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Latest work: Articles and research by Charlotte Paton

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On the Trunk Road to History

In 1972 when we moved into our cottage about a mile from the A47, the locals told us that a bypass around the village was being discussed, and 40 years later we are still waiting.

All of us in Norfolk, I feel sure, at some time travel along this road and suffer the frustration of delays caused by slow agricultural vehicles. How often does the irritation turn to sadness when we find the delay has been due to an accident. Tragically the road is marked throughout its length by gaudy ribbons and wreathes, pinned to posts and trees noting that someone sadly lost their life there, a reminder to us all of the need for care.

Recently, on one of my many journeys along the road mostly to Wisbech and Norwich, I began idly to think of it from different points of view.

From the Cambridgeshire border the A47 begins its route through Norfolk with the fen village of Walsoken, its very name oozing with the sound of mud. The name Walsoken is in fact thought to originate from Old English, and means the proximity of a settlement close to a Roman sea wall or defence.

There has been a lot of archaeological evidence found to show Roman occupation in the parish, including a hoard of 300 to 400 Roman coins.

Passing signs for Islington, you might well find yourself humming the tune of the famous ballad “The Lass of Islington” which comes from Norfolk and not the London borough. It is probably best if you don’t sing the bawdy words if you have the children in the car, but you could tell them the tale of Tom Hickathrift, or at least one of the many versions of this man’s story. In one, he is fabled to have been a simple labourer of extraordinary strength. In some tales he is a giant; in others he slays a giant who had terrorised the local people of the marsh at Tilney. At the church in Walpole St Peter there is a dent in the ground, where it is said a cannonball landed after he threw it to scare away the devil.

Crossing the Great Ouse near King’s Lynn, the road originally ran along the Wisbech road to the South Gate. W A Dutt wrote in King’s Lynn with its Surroundings 1905, an early travel guide:

‘Like the coaches a century ago I will start by the London Road which, when I have passed by the cemetery, will soon bring me to the little hamlet of Hardwick, and a point where I shall leave the London Road and enter upon that leading direct from Lynn to Swaffham. It is a pleasant road, by which I soon leave the low lands around the town and find myself on more breezy uplands, while on the left the views open out across the picturesque valley of a small stream which has its source at Gayton. Sweet scents from the roadside gardens, where old fashioned flowers abound, mingle with the fragrance of sweetbriar in the hedges and lush grass in the valley’.

It doesn’t sound much like my journey from Lynn, battling through the traffic, braving the Hardwick roundabout and travelling up Constitution Hill.

But earlier travellers had their difficulties too. Robberies were being perpetrated on the turnpike between King’s Lynn and East Winch and PC Bocking one of the very earliest recruits to the police force joining in 1840, was posted to a large district round Lynn, embracing East Winch, Middleton, Bilney, Runcton and Narborough. to put a stop to them. He seldom wore a uniform, and like many others of his class, usually had on a velveteen jacket, and might have been mistaken for a gamekeeper. This was done as a protection to the men themselves, and to enable them to appear in public without attracting notice. Bocking was armed with a short, stout blackthorn stick and a brace of old single barrelled pistols, and carried handcuffs. One night he took up his customary station on the turnpike, and waited. It was then about 8 o’clock and raining. Suddenly a couple of ruffians sprang on him, One received a blow from the blackthorn, and the other was flattened with a blow. The constable fell upon them until they howled for mercy. Believing they had been sufficiently punished, he helped them onto their feet. Then the trio repaired to the roadside tavern and drank each other’s health”.

Although the standard of roads at this time was improving, with the coming of carriage travel, it was obvious that the 1555 Act which compelled the local worthies to maintain roads was now unsatisfactory, and groups of them banded together and formed Turnpike Trusts. The trusts kept the roads repaired in return for a fee. For example, the toll to Narborough from Lynn was one shilling and six pence for a coach and four, a cart pulled by one horse three pence, driving cattle one and three pence a score, or calves, hogs, sheep or lambs sevenpence halfpenny a score.

With the coming of the railways long distance road travel diminished, but local traffic increased. This and the use of larger agricultural machinery led to the road again being in poor repair. As late as the early 1900s local men were employed to hoe out the ruts. But the era of the motor car had arrived and with it a total change in travel.

