EAST ANGLIA

ELY CATHEDRAL

Whenever anyone mentions the topic of East Anglia in polite conversation, my thoughts, being of an erudite persuasion and inclined towards historical retrospect, are always moved to dwell upon the initial creation of ‘Ely’ cathedral in Cambridgeshire during the late seventh century, a foundation date which, in being distinguished by a ‘Mercian’ push that witnessed the invasion of most of Eastern England by king ‘Penda’ in 655 A. D., was observed to have resulted in the construction of a number of shrines devoted to the descendants of the Royal house of Wessex along Britain’s East coast.

Recorded, in this sense, to have been established as a temple designated for usage by the followers of the Mercian incorruptible ‘St. Ethelreda’ in 697 A.D., ‘Ely’ Cathedral was, in circumstantially demarcating the boundaries of the neighboring county of Peterborough, (then known as ‘Medehamstede’), as an expanse of unconsecrated ‘Poor’s’ land which effectively had little or nothing to do with ecclesiastical matters at that time, correspondingly observed to have played a role in the formulation of the ‘Contentious Synod’, which was ill fatedly arranged by King ‘Offa’ to gain control over the neighboring diocese of Canterbury in 787 A.D., an agreement that, upon falling through, was itself noted to have served as the guiding rationale behind ‘Alfred The Great’s’ decision to rid what were then the frost bitten lands of Eastern England of it’s Viking population in efforts to retain universal sovereignty for the house of Wessex across the extent of mainland Britain.

Subsequently redevised as a shrine devoted to the Christian saints ‘Ethelwold’ and ‘Dunstan’ in 970 A.D., ‘Ely’ Cathedral was, in tandem with many other concerns of an ecclesiastical nature in Eastern England at that time, noted to have been substantially reconstructed during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor ‘William The Conqueror’ in Purbeck marble with the glorious fan vaulted roofs for which it is presently celebrated, a premiership that, upon ostensibly serving as a mantle beneath which to stage a military reprisal against ‘Alfred’s’ stridency, following the assassination of any Viking dignitary then being awarded status in England, would both suppose the building’s present fabric to be of Norman contrivance and it’s essence to be of an early medieval persuasion rather than to have originated from any earlier source.

Taking this to be a starting point, a period of conflict that, in culminating with the restitution of the ‘Danelaw’ in the form of the Plantagenet ‘Magna Carta’ during the early thirteenth century, was, in tandem with a reduced incident of ‘Judaism’, ‘Albigensianism’ and ‘Catharism’ among a host of other associated practices upon English soil, to witness an increased interest in matters of a preternaturally fatalistic legal character among the bishoprics of Britain’s academic elite, the history of East Anglia in a recognisable form began to take shape in my mind.

It appeared, when seen through this lens and, in keeping with both the general apparel of Peterborough at it’s North Western extent and the insatiable appetite for commercial resource of London to it’s South, to be a history of pastoral meadowlands and quilted vales, a haven of rural beatitudes and temperate climes, of agriculture, wool trading, animal husbandry and brewing, of men living in harmony with nature in mayoral communities upon land which it was and perhaps always had been their unique right to occupy by Royal decree.

It was, in my opinion as an amateur historian, here that the threadbare fabric of isolated homesteads which once spread across the extent of Eastern England observably began to thrive and coalesce, weaving itself back together from it’s constituent elements into what may be termed a contiguous whole which could, within reason, have been observed to withstand valid cross reference with the economies that then surrounded it, an instance in which many of the townships descending down the map from Norwich to London were incidentally noted to have received the suffix ‘Eleigh’ in denotation of their affiliation with the cathedral at some immemorial date.

But no, I would be at least a little mistaken to think such a thing, for as the Law of the ‘Plantagenet’s’ began to saturate every pore of Britain’s communal consciousness so too did the virgin stages of what was later to become the ‘Black Death’, an epidemic that, in mustering impetus in the absence of conflict, was ultimately to prove capable of extinguishing half of the population of Europe in the mid fourteenth century, a swathe that, upon being perceived to have afflicted both Northern Europe and Eastern Britain particularly badly, was, by the same measure, noted to have represented an almost insoluble catalyst for cultural fragmentation, spurning ‘Berker’ pilgrims forth towards Italy and the Holy land garbed plainly in the pitch blacks and blood reds of their calling in efforts to survive the certitude of it’s criminal intimations.

