‘Bootiful’ Bernard!

Eight years ago, on the 25 November 2010 to be exact, Bernard Matthews of Great Witchingham Hall and turkey fame died. That November date is otherwise of no significance here, but in the USA it denotes ‘Thanksgiving Day’ – which is often dubbed “Turkey Day”!

In 2010, Bernard Matthews had reached 80 years of age and his death ended a remarkable business career that started just after the World War II when he purchased a clutch of eggs and an incubator. He went on to make his fortune by cultivating the British taste for turkeys, whether they be plucked and oven-ready, tumbled, extruded, lubricated, breaded or shaped. All these choices were packaged into 120 assorted products, all produced within a multinational business that, by 2010, produced seven million turkeys a year, employed more than 2,000 people and had an annual turnover of more than £330m.

Bernard Matthews (Photo REX)
Bernard Matthews at Great Witchingham Hall, his home in Norfolk. Photo by Glenn Copus/ Evening Standard / Rex Features (1084174a )

Bernard Trevor Matthews was born at Brooke, near Norwich, on 24 January 1930, the youngest of four children of a motor mechanic. He was a bright child and won a scholarship to Norwich Grammar School, but his early life was not an easy one. His father was regularly out of work and his mother worked as a cleaner to supplement the small amount of money that her husband did manage to bring home. When Bernard was 11, he and his sister had to move in with an aunt after their parents suddenly disappeared. They eventually returned, but divorced when Bernard was 16. After leaving school and then completing two years national service as an RAF clerk, Matthews found clerical work at a livestock auctioneers at 35 shillings a week. It was barely enough to live on, and he began casting around for a moneymaking hobby to supplement his income.

That lucrative hobby began, or so he thought, on the 8th May 1950 when he bid at auction for 20 turkey eggs and a paraffin oil incubator. They were knocked down to him for £2.50. Twelve of the eggs hatched but, as he had not built into his costs the money needed to feed those birds, the venture netted him far less than he had hoped; needless to say, he sold the chicks – to a neighbouring farmer for the equivalent of £9 today. Then, after resigning his position at the auction house in 1951 he became an insurance clerk with Commercial Union where the salary was appreciably better. He now had more money to spare and with that money he bought a second batch of turkeys and sold them on as day-old poults – baby turkeys. This may have been a touch fortutitous at the time since a gale force wind blew the turkey shelter away and the rest escaped. But, Bernard being Bernard, refused to give in and tried again. By 1952 he was selling over 3,000 turkeys a year and within 12 months thereafter he left his insurance role to become a full-time turkey farmer on a grand scale.

Last Duel ( Witchingham Hall)1
Great Witchingham Hall, where Bernard Matthew’s business was first hatched! Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Matthews.

In 1955, backed by a £2,500 loan, he bought Great Witchingham Hall and 36 acres for £3000. The Hall was a dilapidated 80-roomed Elizabethan manor outside Norwich, near Lenwade, which had once been the home of Oliver Le Neve and John Norris, man of letters. He and his wife Joyce moved in, despite its broken walls and leaky ceilings and soon nicknamed it ‘Turkey Hall’. Several hundred turkeys also joined the young couple and apart from the bedroom in which he and his wife Joyce were to live, he put most of the turkeys in the grand reception rooms, turned the bedrooms into massive incubators and  transformed the huge kitchen into a makeshift slaughterhouse. Matthews said at the time:

“People said I was crazy. The place was almost derelict, but it was the cheapest turkey house I could find. So it became the only stately home in England occupied by turkeys.”

He reckoned that, at 5p a square foot, it was considerably cheaper than the 30p a square foot he would have had to invest to build his own turkey sheds.

Bernard Matthews (Joyce with turkeys)
Joyce Matthews coaxing some turkeys down the 16th century staircase of Great Witchingham Hall. Photo: The Sun Newspaper 2016

When Matthews began his business in the 1950s, turkey was a luxury item, seen exclusively as a Christmas treat for the better-off. The average turkey, a huge beast, cost two weeks’ average wages. By the 1970s, Bernard Matthews had turned the turkey into the cheapest meat product on the market and available all-year-round. He then went on to become a household name in the 1980’s when he, all be it reluctantly, agreed to front an advertising campaign to promote his products. Standing in a Norfolk jacket and plus fours in front of Great Witchingham Hall, he extolled the virtues of his turkeys in a broad Norfolk accent: “Bootiful, really bootiful”. Those three words increased sales a massive 17-fold, breaking all previous records for an advertising campaign and propelling Matthews into the rank of a multimillionaire.

Bernard Matthews (factory)
A lorry bearing the famous Matthews’ livery and slogan parked outside his processing plant in Norfolk. Photo: Daily Mail.

A powerfully built man who stood 6ft 4in tall, Matthews came across on television as a ruddy-cheeked, chubby, jovial Norfolk poulterer. But the bluff image was deceptive. In fact, Matthews was a rather solitary, reticent man who took himself and his turkeys extremely seriously. He was defensive with journalists and disliked personal publicity. His direct, brusque style did not endear him to some of the more traditional members of Norfolk society and his intensive factory farming techniques made him the bête noire of environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and foodies. Yet there were many people in Norfolk who admired him, not least for the jobs he had brought to the County and his generosity to local causes. And even his rivals had to admit that he was no fool. When supermarkets and rival manufacturers tried to duplicate his success with spin-off products in the early 1980s, they found both the products and the processes involved protected by impenetrable patents, an unusual thing in the food industry at that time. Matthews was always happiest when running his business and talking turkey. As chairman of his company, he would regularly spend two hours in the food laboratories, testing out new lines. Sometimes he would taste 30 products in one session: “You really have to like turkey to do this job,” he declared.

The new squire of Great Witchingham soon established himself as the leading player in the industry, which until then had been a small if profitable sideline for only a few farmers. After filling his house, Matthews moved out into the surrounding acres and, in 1958, bought the former United States Airforce airfield at Weston Longville, the first of six redundant airfields across Norfolk and Suffolk. It was a shrewd move. Aerodromes were secure and isolated, and their concrete runways ideally suited for turkey houses. He built the first big turkey slaughterhouse and went into large-scale production.

Bernard Matthews (turkeys)
Photo: Farmers Guardian

Matthews quickly realised that the normal-sized turkey was too large for most modern families – even at Christmas – so he began breeding smaller birds at weights of between five and seven pounds. That led to higher turnover and more efficient methods of producing them in quantity, which helped keep prices down. Matthews’s frozen turkeys took the oven-ready market by storm. Eventually his empire would run to 500 vast turkey houses, most of them in Norfolk, which, if laid end to end, would stretch for 40 miles. In 1964 he presented a 55lb turkey to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a Moscow trade fair. Soon afterwards he began developing food production plants for the governments of communist countries such as Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland and Bulgaria.

But his domestic market remained stubbornly seasonal, and by the mid-1970s was showing signs of stagnation. So he set about making turkey a year-round, non-luxury item by deboning it, chopping it up and repackaging it in smaller portions. In 1975 he developed a revolutionary new “co-extrusion” technique in which meat is taken off the bone and pumped into a long casing like a sausage. This enabled him to move into mass production of spin-off lines, but he did not build up a really big market for his turkey rolls and turkey roasts until the 1980 advertising campaign.

The effect of the campaign was to turn Matthews PLC – the company went public in 1971- from an agricultural business into an advanced food processor, and Matthews patented the extrusion technology, not just for turkeys but for all meat. He diversified into red meat, chicken, fish and pork products, moved into North America, New Zealand and Europe, and sought royalties through international deals for his technology. He even launched a range of vegetarian products, though this did not prove successful. By the 1990s, nine tenths of his earnings came from spin-off products. The festive season, by comparison, was something of a sideshow.

