Saturday 29 March 2014

Notes From A Strange Country

England is a place full of oddities for those who keep looking. In the small town of Royston, Hertfordshire, is the remarkable building below; one wonders what the history of the building might be, there are all sorts of clues but piecing it all together is beyond me. And if you just wait for the woman with the baby-buggy to get out of the way......'ll see the suicidal-looking front door below. Presumably the front steps have been removed at sometime and no one's ever got around to replacing them. And there must be a very unusual view of pedestrians from that low window.

Meanwhile in Ely these strange characters adorn the roof of a houseboat...

The boat is occupied by "The Willow Man" who weaves these artworks from green willow. He's often to be seen sitting on the riverbank going about his work and chatting to passers-by.


Someone who didn't live on anything like a houseboat was Lord Fairhaven. When we visited his old home at Anglesey Abbey some time ago I failed to show you his magnificent bathroom. Now I've been doing this blog long enough to know the kind of details that some of my readers like to know. So here, for your information and entertainment is.....

....'nuff said!

Raising the tone a little, I noticed this unique clock on the tower of West Acre church in Norfolk. "Watch and Pray"

But in the church at Newton in Cambridgeshire is this notice...

....either a note to deter thieves or a desperate complaint from the vicar!

Here's an interesting piece of work high on Therfield Heath at Royston....

.....a gate in the middle of nowhere. It's on a footpath which crosses the local golf course (watch out for flying golf balls!) but the golf club has never bothered to put any sort of fence around their property. Interestingly from the wear of the grass it seems that many people actually use the gate rather than passing either side which would be much easier!

Then down in Royston town, not a couple of hundred yards away from our first photo, I came across this building. Look closely, there's a strange little door which can only be for elves or fairies!

Take care.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

The Lakes At Lackford

Lackford Lakes are not really lakes at all. But you have to admit it sounds more romantic than "The Old Flooded Disused Gravel Pits at Lackford". Like many other old workings they have found a new lease of life as a nature reserve which is particularly attractive to ducks and other waterfowl. 

And attractive to birdwatchers too including, at the weekend, my brother and myself. 

The weather was glorious though a bit chilly and there were few other people about. Chiffchaffs, just flown in from warmer climes, were singing their simple repetitive song in many treetops. 

Goldeneye were still hanging about on the Sailing Lake - a male and two females. A pair of Great Crested Grebes were attempting their head-shaking display but couldn't seem to get their timing right and in the end lost interest in each other and swam off to opposite sides of the lake.

Meanwhile a pair of Egyptian Geese already had a brood of goslings at the far end of the reserve.

Everything looks so peaceful in these pictures though with large numbers of geese and gulls about it was far from silent.

While sitting in one of the many hides we heard a Chiffchaff singing loudly. My brother turned to see the bird just outside the window, a few feet from his head. We both got really good views of it though neither of us had the presence of mind to take a photo.

We eventually left to go to buy a pub lunch. Then in the afternoon we went for a stroll near Santon Downham where initially there were hardly any birds to be seen. Just before we came away a Nuthatch was seen entering and leaving its nest hole, then just to round off the day nicely we got good views of a couple of Crossbills.

Take care.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Dotty About Daffs

To celebrate the beginning of Spring - whenever it is!

The Cambridgeshire village of Thriplow is quite rightly renowned for its wonderful show of daffodils. On April 5th and 6th the whole community will be organising the Thriplow Daffodil Weekend with horse-drawn dray rides, morris dancing, music, sheep dog demonstrations, stalls etc etc. But if you really want to just enjoy the flowers any day in spring will do.

Take care.

Friday 21 March 2014

The Fens From A Moving Train

The train journey north from Cambridge to King's Lynn would not score highly on scenery for most people, especially on a grey morning. But I find the flatness and endlessness of the landscape to be oddly compulsive viewing. And there's plenty to think about....

Before it was drained for agricultural land it was an eerie marshland known only to a few hardy souls who made a living from it, wildfowling and fishing for eels. Dark, swarthy, suspicious men who knew every inch of the treacherous waterways. Every so often they would emerge from the misty swamps to sell their catch in Ely market. Then they would drink, sing, whore and fight till they slipped away unseen before daylight. Some called them web-feet, some call them yellow-bellies but those who admired their hardy self-reliant lifestyle called them The Fen Tigers.

With the Winter Olympics at an end, let us remember Turkey Smart.

William "Turkey" Smart was born in the fenland village of Welney in 1830 and for many years was the best speed-skater in England and quite possibly the world. He got his nickname from his low, crouching style with his arms flapping like wings behind his back - in other words he pioneered the style which all speed skaters employ to this day. If you think he had an odd name then you should be informed that he gained his reputation by defeating someone called Larman Register and his chief rival throughout his career was one Gutta Percha See! 

Turkey continued skating into his sixties by which time a whole dynasty of Smarts and Sees dominated skating in the Fens and Turkey's nephew James Smart became world champion.

Recently I mentioned the riots which took place in Ely and Littleport in 1816 as a result of the poverty suffered by agricultural workers. However new ideas were being voiced in wider society, in particular Robert Owen's vision of a socialist Utopia. 

In the Fens, where problems arising from exploitation had so recently been seen, there was a ready audience for these ideals. A farmer and Methodist minister, William Hodson, donated the land to be the basis of a communally-run farm. Hodson had the formula worked out in great detail; the community produced its own newspaper, 'The Working Bee', and even did away with money for a while. However the social experiment failed after a couple of years and all that remains today is a place called 'Colony Farm'.