There was, in fact, noted to have been something of a lapse following the occurrence of this event in retrospective terms, a period of approximately one hundred years, before the trains which had been sent forth to study Milanese arts and crafts as they waited out the epidemic, mustered the conviction to return back from whence they spawned, a century before the history of East Anglia could truly be considered to begin in what may be termed a contemporary sense, a birth pang which, upon being announced with the founding of institutions like Cambridge College by the Tudor convents of the mid sixteenth century, was, as one would imagine, preternaturally inclined to marvel at the industry which had once clearly been invested in the great transepts and buttresses of ‘Ely’ cathedral , an edifice that, in being observed to be of an immediately remarkable character by returning nuns, was then correspondingly christened ‘the ship of the Fens’.

It was here, as the monasteries of medieval Britain were both dissolved and re-established through association with the salvage of high quality masonry for usage elsewhere, that ‘Ely’ could withstand appreciation in a palpable sense as a functioning church which adhered to the alloy of traditions represented by both old world practices and the reformation.

Most of my father’s family were, in this instance noted to have been descended from men of East Anglian stock, a kinship which, throughout my early youth, presented me with frequent opportunities to visit Britain’s East coast and gaze over the perfect horizon represented by the region’s Fen districts as I made forth towards the ferry port of Ipswich and it’s towering villages of corrugated metal shipping containers en route to Rotterdam, a series of sojourns which, in their manner, coincidentally granted me grace to visit ‘Ely’ cathedral, an instance in which, for some reason that I can’t quite place, I was inclined to draw a distinction between Norfolk and Suffolk, observing the former to be some years older than the latter.

Through correspondence with such wayfaring I also found occasion to visit the wool farming town of Lavenham and a number of other locations some distance due South of ‘Ely’s’ magnificent spires, a series of escapades which ultimately granted me a fairly comprehensive understanding of East Anglia’s geography and a chance to entertain a number of long term friendships with those that lived within it’s bounds.

Indeed, some weeks ago I was, with regards to the issue of rural excursion across the vales of Eastern England, invited to stay with an old school friend who, in presently living in ‘Crishall’, a small village located about twelve miles South of Cambridge between Hertfordshire and Essex, had arranged a rambling expedition through the fields surrounding his house, an appointment, which through association with the coming of Spring and the excellent walking weather which it may be presumed to entail, I was obliged to undertake, packing a change of clothing and setting forth towards ‘King’s Cross’ to meet another friend who had been persuaded to accompany me for a short train journey through the countryside towards Royston upon the borders of Cambridgeshire.

Being collected upon arrival for a short drive to my friend’s house, my mind began to drift through varying grades of transcendent inertia as I stared out of the window of the vehicle at the scud of clouds which billowed transfixed in aspects of benign dotage past my gaze , before inexplicably alighting upon the topic of ‘Crishall’s’ own history, a pretext beneath which, from preliminary study, I observed the village to have been named ‘Criselshalia’ or Christ’s Hall in the Domesday Book, owing to it’s topographical predicament as the highest point in East Anglia, a pretext beneath which, in possessing a church devoted to the Holy Trinity, it was, in it’s distinction, once recorded to have been occupied by ‘Matilda Of Bologne’ the future wife of the Norman king ‘Stephen’ and to have henceforth been largely devoted to occupations of an agricultural persuasion, an instance in which it’s demesnes were, in keeping with this assertion, effectively noted to have persisted without mains water, pre-fabricated drainage or electricity until the mid twentieth century,

Things were, in this sense, observed to have changed little in the village since the time of it’s foundation, although it had, alongside many other rural locations, notably been swept along by a nascent fascination for steam power during the Victorian era, witnessing the creation of a number of traction engines, threshing machines, ‘Foden Wagons’, ‘Sentinels’ and ‘Gyrotilla’ as it came of age, items which, in being employed to agricultural effect, were also turned towards brewing in efforts to both create production chains of varying efficiency and collude with the expansion of such industry elsewhere.

Spurned from reverie by our vehicle’s arrival at it’s destination, I duly disembarked and, and in being greeted by the fourth member of our party, an individual who, in having made his own way towards ‘Crishall’ was coincidentally observed to be checking the tyre pressure of his car, set forth into my friend’s house for a quick cigarette in it’s back garden, an interlude which, upon granting me an opportunity to engage in a game of catch with his playful Ruby Labrador ‘Caspar’, coincidentally caused me to notice that most of the cottages neighbouring the plot boasted a fine array of elaborately thatched rooves decorated with an assortment of wickerwork animals and birds, a cornucopia of decorations which, in maintaining silent vigil from their respective eyries, served, in my mind, to present convincing evidence of the region’s pastoral heritage.