However, the brand once advertised as “bootiful” also came to embody everything that food campaigners believed was wrong with factory farming. On the quality front, Matthews’s turkey products featured in reports that claimed that water was added to increase weight. “Chicken breast” sold under the brand, for instance, consisted of 80% chicken, the other 20% being water and chemical additives. When the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver set about his mission to improve school meals, he identified the ubiquitous Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzler – made with only 34% turkey meat – as an example of the lowest common legal denominator of poultry products, precisely the sort of food that children should not be fed. The product was withdrawn in 2005.

Bernard Matthews (Twizzlers)
The ubiquitous Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzler. Photo: The Sun Newspaper.

The following year, two employees admitted ill-treating birds at a Bernard Matthews unit in Haveringland, Norfolk, by playing “baseball” with live turkeys. On 19 June 2007, the Daily Mail reported the incident and went on to state that:

“Poultry tycoon Bernard Matthews faces more criticism after animal rights supporters released a video showing one of his workers repeatedly kicking turkeys. The footage was secretly taken last week by an undercover investigator for an animal welfare charity who sneaked on to one of the multi-millionaire’s farms. The same investigator last year filmed two other Bernard Matthews staff appearing to play baseball with live turkeys on another farm.

The confidence of consumers with Bernard Matthews products was also shaken in February (of 2007) by an outbreak of bird flu at his biggest farm  in Holton near Halesworth., Suffolk. Production at the farm and its adjoining factory was halted as more than 160,000 birds were culled after the discovery of the virulent H5N1 strain of the disease. The latest video is another embarrassment to Matthews managers who had claimed they did not tolerate workers abusing poultry.

The new film shows a balding worker in overalls delivering eight separate kicks to turkeys in a shed on a farm at Wreningham near Wymondham, Norfolk. The incident was filmed prior to two different workers being shown loading live turkeys into crates which were delivered to the shed by a forklift. The video is said to have been filmed through an open door in the giant shed by an investigator who sneaked on to the farm at around 1.30 am last Thursday………”A spokesman for Bernard Matthews said he could not comment until he had seen the video, despite being shown still pictures of the alleged abuse.”

Their lawyer told the court that the men were influenced by “peer pressure” at the factory, but the company took out full-page newspaper advertisements reassuring shoppers that its employees were “conscientious people”.

Bernard Matthews (bird flu)2
The scene at the Bernard Matthews factory in Holton, near Halesworth. Photo: Getty Images.

Bird experts had long argued that intensive poultry operations were magnets for disease. They must have felt fully vindicated when the H5N1 strain of bird flu surfaced in the UK for the first time in 2007. This was at Bernard Matthew’s plant at Holton, Suffolk, which called into question the much-vaunted “bio-security” of such state-of-the-art units. Certainly, Matthew’s products appeared to regularly ruffle feathers, but the appeal of ‘instant’ bite sized pieces bland white meat, coated in a deep-fried breadcrumb crust continued to prove more potent with consumers.

Bernard Matthews (with turkey)
Matthews lived a lavish lifestyle on the back of his turkey empire. Photo: Express & Star.

Matthews’s no-frills factory farming techniques attracted the opprobrium of environmentalists and animal rights and health campaigners. He was twice prosecuted for polluting Norfolk rivers with effluent and once fined for failing to admit on a label that some of his products contained “mechanically recovered meat” (MRM). Though sensitive to criticism, he was always robust in defending himself and was to reject criticism of the conditions in his turkey houses. He said, probably more than once, that:

“Turkeys have a very low IQ. All they need is food and warmth. They don’t need to be taken to the cinema twice a week!”

Matthew’s Private Life:

Bernard Matthews once described his private life as ‘complicated’! All that needs to be said here is that he married his childhood sweetheart, Joyce, in 1952 and they adopted two girls, Kathleen and Victoria, and a boy, Jason. They separated in 1975 but remained married, despite having lived apart from her for 35 years. He then fell in love with Cornelia Elgershuizen, a Dutch aristocrat, and they lived together for eight years in his 80-room Norfolk country house, Great Witchingham Hall, where their son, Frederick, was born in 1981. However, that relationship ended when Matthews fell for U.S. model Natalie McCray, and the devastated Cornelia returned to Holland with their son. She died there in 2004. He also was reputed to have had a ‘long-term partner’, Odile Marteyn. If all this had been a play then the cast could well be publicised as follows:

Leading man: BERNARD MATTHEWS (January 24, 1930 – November 25, 2010)
Wife: JOYCE REID (married 1952. Lived apart from 1970s but never divorced)
Adopted daughter 1: KATHLEEN MATTHEWS
Adopted daughter 2: VICTORIA MATTHEWS
Adopted son: JASON MATTHEWS
Lovechild: GEORGE FREDERICK ELGERSHUIZEN
Mother of the lovechild: CORNELIA ELGERSHUIZEN
American lover: NATALIE McCRAY
French mistress: ODILE MARTEYN

Matthews did not flaunt his wealth. His two big concessions to multimillionaire status were a Rolls-Royce and a 158ft yacht, the ‘Bellissima’, which he eventually sold to “an Arab who wanted it more than I did”. In addition, he restored and furnished Great Witchingham Hall with antiques, and where he lived a careful, modest life, preferring to spend his evenings at home to going out and socialising.

On the plus side, along with the fortune he made, he did support a number of charities and had a positive effect on the local economy. In 2007 he was appointed CVO for services to the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

Bernard Matthews (CBE)
Bernard Matthews pictured at Buckingham Palace with his wife Joyce (left) and daughter Kathleen, after he received his CBE in 1992.

One of the very few people who appeared not to have heard of the brand name Bernard Matthews was the Queen who asked him, during the CBE ceremony, which branch of the poultry business he was in. Apparently, when he told her, she observed that “a lot of turkeys come from Norfolk” – to which he more than likely replied “Yes, Maam!”.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/finance-obituaries/8162155/Bernard-Matthews.html
https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/899161/the-tangled-lovelife-of-the-turkey-tycoon/
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1541576/Bird-flu-its-here-to-stay.html
http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/poultry-industry-awaits-bird-flu-verdict-1-694473
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462909/Bernard-Matthews-worker-caught-playing-football-turkeys.html
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1381103/Bernard-Matthews-Dutch-lovechild-inherit-30m.html

Norfolk Tales & Myths does not claim credit for any of the photographs shown in the article.

 

Romancing The Broads!

The Broads as we know them today were, originally, a man-made accident. They were formed by the flooding of medieval peat excavations which provided fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. As sea levels began to rise, the pits began to flood and by the end of the 14th century, these pits were abandoned and large individual areas of enclosed water were formed. Collectively, they were not known then as Broads and certainly not the Norfolk Broads. That name seems to have gained popularity in the mid-Victorian era, about one hundred and sixty-five years ago; this was when they were ‘discovered’ and promoted by devotees of all things picturesque.

Norfolk Broads (Ariel View)

At the beginning of what became the ‘Broads’ brand, the railway had wielded its way across Norfolk and taken much of the carrying trade out of the wherry-man’s hands; eventually to rob him entirely of his livelihood. Victorian pleasure-seekers followed, at first in small numbers to explore the waterways and try the marshland inns during what was, at the outset at least, a short season. Then, as time past, visitor numbers increased so that the Broads, like many other places became overcrowded, a situation which in some people’s opinion was quite detestable!

Norfolk Broads (Wherry)
Photo: Courtesy of the Norfolk Wherry Trust – Home Of the Wherry Albion

It seems quite natural for so charming an area as the Broads to have had so much literature written about it. However, George Borrow (5 July 1803 – 26 July 1881) was one writer who, despite having lived for a while by Oulton Broad, did not write anything about the neighbourhood or the Broads – but, there were other less eminent early writers who did. They were the ones who busied themselves in making known the attractions of the flat landscape of the Broads, its slow moving waterways, the peaceful meres, the free shooting and fishing, together with the apparent strange life of the marsh-folk who drained the waterways.

