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
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.”
If you walk out from Wisbech northwards along the Walton Road there are some trees – on one side or the other – but the dominant impression of the flat land is as a sea of wheat. After about half an hour, the horizon ahead is broken by a church tower with pinnacled corners. Its silhouette in the distance looks like a long-eared owl. It’s still another three furlongs or so till you reach the church of St Mary, West Walton, but not until you’re round the bend by the village is it clear that there is something very odd about the tower. It is quite a way from the church, under which several springs are said to rise. The tower needed firmer footings.
This bell tower is a triumph of Early English architecture – tall lancet window openings, without decorative tracery. It dates from the mid 13th century. The fenland sky is visible through the arches on the four sides of the ground storey. The next two storeys are progressively taller – the first pierced by three lancets on each side, and the second by pairs below a super-arch. The parapet and the owl-ear pinnacles are two centuries later, but I don’t mind that.
Walking through the archway of the tower into the churchyard is not the end of a pleasant morning’s stroll. There’s impressive stuff to see inside. But first you can pause and see how odd the church looks with no hint of tower or spire. The nave is high and the chancel lower but long.
From a distance, between the nave windows and the pitched lead roof, a row of small round-headed windows is tucked beneath the eaves, punctuating blind arcading at a rate of one window every three arches.
The church looks not so much like a barn as like the airship hangar at Cardington in Bedfordshire, as it appears across the flat fields as the train goes by. Of course St Mary isn’t as vast as that, but the first glimpse inside the south door is pretty impressive.
Before turning the handle of that door, it is impossible not to be distracted by the Tudor stepped parapet of brick plonked on top of the Early English stone archway of the deep porch. Did the builders of this addition mean it to be rendered and so be less like a sore thumb?
Anyway, the impression of the church interior from the doorway is strong, but not simple. The feeling is of space. This is partly because no pews or chairs cover the wide stone-paved floor of the rear of the nave, and partly because the nave and the aisles each side are lit by daylight from the later perpendicular windows.
There is something else to notice about the wide arches between nave and aisles. They appear alive. Each column supporting an arch looks as if it had four scaffolding poles enclosing it. These are thin shafts of polished Purbeck marble, completely detached from the column and embraced halfway up by linked collars of stone. These detached shafts plunge upward into capitals of stiff-leaf carving. That is the technical name, but they look not at all stiff here, but like a sort of foam of vegetation caught in the act of bursting into the air. I’d wanted to see this church because of some splendid photographs by Matthew Byrne in his new book, English Parish Churches and Chapels.
The bell tower at St Mary, West Walton, is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. The church itself, like all those in the book, has benefited from a grant from the National Churches Trust. It needs more help to deal with subsidence. Otherwise, such marvels, in their hundreds, as English medieval churches, will not much longer stand.
At last, it can be revealed – Norfolk’s part in the Da Vinci Code. I knew that something mysterious was going on here as soon as we arrived; from the south, St Andrew appears to be a normal, if over-restored, 14th century church, but the north side has been comprehensively redeveloped to give it the appearance of some kind of nightmarish institution. Huge, angry grotesques guard the guttering, and the tower beyond is like that of a Scottish baronial castle. A massive chimney in the north-east corner completes the effect, giving the whole piece the look of a lunatic asylum.
And here’s something even stranger. St Andrew was locked. Now, this is near impossible; here on the outskirts of Hunstanton, we are at the heart of the greatest concentration of open medieval churches in northern Europe. Every other single medieval church for miles and miles, hundreds and hundreds of them, is kept open for business, welcoming to strangers and pilgrims alike. It seemed impossible that, deep within this area, there should be a renegade, and so I assumed that it was a mistake.
Not so, apparently. Peter, who was with me, assured me that he had never found this church open, and several other church explorers have also mentioned to me that they have yet to see inside the walls of Ringstead church. Now, some people might suggest that the PCC responsible for running such a church must be inhospitable, or unfriendly, or unhelpful, or disinterested, or suspicious, or unenthusiastic, or ungenerous, or thoughtless, or mean-spirited, or lacking in energy, or rude, or incompetent, or even downright lazy.
