern for the landowners. George Christopher Davies dismissed such notions, telling his readers: “Pray don’t take such absurd advice, all riparian owners adhere strictly to their just rights.” For evening entertainment and wet weather days where the party were confined to the saloon, there were various recommendations. We’ve already mentioned the piano and, according to Suffling;
“Frequently one of the party brings along his banjo …. He is usually the funny man of the party, the buffoon, the human ass..”
Chess, backgammon, cards, book reading, sewing and “wool-work” were typical pastimes, along with compiling a scrapbook of your holiday. It was also suggested that you may use the time to take stock of the items you’ve collected during the trip for your botany collection. Various parlour games were included in the list too. In “Fill The Basket” one could make use of the abundant rations of potatoes which had been brought on board at the start of the trip. “Two players kneel on the floor opposite one another, three to four feet apart, in the centre a basket is placed, whilst in front of each player is placed a dozen of the largest, most ugly, and knobbly potatoes procurable.” Each player was then given a table spoon, or dessert spoon and by using only the spoon, the potatoes were transferred into the basket, the winner being the first to clear their pile.
Once your holiday had begun, there were a few “hitherto unwritten rules” of the Rivers and Broads from George Christopher Davies to adhere to:
“Do not, in the neighbourhood of other yachts or houses, indulge in songs and revelry after eleven p.m., even at regatta times.”
“Bathe only before eight o’clock in the morning, if in sight of other vessels or moored in a frequented part of the river. Ladies are not expected to turn out before eight, but after that time they are entitled to be free from any annoyance. Young men who lounge in a nude state on boats while ladies are passing (and I have known Norwich youths to do this) may be saluted with dust shot, or the end of a quant.”
“Do not throw straw or paper overboard to float to leeward and become offensive but burn, or take care to sink all rubbish.”
“Steam launches must not run at full speed past yachts moored to the bank, particularly when the occupants of the latter have things spread out for a meal.”
“Ladies, please don’t gather armfuls of flowers, berries, and grasses which, when faded, you leave in the boat or yacht for the unfortunate skipper to clear up.”
You’ve made it to the end of your holiday and it’s time to depart. You may not necessarily be departing from the same place where you picked the boat up of course. A man with a horse and cart will collect your party and luggage and transport you to the nearest train station for your return journey home. In 1895, a return first class”Tourist” ticket from London to Wroxham Station (as seen above, photographed by Donald Shields) would have cost 34 shillings, whilst a 3rd class ticket could be purchased for a more modest 20 shillings. The train journey would have taken a little over three hours.
The boats, the clothes and the availability of foodstuffs may have changed, but the appeals of the Broads and some of the advice given in the Victorian guide books still hold true today – with the exception of trying to sink your rubbish perhaps (lack of riverside rubbish bins notwithstanding). The facilities were somewhat basic, sourcing food and water needed greater patience and stamina and you made your own entertainment. But step on board your holiday craft, leave the cares of the world behind, cast off on your Broadland adventure and “one feels the glamour of it stealing over you.”
In the fairy tale of “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine’s brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to
gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell — all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done — running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men — except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)
This was one of my favourite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm’s way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.
I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: “common nettles” or “stinging nettles.” I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking — and although they’re actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women’s arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.
According to the Anglo-Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm,” recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against “elf-shot” (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and”flying venom” (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.
Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles,” said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, “I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”
“Nettles have numerous virtues,” writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. “Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.
“Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient’s name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits.”
The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:
“Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle’s high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as ‘Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.’ This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.
“Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica ‘syringes’ of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful.”
Bumblehill Nettle Soup
Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.
Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.
Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.
Preparing nettle soup.
Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.
Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.)
Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey. Or try these two other good recipes: nettle pancakes and wild nettle bread.
Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women’s domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to “enrich the soil” wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.
The illustrations for “The Wild Swans” above are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, & Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Related posts: “Swan’s Wing” and “The Folklore of Food.”