In 1901 Arthur Russell was charged with driving a motor vehicle at a speed greater than 12 miles an hour on the A47. A witness said he was driving at a terrific rate 20-25 miles an hour he estimated. Mr Russell protested that his car would not go that fast. He was fined £2 with £2.1 .6d costs.

In 1959 George Formby hurrying to Great Yarmouth was in collision with Maurice Bunting at East Winch, both thought the other at fault, Formby spent a week in Lynn hospital and Mr Bunting lost his licence.

But all is not bad. Being forced to slow down, allows us to see what is around us and to admire the sheets of nodding cowslips on the Dereham bypass, and the display of daffodils at the Honingham roundabout cheered the dullest of days – and distracts us from the litter. And I bless who ever had the foresight to plant oxeye daisies along the new verges; they have been a glorious spectacle.

Recently there were yet again demands in the press for the upgrading the road, and after every accident the cry goes up “something must be done”, but apart from bypassing the worst bottle necks nothing has been done, or looks likely to be done in the foreseeable future.

St Benet’s Abbey

I wish we had arrived by boat at St Benet’s Abbey, gliding quietly through the meadows, where cows were lowing gently and the buttercups were vast sheets of brilliant yellow. We would like to have moored as visitors have for more than a 1000 years and stepped on to the Abbey grounds with its feeling of peace and tranquillity.

The River Bure may have been diverted and the marshland drained since early travellers used the river for their journeys, but seeing the wherry sails, seemingly floating through the fields most have been a glorious thing to watch.

However we arrived by foot and sat on a bench beside a large cross made from oak from the Royal Estate at Sandringham. It was erected on 2 August 1987 where the High Altar of the Abbey had once stood. We listened to a history of the Abbey on a gizmo cleverly hidden within the back of the seat and to the sound of monks chanting plain song. The music drifting across the water must have added to the delight, and possible confusion, of those on the pleasure crafts on the river.

My idea that the monks lived an impoverished life squelching around in the mud was far from the truth. The Abbey was built on a spit of higher land or holm which curves horn shaped into the marsh, the reason Horning, to one end of the higher land, has its name.

The early history of the Abbey is unclear, because some early documents, thought to be of the period, are now believed to be forgeries, but it would seem that the holm was originally used by a hermit named Suleman. He built a chapel to St Benedict on the site in about 870. Here, history relates, he and his brother monks were killed by the Danes.

Later a religious man, Wulfric, came to the site and with seven companions rebuilt the chapel and established a Christian community. 60 years later King Cnut (Canute) was staying in Horning and endowed the community with land from Horning, Ludham and Neatishead The detail is all rather lost in the mists of time, but the Domesday Book records that this land and more was held by the monastery.

By 1291 the community owned 28 churches and other properties in 76 parishes. They also had the right to dig peat needed for their fires as there was no timber nearby. The holes left gradually filled with water due to a rise in the sea and inland water levels, so that by the 1400s the Broads were born.

Rather than as I had imagined, a group of poor monks eking out a living, the Abbot oversaw a wealthy and complex community, with lay people caring for their lands, stables and daily needs and even a pack of hunting dogs at one point. These belonged to the third Prior Thomas Stonham. It is recorded that he was so keen on hunting that he went daily after Matins all the year round. The cellarer complained that the cost of the upkeep of the pack would be better used supporting the poor.

The monks were not allowed to eat flesh from animals with four legs, so their diet was of birds, swans, geese and ducks and fish. The fish ponds are still visible and it is thought that as well as acting as a larder, they were also pleasure grounds for the monks to walk in quiet contemplation. The monks lives were a round of constant prayer, they even rose in the night to go into the chapel to pray.

In 1381, during the peasants revolt, many rebel tenant farmers of the Abbey, were expected to do unpaid work for their landlord, the feudal Lord, the Abbot. They marched to the Abbey and forced the monks to surrender the court rolls which laid down the services and payments expected of the tenants, these they burnt. But it all proved pointless. They were made to re-swear loyalty after the failure of the riot, accept a fine and give back some of their land.

St Benet’s is the only religious community that was not closed down by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536 -1541). Instead he gave the Abbey to the Bishop of Norwich and he has retained the Abbacy and the ruins to this day. The Bishop of Norwich, in his capacity as Abbot, arrives annually at St Benet’s on the first Sunday of August. standing in the bow of a wherry, his vestments flapping in the wind, and preaches at the service.