But not me. I would like to be charitable, and offer an alternative solution. Above the locked gates of the rather ugly south porch is a massive 19th century niche with a statue in it depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd. It isn’t done well – Christ looks bored, or fed up, and the lamb looks as if it is struggling to escape – but I had been looking at it for a few moments when I noticed the inscription. In large letters beneath Christ’s feet it reads I AM THE DOOR.
Of course! Now, I have not actually read the Da Vinci Code – I reached about page 12 before I realised that it was the biggest pile of nonsense I had picked up in months, and my time would be better spent in doing something useful like cutting my toe-nails – but I had read enough to know that we should all be looking for secret signs. And perhaps this was one of them.
Now, it may be that the 19th century restorers of St Andrew had put up this inscription to remind passers-by that Ringstead church is the House of God, and that His home was always to be open to those seeking Him. However, I do not think this can be the case, for why now would the Parish of Ringstead go out its way to lock God’s people out of His house? I was sure that Peter and I had stumbled on something mysterious, something that would knock Dan Brown’s poppycock into the shadows.
We looked up at it, wondering. Presumably, you climbed to the niche and did something to the statue to open the door. What could it be? A twist of the lamb’s ears, perhaps?
What we needed, of course, was a ladder. We wandered round behind the tower – which, incidentally, is most curious, the entire western side of it rebuilt in brick at some point – and there it was, a tall ladder leaning against one of the buttresses. It wasn’t locked to anything, it was just leaning there. This was too unlikely to be a coincidence, that the only church for miles around which is kept locked should also carelessly leave a ladder behind the tower. Nobody obsessed with security could be that stupid. No, I imagined north-west Norfolk’s Freemasons meeting up here after dark, hauling the ladder around to the porch, and using the secret entrance through the niche.
Peter was all for taking the ladder and giving it a go, but I did not want to get into trouble. The thing was, if we were caught, was there not a danger that someone might think that I, too, was a Freemason? As a Catholic, I am banned on the point of excommunication from becoming a Freemason.
Because of this, I am unable to imagine what shadowy activities such people might get up to once entry was gained. If it was me, of course, I would be wandering around like the saddo I am, photographing the font and the pulpit, and enjoying Frederick Preedy’s east window, which I am told by Mortlock depicts St Andrew and St Peter holding the former churches of Great and Little Ringstead. I might even say a prayer or two. No doubt the Freemasons eschew these excitements for drinking toasts to Dan Brown and sacrificing goats on the altar. It’s a funny old world.
Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.
The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.
The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!
High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.
In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.
In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:
‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.
We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’
For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.
At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.
The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:
Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way. When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.
There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.
But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.
Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.
Be still and listen:
Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.
A ‘wild’ place:
There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.
Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’ It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:
‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’
It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.
Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.
Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:
The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.
“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.
But she just wouldn’t listen.
We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.
So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.
Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.
She’s still out there of course.
No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.
Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!
No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.
So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”
We have long been fascinated by the hare – Britain’s fastest land mammal, surrounded by myth and infamous for their ‘mad’ March courtship rituals. This Blog explores and explodes the mythology surrounding this iconic lagomorph.
Hares have never failed to fascinate. Hare mythology has had an important role in our legends, stories and history ever since the Roman first introduced them to Britain, from the otherworldly White Hare of Cornish legend to the time Alice attended the Mad Hatter’s tea party courtesy of Lewis Carroll. And yet, hares are not confined to the pages of legend, myth and history. To see a pair boxing is to witness a spring rite of passage, but did you know that hares remain mad long after March?
In her bestselling novel of 1930, The Edwardians, the writer Vita Sackville-West evoked essentially unchanging English country life. Around the house at the centre of the novel – a loosely fictionalised version of her ancestral home, Knole – she imagined a parkland setting unchanged over many centuries: “The background was the same: the grey walls, the flag on the tower, the verdure of the trees, the hares and the deer feeding on the glades.” Like a vignette from a medieval hunting tapestry, the creatures that animate Sackville-West’s vision of timeless pastoralism are the quarry of the chase: deer and hare.
