Friday, 21 July 2017

Wartime in Norfolk - Across the Centuries

In May, I blogged about my beloved Norfolk, or poppy country as I call it. I mentioned Great Massingham, which was the first stopping point on my trip collecting photographs for a blog post about Norfolk at the time of the Domesday survey.

In the centre of the village I got chatting to a resident who knew the area well, and pointed out to me a building which used to be a pub, and which had served as a billet for airmen during WWII.

He told me a little about the history of the area and then said how he liked, in the summer evenings, to walk up to the old airfield, and how atmospheric it is there. To stand and listen in the quiet, with only birdsong to break the silence, he said, one can easily imagine the planes taking off and coming in to land. I'd never heard of this airfield, and when he said it was just a short walk away, I set off to find it.

I imagined some old field, where there might be some traces of a long-abandoned site. I wasn't prepared for what I found.

Unmistakeably part of the old runway, the surface has worn away to reveal the tarmac underneath. On this quiet, baking hot July afternoon, with hardly another soul around, I knew what he meant about imagining the planes coming home. And I thought about the ones that didn't.

Some farm buildings to the side of one of the runways showed the distinctive curved roof of what could be a Nissen hut, or similar. 
I wondered if this was indeed a relic from the war. The silence was broken by noise overhead,

and I found a sign, and saw something else which made me realise that this is still used as an airfield.

I removed myself from the runway, and retreated to the safety of the history books. I discovered that RAF Great Massingham was a satellite airfield of RAF West Raynham, a much bigger and now, also disused airfield which closed in 1994. Massingham airfield was closed in 1945 and the control tower was demolished.
Wikipedia has a list of the units which were posted there:
The following units were posted here at some point:

No. 18 Squadron RAF 1940 - 41
No. 90 Squadron RAF 1941
No. 107 Squadron RAF 1941
No. 342 Squadron RAF 1943
No. 169 Squadron RAF 1944 - 45
No. 16 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section
No. 1482 (Bombing) Gunnery Flight

No. 1692 (Bomber Support) Training Unit RAF

The centre of Great Massingham seems barely to have changed for centuries. It was so quiet on the day that I visited that I really could imagine those wartime airmen taking the short walk back to the village on summer evenings. 

The pub in the above photo is the Dabbling Duck, and the only trading pub in the village now. I've not been able to establish how old the building is, so I wonder if it would have been there (in its former guise as The Rose and Crown) when another conflict took place in the area.

I refer to the English Civil War, when the nearby town of King's Lynn was held under siege for over two weeks. Dr Paul Richards was quoted in the Lynn News (Sep 9th 2016) as saying that the screams of women and children could be heard in Wisbech and beyond. That seems unlikely to me, given that Wisbech is 13 miles from Lynn. However, what is not in doubt was that the town was attacked by the Parliamentary army, and a cannonball crashed through the stained glass windows of St Margaret's Church (also known at King's Lynn Minster.)

Photograph by Richard Humphrey

According to Gareth Calway, a writer and entertainer, King's Lynn was the only town to see action in the Civil War. He said that the earl of Manchester and a 'firebrand named Oliver Cromwell' were incensed that a port in the Parliamentarian stronghold of Norfolk had declared itself Royalist.

The town surrendered on September 16th. At dawn the next day the Parliamentarian army entered the town. The governance of Lynn was passed to Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, Colonel Valentine Walton. 

I lived very near Lynn when I was a teenager, and my parents moved close by to Massingham in 1986. Despite this, and my deep love for and study of history over the intervening years, I knew nothing about the airfield, or the siege.

On a calm summer's day, it's hard to imagine either. Although there was little here in the way of fighting, a siege and and an airfield are part of the ingredients that make violent warfare. 

[all photographs unless otherwise attributed taken by, and copyright of, the author]

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Suffolk: Early & Late Medieval Wealth

Last summer I went to Suffolk - a county I'd only visited once before, when I fulfilled a long held ambition to walk round West Stow, the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village near Bury St Edmunds.

I stayed in historic Sudbury, at the sight of the old Watermill, and went from there to two locations, both indicators of the massive wealth that was once amassed in Suffolk, by very different means.

The mill pond at Sudbury
First, I went to Lavenham, expecting to find a sort of open museum, a town full of historic buildings but no modern life. Instead, I found a fully-functioning 21st-century town, which just happens to have an awful lot of gorgeous old buildings.

Modern life goes on ...
The first building to explore must be the Guildhall. The Guildhall of Corpus Christi was built in 1529, and contains many exhibits, giving glimpses of its various uses over the centuries. It has been a jail, a workhouse and almhouse, and between 1939 and 1945 it sheltered evacuees.

The fireplace in the Guildhall

Upstairs, a loom shows how the town made its money:

Little Hall, on the other side of the square from the Guildhall, is a family home dating from the 14th century, which was 'modernised' in the Tudor period. In the 1930s, two brothers bought the house and turned it into a centre for artists.

