Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Quiet Footsteps

On Monday we had one of those perfect Autumn days so I headed down to Suffolk to visit a little visited bit of country. There's a cluster of interesting country churches in the area which I'll share with you by and by. But first lets enjoy the autumn footpaths, by-ways and quiet roads that I walked along, all of which were resplendent in their autumnal finery. And, as we go, I'll tell you a bit about these paths which are one of Britain's often overlooked glories.

Someone, with a lot more time on their hands than I've ever had, once calculated that there are 140,000 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales. I have no idea how they worked it out but you get the impression - plenty of scope for those of us with permanently itchy feet.

Through woodland, alongside fields, across meadows, up mountains, beside the sea, over  moors......even through gardens and underneath people's washing lines! And every mile mapped with fanatical accuracy by the Ordnance Survey, which was only set up because Britain feared an invasion - which never came!

I'm not talking here about national trails leading for miles, but little tracks pottering from one village to the next. Though of course there's such a dense network of these paths that anyone with a good map and a little imagination can link them together to make a walk of whatever length is desired.

But how did we come by this marvellous network? 

From medieval times up until the mid eighteenth century Britain was mostly farming country. In southern England each village had two or three huge "open fields" which were subdivided into small strips. Each farmer would have many strips dotted around in various parts of the parish. This meant that there had to be paths from the village, where the farms stood, to the outlying fields. 

There would also be tracks to neighbouring villages and market towns. Nobody ever did much to maintain any of these tracks and, as most folk travelled on foot, it didn't really matter too much. And, anyway, if one track became impassable you simply used another.

Of course a few people did travel longer distances either on horseback or by stagecoach and those who left an account of their journeys had a great deal to say about the state of the roads.

But things were about to change. The Enclosure Acts consolidated the old strips of land into farms as we know them today. Farmhouses were built outside the villages, if that's where the landholdings happened to be. The multiplicity of old trackways was simplified to create a more modern efficient system of roads. Turnpike trusts were set up to create toll roads; the tolls paying for the upkeep of the roads.

However, England being England, the law upheld the rights of citizens to wander where they had wandered since time immemorial, even if it be over the newly created farmlands. Thus "rights of way" came into being.

And that's all a public footpath is today - a right to pass along a line on the map. There doesn't need to be any actual line on the ground to follow. But no one can block or obstruct a right of way. Stiles and gates mark where the route crosses field boundaries but in between there is often just a faint trod to follow or, if the route is rarely walked, nothing at all on the ground.

Of course sometimes the way will be blocked no matter what the law says. Broken stiles, impassable bramble thickets and bulls in fields can all add to the adventure. But things are improving, at least in this part of the country, as more and more people don their boots of a weekend.

It was this web of ancient trails then that I was making use of to traverse the Suffolk countryside on this fine autumn day. To link it all together you will see that I sometimes had to take to the narrow winding lanes that count as roads in this rural setting. In the next post I'll share with you some of the delightful little churches that lie hidden in the depths of this bucolic maze.

Take care.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Grave Stones and Bird Stones

Yesterday I took a stroll through a cemetery, though my main purpose was not to look at or photograph the graves or even the autumn foliage. Looking at the photos you might think I was in some sequestered country churchyard tucked away amongst narrow lanes and woodland. But no, this is just off of Mill Road, the most densely built-up part of Cambridge, where every street is crowded with endless Victorian terraced housing, almost all of them standing right beside the road with no front gardens or street-side trees.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the town's churchyards were full and the various parishes got together to look for land for a new cemetery. They eventually found land outside the town on Mill Road, which was then in open country. Within forty years it was completely surrounded by housing as the town expanded as a result of the coming of the railway to Cambridge. Half a century later the burial ground was full and the only burials that took place were in family plots which were already in existence.

What to do with a disused cemetery? Although some graves are well cared for there are others that have been neglected. This has made the place ideal for wildlife; a little oasis amongst all the brick and tarmac. It's also a public space for people to wander - with dogs, with baby-buggies and, yes, with cameras.