The brown hare is Britain’s fastest land mammal. Propelled by those powerful hind legs which define its shape as surely as its long, black-tipped ears, the hare has been known to run at speeds exceeding 40mph. Added to its shyness, this astonishing turn of speed accounts for the apparent elusiveness of the hare. Sighted only rarely in some areas for much of the year, it retains a mystique long forfeited by rabbits.
In hare mythology, the hare is a creature with pagan, sacred and mystic associations, by turns benign, cunning, romantic or, most famously, in its March courtship rituals, mad. It is largely silent, preferring to feed at night or, in summer, as the last light fades from the day, a shadowy existence which adds to its mysteriousness in hare mythology. In Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit stories the character of Hare is superior and strutting, occasionally pernickety, always aloof – a rendering for children of the animal’s natural reserve as well his appropriateness as a denizen of that world of aristocratic entitlement evoked by Sackville-West. For example, it is Hare who keeps Grey Rabbit up to scratch in the matter of housekeeping: “Where’s the milk, Grey Rabbit?” asked Hare. “We can’t drink tea without milk.”
In hare mythology and folklore, hares are invested with a similar remoteness. The otherworldly White Hare, which in Cornish legend wove a path between the fishing smacks of the county’s harbours at sundown, was thought to be either a warning of imminent tempest or the spirit of a broken-hearted maiden determined to haunt her faithless lover (a tempest of a different variety) and, in both cases, a sight to inspire foreboding and trepidation. In 1883, in the Folk-Lore Journal, William Black wrote that, “From India we learn that it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.”
Such superstition surrounding hare mythology appears not to have been confined to India. A book on British folklore published in 1875 recognised the status of the hare as an associate of disaster, and recommended repeating, “Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me.” In Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, published in 1920, Lady Gregory recorded one of the most famous legends from hare mythology, despite its origins being not in Ireland but in Somerset. It concerned the trial for witchcraft in 1663 of an old woman called Julian Cox. A witness at the trial stated: “A huntsman swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julian Cox’s house he at last started a hare: the dogs hunted her very close… till at last the huntsman perceiving the hare almost spent and making towards a great bush, he ran on the other side of the bush to take her up and preserve her from the dogs; but as soon as he laid hands on her it proved to be Julian Cox, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He knowing her, was so affrighted that his hair on his head stood on end; and yet he spake to her and ask’d her what brought her there; but she was so far out of breath that she could not make him any answer; his dogs also came up full cry to recover the game and smelled at her and so left off hunting any further. And the huntsman and his dogs went home presently sadly affrighted.”
Hares In Britain:
The Romans are credited with introducing brown hares to Britain more than 2,000 years ago. If we are to believe the story of the Iceni queen Boudica consulting the entrails of a hare as an augury of victory in her uprising against the Romans in AD61, the animals had established themselves quickly. Their preference then as now was for open country and grassland, downs and flat marshlands. In succeeding centuries, farmland, particularly arable land, also proved popular with hares. Their chosen habitat is one that offers shelter in the form of long grass or heather; food in the form of herbs, grasses and cereal crops; and the broad expanses which afford a canvas for hares’ remarkable speed. Before the advent of hare coursing and beagling, that speed was exercised principally in escaping foxes, the hare’s principal natural predator. More recently, despite the greater speed of the sighthounds used for coursing, hares frequently outwitted their pursuers by their ability to turn and corner with unrivalled agility.
As with so many forms of British wildlife, today’s hares are threatened by changing agricultural practice. Larger fields with a single cereal crop a year curtail hares’ year-round food supply while offering them diminished cover, and their forms – shallow depressions in the ground – offer limited shelter and, potentially, a degree of exposure and vulnerability. A survey in 2008 estimated current brown hare numbers in Britain in the region of 800,000, a figure which represents a consistent if gradual decline since the Sixties. Unlike rabbits, hares are resistant to myxomatosis and have suffered no equivalent cull.