The variety of design styles as one moves through the house is vast:
From the sitting room,

To the more modern artworks incorporated into the fabric of the building,

To the courtyard.

Elsewhere in Lavenham, the old Grammar School still stands, 
painted in Suffolk Pink:

The artist John Constable was a pupil here.

Walk down any street in Lavenham and you will find these old buildings, some seemingly defying gravity.

But why, I wondered, are they there? Such a concentration of old buildings is a rarity and the reason is a Tudor loss which became a modern-world gain. The town was famous as a cloth town, specialising in a coarse broadcloth dyed with woad. The rich merchants built their grand houses, but when the wool-trade bubble burst, they left. The reason these houses still stand is poverty. Nobody could afford to rebuild, so there are no double-fronted Georgian buildings here. Rich heritage for us, a sign of poverty for late medieval Lavenham.

Wealth of a different kind is on display at Sutton Hoo, where in the 1930s a ship burial was excavated and the treasures of an East Anglian king came to light. 

Having studied and researched this period in depth, I was quite emotional when, finally, I was able to stand by the ancient burial mounds on a quiet summer's morning, and imagine the seventh-century scene as the ship burial took place. Most of the treasure is now in the British Museum, but the site itself and the visitor centre are well worth a visit.

finds from the site
I thought I knew a lot about Sutton Hoo, but I didn't know about the earlier burials - the so-called Sand Burials. These earlier burial sites are scattered around the centre, and this one is between the car park and the visitor centre entrance. Tread carefully.

Recent excavation has been ongoing at Rendlesham, the settlement where it is believed that King Raedwald (if indeed it was he who was laid to rest in that great ship) lived. I spoke to one of the guides in Mrs Pretty's house (Mrs Pretty was the landowner who first invited Basil Brown to begin excavation of the mounds). The guide told me that there are plans to open up a visitors' track from Rendlesham to Sutton Hoo, the better for the public to see how the boat was carried from one site to the other, only going on the river for part of the journey.

The death of the wool trade, the death of kings, and the 'sand bodies' - these are not the only things marked in abundance in this area. Though not specific to this location, the practice of burying cats in buildings seems to have been prolific here. One such was on display at the Mill Hotel, and I found another in Lavenham. It seems that this was not any kind of ritual sacrifice - tests have proven that this was done post mortem.

Suffolk is a beautiful county and one to which I hope to return. It's a county where you can explore 'Constable Country', visit Framlingham and Orford Castles, Melford Hall, and 14th century Leiston Abbey. There is even a working windmill at Thorpeness. As a famous Austrian film star said, I'll be back...

[all photos by and copyright of the author]

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Poppy Country - Beautiful North Norfolk

The county of Norfolk is not easy to get to. It's a part of England which does not have a motorway, and the main trunk roads into it are, in the main, single-carriageway and slow.

But be patient, for you shall be rewarded. Go in the summer and there's every reason to expect hot, dry, sunny days, sandy beaches, quaint villages, and pubs. Lots of pubs. People? Not so many.

Here's what the beach looked like in July 2016:

I was there because I spent part of my teenage years living in the area, and I still have family and friends who live there. But this particular visit was a mission, too, as I was taking photos to go with a blog post on Norfolk in Little Domesday, a smaller part of the Domesday Survey of 1086.

My first stop was the village of Great Massingham, with its five village ponds, one of which used to be a clay pit, according to one of the local residents. The several ponds (I was told there are seven in total) belonged originally to the Augustinian priory.

Most of the buildings are dotted around the edges of this large pond, and they include a former pub where airmen used to drink when they were billeted in the village during WWII (more on this in a future post) 

and the remains of the medieval abbey incorporated into a more modern building.

In a nearby village, a nod to the Domesday survey can still be found. In 1086, Snettisham was recorded as having seven mills. Nowadays, the mill house sits tucked away from the main streets.

Just a short distance from Snettisham (where Iron Age gold torcs were unearthed) lie the coastal resorts of Heacham (where John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas was born) and Hunstanton, which, along with its famous striped cliffs,

boasts an older part of town, Old Hunstanton, where this fourteenth-century church can be found:

For later grandeur, go back inland to Houghton Hall, built in the Palladian style for Robert Walpole, de facto first Prime Minister.
The house was built between 1722 and 1735

and is home to a herd of white deer (spot the interloper!)

Holt is a bustling town, which nevertheless betrays its origins, which also go back to the time of the Domesday survey. The picture below shows the only remaining trace of the market place:

(picture below is a close up of the building on the left of the above)

But Holt still boasts many buildings of architectural interest, including Gresham's School, founded in 1555 as a Grammar school for poor boys.

The origins of the town are shown on this sign:

Further along the coast are the 'Burnhams' - Burnham Market, Burnham Thorpe, Burnham Overy Staithe (below)

which are closely associated with Admiral Lord Nelson, who was born in Burnham Thorpe in 1758 and whose mother was a great-niece of Robert Walpole.

I visited only one small corner of the county, the north west, but there is plenty of history here, from grand stately homes, to ruined churches. Bawsey, below, is all that remains of an abandoned medieval village.