Following a brief conversation devoted to the details pertaining to our forthcoming excursion across the surrounding meadowland, a discussion that, in being of a diagnostic persuasion, was witnessed to demand of a series of preliminary references to a map of the region, we promptly set forth across open country to find a traditional country Inn within the village’s vicinity, a location in which we proposed to refresh ourselves with a selection of local ales before returning back to our point of origin for an evening meal.

Setting briskly forth across ‘Crishall’s’ village green with ‘Caspar’ in tow, we immediately found ourselves coursing an indistinct soil path which, in having been engraved with the tread of tractor tyres, traced a thin margin between two open stretches of arable land for some distance, a route that, upon being followed through a succession of neighboring fields, ultimately coincided with a narrow brook surrounded with the virgin growth of a number of ‘Crocuses’, ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Bluebells’, a channel which, in being entrenched about fifteen feet below the lie of the surrounding land, was observed to act as a reservoir for autumnal leaves providing both the soil and shelter necessary for a fairly diverse population of indigenous plants.

Finding it relatively easy to straddle the brook, we crossed into a field sentried with a number of plastic receptacles designated for the harvesting of Blackberry bushes which were perceived to be growing at it’s girth, an arrangement that, in being rigged with snares to discourage woodland plunder, was incidentally witnessed to place ‘Caspar’s’ nose at risk, an instance in which it circumstantially occurred to me that it was, in being illegal to lay animal traps in open spaces, an act of calculated malice to do so by wild Blackberry bushes which effectively served as a staple for local fauna, a pretext beneath which I was driven to propose that we should spring the traps with sticks and leave notes expressing our dismay in the parades of plastic bins for those involved in such an atrocity to find.

Regrettably my proposition went unheeded and, to the best of my knowledge, the traps presently remain primed upon the plot awaiting footfall.

Continuing forth towards ‘Nuthamstead’ we eventually arrived at our destination, ‘The Woodman’ public house, a relatively large thatched building which, in having been constructed in a traditional manner from pitched clapperboard planks, appeared to stand alone surrounded by an expanse of open meadowland at the outskirts of the village.

The Woodsman Public House, Nuthamstead

Recorded to have been established in ‘Nuthamstead’ in the seventeenth century, a distinction to which it’s old world contrivance could, within reason, well be ascribed, ‘The Woodman’ was, owing to a number of peripheral annexes that were perceived to have been built about it’s girth, in fact observed to be of a surprisingly contemporary persuasion upon being entered, possessing a traditional oak bar selling a good selection of new world lagers and local beers which radiated out towards a fairly spacious restaurant area finished cleanly in an understated manner which, for some reason, reminded me of the ground plan of one of Robert Baden Powell’s 1930’s scout huts or the mess hall of a modern military encampment.

Finding occasion to notice, as I sat drinking my beer, that a map hung upon the wall of the Inn’s dining area was devoted to the airstrikes of the 1940's, I duly rose to examine the chart’s significance, discovering, by way of inquiry, that the area within which the property was situated had, incidentally been involved with the storage of ordnance between 1942 and 1959.

Intrigued by the notion that the deployment of arms had played a role in the heritage of such an unassuming location, I decided to pursue the issue a little further, discovering by process of investigation, that there was both a memorial and a small museum devoted to the exploits of the American armed forces located in a huddle of huts at the rear of the tavern, a facility which, in being of an inquiring disposition, I immediately took pains to inspect.

American Air Museum, Nuthamstead

Recorded to have been called ‘Station 131’ during it’s period of operation, the plot of land directly behind the Inn was, upon examination, perceived to be distinguished by a parade of three corrugated steel ‘Nissen Huts’ designated for usage as a reliquary filled with a wide range of memorabilia including a fairly diverse selection of aircraft models, antique posters and service uniforms, a collection of artefacts which, in betokening association with the nearby air museum at ‘Duxford’, was manned, in time honored fashion, by those devoted towards preserving the memory of their peculiar realm of incident.