Merchandising The Hare:
If few town-based people are fortunate enough to see a hare in the wild, there can be no Britons unfamiliar with its appearance. Today hare mythology has extended and the hare motif is to be found on fabric, wallpaper, cushions, lampshades and ties; it has been used as a letterhead, a heraldic device and in the design of stock pins, cuff-links, brooches and charms for bracelets.
Hare mythology and particularly the ubiquity of hares in children’s fiction and television programmes ensures a continual stream of merchandising. Hares remain a popular subject with sculptors and visual artists. Their spring-time “boxing”, a mating ritual in which unreceptive females fend off amorous males, lends itself to a degree of anthropomorphism which appeals to an art-buying public largely ignorant of the truth behind this “mad” March ritual, once thought to be a fight between males. Ceramic and porcelain hares have been made by the Munich-based Nymphenburg factory, the Lomonosov factory in St Petersburg and by Meissen. Contemporary animaliers, such as sculptors Rupert Till and Sophie Ryder and ceramicist Elaine Peto, explore a continuing fascination with these enigmatic creatures.
For an earlier arts audience hare mythology and the hare itself possessed a similar magnetism. An image of three running hares formed into a circle has been found in medieval churches, cathedrals and even inns across Britain. A floor tile dated to around 1400, found in the nave of Chester Cathedral, depicts a trio of hares separated by trefoil-shaped vegetation. Joined at their tips, their ears form a triangle, each hare apparently with two ears, though the tile artist has drawn only three in total.
Varying in sophistication and elaboration, this icononography characterises all the “three hares” of church architecture in Britain, from a late-15th-century carved wooden boss in the chapel at Cotehele in Cornwall to a stained glass roundel at Holy Trinity church, Long Melford in Suffolk, and a painted stone boss in the Lady Chapel of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.
Research has failed to unearth any contemporary account of the symbolism of this recurring image, formerly dismissed as a popular signature among masons and carpenters. It is more likely that the intertwined imagery was intended to suggest the indivisibility of the Trinity. Another possible explanation is an association with the Virgin Mary, since hares were believed to possess hermaphrodite powers and therefore the ability to reproduce without loss of virginity. It is a far cry from the Romans’ perception of hares as symbolic of lust, abundance and fecundity: Pliny the Elder advocated a diet of hare as a means of increasing sexual attractiveness and also claimed that hare meat had the power to cure sterility.
The Current Outlook:
If Pliny is right, the outlook for Britain’s birth rate is dim. Jugged hare, in which hare is stewed in wine and juniper berries and served with the last-minute addition of its own blood, has virtually disappeared from our tables. A recent survey conducted by a television cookery programme found that virtually no British youngsters recognised the dish and just as few would be willing to try it. The recipe is attributed to Hannah Glasse, who included it in The Art of Cookery, published in 1747: today it is chiefly confined to the ultra-traditional menus of London’s clubland.
With hare coursing banned in England and Wales in 2004, and fewer hares on British tables than at any point over the past three centuries, the chances of spotting boxing hares have never been so good. Here’s a tip for the tardy: the mating season of the hare is not confined to March; this “mad March” ritual is actually played out over a period of seven months from February to August, a treat for the sharp of eye. But, Lewis Carroll aside, none of the participants has been known to follow courtship with a tea party.
The body text is attributed to ‘The Field’ Magazine.
The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is the regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment; it is also traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall.
Originally, Great Britain was called ‘Albion’ by the Romans, who invaded Britain in 55BC, but this later became ‘Britannia’. This Latin word referred to England and Wales, but was no longer used for a long time after the Romans left.
The name was then revived in the age of the Empire, when it had more significance. The word ‘Britannia’ is derived from ‘Pretannia’, from the term that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1BC) used for the Pretani people, who the Greeks believed lived in Britain. Those living in Britannia would be referred to as Britanni.