Norfolk Broads (Gathering Waterlilies)1
Peter Henry Emerson, Gathering Water-Lilies 1886, platinum print from glass negative, 19.8 x 29.2 cm
Wilson Centre for Photography

By the late 19th century, luxurious boats could be hired to navigate the waters amongst the clean white sails of yachts, all of which mingled with the dirty brown sails of the wherries on the rivers Yare, Bure, and Waveney. William Dutt, (1870-1939) wrote admirable books about Norfolk and its Broads which were read with great pleasure by those of his time, He knew the country and the people thoroughly, and wrote in a very agreeable fashion:-

“……the visitors who content themselves with what they can see of Broadland from a yacht’s deck can never become really acquainted with the Broads and Broadland life. To gain a real knowledge of these, they must, to some extent, ‘rough it,’ as the early adventurers did; trudge the river walls; associate with the eel-catchers, marsh-men, reed-cutters and Breydon gunners, as well as exploring the dykes which were non-navigable by yachts. There are also the swampy rush marshes where the lapwings and red shanks nested……..spend days with the Broadsman in his punt, and nights with the eel-catcher in his house-boat; crouch among the reeds to watch the acrobatic antics of the bearded titmice, and mix with the wherrymen at the staithes and ferry inns……..If the stranger in Broadland is unwilling to do these things, he must rest content with the outward aspect of the district and second-hand knowledge of its inner life………But there must always be many whom lack of time, opportunity, or inclination will debar them from becoming intimately acquainted with the scenery, inhabitants, archaeology, history, sport, and wild life of this most delightful and interesting district.”

Norfolk Broads (Eel Catching)
1887
“An Eel Catcher’s Home.”
Image: Peter Henry Emerson/Royal Photographic Society/SSPL/Getty Images
Norfolk Broads (Reed Cutters)1
Plate titled During the Reed-Harvest from P H Emerson and T F Goodall’s Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads 1887
Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Then there were the illustrators and artists who produced drawings, oil paintings and water-colour sketches of the landscape, the sailing craft, the birds, and the vegetation of the Broads. These ‘interpretations of reality’ were, and indeed still are, exceedingly attractive and capture the full charm of the area. By the very successful process of colour printing they have, for many years, been reproduced in books that did not rely on just wearisome pen sketches or tonal single-colour photographs – although the best of these have found their place.

But it must be said that if one is to understand and appreciate the real, deep laying, beauty of the Broads, it is clearly advisable to also gain at least an outline on the history of this part of the County, from its earliest days, when a great chunk of East Norfolk was the bed of a vast estuary. Close behind came the Roman days when galleys could sail up to Norwich. Then there were the years of great inundation and, at the beginning of the 17th century, the work of reclamation with much of the swamps being drained and the resulting pasture put to profit.

Fortunately, despite all this activity, the Broad’s wild life was not seriously affected when Sir Thomas Browne made his list of Norfolk birds. Then the peewits were so plentiful that cartloads were brought into Norwich and the rustics used their eggs in puddings. Cranes bred, on what is now the Broads, till 1542 and spoonbills nested in 1671. The avocet ceased to breed by about 1825 and the black-tailed godwit’s egg was last taken at Reedham in 1857. At the same time, it used to be believed that the bittern and the black tern would, most likely, never rear their young again in the county of Norfolk – but they have.

Norfolk Broads (Bittern)
The Bittern

We are told about the life of the marsh-folk of old; how the eel-catchers set about their business and made a precarious livelihood; how the professional wildfowlers became an extinct race; and how the marshmen controlled the drainage, looked after the cattle, and made a harvest of the reeds. Much has been pleasantly described, not least about the wild life on Breydon, an area of thirteen hundred acres which remains, strictly speaking, not a Broad, but an estuary to which numerous sea-birds and waders come and go. Many a rare straggler from foreign countries used to be shot there; spoonbills used to appear there every year and even more commoner birds used to, and indeed still do, visit the Breydon flats at the seasons of migration. It used to be said that an old Victorian gunner boasted that he once secured over a hundred dunlins at one discharge of his punt-gun. Although Breydon is not a Broad, there are about fifty pieces of water, some, of course, small pools, which are called Broads. Hickling, Rollesby, Ormesby and Barton are good examples, each having an area of over two hundred acres, with eight others of the best-known broths each more than a hundred acres in extent. Such a district has much to make it attractive to animals, plants and humans!

Norfolk Broads (Punt Gunner)
1887
“Gunner Working up to Fowl.”
Image: Peter Henry Emerson/Royal Photographic Society/SSPL/Getty Images

On the subject of ornithology, nests of the marsh harrier can still be found and, certainly, the Montagu’s harrier was known to have been present on the Broads in past years. However, one big complaint used to be expressed against the gamekeeper’s ‘pestilent activity’ which if not restrained, would doom many species, including the ‘ruff and the reeve’ sandpipers.

Norfolk Broads (Montagu Harrier)
Montagu Harrier (Circus pygargus)

Norfolk Broads (Great Crested Grebe)2Norfolk Broads (Common Crane)Norfolk Broads (Marsh Harrier)Norfolk Broads (Spoonbill)

Entomology is another specialism which has always thrived on the Broads and written about; the precursor to the preservation of the species, such as that of the swallow-tail butterfly which in the past had been on the verge of becoming very rare, if not extinct. At one time, this would have been due to the insatiable greed of collectors and also to the draining of places where the hog’s-fennel, on which the caterpillars feed, once grew abundantly. On the other hand, the greatest treasure still to be found in Broadland is the moth, Fenn’s Nonagria typhae (Bullrush Wainscot) which was first discovered way back in 1834.

Norfolk Broads (Butterflies)
A Selection of Butterflies common to the Norfolk Broads. Courtesy of The Broads Authority. Photo: copyright Pat Thorne 2013

Then there is the ‘pond life’ which has been described as a rather vague branch of natural history for it deals in the ‘research of pond life which takes the seeker, who is after knowledge, into a world totally different to that in which he may otherwise have lived.” However, for such a person to study the rotifers and polyzoan, a microscope is needed which few visitors to the Broads are likely to possess.

Norfolk Broads (Lilies)
Cockshoot Broad (Photo: Ray Jones)

Then there is Botany, another of those subjects which is more likely to be studied by the intelligent tourist. In the past, popular interest in plants was almost confined to orchids and ferns which suffered accordingly. Ammophila arenaria, is a grass which did spread from the sand-hills of coast and would not have competed with the flowering fern (Osmunda regalis) had it not itself been exterminated in many spots by past fern-gatherers. Neither should it be forgotten that the small orchis (Spiranthes autumnalis) used to be dug up by ‘wretches’ armed with trowels.

Norfolk Broads (Grass)
The Grass Ammophila arenaria 
Norfolk Broads (Fern)
The Fern Osmunda regalis 
Norfolk Broads (Spiranthes-Autumnalis)
The Small Orchid Spiranthes autumnalis

In total, the natural features of the Broads, and its geological history, differ so greatly from those of other parts of England. We are told that its earliest strata was cretaceous, but goes back only to the comparatively recent geological period when East Anglia, like the rest of Europe, was under the sea. Nature, assisted by man, is still at work. But one should not forget that in the past, owing to the deposition of mud, the drainage of swamps, and the effects of tidal currents, the Broads were in danger of slowly, but surely, vanishing. Fortunately, in these days of ‘enlightenment’ that is no longer the case.

But, the Broads have always been much more than that described above. Nothing has yet been said about prehistoric men who made the flint implements which have been discovered in the valley gravels of the Upper Waveney. Then there is yacht-racing which was once known as “water frolics” and dates back to the 18th century, whilst “regattas” and “yachting” as we understand them are inventions of the 19th century. Fishing, we are told, is not what it used to be on the Broads but good bream fishing may be had in some places – the worst of the bream is that it is useless when you have caught it. Perch is even less abundant. On the other hand, pike fishing is excellent in winter, and it has been known for the occasional 36 lb specimen to be caught. Roach, we are again told, remain abundant but Rudd, which will take a fly, give better sport in places like Barton Broad and in some parts of the Bure. Wild-fowling and free shooting used to be a popular pastime, but has long been restricted if not banned. Snipe, redshanks, and plovers were once at the mercy of a reputed twenty or thirty gunners who made a living on Breydon water; these have long disappeared and life has been allowed to flourish and move on.