Observed to have been affiliated with both ‘The 8th Airborne 398th Bomb Group’ and ‘The 55th Fighter Group’ during the second world war, a pretext beneath which it was noted to have served as a depot for both a fleet of stainless steel ‘B-17 Flying Fortresses’ assigned to drop payloads of explosives upon European munitions works and a number of twin boomed ‘P-38 Lightnings’ that, in having been converted from ‘P-51 Mustangs’, were equipped to engage in aerial combat, ‘Station 131’ was, among other things, noted to have been involved in the ‘Battle of Britain’ alongside staging an extensive program of raids into German airspace.

Initially consisting of twelve loop hard standings and two dispersed twelve hangars surrounded by three runways which were legendarily composed of rubble salvaged from the streets of both Coventry and London following the devastation of the Blitz, ‘Station 131’ was, in keeping with the conventions that ascribe to such things, noted to have played a substantial role in the affairs of the surrounding area during the 1940’s, an instance in which those affiliated with it’s activity were, in finding occasion to frequent social engagements, witnessed to have been highly revered members of the local community being respectively admired and envied for their exploits abroad.

Aerial view of Nuthamstead

After some minutes of tacit investigation, we decided to leave the shelter of the ‘Nissen Huts’ and make forth across open country back towards ‘Crishall’, a process through which we circumstantially found ourselves tracing the course of one of ‘Nuthamstead’s’ remaining runways along the crest of a hill before coinciding with a country lane, a route which, in being of a preternaturally exposed character, was, in this event, noted to be strafed by an obstinate wind which, upon being pollinated by sporadic snowfall, proved capable of affronting all but our most resolute determinations.

After approximately an hour of walking at a somewhat lower altitude than the runway, we eventually arrived back at my friend’s house and sat discussing the detail of the trip over a light offering of coffee and biscuits, a period of relent which, in due fashion presented us with an opportunity to prepare for the arrival of the fifth member of our group, an individual who, in living locally, had effectively agreed to join us for an evening drink before attending to the detail of commitments elsewhere.

As we waited, recovering from the exertions of the day, our conversation turned, perhaps inevitably to dwell upon the topic of football and the legend represented by the exploits of it’s various proponents, a topic of debate which, owing to my unfamiliarity with the game, was unfortunately observed to leave me at something of a loss.

After some minutes of preliminary discussion in which we incidentally found occasion to respectively slug a round of Gin and Tonics, the fifth member of our group finally arrived and we promptly made forth towards ‘Crishall’s’ gloriously atmospheric local public house ‘The Red Cow’ for an evening meal, buoyed by the curious alloy of initiatives which a combination of lager and spirit may be presumed to represent.

The Red Cow, Crishall

Coasting slowly down the country lane in which my friend’s house was situated, a concourse which, in coincidentally being recorded to have been named in honor of a man named ‘Hogsden’ who was noted to have served as the ‘Red Cow’s’ landlord during the seventeenth century, represented grounds for a degree of conjecture among our company pertaining to the matter of the Inn’s medieval heritage and it’s subsequent role as both a micro bakery and a grocer within ‘Crishall’s’ distribution network, we eventually reached our destination and took seats around a table that, in being warmed by the embers of an open fire, had been thoughtfully laid out for evening repast.

Gazing languidly about the eccentrically beamed interior of the Inn, my thoughts inexplicably came to rest upon the subject of English politics and it’s obligation to stake out matters of public concern from their periphery as it attempted to identify with the novel pre-dispositions of it’s electorate, a school of conjecture which, in due course, turned to attend the detail of a discussion that was then being entertained by the other members of the group pertaining to an injury sustained by one of their children following an attempt to perform a flying kick against a municipal rubbish bin, an incident that, in being observed to demand anesthetic ministration, led back, in due course to the subject of medicine and it’s role in the diagnosis of ailment, an instance in which, irrespective of any peripheral detail that may find occasion to arise, I found it difficult to disagree entirely with the obstacle that physical discomfort may or may not inevitably be presumed to represent among domestic affairs.

As we talked, a refreshingly polite barmaid arrived and presented us with a comprehensive selection of starters and main courses from which to choose our meal, an assortment of dishes which, in being served with platters of beautifully prepared chips and garnishes alongside a generous a libation of ‘Wherry’ bitter would, it was hoped, serve to appease our respective appetites until the evening’s end.

After some hours of discussion covering a host of issues ranging broadly from the hidden subtext of ‘E.M Forster’s’ classic novel, ‘A Passage To India’ and ‘Doctor Aziz’ role in advancing the interests the Second World War, to the topic of whether or not ‘Vincent Van Gogh’ was a genius or a mad man that had yet to truly qualify the merit of his art, we discovered that the pub was due to close and grudgingly made forth towards my friend’s residence to turn in for the night.