Holme Fen, at 9ft below sea level the lowest point in England, was the most difficult part of the Fens to drain. There were no proper roads and it was easier to travel on water. The vicar of Holme came up with a novel solution to the problem and had a boat built to serve as a floating church to reach all his parishioners. It had a harmonium which doubled as pulpit and lectern and the "church" could accommodate up to 50 people. Between 1897 and 1904 some seventy-four baptisms took place in The Fenland Ark. The village sign at Holme shows this unlikely craft being towed by a horse.

Even after much of the Fen was drained it continued to be frequently flooded into the 1900's. With it's regular mists and fogs it was generally regarded as an unhealthy place to live. Doctors did not serve much of the area so the Fenmen self-diagnosed and self-medicated against the ague and rheumatism ('ague' may or may not have been malaria as proper diagnosis was so infrequent). And the drug of choice was opium which was consumed in large quantities, many folk adding it to their beer as a matter of course. It could be obtained in any chemist in any of the small towns.

The results of this state of affairs ranged from the comic - men found sleeping in the fields, leaning on their hoes - to the tragic - high rates of infant mortality as babies, being looked after by their siblings while both parents worked, were often given opium to stop them crying. 

All this dead-flat land might appeal to the Flat Earth Society, you'd think - and indeed it did! Even after the earth was proved to be spherical there were still those who thought it was flat. Before the remarkable pictures sent back from space there was little direct proof, other than the way that ships seem to sink below the horizon. 

Now it just so happens that when the fens were being drained an absolutely straight river was dug to carry the water more quickly to the sea; you can walk alongside it - the straightest, flattest and most soul-destroying walk in the entire country. One Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a convinced flat-eath believer, conducted a series of experiments on this river where he claimed he could, with the aid of a telescope, see boats some six miles distant. You shouldn't be able to see more than three miles so either Rowbotham's experimental technique was flawed or his observations were the result of the refraction of light over a warm surface. (Or the earth is in fact flat!).

No one took much notice of Rowbotham till John Hampden made a wager that the next experiment would prove once and for all that the world was flat. Enter Alfred Russell Wallace to investigate the matter further. He devised a more complex version of the earlier experiment. He not only showed that the earth was a sphere but that it had a diameter of 7,920 miles, which we now know was just 6 miles out!

But the matter did not end there and dragged on for many years with court cases for libel and each group convinced of the validity of their own experiments!

We'll soon be in King's Lynn but there's just one more improbable-but-true tale to relate. The dead straight riverbank also appealed to the would-be developers of a hovertrain which would run on a monorail and they were granted permission to build a 20 mile stretch of experimental track along the course of the river. I well remember the fuss on local TV news at the time. But then I heard no more as plans were shelved after a only a short stretch of track had been built. The prototype train, RTV31, is now at Railworld, Peterborough, and can be clearly seen from the mainline train as you head south from Peterborough station.

Some of the stories above are gone into in more detail on the excellent
website  to which I am indebted.

Take care.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

In The Fens

Just a few of the places of interest in three Fenland towns we've visited recently. 


Before all the mayhem and melodeons of The Straw Bear Festival in Whittlesea I wandered around the Market Square. 
Before the age of Supermarkets there were just plain old markets where people gathered to trade, haggle and gossip as they had done for centuries. Most markets in England had a Market Cross around which trade congregated. In days of yore it is thought that these crosses stood in holy places and churchyards. As these became the main places where people gathered in numbers they became the logical places for traders to set up stalls. In time the commercial activity began to overwhelm the religious sites and was moved elsewhere - and the market crosses were moved too.
Although the name "market cross" was often retained other buildings sometimes took their place, such as this shelter in Whittlesea which, like other similar structures is known as a Buttercross, presumably from what was traded there.

Slim Clergy?

An unusually narrow church door also in Whittlesea.

A Warning To Others

Here lye interred in one grave
the Bodies of


Who were all executed at Ely on the 28th
Day of June 1816 having been convicted
at the Special Assizes holden there of
divers Robberies during the Riots at Ely &
Littleport in the Month of May in that Year.

May their awful Fate
be a warning to others.

Riots in peaceful places like Ely and Littleport? Once the marshy Fens were drained fortunes were made by those who had put up the money for the project, but very little of this seeped down to those who worked the fields. The price of bread (the staple food of the workers) went up and wages stagnated. Those who were to blame for this state of affairs were mostly living far away and rarely visited the Fens, so the wrath of the hungry and poor was directed at any wealthy residents of Littleport who could be found. The unrest spread to Ely where there were attempts by the magistrates to find a peaceful solution. When this failed a hastily assembled militia rounded up the rioters. Twenty-three were condemned to death of whom all but five were later given lesser sentences. The stone seen above can be seen high on the wall of St Mary's Church in Ely.

Don't Lose Your Head

Despite Oliver Cromwell's connections with Ely at least one citizen still supports the other side as this door-knocker testifies.


This pretty but unremarkable house near to St Nicholas's Chapel in King's Lynn goes by the surprising name of "The Exorcist's House". Apparently at one time the post of exorcist was common within the church hierarchy.  Possibly they were not very effective as there are many ghosts reported in town, including one in this very property!

The Jewish Cemetery

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was a small Jewish community in King's Lynn. This tiny cemetery, surrounded by a brick wall, can still be seen today.

Thank You, Mr Carnegie

Just one of the 2,509 public libraries funded by the businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie stands in King's Lynn. Cynics have suggested that it was built here, close to the Royal Estate at Sandringham, as Carnegie wanted a knighthood. However this ignores the fact that he also funded 2,508 libraries in other places.

Take care.