When Henry VIII gave the Abbey to the Bishop of Norwich he also gave Ludham Hall which is close by - it was turned into the bishop's palace. The chapel that was added to the hall is now used as a granary but still retains the look of chapel and is a fine building. However, in 1611 it was badly damaged by fire and was subsequently rebuilt. A farming family later lived in the house named Donne. They were related to John Donne the poet (1572-1631).

Ann Donne who was born at Ludham Hall, married a clergyman John Cowper and of their seven children only two survived infancy, one was William Cowper (1731 – 1800) who also became a poet. Ann died while her sons were still young and William grieved for her all his life contributing to his mental health problems. One of his most famous poems On The Receipt of My Mother's Picture Out of Norfolk was inspired by a portrait that was sent to him by his cousin Anne Bodham of Mattishall. Many of his mother’s relatives remained in Norfolk and it was these family connections which encouraged Cowper's return to Norfolk in the final years of his life. He spent his final years at Dereham and is buried in St. Nicholas' Church, where there is a magnificent commemorative stained glass window dedicated to him.

After the Dissolution the majority of the buildings at the Abbey site were demolished and by 1585 was described as “utterly ruinated and wasted”.

The Bishop’s Lodging house became the home of a fisherman Edmund Dye in the late 1500’s, he tended the fish ponds left after the community disbanded. It became the Chequers public house between 1836 and 1856, taking its trade from the passing wherry men. It then became a house until 1891 when it burnt down. It was demolished soon after.

In the 18th century a brick windmill was built into the gatehouse, one of the few buildings to remain standing. The walls of the gatehouse being used to support it. Walking inside the windmill there is revealed fine ashlar flint work, carvings and soaring arches, all part of the old gatehouse. The mill was used to pump water away from the marshes to improve the pasture, it is also thought at one time it was used to grind corn. That too, is now derelict, and is a grade II listed building.

The mill in full-sail has been painted by a number of artists from the Norwich schoolincluding Henry Bright and John Sell Cotman. Thankfully early in the 20th century it was felt that the site should be protected and over the years money has been set aside by various bodies to maintain the site and its remains. Finally in 2002 the Norfolk Archaeological Trust took over its care. The Trust made their first major work the restoration of the moorings and riverside, so that the option of arriving by boat may continue as it has done since the very beginning of the Abbey Their aim is to maintain and enhance the site for tourists and Christians for it remains a holy place on consecrated ground.

Charlotte Paton
June 2015

Bob’s Allotment

It was always my job on a Sunday morning, to take the wooden trug that stood on the peg box in the scullery, and go to the allotment to collect the vegetables from Bob for Sunday lunch. Except then it was called Sunday dinner.

Bob was actually my Great Uncle, but he was called Bob by everyone. Not like Mr Fiddaman who worked the allotment next to Bob. I would never have dared to call him anything but Mr Fiddaman. He and Bob worked on the allotments every day, throughout the 1950s, along with Charlie who had lost an arm during World War One, but was a dab hand at carefully manoeuvring a hoe around his young plants.

Trug in hand, usually with my socks slipping down my skinny legs revealing battered and bruised knees; for there were no trousers for girls in those days, I walked up the street until between the last two houses I turned into the path that led to the allotments. To the right was the railway line, and beside it a bomb site where the Germans had demolished an engine shed whilst trying to disable the line. I was absolutely forbidden to go there, as Mother was worried about the still jagged pieces of corrugated iron which lay about rusting, but I thought the area lovely with, in season, butterflies surrounding the now quite sturdy buddleia bushes hanging with long purple flowers, on which settled red admirals and peacock butterflies in their dozens. There was rose bay willow herb as tall as I was, and ragwort with cinnabar moth caterpillars that we called footballers because of their black and yellow stripes.

Bob would be waiting for me, no work was actually done on his allotment on a Sunday because he was dressed to join us for dinner, but he and Mr Fiddaman and Charlie, put the world to rights, as they checked the level of the water in the butt, beside the dilapidated old shed, and tied in any stray runner bean stalks. Sweet peas too were tied up, and the curling tendrils removed, Bob said the plant wasted energy making those. His sweet peas were wonderful, and in summer when I collected peas, beetroot and baby carrots, there was always a bunch cut ready for me to take back home. The perfume was heady and if people I met on my way back commented on their beauty, I would proudly say. “Bob grew these”.

