Thursday 31 August 2023

There's Gold In Them There Fens

Just a few photos today from a recent morning at Kingfishers Bridge nature reserve in the fens just south of Ely. The flat fields of Fenland don't get much credit for their scenery and the farmers are rarely praised for their conservation work, but here is a little island of hope which is all the work of farmer Andrew Green.

At this time of year the fen meadows are full of golden wildflowers. I'm not sure what has sent those distant trees into a premature autumn; they must be under some kind of stress, I would think, though it can't be shortage of water after this damp summer.

That's Purple Loosestrife growing among (probably) Common Fleabane, though I'm not really sure exactly what flowers are there because you can't just go where you like at Kingfishers Bridge. There are electric fences to keep people and predators out of the reserve, though you can walk around the perimeter and there's a hide perched on a small, man-made hill from which you can look out over the whole site.

You can even see Ely Cathedral, some four and a half miles (7.2 km) away. The open water is part of the reserve and that's where the majority of the birds congregate - slightly beyond the range of my modest 'scope and aging eyes!

The land here is kept in shape by a small herd of Konik ponies and a few Water Buffalo. We saw both rather distantly and an incongruous sight they make on the fens of Cambridgeshire. Water Buffalo are particularly useful in the reedbeds where they trample and graze on land too flooded for other animals and men with machines to venture.

They are having considerable success here, both encouraging plants to grow that were almost lost to the fens, as well as allowing birds to breed. It also serves as a stopping off point for migrating birds.

This ancient caravan has been here for a good while and must serve some purpose, though I've no idea how it got here. But would anyone like to guess what's shown in my last picture....?


While we're in the fens some of you might like to meet Peter Carter, one of the last of the old-time fenmen, who makes a living in the way that people did for generations, before much of the land was drained for agriculture. Here's a short film I found on YouTube:

I hope you can understand his authentic fenland accent.

Take care.

Monday 28 August 2023

The Autobiography Of A Church

Welcome to a story spanning centuries and full of puzzles and mysteries - even to the church who lived through it!

Suffolk is a county with many outsize churches. Many of my neighbours have succumbed to the passing years, some fell into the sea as the coast receded, some were left to crumble away and others had the indignity of having a smaller church built within their walls. But here at Blythburgh circumstances have conspired to save me, though much of my former glory has faded and some has been willfully destroyed. Listen while I tell my tale.

I've been here since the fifteenth century, but another church stood in this very place long before that. I've heard that King Anna, king of the East Angles, was buried here in 654, having been killed in battle just north of here. So I suppose it must have been an important church, even in those days.

My story begins in 1412 when Henry IV gave the nearby priory permission to rebuild the old church on a huge scale and this is the first of my puzzles. You see, the priory was never that big and just a few years before it's recorded that there were only seven brothers in residence. What's more they already had a church of their own. The village today has a population of just 300 and it seems it was never a very big place; if it ever had a golden age it was back in Saxon times and it was in decline, partly as a result of the Black Death, by the time I was planned.

Blythburgh was never a big port either, so wealth didn't come that way. And although it was a prosperous farming area there were no huge profits from wool, like there were in other places. The wealthy Hopton family put up a lot of the money because they wanted a chantry chapel where the monks could pray for the souls of their departed. But even that's a bit odd as the family's main holdings were not here but up in Yorkshire.

But here I stand, completed in 1480 and one of the finest examples of fifteenth century Perpendicular architecture that you'll see anywhere (even if I say so myself!). In the old days I was much more colourful with wall paintings and stained glass windows. And services included processions around my wide aisles to pray before the many icons.

These bench ends have been with me right from the beginning, some of them are a bit battered these days (and for some reason the visitor who took these snaps missed the best of them!).

It was in 1538 that my troubles began when the Dissolution of the Monasteries meant that the priory closed down. The Puritans, who were increasing in number even in this backwater, began removing altars and icons, whitewashing the walls and taking out the beautiful stained glass. Luckily they weren't very thorough and much colour remained.

Further disaster struck in 1577 when, during a service, a great storm arose. Lightning "cleft the door, and returning to the steeple, rent the timber, brake the chimes, and fled towards Bongay, six miles off". Part of the spire fell through my roof and damaged the font. When the storm had subsided a man and a boy were found "starke dead". People blamed the Devil and the imaginative among them discovered his hoof print scorched on to the north door. Others claimed that Black Shuck, the evil dog who haunts many places in East Anglia, had entered my doors and his claw marks could be seen.

In 1613 the "Judas" Bible was published. It gets its name from a misprint where the name of Jesus is replaced by Judas. A copy of this Bible found its way here and is still exhibited in a glass case.

In 1644 rumours began to circulate about a destructive gang, led by a man called William Dowsing, who were visiting churches throughout the land. They had orders from parliament to destroy any "popish images" that remained.

He arrived here one morning in April and ordered the removal of '20 superstitious pictures, one on the outside of the Church; 2 crosses, one on the Porch and another on the steeple; and 20 cherubim to be taken down in the Church and Chancel ... and gave order to take down above 200 more pictures, within 8 days'. 

Just a little of my lovely glass escaped destruction and can still be seen at the top of some of the windows.

There's a story that Dowsing's men could find no way to get up to the angels in the roof and in their anger and disgust they emptied their blunderbuss guns in an attempt to bring them down. Sadly it's not true.

You might also notice these iron rings set into the pillars at the western end of the nave. These have been blamed on Cromwell's men stabling their horses here. You can see  that horses were kept here if you look at the wear on the floor beneath.