Norfolk Broads (The Bow Net)
Thomas Frederick Goodall, The Bow Net 1885–6, oil on canvas, 83.8 x 127 cm
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

FInally, for the statistically minded, the area covered by the Norfolk Broads is estimated to be 303 square kilometres (117 sq mi), most of which is in Norfolk, with over 200 kilometres (120 mi) of navigable waterways. There are seven rivers and 63 broads, most less than 4 metres (13 ft) deep.

THE END

Sources:

http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/25th-july-1903/19/the-broads-it-must-now-be-about-half-a-century-sin
http://www.broadsnet.co.uk/introduction/
Wikipedia.
Photos:
https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/life-and-landscape-on-the-norfolk-broads
https://mashable.com/2016/04/30/norfolk-broads/?europe=true
https://www.wherryalbion.com/links/wherryart.php
https://getoutside.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/guides/bird-watching-in-the-broads/

Breydon Water: A Step Back in Time!

Approximately one-hundred and twelve years ago, William Dutt wtote, in his book ‘Norfolk’ a charming account of his stay with a friend in his houseboat named the ‘Moorhen’ on Breydon Water; Dutt titled this account ‘A Night on Breydon’. Now is your opportunity to return with him and view this section on the Broads as he saw it – at a time when life generally was, to our minds today, forged at a much less hurried pace. Those of you who know the Breydon area, may judge that little has changed from Dutt’s time there – but there again, maybe you will feel that much has!

************

No lover of wild life should leave Norfolk without exploring Breydon Water, a wide expanse of ooze flat and tidal water lying inland of Yarmouth. Breydon Water, or Breydon, as it is generally known is the estuary of the three principal Broadland rivers, the Yare, Bure, and Waveney. Its length from Yarmouth Haven Bridge to Berney Arms is about four and a half miles, and its width about a mile in its widest part. Seen under whatever aspect, it presents a striking appearance, whether its flats are steaming under a mid-day summer sun or its waste of waters is reflecting the ruddy glow of sunset. There is still something primeval about it and except for the artificial barriers which have been built to protect the marshes from its tides, it must present much the same aspect now as it did when, as a vaster estuary, it occupied the entire valley of the surrounding lowlands. It can have altered little since the days when the Iceni crept out in their coracles upon its waters, and the Romans, who built the massive fortress at its upper end, signalled across it to their camp at Caister.

Breydon Water (Berney Arms)
Ariel view of Breydon Water and the Berney Arms Inn (centre)

I think I cannot give a better idea of Breydon than by describing a visit paid to its tidal waters towards the end of August 1899, when I accepted an invitation from a well-known Norfolk naturalist, Mr A. Patterson, to spend a night with him in his house-boat the ‘Moorhen’. We left Yarmouth shortly after mid-day, starting from a characteristic Breydon boathouse, with its eel-spears, butt-darts, fish boxes, punt sails, and bobbing poles, in a typical Breydon punt. Visitors to the Broadland soon become familiar with boats of this description, which, however, often differ slightly, according to the taste and fancy of the owner. Our boat was better constructed than most of them, having been specially designed to meet the requirements of a naturalist. Space economy was one of its special features. It was flat-bottomed, decked-in fore and aft, and had a roomy central “well.” It carried a lug sail, and had a rudder instead of the customary sculling rowlock.

Breydon Water (Houseboat - Broadland Memories)
This is as close as we can get to showing the sort of Broad’s Houseboat as described by William Dutt. (For illustration only)

The sea itself could scarcely have presented a wider outlook than did Breydon when we commenced our inland voyage, for the tide was at flood and all the flats were submerged. In a little while, however, the ebb set in, and one by one the flats, instead of being wholly hidden, became simply awash, so that the succulent water weed locally known as ” widgeon grass,” which grows freely upon them, began to fall in matted masses on the mud. Then we saw our first signs of wild life in the shape of a bunch of knots which, uttering their musical note, came flying towards us over the water. An Arctic tern also came within a few yards of us, and some ringed plovers settled on a “rising” flat.

Breydon Water (widgeon grass)
The Widgeon Grass scientific name is Ruppia Maritima. It is a shallow water plant. It typically grows to depths of less than five meters in ponds, lakes, rivers and streams. Because it can tolerate salty and alkaline water, it is often also found in tidal flats, estuaries and salt pens.

 

Breydon Water (Rotting Hulks)
A Rotting Hulk on the Norfolk Broads. Norfolk Broads Forum

After a pleasant sail, during which we passed several stranded and rotting hulks, and the floating headquarters of “Ducker” Chambers, the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society’s watcher, we arrived at the ‘Moorhen’ a snug and well-fitted-up little houseboat in which my friend often lives the life of a water gipsy. She was moored in a creek on the north-west side of Breydon, near Banham’s Farm, the home of a handsome, fair-haired, blue-eyed, marshland farmer, in whose veins is the blood of the Vikings. Several other houseboats were to be seen not far away, belonging to local gunners and fishermen. My friend’s, however, was the only naturalist’s houseboat on Breydon, and both in situation and convenience was admirably suited to his work. Behind it stretched mile after mile of level marshland, intersected by the winding waterways of the Broadland; in front were hundreds of acres of ooze flats, to which the curlews were just returning, and on which the gulls were settling to feed on crabs and flounders. Sea asters were blooming on the shores of the creek, and whenever we emerged from the cabin we inhaled the fragrance of sea southernwood, dense masses of which grew all along the ” walls.”

 

Breydon Water (Berney Arms Inn-BroadsNet)
The Berney Arms Inn

As the weather was warm we lit a fire on the side of the wall and boiled our kettle there. A cup of tea and a pipe made us supremely happy, and after a few minutes’ chat with the Norseman, who, glad to exchange a few remarks with a human being, strolled down to us from his farm, we set out on a ramble along the walls towards Berney Arms. A bunch of eight common sandpipers rose from the foot of the wall as we neared one of the drainage windmills, and we counted thirty-two curlews in a flock which came over from the marshes. The year 1899 was a good one for curlews – at any rate so far as Norfolk was concerned, for we saw more there then than we had seen for many years.

Breydon Water (Common Sandpiper)
A Common Sandpiper

Sunset on Breydon is often a sight to be remembered, but that night, as we were moored on the north-west side, we saw the sun sink, not into the water, but beyond the far off horizon of the marshes. It kindled a glorious glow among the fleecy cloud-drift, and for a few too brief moments it seemed as though the western sky were afire. The suggestion of a vast conflagration was emphasised by the mist which rose out of the dykes and creeks at sundown, and drifted like smoke across the lowlands. A quarter of an hour later land and water were hidden by a dense fog, which had a disturbing effect upon the fowl on the flats, for as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’ we heard an almost incessant clamouring of gulls, curlews, and smaller shore birds. As long as the fog lasted the fowl continued to call, chatter, and whistle ; but there were periods of comparative silence, when the fog lifted for a while and the flats were lit up by the moonlight. Most of the gulls were black-headed gulls, but now and again we distinguished the laka-laha of a “saddle-back.” After we closed our cabin door a heron flapped down close to the house-boat and at intervals shouted ” Frank ” across the flats.