It's also recently become a place for public artwork to be exhibited in the intriguing form of sculptures created by Gordon Young, an internationally-known artist. His seven "Bird Stones" celebrate the species that occur regularly on the site - Blackbird, Song Thrush, House Sparrow, Goldfinch, Crow, Robin and Collared Dove. These stones (one of which is made of wood, as you can see above) are inscribed with poetry, Biblical quotations and attempts to convey the birds' songs phonetically. And it was these artworks that lured me into the cemetery this week.

Rather than detract from the beauty of the gravestones they seem to re-direct the eye to the earlier carvings.

Some of the stones are heavy with Victorian symbolism and sentimentality, though many are in need of a little love and care. I was pleased to see that quite a lot of restoration work has been taking place around the site and three women, a dog and a wheelbarrow were busily engaged in planting spring bulbs.

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark 
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

R S Thomas

The cemetery once had a rather grand chapel in the Gothic style designed by George Gilbert Scott, one of the leading church architects of his day. However good an architect he may have been the building began to fall down before it was 100 years old and it was decided that demolishing it was the only option.

Recently the site of the chapel was investigated and it was found that the foundations are still in place and in good condition. There is talk of excavating them so they can become a feature of the central area of the cemetery, which at present is a rather blank space.

The cemetery is used as an educational resource by local schools and there are several trails exploring war graves, wildlife and other aspects of the site.

One moment they perch to crane and peer
Then like children in a game they spur
Each other into flight, bouncing
Like raindrops, chinking like beads,
Weightless as wind-blown leaves.

They never seem to feed but to exist
On air in air, translucent,
Ubiquitous as dreams, sparks
In perpetual motion without origin
Or aim.

The atmosphere records
Their passage as a flash
Of jewels then
Like spirits they move on.

by Damaris West

I was very taken with this memorial standing in an isolated and wooded corner, unseen by all but the most inquisitive visitor. But clouds were gathering and the light was dimming, so I made my way back out into the hustle and bustle of Mill Road and the evening rush hour.

Take care.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Autumn Witch

I woke up this morning with a smug feeling. I had the morning off work.
The low-angled sun shone golden upon the bedroom window, showing clearly that windows needed cleaning. Clothes needed washing and my desk was sagging under the weight of papers that really should be filed away.

Nothing else for it. Pull on my boots and go out for a walk!

I'm not lazy, you understand. A lazy person would still be in bed. No, it's Autumn bewitching me once more. She comes every year to cast her spell but this year she sidled in so slowly and apologetically that I wondered if she'd appear at all.

But, as I crossed the little bridge that leads into the wood, I could feel the squish of fallen leaves beneath my feet and see a few golden leaves scudding along our tiny river, scarcely more than a stream or brook.

The wood is cared for by the community so that every villager has a place to wander. Some come to walk the dog, some come to sit on the bench in summer, some to watch birds and some to build campfires. But today, my ears told me, something different was taking place. 

Our wood is seldom silent; quite apart from birdsong and the wind in the branches, it is easily penetrated by the sounds of road traffic and the frequent trains between Cambridge and London. But this was something altogether more raucous.

"One, Two, Three, you can't catch me!" Aha! The class from the primary school are out on one of their nature walks.

I've often considered that the sound of children playing is rather like the music of the Highland bagpipes - wonderful to hear in the distance though rather overpowering in a confined space! At first I thought, like the woodland birds, I would flee to somewhere more tranquil. But this is, after all, a community wood so who could not be elated by the sound of the youngest generation of that community enjoying the environment in their own way?

When they had departed, and the robin had recommenced singing from the top of the hawthorn bush, I found that they left me an unexpected and rather wonderful gift....

The Autumn Witch!

Take care.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A Little Bit Of History

An English country cottage, tucked away down a winding lane and with a traditional thatched roof. What an idyllic place to live! But even today those who dwell in such beautiful surroundings have one huge fear. Fire.