The Romans created a goddess of Britannia, wearing a Centurion helmet and toga, with her right breast exposed. In the Victorian period, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, this was altered to include her brandishing a trident and a shield with the British flag on, a perfect patriotic representation of the nation’s militarism. She was also standing in the water, often with a lion (England’s national animal), representing the nation’s oceanic dominance. The Victorians were also too prudish to leave her breast uncovered, and modestly covered it to protect her dignity!
The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ song that we recognise today started out as a poem co-written by the Scottish pre-Romantic poet and playwright, James Thomson (1700-48), and David Mallet (1703-1765), originally Malloch. He was also a Scottish poet, but was less well-known than Thomson. The English composer, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), then composed the music, originally for the masque ‘Alfred’, about Alfred the Great. Masques were a popular form of entertainment in 16th and 17th century England, involving verse, and, unsurprisingly, masks! The first performance of this masque was on 1st August, 1740, at Cliveden House, Maidenhead.
It was at Cliveden that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was staying. He was a German, born in Hanover, son of King George II. His relationship with his father was strained but he came to England in 1728 after his father became king. The masque pleased Prince Frederick because it associated him with the likes of Alfred the Great, a medieval king who managed to win in battle against the Danes (Vikings), and linked him to improving Britain’s naval dominance, which was Britain’s aim at this time. The masque was performed to celebrate the accession of George I (this was the Georgian era, 1714-1830) and the birthday of Princess Augusta.
There were various influences on the poem. Scottish Thomson spent most of his life in England and hoped to forge a British identity, perhaps the reason for the pro-British lyrics. Another of his works was ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ (1730). Rather than giving in to the Romans and becoming a slave, Sophonisba chose to commit suicide. This could have had an influence on ‘Rule, Britannia!’, with ‘Britons never will be slaves’. The words vary slightly between the original poem and the song we know today. Below is the poem, as it appears in ‘The Works of James Tomson’ by Thomson (1763, Vol II, pg 191):
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command/ Arose from out the azure main; floor/ This was the charter of the land,/ And guardian angels sang this strain:/ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The nations, not so blest as thee,/ Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;/ While thou shalt flourish great and free,/ The dread and envy of them all./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,/ More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;/ As the loud blast that tears the skies,/ Serves but to root thy native oak./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:/ All their attempts to bend thee down/ Will but arouse thy generous flame;/But work their woe, and thy renown./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
To thee belongs the rural reign;/ Thy cities shall with commerce shine/ All thine shall be the subject main,/ And every shore it circles thine./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The Muses, still with freedom found,/ Shall to thy happy coast repair; Blest Isle!/ With matchless beauty crown’d,/ And manly hearts to guard the fair./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The first public performance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was in London in 1745, and it instantly became very popular for a nation trying to expand and ‘rule the waves’. Indeed, from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, other countries’ dominant exploratory advances encouraged Britain to follow. This was the Age of Discovery, in which Spain and Portugal were the European pioneers, beginning to establish empires. This spurred England, France and the Netherlands to do the same. They colonised and set up trade routes in the Americas and Asia.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s dominance grew, hence the significance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. England had been unified with Wales since 1536, but only in 1707, by the Act of Union, did England join parliaments with Scotland, after years of tense relations. This occurred because it would benefit both countries. Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama costing £200,000, made a union with England look very appealing.
Scotland could use English trade routes without having to pay. England, which was experiencing fractious relations with the French, felt it made sense to have someone on their side, to fight for them, but also to simply not present a threat themselves. The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom had been formed.
In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia, setting a precedent for later expansion in the Victorian era. In 1783 however, the nation experienced a set-back after the American War of Independence, in which 13 American territories were lost. Britain then turned her efforts to other countries, to try and establish more permanent colonies.
In 1815 after years of Napoleonic Wars, France was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and this heralded the start of Britain’s century of power. At the height of the Empire, Britannia was in control of approximately one quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of the land mass.
The original words of the song altered with the fluctuations of Britain’s power; ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ later became ‘Britannia rules the waves’ in Victorian times, because Britain did, indeed, rule the waves! The famous phrase, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ at first seems simply hopeful and poignant, ever-glowing and successful. However, it was actually coined because Britain had colonised so many areas across the world, that the sun had to be shining on at least one of them!