Winter was harder work on the journey back, the cabbages, as big as my head, were heavy and awkward as they rolled about, and in spring the rhubarb stalks were up to a yard long and as thick as my wrist. Bob forced it under a big old tin drum until the leaves pushed off the lid and allowed in the light.

War was waged on slugs with half an orange after the flesh had been sucked out, laid on the soil to trap them; along with beer in a condensed milk tin luring them to a tipsy end.

Mice were also enticed into jam jars of water from which they could not escape, if they as much as thought of feasting on the newly planted pea seeds. These were always sown on Good Friday whether Easter was early or late, I do not recollect whether the juicy baby peas I popped from their pods on the walk home, were earlier or later, I just worried whether Mother would notice that Bob had sent a meagre supply, or realise I had eaten too many as I dawdled back. Soot was carefully saved after the sweep had been to make soot water which was sprayed on the growing peas to prevent maggots. To moles Bob showed no mercy, and nasty looking traps hung ready along the side of the shed in case they dared to show their presence on his immaculate rows of young vegetables. Soapy water Bob carried down in a galvanised pail to spray onto any black fly that had the audacity to settle on his broad beans.

Dahlias were Bob’s love

Dahlias were Bob’s absolute love, and he grew them not for their beauty, or colour and shape but simply for their size. He would stretch out his blackened, cracked hands, fingers and thumb spread wide, and turning to Charlie say “near enough a foot across that one” His hand would go up and push his cap back on his bald head so that I could see the contrasting whiteness where the sun never darkened the skin, and declare “better than last years I’ll warrant.” Charlie would solemnly nod and they would peer at this great cerise sunburst for many minutes. Earwigs were fed a mix of treacle, water and something in a jar I was not allowed to touch, all around the dahlias.

Charlie only grew a few nasturtiums along one edge of his allotment, for almost all of his was taken up with growing potatoes, which were wheeled home by his son in a wooden wheelbarrow, as pushing a barrow with one hand was more than even Charlie could manage. Runner beans he grew on great wigwams of poles, in which I hid, to eat the raspberries I stole from other allotments.

Once my basket was packed I would scrabble onto the fence to wait for the train to go through on its way to the coast, and wave at the Sunday trippers. Then Bob would chivvy me along “your mother will be waiting for those, tell her I’ll be there in an hour”, and then he and Mr Fidderman and Charlie would adjourn to the Fleur de Lys for a pre dinner drink.

Bob lived alone, his wife Edie had died just after the war, Mum said from a broken heart as Bert their only son had been killed in the Far East. So Sunday dinner with us, was really the only proper meal he had. Supper for him in his grubby terraced house up by the Station was bread, cheese and an onion from the allotment cut in half and crunched with much enjoyment. He seldom ate the vegetables he grew, giving them to Mum, and the Church at Harvest Festival where after the service, they went to the Cottage Hospital. But he loved red currants and would boil up a basin full for himself and slurp them down with obvious enjoyment.

Mother was very particular about table manners and I had to eat quietly and neatly, but when after Sunday dinner Bob licked his knife to savour the very last of the gravy and tipped back his chair, oddly Mum was not cross, but would look at Dad and smile. “A good dinner that Barbara” Bob would say “lovely veg”.

All is safely gathered in.

Holding my small Grandson’s hand we walk down the lane towards the cloud of dust billowing into the air. The stubble is bleached white, and we pause to watch the driver of a forklift skilfully put the enormous round bales onto a trailer. Strolling on, picking blackberries as we go, Arthur now wild with anticipation, clambers on to bottom rung of the gate, just as the combine harvester thunders by.

He watches, his finger spread wide so his hands look like starfish, such is his excitement, as it turns the corner and moves on up the field. The tractor with its trailer draws alongside and the corn is quickly and efficiently poured in. A second tractor and trailer return from the farm ready for another load. While Arthur remains spell bound, I remember the harvests of my childhood.

Then men worked doggedly in the sun, often in hat, waistcoat and thick trousers, piling sheaves into stooks, so that the ears of corn would dry before the back breaking task of pitchforking them up on to a trailer to be taken back to the farmyard to be stacked ready for threshing. But as the men worked there was a spirit of camaraderie, they worked as a team, there was plenty of banter and in the breaks high spirits among the younger men, while the older ones took the opportunity to light their pipes and rest in the shade.