When you live in a building with a wooden frame and a straw roof it's always going to be a worry. And back in the days when people relied on open fires for heat and candles for light the fear must have been greater still. In towns, where buildings were crammed together with barely a space between them, the risks of major conflagrations was even greater. 

If your house did burn down there was very little help available. All the dispossessed householder could do was apply for a 'brief'. This was in effect a mandate from the courts recommending that money be collected in church to help these families. However there were so many such collections that Samuel Pepys records that he, for one, was no longer willing to contribute.

The solution to the problem, which became pressing after the Great Fire of London in 1666, was the development of a system of fire insurance. The man usually credited with setting up the first fire insurance company was Dr Nicholas Barebone, the son of an eminent Puritan known, rather splendidly, as Praisegod Barebone. It was said of this pioneering venture "Dr. Barebone, who first invented it, hath sett up an office for it, and is likely to gett vastly by it". However he didn't "gett vastly by it" - in fact, he quickly got ruined by it - as he was a less than brilliant businessman.

In the early days of fire insurance many companies came and went after just a few years. By the end of the seventeenth century the companies realised that, in order to minimise their payouts and encourage new subscribers, it was in their interest to organise and maintain some sort of fire brigade. As these companies were in business to make a profit they were only interested in protecting those properties insured by themselves. The "fire mark" like the one above was designed to be displayed on insured premises. The number underneath being the policy number.

In London these early fire-fighters were largely recruited from the watermen who ferried passengers upon the River Thames. Because of the good work they did it was made illegal for them to be press-ganged into the navy. Although the insurers each had their own fire fighters it was not unusual for the various brigades to co-operate with one another. Eventually the main insurance companies recognised the sense in this and amalgamated their forces which led to the formation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1833.

In rural areas it was never practical for each insurance company to have its own fire fighters. There had long been co-operation within villages however as can be seen from these two fire-hooks still hanging in my local church. These originally had long handles and were used to pull thatch off of buildings that were endangered by a nearby fire. They were kept in church so everyone knew where to find them in an emergency. In time local fire brigades were organised in villages and the insurance companies then contributed to these.

You can still see the old Fire Engine House in some villages. Such buildings usually housed a simple handcart equipped with buckets and ladders. As co-operation grew and fire fighting became increasingly organised there was, of course, no real need for fire marks or plaques at all. However they persisted for some years as they were good publicity for the insurance companies.

Nowadays these old plaques are much sought after bygones which fetch good prices. Perhaps unsurprisingly replicas are also available to decorate your period cottage.

Take care.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A Day In North Norfolk

Some pictures from a birdwatching day when more time was spent peering through the binoculars than at the camera's LCD screen.

The beach at Titchwell. The black shape on the beach is the remains of a WWII pillbox. Searching for Snow Buntings but got fine views of a Peregrine Falcon devouring its breakfast. Lots of Sanderlings running and feeding along the tideline. Common Scoters out on the sea.

Man with tripod and telescope. Quite a few people were sea-watching - peering out to sea through powerful scopes at distant specks flying by. 

A strange construction made from flotsam at the foot of the dunes.

Squally showers were forecast for lunchtime - they weren't joking! Only one thing for it....

...strategic retreat to the Jolly Sailors pub for a pint of Brancaster Best and a bite to eat.

Then on to Holkham in sunshine. This is Salt's Hole, a small pond near the dunes. 

Through the pine plantation to the sound of Jays and Goldcrests.

Overlooking the Freshmarsh from the Jordan Hide. There were several hundred Pink-Footed Geese out there, recently flown in from the Arctic to spend the next few months basking in the relative warmth of the North Norfolk winter. Marsh Harriers were lazily gliding by, rimmed with gold by the sinking sun.

Holkham beach, ribbed by the retreating tide and scattered with footprints and razor-shells.

Inshore fishing. Still no Snow Buntings on the beach or the saltmarsh.

Evening clouds gather to bring down the curtain on a grand day.

(many thanks to my brother who was doing the driving!)

Take care.