The 19th century, though, was also a time of growth for Germany and America which led to conflict resulting in both World Wars in the 20th century. This began the decline of the British Empire. There was also subsequent decolonisation, and today only 14 territories remain.
Since 1996, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been transformed into ‘Cool Britannia’. This play on words reflects modern Britain, the stylish nation of music, fashion and media. It particularly encapsulates the atmosphere and buzz of cosmopolitan London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been so popular that it has been used in a variety of ways. In 1836, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Arthur Sullivan, who wrote comedy operas in Victorian times, quoted from the song too.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ became the Regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1881, and even today, some Royal Navy vessels are called HMS Britannia. The BBC’s Last Night of the Proms always includes an arrangement of the song too. ‘Britannia’ still conjures a sense of pride and patriotism today:
“Rule Britannia!/Britannia rule the waves/ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves./ Rule Britannia/ Britannia rule the waves./ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Footnote: The mistake that seems always to be made by ‘Promenaders’ (at the Last Night of the Proms) is that ‘rule’ becomes ‘rules’ and is expressed as a statement. It is more correct for the first line of this ‘anthem’ to be an instruction – or aspiration! We no longer have a ‘Navy’ worth boasting about.
The River Yare rises close to the village of Shipdham near Dereham and then winds eastwards towards Norwich. At Barford it is joined by the smaller River Tiffey. Then at Earlham, on the outskirts of Norwich, it passes through Earlham Park and loops round the University of East Anglia.
River Yare at Earlham Park
In Lavengro George Borrow captured the beauty of the Yare at this point:
‘At some distance from the city, behind a range of hilly ground which rises towards the south-west, is a small river, the waters of which, after many meanderings, eventually enter the principal river of the district, and assist to swell the tide, which rolls down to the ocean. It is a sweet rivulet, and pleasant it is to trace its course from spring-head, high up in the remote regions of Eastern Anglia, till it arrives in the valley behind yon rising ground; and pleasant is that valley, truly a good spot, but most lovely where yonder bridge crosses the little stream. Beneath its arch the waters rush garrulously into a blue pool, and are there stilled for a time, for the pool is deep, and they appear to have sunk to sleep. Farther on, however, you hear their voice again, where they ripple gently over yon gravelly shallow.’
This scene has hardly changed since Borrow’s day and the park is a popular place for walkers and for children to paddle in the summer. The Yare also provides an important corridor for wildlife at this point with its marshes and wet woodland. After passing the University lake, it skirts round the southern edge of Norwich and merges with the River Wensum at Trowse – where it becomes navigable. The Wensum is the larger of the two rivers at this point, but it is the Yare that takes on the name.
River Yare at Strumpshaw
Flowing eastwards from Norwich, the river passes through Postwick – which was frequently painted by the Norwich School Artists. It then moves on to Bramerton where one of Broadland’s colourful characters – Billy Bluelight – used to race boats up the river. His claim was as follows:
‘My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is 45, I hope to get to Carrow Bridge before the boat arrive.’
The next village is Surlingham – which was home to the naturalist and writer Ted Ellis. Ellis lived in a cottage at Wheatfen Broad for many years and turned the surrounding marsh and fenland into a nature reserve. He was an expert on the eco-systems of the Norfolk Broads and a much-loved nature diarist for the EDP newspaper.
Wheatfen Broad Near Surlingham
Another colourful Broadland character made his living on Rockland Broad and this was Jimmy Fuller – alias ‘Old Scientific’. He was a wildfowler and marsh man who earned money by shooting and collecting specimens. He was even known to shoot Ospreys – in fact, anything that he could later sell. The guide book writer, W. A. Dutt, once met him and provided the following account:
‘Fuller appeared from behind a reed stack just as I was knocking at his cottage door and in a few minutes we were afloat in his gun punt. In the dyke leading from the cottage there was open water; but the Broad in spite of two days’ thaw was partially covered in ice through which Fuller had broken a channel for this boat.’