In being fairly drunk upon my arrival back at the house and effectively resigned to the rudiment of the day’s toll, I can vaguely remember triumphally sounding my entrance into the building’s living room with an earth shattering blast of flatus before promptly falling asleep upon it’s couch, an initiative beneath which I was unfortunately divested of any opportunity to engage in further discourse pertaining to the group’s affairs until the following morning, missing the chance to reflect upon the past that the evening’s celebrations had, at least initially, appeared to represent.

Rising early the next day to discover that the fifth member of our party had, in wishing to attend matters elsewhere, already left the premises, we sat eating fruited porridge and discussing matters of an abstract persuasion for some minutes, before deciding, through correspondence with ‘Caspar’s’ enthusiasm to engage in physical activity, to head out across open country for one last investigation of ‘Crishall’s’ bounds, a reconnaissance which, in being of an indeterminate character, incidentally granted the fourth member of our company grounds to decline engagement in such a pursuit to watch a football game that was then being broadcast on Satellite television.

Making briskly forth along an overgrown pathway which lay heading out towards open country to the right of my friend’s house, the two members of our group who then accompanied me, found occasion to note that what then appeared to be an incident of fine weather had given rise to a prevalence of Spring flowers in the surrounding meadowland, an observation which, in correspondingly inspiring the three of us to dwell for some minutes upon the issue of James’ Lovelock’s ‘Gaia Hypothesis’, inadvertently drew us to the conclusion that the author had, throughout the course of his research, somehow mistaken ‘Gaia’ for ‘Aphrodite’ who was more obviously synonymous with the raw alchemy to which the theories described in his book appertained.

Holy Trinity Church, Crishall

Advancing swiftly along a verge at the side of a field, we were momentarily distracted by a carillon of bells calling in the morning’s service from some distance to our fore, an appeal which, in being stubbornly pursued by ‘Caspar’ who appeared determined to heed it’s address, inevitably led us onto the grounds of an old cemetery which lay resisting dereliction upon the grounds of a church located at the edge of the village.

Finding occasion to wait for some minutes at the periphery of the building as the bells sonorously ran through their meter, an interlude that, for some obscure reason, caused my thoughts to stray towards the topic of choral ensembles and specifically the music of ‘John Milford Rutter’, a composer who, in coincidentally being one of ‘Crishall’s’ local residents, must surely have staged recitals at the church upon a number of occasions throughout the course of his career, I stood staring vacantly towards the virgin encroachment of an optimistic sun across a neighboring field imagining the resonance of the bells to be somehow detached from the impediment represented by their physical circumstance and ringing in the day from some insurmountably distant point in the sky.

Turning to continue along a sun drenched expanse of grass bordering an open paddock which, throughout summer months, was presumably used to graze horses, we gradually completed a circuit that, in ascending for some distance along an aperture formed from the convergence of two well established hedgerows, ultimately took us back to the village’s high street and our initial point of departure.

Although, through the lens of retrospect, I was presented with no opportunity to survey the familiar buttresses and spires of ‘Ely’ Cathedral which had, since youth, served to represent the essence of East Anglia in my mind, I was nonetheless left with some impression of it’s grandeur in the lonely vertex of ‘Crishall’s’ Holy Trinity Church which stood, as it presumably had done during the twelfth century, slowly pacing time against the gentle undulation of the county’s rural aspect.

After some preliminary negotiations relating to our mode of conveyance back towards Royston through association with the observation that, after having engaged in the walk, our departure was imminent, the fourth member of our party eventually agreed to drop us at the town’s station, an initiative beneath which we duly collected our belongings and bade each other fond farewell before making forth towards Royston to board an express train bound for London.

After about an hour of window gazing and fragmentary conversation devoted to a diverse range of subjects, including a light hearted debate as to which ‘Doctor Who’ actor most adequately reflected the character’s personality following our admission onto the train, both I and the last remaining member of the party then present, arrived at our destination and promptly disembarked, taking a brief opportunity to purchase a pint of lager from the ‘Betjeman’s Arms’ public house located at the base of the marvelously atmospheric ‘St. Pancras Hotel’, before finally parting company and going our respective ways.

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A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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Tom Scrow

Tom Scrow

A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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