Breydon Water Sunset
Sunset over Breydon Water, Norfolk

I was in no hurry to sleep that night, for my companion possesses a fund of interesting information and reminiscences, and has much to say about the wild life of Breydon. We talked together of the times, remembered by some of the older gunners, when the flats were often white with fowl, and that ardent naturalist, Mr E. T. Booth, brought from them some of his rarest and finest birds. There are still a few punt-gunners on Breydon in autumn and winter, but the Wild Birds Protection Acts have made it impossible for them to gain a livelihood by gunning alone. They complain, too, that nothing like such quantities of fowl visit the flats as in former days; but it must be borne in mind that of late years we have experienced several mild winters, and only comparatively small numbers of  birds have been driven southward in search of food.

Breydon Water (Punt Gunning)
Punt Gunning

The last time we had a severe winter Breydon and the Norfolk marshes were alive with wild fowl, and there is little reason to doubt that under like circumstances just such flocks will come to us again. As to the Breydon smelt-fishers, whose house-boats are moored where the Yare and Waveney unite and form the estuary, the decreasing depth of the water and the making-up of the flats has had much to do with rendering theirs an unprofitable occupation. An old broadsman whom I know can remember the time when the wherries could sail over what are now called Burgh Flats, and he tells me that these flats “made-up” four inches in one year. Smelting was once such a paying business that the fishermen ran all sorts of risks in defying the River Commissioners and police during the close season. But although smelt-fishing on Breydon has seen its best days, there are still several methods by which the Breydoners profit by the time they spend on their home waters. Eels abound in the mud of the flats, and the eel-picker is often at work with his spear ; butt-darting is a favourite sport, and trawling for butts and flounders and dredging for mussels are resorted to by some men desirous of earning an honest penny. It is impossible to record here one half of the subjects discussed as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’s’ lamp-lit cabin and listened to the cries of the fowl and the lapping of the tide.

Breydon Water (Smelt Fishing 1906)
Smelt Fishing on Breydon Water, Norfolk

When at length we stretched ourselves out on the cushioned settles to sleep, we found our minds still occupied with the matters upon which we had discoursed, and not a few amusing incidents of life on the tidal waters were recalled. My friend suddenly remembered how one night, while in his house-boat, he had tried to sleep, but found it impossible, owing to the uneasiness of his couch. After tossing restlessly to and fro for hours, he recollected that he had placed under his thin mattress two saws and a hammer! I, myself, while occupying a water-bailiff’s houseboat, had been kept awake all night by the singing of the sedge and reed warblers in the riverside reed beds. On another occasion my companion had been considerably startled by the violent rocking of the ‘Moorhen’ and discovered that it was due to the attentions of a horse, which was amusing itself by rubbing against the edge of the roof. No such disturbing incident occurred that night, however, though we were now and again aroused by the roar of a punt-gun, which proved that in spite of the close season extending for another week some gunner was already after the fowl.

Breydon Water (Daybreak-David Dane)

Morning dawned upon a cloudy sky and misty earth; but the sunlight soon broke through the clouds, dispelled the mists, and the roofs of Yarmouth were seen, at first dimly and then distinctly, across the water. We opened our cabin door carefully, not knowing what strange visitors might be in our neighbourhood, and were rewarded by catching a glimpse of five sheldrakes paddling in a goose-like fashion near the boat, and a small flock of wild ducks some distance away. The flats, often so unsightly under a lowering sky, were transfigured by the sunlight, which here and there streaked them with glistening bars of greenish gold. The far-spreading marshlands, too, with their many windmills, isolated homesteads, innumerable cattle, and abundant bird life, presented a very pleasing picture, and reminded me of what a somewhat neglected Yarmouth historian wrote, some forty years ago, concerning Breydon and its surroundings. He said,

Breydon Water (Sheldrake Duck)
Shelldrake Duck

“There is a peculiar charm in the contemplation of these wide and fertile vales, under the ever-changing aspects of sun and sky, with all their subtle gradations of light and shade. Raised above the river’s banks, the eye takes in a landscape which has that true and powerful element of the sublime — wide expanse — above us soars a vast o’er-arching canopy, and below is the bright glancing stream, flowing through a rich Champaign country, and as it gleams cheerily in the clear bright sunny air, filling the soul with an infectious gladness : anon the clouds are flinging down their flickering shadows as we flit past, now in sunshine, now in shade. . . . Here are rich poetical landscapes equalling aught of the great Dutch masters, tranquil cattle pieces worthy of Paul Potter, sunny Cuyps, romantic Hobbimas, gloomy Ruysdaels, moon-lit Aert Van Der Neers.”

After breakfast we walked across the marshes to the banks of the Bure, arriving, after an hour’s easy strolling, at Mautby Swim, where lives Fred Smith, an intelligent millman who is also an enthusiastic sportsman and observer of wild life. Although still only a young man, he can boast of having shot no less than nine spoonbills. One of these is said to be the finest specimen ever procured in England; and judging from an excellent photograph in Smith’s possession, I should say there are grounds for the assertion.

Breydon Water (Spoonbill)
Spoonbills in Norfolk. Rare Bird Alert

In addition to a stuffed kingfisher, which unfortunately is too common a feature of the marshman’s home, the millman pointed out to me a white-tailed starling and a handsome merlin. Among the rare birds which have fallen to him of late years were a broad-billed sandpiper (Calidris falcinellus) only about half a dozen of which species have been taken in England, and four of these on Breydon; and a pectoral sandpiper (Heteropygia maculata) an American species. About two months before the date of my visit he had seen a roller (Coracias garrulus) at Mautby. One of his especial bird friends is a winged hooded crow, which, on account of its injury, is unable to re-cross the North Sea, and has frequented the marshes in all seasons for two or three years. Ramblers on the marshes and voyagers on the Bure will do well to pay a visit to the picturesque home of this entertaining marshlander, if only to climb the tower of his windmill and view the surrounding country. There was formerly a wild-fowl decoy at Mautby, but it is now disused. Plenty of good fishing may be had in the neighbourhood, especially at Stracey Arms, where, in all probability, a railway station will soon be built. Mautby is about seven miles from Yarmouth and two and a half miles from Acle.

 

Shortly after two o’clock we started on our homeward voyage, following the winding of the walls instead of crossing the flats. We had not gone far before we saw something which reminded us of a cruel and stupid practice of some of the summer season cruisers on these inland waters. I refer to the useless and unsportsmanlike shooting at gulls which, even if they are hit, can only be left to die on the flats. As we glided along by the flint-faced wall a bird dragged itself up the stones and hid amongst the coarse sea grasses. My companion jumped ashore, and in a few moments returned with a winged black-headed gull, which he took home and placed in an aviary rather than leave to the mercy of the Breydon rats. The local gunners seldom waste their powder and shot upon gulls, and it is a pity that yachtsmen, who cannot leave their yachts and venture upon the flats to get the birds they shoot, do not refrain from this questionable sport.

Breydon Water (Punt Gunning)2
Punt Gunn.

Near a couple of quaint little houseboats we encountered a typical Breydoner in his gun-punt. In a few days he would probably be prowling about in search of fowl; and even though the 1st September had not yet arrived, the long-barrelled, pistol-stock gun pointing over his boat’s bow looked as if it might go off accidentally should a bunch of fowl settle on a flat. Apparently he wished us to understand that he was engaged in the harmless occupation of collecting driftwood; but he seemed to have his eyes open for other things than stray fish boxes and floating timbers. He was an elderly man, and no doubt could call to mind many days of exciting sport, when the flats were almost hidden by fowl, and the discharge of his murderous-looking gun filled the air with wheeling and crying birds which left a score or more of their kind lying dead or dying on the ooze.

By four o’clock we were back in Yarmouth, and I was saying good-bye to the friend to whom I was indebted for such a delightful holiday. If any reader is desirous of spending just such another he cannot do better than communicate with Mr A. Patterson, who of all the Norfolk naturalists knows most about Breydon, and than whom none is more ready to assist and impart information to a kindred spirit.