Further downstream still, the river passes through Claxton – a small village which is now the home of another naturalist – this time Mark Cocker. In his book Crow Country – he provides a fascinating account of jackdaws and crows in the Yare Valley. Watching them pass overhead at Buckenham – heading for Buckenham Carrs – inspired him to try and understand more about their movements. The book is a personal account of this obsession which is centred on Norfolk but also takes in rookeries in other parts of the UK and Europe.Two-thirds of the way between Norwich to Yarmouth lies the village of Reedham which perches on higher ground overlooking the marshes. There is a railway swing bridge here – allowing larger boats to pass and a chain ferry which carries cars across the river.
In his book The Rings of Saturn W.G. Sebald travelled along the railway line here and crossed the river at Reedham:
‘Through Brundall, Buckenham and Cantley, where, at the end of a straight roadway, a sugar-beet refinery with a belching smokestack sits in a green field like a steamer at a wharf, the line follows the River Yare, till at Reedham it crosses the water and, in a wide curve, enters the vast flatland that stretches southeast down to the sea. Save for the odd solitary cottage there is nothing to be seen but the grass and the rippling reeds, one or two sunken willows, and some ruined conical brick buildings, like relics of an extinct civilisation.’
In Coot Club by Arthur Ransome – the children and Mrs Barrable sail up the Yare as far as Brundall in an attempt to keep out of the way of the Margoletta. On their way back they get stranded in the mud on Breydon Water – which leads to the climax of the story.In his verse narrative, The Broads (1919) – Hugh Money-Coutts described Breydon as follows:
‘On Breydon Water, when the tide is out,
The channel bounds no sailorman can doubt.
Starboard and port, the miry banks reveal
Where safety lies beneath his cautious keel.
But when the flood has wiped the water clean,
– Hiding the muddy haunts where seagulls preen
Their wings, and shake their heads – black pillars mark
The channel’s edge for each adventuring bark.
Beware; the channel shifts, and now and then
A post deceives the hapless wherrymen.’
Just beyond Breydon Bridge the Yare swings southwards and flows through Great Yarmouth before entering the North Sea.
The apple Norfolk Beauty was developed by crossing Warner’s King with a Waltham Abbey seedling. This large and very pretty, mild flavoured mid-season cooking apple was produced by the head gardener at Gunton Park in the nineteenth century. At around the same time the dessert apple Caroline was introduced at Blickling Hall Gardens in 1822. Both these apples are picked in early September. Another cooking variety is the Golden Noble, found in Downham Market by the Head Gardener at Stow Bardolph Hall in 1820. It is picked in early October and will keep till Christmas. The Norfolk Biffin (my preferred spelling – others are Beefing and Beffan) was first recorded in the seventeenth century. It is a tough skinned keeping apple that was used for producing dried apple rings. One of the apple’s claims to fame is its appearance in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
There are over 30 extant apple varieties that originated in Norfolk, and about twice that number that are known by name but have been lost. An orchard is recorded at Castle Acre Priory in the eleventh century, and new varieties of Norfolk apple were still being introduced nearly a thousand years later in the twentieth century, the most recent (Red Falstaff) being in 1989. The first named variety of apple to be mentioned in England was in the fourteenth century when a Norfolk farmer paid his rent with 200 pearmains and 4 hogshead of cider. Pearmains were obviously well known by then.
In contrast to the many local apples there are only two varieties of pear recorded as Norfolk’s own; the dessert pear Robin which has been known for centuries, and Hacon’s Incomparable, a culinary fruit. This seedling was propagated from a tree growing in a baker’s yard in Downham Market by a Mr Hacon in 1814. Robin pears should be eaten soon after picking in September, but the cooking pear will keep for up to six weeks after harvesting in mid October.