You can't blame people for making use of such a big building, most of which was of little use to the small village. Anyway I've always thought it a Christian thing to open my doors to anyone in need, animals and people. I'm happy to say that in recent times the clergy have come around to this point of view and a service for animals is held. Once again horses are tethered to my sturdy pillars.

But decay was setting in and no one had the money (or perhaps the energy and inclination) to undertake such a vast project. A note in the Parochial Visitation Book in 1663 says 'here at Bliburgh hath been no communion for these 12 years past'. A big fire in the village thirteen years later caused many of the small congregation to move elsewhere. It was also recorded that men were paid to shoot at Jackdaws which had begun roosting in the roof, which explains the bullet-holes in the angels and roof-beams - nothing to do with Dowsing's unmerry men. They actually managed to do some kind of repairs to the roof at this time, just 200 years after it was damaged by the falling steeple! 

By 1819 the window tracery "was removed, windows patched up with bricks and mortar, shields and angels' wings falling disregarded from the roof". Rural poverty, the lack of a wealthy patron and my sheer size made the necessary repairs out of the question. There was also the rise of Methodism in village as people turned away from the established church. By 1847 I was described as "mouldering into ruin". By 1870s the congregation was sheltering beneath umbrellas and I was closed as being unsafe - even by the lax health and safety requirements of the day!

The strange faces high up on my walls looked down impassively as the Victorians argued about planned restoration. Local people had one grand set of plans, while William Morris and other influential experts had another. I suspect that neither really wanted to win the argument as both lacked the funds to implement their ideas. In the end a modest plan was drawn up and something like what you see now was the result. Maybe that was a good thing, I've heard that the Victorians could be a bit heavy-handed at times!

The taste of the time didn't allow a return to my former dazzling glory, though over the south door there's an angel decorated with gold leaf, tin foil and bright paint to show you how stunning I was in my youth.

You might think of me as lonely and living in the past, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have thousands of visitors every year and can still find space (that's one thing I have plenty of !) for modern works of art like St Matthew, one of four pictures done for the millennium by artist Mara Amats. The paper is made from local river reeds. And on the right is a modern Madonna and Child by Peter Eugene Ball.

But there are some things that have a place here which even I can't remember arriving:

No other church has anything like these figures on the front of the choirstalls: St Mathias, St Bartholomew and St Philip are shown here but there are many more. At some time they've been used as school desks and there are holes made for inkpots. Also there's some graffiti - in Dutch.

That's something to ponder as the sun streams in through the windows and you make your way around, much like the processions of Medieval times.

Time ticks along, though old Clockjack, who once sounded the hours, now only rings at the beginning of each service.

Take care.

Wednesday 23 August 2023

A Date With Heather

The last week in August seems to be about the right time to meet up with heather in East Anglia, though it's by no means as widespread as in other parts on Britain. Here it's confined to a strip of sandy land in North Norfolk and the Suffolk Sandlings. So I made a note in my diary to visit Westleton Heath in Suffolk. Here are a selection of photos with the heathers set off by  green bracken, yellow gorse and the silver trunks of the birch trees.

Take care.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Down The Road Apiece

Anyone who has spent their morning at the beautiful gardens of Helmingham Hall might be tempted to travel a couple of miles along winding country roads to see Otley Hall's gardens. I can't really recommend it at present, though the Hall itself is a wonderful old building and the gardens have considerable "potential" and yielded a handful of photographs which I hope you enjoy.

Otley Hall dates from the sixteenth century and has been added to gradually over the centuries. Some rooms inside are said to be largely unaltered. Tours can be booked on certain dates, though the Hall is a family home and so not generally open to the public. You can however buy a ticket to see the garden, and the outside of the house.

A nicely rusted Barn Owl sculpture swoops down to greet us as we begin the leafy stroll around the moated manor house.

You get enticing glimpses through the trees and across the moat.

A little less "leafy" and a bit more "glimpse" would have made life easier for this photographer!

A sweet little dovecot.

A sculpture lurks alongside the path through the wood.

Trees hang over a small pond.

Away from the main lawn much of the space has been left to run rather wild.

We'd seen all there was to see in a half-hour or so and found ourselves back at the Hall. Had the scenery detained us a little longer we would have used the on-site café which seemed a lot more popular than the grounds.

Otley Hall was for many years the home of the Gosnold family, including Bartholomew Gosnold. In 1602 he sailed to Cape Cod and named Martha's Vineyard in memory of his daughter. He was also one of the leading figures in the founding of Jamestown.

A large part of the building is built with one of my favourite materials: timber frame infilled with brick noggin in a herringbone pattern. It's also surprising to see such a huge window in a building of this age.

As you can see from the photos Otley Hall has many charms though it doesn't compare to nearby Helmingham.


Roland The Farter - During our recent trip to Hemingstone Church (the one with the two porches and interesting history) I failed to introduce you to one of the village's celebrated former inhabitants, Roland le Fartere or Roland the Farter. 

Roland lived in the twelfth century, occupying the manor house and having some 30 acres of land. The thirteenth century Liber Feodorum tells us the rent which he paid for his property (don't try this at home) - every year he was obliged to perform "Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum" (one jump and whistle and one fart) before King Henry II on Christmas Day - Henry's Christmas just wouldn't have been the same without it! 

Roland was a court jester, of course, it seems that the noble art of flatulism was his speciality and for this he was richly rewarded.

Take care.