THE END

Sources:

Taken from WILLIAM A. DUTT’s book ‘Norfolk’, Edited by George A. B. Dewar and published by J. M. Dent & Co. Aldine House, Bedford Street, London W.C (circa 1906).
https://archive.org/stream/norfolk01dutt/norfolk01dutt_djvu.txt

Church Ruins in Someone’s Garden!

St Peter’s Church, North Burlingham, Norfolk has long been in ruin and what remains shows that it was mostly Perpendicular with the nave and chancel dating from the 15th century. There is a suggestion that, even further back in time, the church’s origins rest in Late Saxon times. The church was heavily restored in 1874 by the Burroughs family but its once proud round tower, with octagonal tope, collapsed in 1906 and the church was abandoned in 1936 in favour of St Andrew’s close by……… Many people over the years since then have visited the ruins of St Peter’s and, no doubt intrigued, have taken photographs and written interesting accounts; not least the following by Simon Knott who, in November 2007, paid his own personal visit:

**********

“It was Historic Churches bike ride day 2007. We had been to Hemblington, explaining our plans for the day to the nice lady on welcoming duty, and to a gentleman cyclist who had just checked in. “Don’t forget that there is a ruined church at North Burlingham”, he said. We hadn’t forgotten, and already had plans to track it down, but we wondered if access to it was possible. “Certainly”, said the nice man. “I own it. It’s in my back garden. I give you Permission”

St Peters (N Burlingham)2

If only it was always that easy. Thanking him profusely, we headed on back down to the A47. North Burlingham is bypassed these days, but not by much, and the thunder of traffic was very noticeable after the peace of Witton and Hemblington. It is not a huge parish, but was obviously busy enough to maintain two churches well in the second half of the 19th century, when both underwent major restorations. St Andrew, a couple of hundred yards to the west, is a big, late medieval building with a huge tower, but St Peter was more typical of the area, a smaller, older church with a round tower.

St Peters (N Burlingham-vincebettsphotography.com)906

It was the tower that led to the demise of the building. One night in 1906, it collapsed into the nave. At first, the gap was merely boarded up, but, not surprisingly, this was found to be unsatisfactory, and in 1936 the remains of the congregation finally decamped up the road to St Andrew. The building has been left to decay since then, pretty much, quietly returning back to nature. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is hard to see beyond its restoration, but this must have been a little Norman church, perhaps with a 13th century chancel.

We stepped into what must have become a completely Victorianised building in the 1870s. Now, little remains. Victorian tiling forms an aisle up the middle to the off-centre chancel arch. The roof timbers are mostly still in place, although completely unsafe. There are broken ledger stones, and you can see into the vault beneath the chancel floor.

There was an elegant, quiet dignity about the building on this beautiful sunny day. The elder and ivy filtered the light as if they were stained glass windows, and although the building is now nothing but a faltering shell, it was quite possible to repopulate it in the mind’s eye with 19th century furnishings and people. There are quaint niches either side of the east window in a Decorated style, and I wondered if this was a suggestion that St Peter had been quite High Church in its 19th century heyday, perhaps as an alternative to Lower worship at St Andrew’s.

St Peters (N Burlingham)905

There was plenty of time for the furnishings and treasures to be removed, of course, and they have been mostly reinstated up the road at St Andrew. There you will find the pretty rood screen, now filling the mouth of the tower arch. Also there are the memorials, including two medieval brasses.

The medieval benches went across the A47 to Blofield, and other furnishings went to Earlham and Lingwood. The bells are in the keeping of the Norfolk Museum Service, along with so many extraordinary treasures in the great storage warehouse at Gressenhall.

img_3710Norfolk has many ruined churches. I have already visited fifty or so of them, and there are plenty more to come. But there was something particularly atmospheric about the interior and setting of this particular ruin. It would be impossible to find such a place sinister or eerie, for it is organic and harmonious. As if to accentuate this oneness with nature, a dead barn owl lay on the nave floor. It seemed not inappropriate. It was, as Tom observed, a good ruin.

We wandered through and around to the north side of the church. Here, hauntingly, there are surviving gravestones, dotted among the trees. The latest appeared to date from the 1920s or so, a cross for James William Oliver, who died aged 17 months. If he had lived, he would have been 85 this year. I wondered if anyone ever came here to remember him. There was something particularly poignant about these forgotten headstones, so close to the busy road but utterly unknown.

We came round the west end, to find the remains of the round tower virtually indistinguishable from the uneven flinty earth about them. Light shone through from the nave and out of the former tower arch, now a pergola for hanging ivy. As I watched, a blackbird alighted on the ledge, the light spangling his feathers. He opened his mouth and gave a throaty warble for a moment – then saw us…… and was gone.

Many more have visited the site of St Peters Church since Simon Knott first wrote about it and many more will assuredly come, to admire, speculate, imagine what once was, to take their photographs and videos (see below) and report on social media.

Like Pam Shortis who wrote on Facebook in 2017:

“This place never really loses its mystique. As Larkin put it”:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round”.

Also in 2017 Jean Walker-Baylis briefly noted:

“From 1945 to 1965 I lived at North Burlingham, this photo of the ruins was taken 1955”.

St Peters (N Burlingham 1955)908
Courtesy of Jean Walker-Baylis

 Then there was Roella Trughill in the summer of 2018:

“I visited here today! I was searching high and low for it! A couple staying in a caravan on The Church Farm Site said they had seen it through a hedge so off I went in search of it! I met a man and asked how I could access it but he said it was in someone’s garden so he went and knocked on their door and asked if I could photograph it and they kindly said yes! I asked how they came to own the church Ruin and she said that someone was going to turn it into a private house so she wrote to the church commission and they said she could buy it for a nominal sum”!

St Peters (N Burlingham)907
Courtesy of Roella Trughill

Sources:

http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/burlinghampeter/burlinghampeter.htm

http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF8524-St-Peter%27s-Church-North-Burlingham&Index=8003&RecordCount=56881&SessionID=0ba0991f-683d-4183-9a35-b89957407c9b

https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/abandoned-st-peters-church-north-burlingham-norfolk-march-2017.108013/

https://www.norfolkinruins.co.uk/stpeters-church-north-burlingham

 

Foxgloves’ Fey

This year of 2018 should be another good year for the foxgloves, which have started their blooms early in June and should still brightening the woods and hills over many weeks to come…….

Foxgloves Fey 1
Foxglove Spires:
Through the vales to my love/Where the turf is so soft to the feet/And the thyme makes it sweet/And the stately foxglove/Hangs silent its exquisite bells. Christina Rossetti (from ‘A Bride’s Song.)

Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of “folksglove,” associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as “fox fingers,” its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a “gleow” being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.

Foxgloves Fey 9
Pages from ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ by Edith Holden

Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:

“An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one

Foxgloves Fey 2
The Foxglove Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.”

“After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.”

Foxgloves Fey 3

Girl With Foxglove by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904)

Foxgloves Fey 4

Foxglove by Christie Newman

Foxgloves Fey 5

From Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist. William Curtis (1746-1799)

Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a domestic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from  Foxglove bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and pixies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.

In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since — as well as with “white witches” (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.

A lovely old legend told in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.

Foxgloves Fey 91
Through quaint obliquities I might pursue/These cravings; when the foxglove, one by one/ Upwards through every stage of the tall stem/ Had shed beside the public way its bells…..  William Wordsworth (from ‘The Prelude’)
Foxgloves Fey 6
Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

THE END

Sources:

  • http://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2015/07/foxgloves.html
  • Photos (1): http://www.terriwindling.com/
  • Includes:
  • Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920),
  • “Foxglove Fairy” by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973),
  • “Girl With Foxgloves” by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904),
  • “Foxglove” by botanical artist Christie Newman,
  • Page from Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist. William Curtis (1746-1799),
  • “Foxgloves” by Kelly Louise Judd.
  • All rights to the contemporary pieces are reserved by the artists.
  • Other Photos (2): Google Images

Two Mayton Bridges – Not One!