Around the North Norfolk coast other kinds of delicacy may be had. Samfer (as we locals spell it), or the more posh spelling samphire, grows along the muddy tideline all the way from Snettisham to Cley. In fact the plant is neither samfer nor samphire, which term is more properly applied to Crithmum maritimum, a kind of plant with white flowers that grows on rocky cliffs. This is probably the species mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear. The proper term for our samfer is Salicornia europaea or glasswort, so called from its medieval use in the making of glass. Whatever it’s called, it makes a tasty dish, in my opinion best served cold with vinegar. Also found along the sea-shore are mussels and Stewky Blues, cockles that are gathered from the rich black mud of Stiffkey. On a more commercial basis a fleet of cockle boats sails from the creek just north of the docks at Kings Lynn.
For the meat eaters among you, the Red Poll can trace its ancestry back to the Norfolk Red, a breed of beef cattle that is now extinct. The Red Poll is a dual purpose dairy and beef cow, and although originating in East Anglia, is now grown across the English-speaking world from New Zealand to the United States. While on the subject of local delicacies I should also mention the Suffolk sheep, which was raised primarily for its meat.
Peter Underwood was an indefatigable ghost-hunter who was once described as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research. The following Obituary appeared in The Telegraph on 26 December 2014. Readers, interested in such things, might like to be reminded!
Peter Underwood, who has died aged 91, was the author of some 50 books with titles such as Ghosts and How to See Them and Nights in Haunted Houses; Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as “the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research”.
During a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes, Underwood identified nine different varieties of ghost, namely elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had something of a talent for categorisation; Where the Ghosts Walk, for example, published last year and described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, provided a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.
Underwood described ghosts as probably being “the surviving emotional memories of people who are no longer present” or “the result of some natural recording mechanism”. Of their existence, however, he had no doubt. “The evidence for appearances of dead and living people cannot be explained within our known laws [and] is quite overwhelming,” he claimed. In his book No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter (1983), Underwood suggested that 98 per cent of the reports of hauntings were likely to have rational explanations, but that he was most interested in the two per cent that could be genuine.
One of his best-known investigations concerned a famous haunting of the 1930s at Borley Rectory on the Essex/Suffolk border. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman.
Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. The family fled Borley the following year, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival in 1930 of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide. In addition to bell-ringings, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.
The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).
Over a period of years Underwood, a protégé of Price and executor of his estate, claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory. He came to the conclusion that at least some of the phenomena were genuine, and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud.
If Underwood was not, perhaps, sufficiently doubting to satisfy the sceptics, he claimed to have a nose for charlatanry. On one occasion the writer Dennis Wheatley gave him a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books, in which she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives to whichever of her three husbands happened to be around at the time. Wheatley described how a stark naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. Wheatley was convinced by the performance. Underwood was not.
In 1994, however, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on when police arrived to question Bill Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain (founded in 1862), of which Underwood had been president, following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire, and it took him an afternoon to convince police officers that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks.
The ghost hunt eventually went ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been getting at home. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”
Peter Underwood was born on May 16 1923 at Letchworth Garden City into a family of Plymouth Brethren. He claimed to have had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine when he saw the ghost of his father, who had died earlier the same day, standing at the bottom of his bed. His interest in hauntings was further stimulated on visits to his grandparents’ supposedly haunted house in Herefordshire, and by Harry Price, whom he met through the Ghost Club.
After leaving school, Underwood joined the publishers J M Dent in Letchworth, which would publish many of his books. He continued to work for the firm during and after the Second World War – a serious chest ailment rendered him unfit for active service.
The departure of Underwood from the Ghost Club caused it to split in two, Bellars leading a rump “Ghost Club” with (at least according to Underwood) about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president. According to Underwood’s website, however, the society, too, seems to have run into trouble in recent years, and Underwood was reported to be “in the process of completely reforming the Ghost Club Society [with] a new Council and complete reorganisation”.
A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he also served as president of the Unitarian Society for Psychical Studies and was a life member of the Vampire Research Society. As well as writing, Underwood broadcast extensively on television and radio and lectured around the world. His last book, Haunted London, was published last year.
Underwood’s wife, Joyce, died in 2003. He is survived by their son and daughter.
Peter Underwood, born May 16 1923, died on November 26 2014