Our four modern farm workers do not share that pleasure; as they sit all day cocooned in the cab of their vehicle for hours on end, speaking to no one, accept of course on their mobiles!

A farm in our village now has no employees; just a father and son run it, with contractors as and when required. While in 1881 the census tells us, the farmer who had 600 acres, employed 17 men, 4 boys and 7 women. I am sure many other villagers also helped at harvest time, glad to add a few additional coppers to the meagre family wage.

Many of the village children helped too, and the toddlers accompanying their mothers, as they took the foursies to their men to fortify them through the rest of the long day, were no less excited than my Arthur, as the huge horses, moved their slow and sure way back and forth. The children enjoyed watching the horses too, as they were shod at the forge, of which there was one in almost every village . It was a warm meeting place, where there was a chance to exchange news and pause in the daily routine. The children watched, their heads bent back, to see the full height of the horses as they snorted gently, awaiting their turn. Everyone’s faces were pink from the warmth of the forge fire, but the children knew not to go too near or the blacksmith would warm their bums with a tap of his boot, as he shouted “git you out” as he worked the bellows and the sparks rose up. In the 1880’s the average Norfolk wage for a blacksmith was about £125 a year. For a farm labourer about £30.

This made it very important that the King of the Harvest, elected by the men to speak on their behalf, negotiated a lucrative deal with the farmer and agreed the rules of work.

The wages for harvest were set separately from a man’s normal wage and good weather was prayed for, for if the “King” had calculated correctly and the harvest came in early, the men then returned to their normal wages and took their share of the harvest deal. They effectively earned double for a week of two. This money was often used to buy the family new boots, the stiff leather cutting into feet and causing blisters, before the boots softened and became comfortable. At an unnamed Norfolk village, there was a “shoo-ing” ceremony where the new men for the harvest that year were initiated into the team by having a halter put around their necks, they were then shod by being tapped on the soles of the feet by the Queen of the harvest – the second in command, There are many rituals particular to each farm, on one at Pentney they drank wheten beer to seal the deal. The Harvest Spirit who was treated with great respect, was said to linger in the fields in the form of a woman,. When the harvest was complete, to ensure she returned the following year, a plaited imitation of her was taken to the Harvest supper, and retained until the next year when she was ploughed into the soil to ensure another good harvest. This is the origin of the corn dolly.

The horkey or harvest home, was the opportunity for the farmer to thank his men with a slap up meal and a chance for the village to let its hair down and have fun.

An “East Anglian” writing in the Bury and Norwich Post in 1895 lamented that the fun of the harvest and its customs were dying away. After the exhaustion of the harvest and the excesses of the Harvest Supper, he recalls the men gathering again in the morning, “hallerin larges”. The men would go from house to house crying for largess in a mournful tone. Any money that was given, was pocketed by the “King” for distribution later, and any beer that was offered, consumed.

The writer records:

“The orgy that followed in the public house next day was such that no man who respected the labourer cared to walk through the village.”

At many suppers they still sang the much loved poems of Robert Bloomfield, the Suffolk rustic poet, which had been set to music:

God bless our worthy master,
The finder of this feast.
And whensome ‘er he dies
Pray God send his soul to rest!
May all things prosper,
Whate’er he takes in hand,
For we are all his servants,
And all at his command,
So drink boys, drink,
And see you do not spill,
For if you do you shall drink two,
It is your masters will

At West Tofts, one of the village lost to the battle area, the Harvest festival in 1871 was a memorable day in the village year. The church was lavishly decorated, with the altar covered in flowers, corn and vegetables tastefully arranged in moss. The pulpit, prayer desk, lectern and font had ears of corn tied to them and banners, flags, emblems and devices were displayed; the local paper reported. 20 clergy and the choir led a party of youths carrying sheaves of corn through the village, as they processed, the villagers following behind singing Onward Christian Soldiers.

After the service and the blessing of the bounty of the harvest, the procession left the church, where small fires had been lighted on the church wall and tapers were tied to each of the trees, forming a pretty avenue across the park to the village. I am sure the tins of food, the rice and the pasta which adorned our church last Sunday, when taken to the food bank were a sensible solution to feeding those in need, but they did not have the wonderful aroma I remember from my childhood, that met us as we pushed open the heavy church door and took in the glorious smell of apples, fresh baked bread, and chrysanthemums that welcomed us to celebrate Harvest home.

Charlotte Paton
September 2014.