The thing about waterways is that they have bridges – nothing surprising about that because people and vehicles need to cross them and keep dry at the same time. Very occasionally, when these waterway are diverted, for whatever reason, a second bridge is necessary to span the new cut. What happens to the older structure? Well, depending on circumstances; if the old course is not needed then, presumably, it is filled in and put to other uses. If, of course, water still has a need to flow along that old course then the old bridge remains to do its job.

That was a case in point here, in Norfolk where the River Bure flows near Coltishall at Horstead with Stanninghall. As with other parts along the Bure’s lower reaches, the road crossings here tend to be both large and infrequent. For those travelling up stream, there are various examples of bridges built to connect Coltishall with Horstead and beyond, but the one that we are interested in is Mayton Bridge, or to put it more accurately, Mayton Bridges – plural, near to the now disused Coltishall RAF airbase.

Mayton Bridges (Bure)
The long lonely canalised reach of the River Bure

The first and widely recognised Mayton Bridge is the flat topped construction with two cylindrical holes cut in the abutments to increase flood water capacity. This bridge was never part of the Aylsham Navigation although an earlier bridge must have stood on the site. This bridge occurs mid way along a long straight canalised section of the river, with the old watercourse winding off to the west as it approaches Buxton. Many in the past must have spent their summer days swimming or wading around this bridge for the depth of water under the span is rarely anything more than 18 inches, with the bridge itself originally built on a raft of huge oak logs.

Mayton Bridges (New Bridge)
The more modern Mayton Bridge

It is a matter of pure speculation whether the original bridge collapsed as a result of a past flood, or was torn down and rebuilt during World War II to allow heavy lorries to move between a local sand quarry on the west bank and the RAF base being built on the east – to become ‘RAF Coltishall’. The current bridge certainly seems to sit on top of a huge pile of rubble.

Mayton Bridges (Old Bridge - Road)2
The old brick bridge, this dates back to around early to mid-16th century.

But the real interest of the ‘Mayton Bridges’ lies a couple of hundred yards to the west of the main, straight flowing, river where the road rises over a second bridge; this much older bridge comes complete with a couple of very unusual little shelters. This bridge has two arches spanning what some believe to be the original course of navigation. The bridge itself is very fine and in an excellent state of repair for its age although it was repaired in 1984. It is unusual in that it’s two arches are peaked in a manner not seen elsewhere on the river. Maybe this was how they were all built originally, or maybe this was a one off – it’s anyone’s guess!

Mayton Bridges (Old Bridge - Rail)
View towards Mayton Hall from Mayton Bridge. © Copyright Evelyn Sim

Very little seems to be available to describe Mayton Hall and I have not be able to find any photographs of it. For the moment, and until a kind and knowledgeable reader can provide something, I am left with the following brief outline: – Mayton Hall stands on the site of an earlier medieval moated manor and parts of the moat still remains. The earliest parts of the Hall date from the 15th century. This timber framed building was extended to the north in the late 16th century, further alterations were made in the 18th century, and a new façade was built in the 19th century. It was severely damaged by fire in 1984.

Mayton Bridges (Old Bridge - Arch)
The arch that now crosses the stream

As for the old brick bridge, this dates back to around early to mid-16th century; it is a scheduled monument. It has two arches, although it has been suggested that it has four; only one of these now crosses the stream. On west side there is a large central cutwater with a sloping top. The water which used to flow beneath it is thought to have been an outflow from the moat at nearby Mayton Hall, once keeping the water fresh and preventing it from stagnating. The moat inflow was some distance upstream from the bridge. The suggestion that the bridge was built over the original course of the river is considered by some to be improbable. On each side of the bridge and facing the road are small shelters which may have been for the toll collector to sit.

Mayton Bridges (Old Bridge - Two Archs)

To the more nostalgic amongst us, it is easy to imagine wherries being quanted (poled) up against the current and those in charge thankful for a second arch to relieve the water pressure against the bows – Dream on!.

THE END

Sources:

Pull’s Ferry – A Little Gem!

Pulls Ferry (Sindlin's 1800)
Sandlins or Sandling’s Ferry – circa 1800

Faced with an unfamiliar city, the temptation for many visitors is to head straight for the city centre. This is particularly true in Norwich and for those who arrive by train – the station forecourt seems to point you towards the bridge over the river which will lead to Prince of Wales Road the shops, castle, museum and much more. Those who resist this temptation and take the river path instead will find, just a stone’s throw away to the right, a real gem of the city’s history – Pull’s Ferry, sitting pretty on the River Wensum and one of the most famous landmarks in Norwich.

Pulls Ferry (1850-1900)
Pull’s Ferry 1850-1900

 

Pull’s Ferry is a 15th century medieval Watergate but it came centuries after a more ancient waterway was dug by monks. You see – both before and during the medieval period, transportation was a persistent problem, especially the transportation of heavy building materials. Roads were poor – if they existed at all, so bulk item were, of necessity, transported by boat. So it was in Norwich. Before any work could begin on building the proposed Priory and the 11th century Cathedral such a canal was needed to bring the materials direct on to the site. As well as stone, there was timber from the Baltic and iron from Sweden. But it was not only building materials that came via the canal; peat would also arrive, from what were to become the present-day Norfolk Broads, to be used as fuel in the Priory kitchens. However, it seems that over the centuries, the heavy stone used to build this holy place received most, if not all, of the publicity. Maybe this was because it’s journey was so long and arguably hazardous – for it came from France.

Pulls Ferry (Cathedral)
Norwich Cathedral

To be precise, this stone came from the quarries near Caen and would travel up and across the channel and onwards along the rivers Yare and Wensum to the Norwich building site that was to become both a Priory and Cathedral. This new Seat for a Bishop would serve as the central church for the Norwich Diocese, the work starting in 1096 and completed sometime between 1121 and 1145. During all this time, there was no port at Yarmouth and because sea-going ships were comparatively small they were able to make such a complete journey from France to Norwich. This must have certainly made the rivers Yare and Wensum places of great activity, because not only was materials being brought in for the Cathedral, but also for the Castle too.

The present short dyke which connects the river to Pulls Ferry itself is all that remains of the waterway which existed until 1772 when it was filled in and built upon. Before then, this same waterway flowed under the arch of the Watergate and deep into the Cathedral Close; having given its assistance to construction, it was the means by which river traffic was able to bring on-going goods and materials right up to the Cathedral and the accommodation thereabouts.

Pulls Ferry (Watercolour)

It was in the 15th century that the arched Watergate was built across this canal; it is this same structure that is the most obvious historical feature of Pulls Ferry today. The Watergate served to guard the approach to the Cathedral, and it was not until the Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century that the current Ferry House was built in 1647, thus incorporating the Watergate. The house itself was both an inn and the home for the ferryman who transported people across the Wensum. The first ferryman was named Thomas Howes, or Holmes but Ferry House was never named after him. Instead, it had been known as Sandlins or Sandling’s Ferry, a name that it would keep for at least 200 years, presumably after a 17th century predecessor. Certainly, at the time that Blomefield was writing his ‘Topographical History of Norfolk’ in the 18th century it was still called Sandling’s Ferry.

A Little Anecdote!

On the 13th July 1758, a short but severe thunderstorm wrought its fury on a house standing alone on the causeway near Sandling’s Ferry in the city of Norwich. Lightning struck off the roof tiles and pierced the house where it ‘tipt off the top of an old chair…… snapt the two heads of the bed posts, rent the curtains, drove against the wall…… forced out an upright of a window frame a yard long and sent it a right line into a nearby ditch’. This shaft of electricity peeled plaster off the walls and melted a row of pewter dishes. ‘An ancient woman’ sitting in a passageway was scorched all over, ‘her skin almost universally red and inflamed…… her shift burnt brown, stocking singed…… her shoe struck off’. The lightning missed:

……. another woman, sitting knee to knee with her companion as it shot along the passage. Those nearby heard a violent explosion and thought the whole house would collapse. It turned red, as if on fire, but it remained standing and the whole smelled as if fumigated with brimstone matches.