And for sheer period charm, there is the windmill at Great Bircham, open to the public, but seen here from a country lane:

The town of King's Lynn is worthy of a separate blog post, which is exactly what I will be giving it, at a later date.

But wait, didn't I say this was poppy country? It certainly is:

Meanwhile, if you wish to know more about the Little Domesday survey, and why Norfolk was not included in the main Domesday Book, go to the EHFA Blog

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Ruination of Wycoller

In a hidden valley, about three miles from Colne in Lancashire, lies the village of Wycoller. It was abandoned in the late 20th century, but the story of its decline began many centuries earlier.

In order to visit the village, you have to leave your car in the car park and walk down a steep path. Even before you arrive in the village, there are clues to its history and the reason for its former prosperity.

These vaccary stones can be found in fields all around the village and are reminders of when the village of Wycoller was one of five local vaccaries, specialising in cattle rearing. In the early 14th century most of the village was involved in some capacity, including the building of cattle folds and felling timber for alterations to shippons, and there are records to show that the payment for building a house for heifers was 2s 6d.

The Tudor aisled barn
The Tudor age saw the village grow richer still from the textile trade, as sheep began to replace cattle. The inhabitants combined farming with the preparation of wool, spinning, weaving, and the manufacture of clothing. A field above the village still bears the name Tenter Field, a reference to the practice of stretching cloth out on tenterhooks while it dried.

The population increased, because of the weaving work. At one point in the late 18th century, 78% of the heads of households were weavers. Such was the success of the village that there were three hatters resident in Wycoller.

Above: the medieval pack-horse bridge with, below, the signs of centuries of traffic.

But the boom could not last; handloom weavers were no match for the mills in nearby Trawden, Winewall, and Colne. Between 1820 and 1871 the population fell from around 350 to 107, and those who remained were mostly farmers.

Then, in 1890, the Colne Water Corporation announced plans to flood the village to make a reservoir. The buildings were not under threat, but nearly 200 acres of prime farmland were bought up by the Corporation. Underground water reserves were discovered and the work never went ahead, but it was too late. Wycoller became but a ghostly shadow in the valley, with buildings becoming derelict.

The main attraction in the village is the ruin of Wycoller Hall. This building seems to serve as a symbol of the history of the village. Where once it was a splendid 16th century manor house, with a magnificent fireplace, it is now a ruin, open to the elements since the late 19th century when the roof was taken off and sold.

Originally owned by the Hartley family, the hall was extended in the late 18th century by its last owner, Squire Cunliffe.

The fireplace, with an illustration suggesting how it was used
A keen gambler, Cunliffe also borrowed money against Wycoller Hall to fund the building work. He died - heavily in debt - in 1818. The property passed to his nephew Charles Cunliffe Owen, but Charles could not afford to pay off the debts and the estate was divided up among the creditors. The hall passed to a distant relative, and then to the Rev. John Roberts Oldham. The latter arranged for large parts of the stonework to be sold off to build the cotton mill at Trawden.

Wycoller is situated between Pendle and Haworth. Links with the latter are well-documented: Wycoller Hall was frequently visited by Charlotte Bronte and it was the inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre.

No such established link exists between Wycoller and Pendle, but as my companion remarked on the day we visited, it is not hard to imagine that many pedlars passed through, in the times of prosperity. Is it possible that this one passed through Wycoller at some point?

From the confession of 'Pendle Witch' Alison Device, 30th March 1612 (as recorded by Thomas Potts in Discovery of Witches, 1613): 'At which time she met with a peddler on the high-way, called Colne-field, near unto Colne: and she demanded of the said peddler to buy some pins of him; but the said peddler sturdily answered that he would not loose his pack; and so she parting with him: presently there appeared to her the black dog, which appeared unto her as before: which black dog spoke unto her in English, saying "what wouldst you have me to do unto yonder man?" Alice asked the dog what it could do and it told her it could lame the man, who, before he was gone 'forty roodes (300 yards) further, he fell down lame.'

The clapper bridge, above, has various names, which sum up the history of Wycoller: hints of a much earlier age are contained in the name Druids' Bridge, it was also known as the Hall Bridge, because it is the nearest of Wycoller's seven bridges to the hall, and it has been referred to as the Weavers' Bridge, because of the generations of handloom weavers who used it to cross the river. 

There is one, final, poignant note about this once thriving village. Just like the pack-horse bridge, the clapper bridge had a deep groove where the stone had been worn down by the journeys back and forth of the clog-wearing weavers. But in 1910 the groove was chiselled smooth by a local farmer, after his daughter had a fatal accident on the bridge.

Wycoller repays a visit. The tiny, peaceful hamlet contains within it many visual hints of a rich and varied history. Inhabited once more, nevertheless it retains a silence that respects its past and allows the visitor to sit, contemplate, and listen for the ghosts of a once lively hub of industry and trade.

For a look 'behind the scenes' click HERE  

[all photos taken by and copyright of the author]