(Cooper, S., ‘Account of a Storm of Thunder and Lightning’,
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1683-1775)

Pulls Ferry (Francis_Blomefield)Then along came 28 year-old John Pull to become ferryman and publican for the next 45 years – between 1796 and 1841; probably the last licensee to do so. Apparently Pull got married the year after he took the post, to Ann Haywood who lived for only a few years, dying in 1800. The couple had a son, John, in 1798, who was baptised at St John Timberhill. John Pull married again in January 1802, to Ann Steers. A child was born to the couple in the June, which suggests that it was either very premature, or the marriage was one of necessity! But, there were tragic consequences – that child died only a week after being baptised. The Pulls, however, went on to have five more children but only three survived beyond childhood. Ann Pull ‘the second’ died in 1837 at the age of 52, and her husband, John Pull, followed in 1841, aged 73.

Pulls Ferry (Bishops Bridge by Joseph Paul)
Bishops Bridge by Joseph Paul

The pub closed sometime before 1900, and the building became derelict. As for the ferry, this operated until 1943, although with Bishops Bridge only a stone’s throw away one wonders why there was ever a need for a ferry. The answer may lay in the historical fact that Bishops Bridge had been a toll bridge into the Middle Ages and that Pulls Ferry was a cheaper way for foot passengers to cross the river. However, by the middle of the 20th century all other ways of crossing from Norwich were free. It should also not be forgotten, if one ever knew at all, that before the building of Riverside Walk, the way to the Bishops Bridge involved a lengthy walk through the Cathedral Close. But, it still seems difficult to imagine who would have used the ferry, unless they actually lived or worked in the Close – particularly since the ferry could not have been free. Maybe, and some possibly think this, the ferry was kept open by the request of the Cathedral Dean and Chapter?

Pulls Ferry (1950)
The ferry boat shown in the water in this 1950 colour photo (above) was still there, drawn up on bank, until about 1970 when it attracted the attention of the local vandals who broke it up one night – probably ‘just for fun’.

 

Ultimately, both house and archway were saved by a bequest from Camilla Doyle and money raised by Norwich Girl Guides Association; that was in 1947. Over the next two years, restoration was undertaken by builders R. G. Carter and the architect Cecil Upcher. Today, Pulls Ferry and Ferry House remains privately owned; the only reminder of the history of the site is a small plaque at the top of the drive leading down to the ferry. Whilst there is a footpath along the river from the railway station Bishop Bridge which passes directly by Pulls Ferry, the best view of it is from the opposite side of the river, on Riverside Road. This view has been used in so many tourist brochures that Pulls Ferry has long been one of the ‘signature’ views of Norwich. It goes back over 900 years.

Now, it’s difficult to imagine that at the start of the 19th century the land opposite Pulls ferry was largely countryside but, like all things urban, much of this saw the start of building projects which grew apace during the next fifty years. Along came Riverside Road, the Norwich gas works, Rosary Cemetery and, inevitably, the Railway Station, turning this once tranquil area  into a suburb of the city centre with all its noise and activity. Between Riverside Road and the river bank opposite Pulls is now the Norwich Yacht Station, much used by Broads and river holiday visitors. Painters and photographers ever since have recorded a more industrial river bank, with boat building yards, a mustard factory and much else besides.

Pulls Ferry (Winter, Alamy)
Winter … Pulls Ferry, Norwich, a Watergate through which French stone for the cathedral was carried by a specially built canal. Photograph: Alamy
Pulls Ferry (At Night)
To end with… How about a Night Scene of Pulls Ferry. Credit: Google Images.

THE END

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2017/feb/24/norwich-walk-river-wensum-cathedral-castle

https://joemasonspage.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/pulls-ferry/

http://www.georgeplunkett.co.uk/Norwich/clo.htm

https://historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/education/educational-images/pulls-ferry-at-water-gate-ferry-lane-norwich-10683

https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/norwich/pulls-ferry.htm

https://www.girlguidingnorfolk.org.uk/out-and-about/pulls-ferry/

https://www.visitnorfolk.co.uk/inspire/seven-natural-wonders-wensum.aspx

 

 

Nettle Folklore

In the fairy tale of “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine’s brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to

Nettle Folklore 1
The Wild Swans: “Picking Nettles by Moonlight” by Nadezhda Illarionova

gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell — all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done — running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men — except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)

This was one of my favourite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm’s way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.

Nettle Folklore 2
Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers
Nettle Folklore 3
The Wild Swans

I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: “common nettles” or “stinging nettles.” I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking — and although they’re actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women’s arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.

Nettle Folklore 4
Urtica dioica: the common nettle or stinging nettle, native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America
Nettle Folklore 5
Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

According to the Anglo-Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm,” recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against “elf-shot” (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and”flying venom” (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.

Nettle Folklore 6
Harvesting nettles

Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles,” said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, “I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”

Nettle Folklore 7
Nettles, stitchwort, and campion.

“Nettles have numerous virtues,” writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. “Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.

“Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient’s name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits.”

Nettle Folklore 8
Nettles and bluebells

The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:

“Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle’s high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as ‘Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.’ This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.

“Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica ‘syringes’ of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful.”

Nettle Folklore 9
Nettle basket.

Bumblehill Nettle Soup

  • Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.

  • Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.

  • Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.

Nettle Folklore 901

Preparing nettle soup.

  • Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.
  • Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.)
  • Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey. Or try these two other good recipes: nettle pancakes and wild nettle bread.
Nettle Folklore 902
”The Wild Swans” by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women’s domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to “enrich the soil” wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.

Nettle Folklore 903
”The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers” by Donn P Crane.

THE END

Sources:

 

The Rabbit in East Anglia – Revisited.

Introduction:

Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.

Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.

The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:

 ‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.

The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.

Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop.  In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.

I

Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.

Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.

rabbit warreners
Rabbit Warreners

Most warrens in  East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.

Medieval Rabbit Warren1
Medieval Rabbit Warren

The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.

The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.

The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!

Rabbit Pillow Mound Diagram
Rabbit Pillow Mound

Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.

Warren Lodges:

The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.

mildenhall_warren_lodge
Mildenhall Warren Lodge

II

Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.

Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.

Thetford Warren Old Map
Old Map of Thetford Rabbit Warren Area

Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.

The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.

III

The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.

The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.

Poaching:

The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals  with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.

poacher1
Poacher

Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’.

poacher3

Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie.  Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’.  Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing  his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.

By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets.  A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.

Poacher2

Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.

It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.

The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.

THE END

Sources:

 

In Search of the ‘Stewkey Blues’!

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.

Stiffkey (Village-Sign)

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.

Stiffkey (davidson grave)

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.

Stiffkey (H Williamson)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.

Stiffkey ( H Williamson Cottage)
The cottage where Henry Williamson once lived. A commemorative plaque has now been erected by the Henry Williamson Society.
Stiffkey (Plaque)
The Henry Williamson Plaque

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’.

Stiffkey (Saltmarsh-Sign)

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.

Stiffkey (Marshes)

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.

Stiffkey (Freshes)
Stiffkey Freshes

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.

Stiffkey (Mussel Man)
A mussel fisherman – a painting by Wendy Haws.

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.

Revelation!

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.’

Stiffkey (Stewkey Blues)
Here they are – Stewkey Blues!

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.

Stiffkey (Cockle Gatherers)1
Cheltenham Newpaper cutting 1902

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’.

Stiffkey (Scream)

“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.

Stiffkey (screaming-faces)

So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”

THE END

Sources:

http://www.norfolkblogger.co.uk/stiffkey-notable-for-cockles-and-a-former-village-rector/2825
https://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/stiffkey.htm
http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/stiffkeyblues.htm
https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/stiffkey-blue-cockles/
http://escapetoexplore.co.uk/myths/ml_cockler.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiffkey