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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

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Flatlander

Or, a trip to the Crowle Peatlands Railway

There are so many preserved and heritage railways in the UK—there must be something around a hundred at the moment, depending on your definition—that it’s very difficult to know all of them intimately, or even to visit them all. It doesn’t help that still, around 55 years after the “great contraction” of the railway network in a quixotic attempt to make it return to profitability, new heritage railways occasionally appear, like mushrooms out of the ground after rain.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, I decided to pop over to Another Part Of The Forest and visit one of the very newest: the Crowle Peatland Railway. It’s still only about three and a half years since the CPR first started laying track; only about ten years since the railway’s founders first conceived of the idea, and less than a year since passengers have been able to ride on it.

The CPR was built to preserve the memory of a very specific, industrial type of narrow-gauge railway, one that is associated more with Ireland than with Britain. The Crowle Peatlands are part of one of the largest lowland bogs in England, the Thorne Moors, on the boundary between North Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. Drained from natural wetland by the engineer Cornelis Vermuyden in the late 1620s, from the mid-19th century the area started to be mined for peat, with a network of railways bringing the peat from the moors to factories at their edges for processing and transshipment. For many decades these railways used horse haulage, but from around 1950 the peat company switched to petrol and diesel locomotives.

Part of Thorne Moors in the early 1950s

This map shows the Moors at around the time the railways started using locomotive power: you can see the lines of railways across the moors, following the drainage canals, making sharp, almost-hairpin corners. Even in the 1980s there were still between 15 and 20 miles of narrow gauge railway across Thorne Moors, remaining in use until peat mining ended around 2000; the newest locomotive on the railway was bought new as late as 1991.

The preserved railway is in the area shown on that map as “Ribbon Row”, west of Crowle, reached along a narrow, dead-straight lane across the flat landscape of the Moors. As soon as you are outside the town, it feels disconnected, remote, outside the normal world entirely. As I drove, in my mirrors, I saw a young deer crossing the road behind me.

To date, the railway has a café with very nice home-made cake. a maintenance shed, and a straight line of track stretching out across the moor. The shed is full of the sort of small diesel locomotives that worked on the moors from the 1950s onwards—and also, a Portuguese tram.

Inside the maintenance shed

I think the loco on the left is Schöma 5130 of 1990; the diamond-shaped plate is the builder’s plate of Alan Keef of Ross-on-Wye, to mark the loco being rebuilt in the late 1990s with a more powerful engine, which you can see here.

Under the bonnet

The newest loco to run on the peat railways was named after a retired member of staff in the early 1990s, shortly after it was built.

The Thomas Buck

The railway’s other locomotive is a Motor-Rail Simplex built in 1967 and abandoned around 1996 due to worn bearings.

The Simplex loco Little Peat

It’s a nice little engine, much less powerful than the newer ones, but I’m not sure what I think of lime green as a locomotive colour.

On a map—if it had made it onto any maps yet—the railway would no doubt appear as a dead straight ine; but on the ground it follows gentle curves and undulations. At 3ft gauge the track feels wide for a narrow-gauge line, especially given the small size of the powered trolley that takes you out onto the moor. On my run I was the only passenger, with a driver and guard to look after me, as we pottered out along the track, surrounded by wildflowers pressing close up to the track, fat bumblebees buzzing close to the car as we went.

The driver looks out at the road ahead

No stations; no platforms; no sidings. No signals other than a fixed distant sign warning that the track will run out soon. Just a single line of track, which stops. Back we go; with me and the guard having the best view this time, although I tried to make myself thinner and not block the driver’s line of sight.

Heading back towards the shed

That photo shows practically the whole railway, with the shed visible in the distance. We trundled back in, feeling far faster than the handful of miles per hour we were actually doing. Retracing our steps, back to the yard.

Coming in to the shed

The Crowle Peatland Railway isn’t somewhere I’ll be going back to again that soon, because for now, I’ve seen all there is to see. But it is a nice little place to visit, a reminder that everyone starts somewhere, and that sometimes a railway is just a stretch of line running out into a field. It’s open and running trains about one weekend a month at the moment, and it’s worth visiting for the cakes. Or, indeed, if you just want to be out in a landscape where the horizon is straight as a ruler, and there are few noises beyond the wind blowing the grass.

In the countryside (part one)

Scenes from a rural idyll, or possibly not

It’s something of a cliché—it’s been something of a cliché for centuries, almost—that the English countryside is a haven of natural beauty, a green and pleasant land (to use Blake’s phrase) which is somehow a reservoir of timeless, genuine Englishness.

It’s not true, of course. It’s far from being a green desert, but it’s a strange, deserted place, peaceful due to absence, peaceful because strangers are forever unwelcome. Or am I just seeing it through the lens of folk horror? Nevertheless, whenever I go out for a long country walk, I try to avoid paths that will take me through farmyards and golf courses, because I’m always aware that I’m intruding, there, that I’m a stranger who just doesn’t fit in.

I do, though, still go out for long country walks when the weather is right. I can set out first thing on a Sunday morning and barely see another person other than relatively amiable middle-class hikers and dog-walkers who have driven out to their favourite rural circular walks to get their weekly exercise. All the people who can afford to live in the big houses are still in bed; all the farm workers are sleeping off their Saturday binge hangovers, and the countryside is mine and mine alone, has space for me to intrude in it. I watch swifts and swallows spiralling above catching insects; hares running away up the lane ahead of me; and dozens and hundreds of hedgerow butterflies. I haven’t seen deer yet; I suspect I would have to be up a lot earlier.*

A butterfly, apparently with another insect riding on it

I said the English countryside is a strange, deserted place. It’s a place for the wealthy and the very poor. The process of denudation, of removing the population, has been going on a long time; and Lincolnshire is full of the scars and landforms left behind by deserted villages, the inhabitants evicted centuries ago to turn the landscape into a series of sheep-ranches, the fleeces for export to Brugge.

The remains of Beesby

These lumps and bumps are the remains of the village of Beesby, a village which seems to have just gently faded away in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At the edges of the village are its fields.

Old cultivation marks

The stripes are the result of six or seven hundred years of digging and planting the fields in the same pattern, each villager having rights to a few widely-scattered strips in the large open field, to give each villager land with a variety of soils and situations. After another four or five hundred years as pasture, the ridges they form are still clearly seen, as the sheep and cattle which have grazed here ever since never let anything grow to a height of more than a few inches. This is no hay-meadow full of flowers.

One reason sheep have been so popular on this land for such a long time, why mile after mile of it was turned over to sheep-ranching, is that the soil here is actually pretty poor, thin stuff. The chalk bedrock is only a foot or so below the surface in most places, and when you do find a ploughed field, its surface will be dappled white with lumps of chalk that have come up for air. If you take an archaeologist on your walk with you, be prepared for it to take a while, because each square foot will have a few flints that are probably natural but, you never know, might not be. Of course you might want to keep your eyes out for other things too; because we know there were Roman villages and villas in the area even if we don’t know exactly where all of them were. The land is dotted with pits, too, little quarries maybe a few hundred yards wide, maybe only tens of yards wide, most of them abandoned, some still worked. The larger ones feel as if you may have strayed onto a horror set.

Abandoned chalk pit

One thing that will grow, though, is Brassica napus, rapeseed, almost six feet tall and eye-wateringly yellow. For me, it’s been a sign of the early summer as far back as I can remember, so it’s strange to think that to people only a few years older than me it was a strange, alien plant when it first became popular with farmers here—British rapeseed production increased by a factor of 20 between 1975 and 1995. Where it almost swamps the path, it can be rough going.

Through a field of rapeseed

So much for the timeless nature of the countryside. And this, you see, this is the nice parts. I haven’t got on to the pristine, hygienic farmyards, deathly silent on a Sunday. Or the quiet churchyards hiding who knows whatever Jamesian horrors. Or the pile of wood twice my height, waiting for the sacrificial torch. This post is already getting long; think of this as the gentle, friendly, bucolic introduction, with the next act of the film containing all the scares.

* I have seen deer only just outside town, just after dawn, when I’ve been to the beach for a sunrise walk in autumn. In June, sunrise beach walks are just that bit too early for me.

Be seeing you

Or, Photo post of the week under another name

At the start of the month I mentioned that I’d taken The Children away for a week in the Easter holidays, up to North Wales. As I said then, we saw quite a few beached jellyfish. Naturally, though, I refused to spend all day every day on the beach. So where else did we go?

Statue of Hercules

To somewhere I’ve been to a few times in the past, but for some reason, whenever I’ve been there myself I’ve never had a good digital camera with me. Time to rectify that, I thought.

A mural angel

I can remember taking practically that selfsame identical shot when I was a teenager, on Kodachrome slide film. This is a place that—on a sunny day—was ideal for slow Kodachrome and its richly saturated colours. I’m teasing you with little detail shots here because it’s such a famous place, and its main landmarks and vistas are so well-known and well-photographed, that you’d recognise it immediately if I’d started out with any of the obvious viewpoints.

The village campanile

Around the village square

Some of you will have recognised it: the holiday village of Portmeirion, on the headland between the Afon Glasyln and Afon Dwyryd, just on the other side of the headland from the Boston Lodge railway works. It’s full of picturesque clusters of cottages and intriguing viewpoints, because it was deliberately designed in precisely that way, by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. The grandest architectural folly of them all, a folly expanded to the size of an entire village and turned into a holiday resort.

One of the regular readers has already told me that they “struggle to be whelmed” by Portmeirion, and I can see what they mean. Because it’s designed with an artistic eye, because it is designed to be almost like a stage- or film-set in some ways, it has that strange faery property that a set has of seeming, when in pictures or on film, of being much, much bigger than it actually is. You can—and people have—publish entire books of pictures of Portmeirion, with almost as much variety as if it were an entire city, but when you visit you realise that all those views and all those sightlines are crammed into a tiny pocket of space, like the hollow between the cusps of one of your back teeth. If most of the visitors stick to the village and its shops, I do have to wonder what they do all the day.

A towering cottage

Still, if you wander off into the woods, or down along the shoreline path, there are places to explore that relatively few of the village’s visitors get to. A painted-steel lighthouse at the tip of the headland, or various oriental ponds and pagodas. Most curious of all, the Dog Cemetery, a small clearing in the woods packed full with graves.

The dog cemetery

Now I’ve been to Portmeirion with the Proper Camera, now I’ve shown the kids around it, I don’t feel I’ll see the need to go again for a pretty long time; I feel I’ve seen it all. Was it worth going again for the first time in over a decade though? Was it worth it, so that I can take the same photos as everybody else does? Yes, I think so. It’s a charming place, but maybe that bit too carefully-orchestrated, that little bit too whimsical and twee, to be quite as charming as I’d like.

The banks of the Dwyryd

More from the archives

Or, a nice photo

Recently, I finished editing the second month of posts from The Old Blog and published them on here. One of them included this line:

I had half an hour spare this afternoon, so I reordered all my CDs. By colour, the colour of the spine of the CD case. The plain-white and plain-black shelves don’t look that nice, but there’s a lovely graduation of the rest from dark red through orange to green and then blue.

It really was the worst way to file your CDs when you actually want to find something, but the coloured ones did look pretty. And—I thought—I’d also found a photo to prove it! I’d taken a picture, back then, of The Cat sleeping precariously balanced on top of them, showing the filing-by-colour. Or, at least I thought I had. I found the photo, and it must have been from before then. It’s still a cute photo, though.

The Cat

And as it’s a cute photo, I thought I’d show it anyway. It was probably taken on a Pentax ME film SLR originally; I do still have the negatives too.

Middle earth

Or, a trip on a steam train

A while ago—I can’t find the exact post—I set myself a target of having more posts on here filed under Trains than I do under Political. I think I even said the target I was giving myself was by the end of last year. Well, I’m still clearly a long way off that at the time of writing (58 versus 113) but this is an attempt to make amends. Right at the start of the year, you see, I went out for a trip on the Middleton Railway.

Happy New Year on the Middleton Railway

The Middleton Railway is quite an interesting little line, for its history if nothing else. There are various claimants to the title of “oldest working railway” in various parts of the UK, partly dependent on what counts as a railway and what doesn’t. If you insist steam trains have to be involved, then various branch lines around Darlington usually get the prize, as they opened in 1825 with a mixture of steam trains and horses. If you’re happy with horse-drawn trains, the stretch of the Ebbw Vale line between Rhisga and Pye Corner opened in about 1805. Both of these are lines that carry passengers in main line trains today. If you’re happy with railways that are just for freight, there’s a branch line near Dunfermline that might have had trains on it in the 1760s, although its early history is a little unclear. The Middleton Railway, by contrast, has a definite starting date, as the first railway to be authorised by Parliament, in 1758, during the reign of George II. Moreover, and something that is unusual for a volunteer-run heritage railway, it has operated continuously ever since, switching from commercial to volunteer operations in 1960.*

Of course,** none of the railways I’ve listed above really resemble their original form and the Middleton is no exception to this. In the 19th century it ran from Great Wilson St—roughly where the Crown Point branch of Pets At Home is now—and ran down to, naturally, Middleton. The furthest-south point I’ve found on a map was “Bleachground Engines”, on the 1854 six-inch map, nowadays at the very south end of Middleton where Middleton Park Avenue meets the A654. As the crow flies, it’s a distance of about 3.5 miles. The current Middleton Railway runs for about a mile, from Moor Road to the northern edge of Middleton Park. Moreover, the landscape it runs through has changed entirely, the coal mines it was built for all turned into post-industrial green spaces.

Park Halt

Being built purely as an industrial railway, the Middleton didn’t carry passengers at all until its heritage days. The first passenger trains were run using a hired diesel pulling a second-hand Swansea and Mumbles tramcar.*** Later, they needed proper carriages. Those in the picture are the underframes of old 4-wheeled parcels vans, which the Middleton has rebuilt with completely new bodies to give themselves a passenger rake.

The sheds

Behind the scenes, the Middleton has an awful lot crammed onto a very small site, with their workshops packed full of stuff under restoration. I can imagine shunting things to the right place in the workshop is a bit of a pain. If they didn’t specialise in small ex-industrial locos, they’d hardly have room for any. As it is, everything is jammed in rather tightly, with just enough room inside for people to move around them and actually do the work. I have an old friend who works at the Middleton; he managed to arrange for the both of us to have a little tour behind the scenes, and see the locos under repair, those undergoing major restoration, and the next carriage the railway has started to build.

Inside the workshop

Spare loco in the shed

Running round

We had a few round trips, too, shuttling back and forth along the mile of track. The Middleton Railway might be very different to its original intention, and might run now for a slightly different purpose. It’s still a fascinating place to come and visit, and was an excellent way to start the new year.

Inside the museum building

No public access

Wreathed in steam

* The only other heritage railway that can really claim this is the Talyllyn, which opened in the 1860s. The Ffestiniog has never quite closed, having leased out a short stretch of its track for former customers to use, but their claim is a wee bit of a stretch.

** And unlike the railways in the first footnote.

*** Another early railway: the Swansea and Mumbles, also known as the Oystermouth Railway, was carrying horse-drawn passengers from the first decade of the 19th century. It later essentially became a tram line, and closed just before the Middleton became volunteer-run. If you’ve ever visited the Gower, you have likely travelled by car along part of its route. The tramcar which moved to Leeds was sadly destroyed by arson.

The Huntsman's Pillar

FInding a landmark

In search of more historical things to write about on here, I remembered something I had once randomly happened across when I was a teenager. A memorial, in the next village, to a man who had randomly died there. So yesterday I went out, bent over against the January wind, to search for it, find it, photograph it and write about it. Having only a vague memory from years ago, I was fully prepared to have to spend hours searching for the thing. In the event, though, I couldn’t miss it.

The Huntsman's Obelisk

This is the Huntsman’s Obelisk, a mid-19th-century granite memorial at the side of a quiet country lane. It commemorates the death of William Smith, a huntsman thrown from his horse in the 1840s.

In memory of the late William Smith

In memory of

the late

William Smith

of Brocklesby

Lincolnshire

If you’re a cynic like me, you’re probably also looking at that plaque and thinking that typeface looks rather too modern for an 1860s plaque. Indeed, I think it is modern, definitely postdating the monument being listed in 1986. Around the other side, there’s another plaque, explaining the story of why the monument is here.

The wordy bit

THIS MONUMENT was erected by his many friends, as a token of their regard, and to mark the spot where WILLIAM SMITH, huntsman to the Earl of Yarborough, fell on the 11th of April 1845.

His gallant horsemanship, and his management of hounds, in the kennel and in the field, were unsurpassed.

His horse, falling over a small leap, whilst Smith was cheering on his favourite hounds, he was thrown on his head, and from the injuries, he then received he died on the 16th of April 1845 at the house of his friend, Richd Nainby of this village esquire, by whom the site for this memorial was given on the 6th day of April 1861.

Whatever your views on this font here, the wording, not to mention abbreviations like “Richd“, seems authentically Victorian. The reason I’m so sure that the first plaque is a modern one is that the listing entry of the monument doesn’t, at the time of writing, mention it at all. It does, though, say that one of the two plaques “contains an impressive 22-line ode to Smith by CHJA”. There’s no sign of anything like that on the monument today, and there are only two plaques mentioned in the listing. The first one above, therefore, must be later than 1986.

It’s a shame a 22-line Victorian ode in memory of a dead huntsman can disappear to be replaced with modern typography, not that I have any particular affection for hunters. Quite the reverse, in fact; I just don’t like to see history eroded. Without interpretation, most people who pass by and look at the obelisk will no doubt not even notice one of its plaques has been replaced. I wonder, too, what the ode originally was, and quite how awfully sentimental it was.

The other thing that occurs to me—and I think has always occurred to me about this memorial—is the length of time between the death and the erection. Sixteen years, and a lot had happened in those sixteen years. The Earl of Yarborough died the year after Smith, quietly on his yacht rather than out hunting. He had been chairman of the Great Grimsby and Sheffield Junction Railway, which opened to traffic* in 1848 and began the process of changing Grimsby from a medieval village into a modern industrial-scale fishing port. Moreover, nationally, Britain was changing radically. I wonder, when the obelisk was erected by a small crowd of men, sadly remembering their friend from a few years before, how much they thought about the world around them changing; how much they no doubt hated it.

Opposite the obelisk is St Helen’s Church, a lovely little building in your stereotypical overgrown churchyard. Even when I was growing up St Helen’s no longer had its own priest; the Rector of Waltham would hold an early service in their own church each Sunday, dash over to Barnoldby to hold one there and then back to Waltham for the main Eucharist. I’ve never been in, but its churchyard certainly looks like it would be worth exploring.

Graves of William and Maria Marris, Barnoldby

The Marrises would have been in their 30s when Smith died. I wonder if they remembered the event, or if it had passed them by.

I turned away and walked up the snowdrop-fringed lane, and out into the open fields to be blasted by the wind again.

* No train nerd would forgive me if I didn’t footnote that, by the time the railway opened, the company had become part of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, its lines becoming part of the famous Manchester-Grimsby “Woodhead Route”

The spooky season

So, a trip to a particularly impressive tomb

It being the end of October, tonight is Halloween, or nos calan Gaeaf for any Welsh-speakers reading. I’m not in costume and I haven’t decorated the house, but I did think it might be nice to have a suitably Halloween-themed post on here. Rather than go with ghosts, ghouls or goblins, I’ve gone with a tomb, a relatively interesting one, so much so that English Heritage have designated it a listed building. It’s a place I only found out about a few months back via an Instagram post by Kate of Burials and Beyond. As it’s only a couple of miles or so from where I grew up, my immediate reaction was “why have I not heard about this place before?” So yesterday, I went down there with my camera.

The Haagensen Memorial

This is the Haagensen Memorial, carved from a single block of marble and desposited on a plinth in one corner of a Lincolnshire cemetery. Underneath it is a vault, the tomb of the Haagensen family. That’s them—well, most of them—in the statue: Janna Haagensen being escorted into heaven by an angel, whilst her grieving children try to drag her back to earth. The marble treestumps below almost look like the fingers of a hand, twisting around and trying to grasp her too.

The Haagensen Memorial

Janna Hagerup was Norwegian, born in Vinger in 1845. At the time Norway was not, strictly speaking, an independent country. Although self-governing, it was part of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, ruled by the King of Sweden and with its foreign policy controlled by the Swedish government. Janna married Peter Haagensen, a ship-broker, and in 1868 they moved to Grimsby to handle the English side of the family business. Three years after moving to Lincolnshire, the Swedish government appointed Haagensen as consul for Sweden-Norway in Grimsby.

The Haagensen Memorial

When Janna died in 1897 after a history of respiratory problems, Peter was—we can assume—heartbroken. Although the family lived in a large villa close to Grimsby town centre, by the junction of Bargate and Brighowgate, Peter purchased a cemetery plot out in the village of Laceby, a few miles away. The reason? He wanted to build a grand vault for the family, and (we can assume) the Grimsby cemetery authorities didn’t like the idea.

The memorial doesn’t just consist of the grand sculpture of Janna and her children. Below it, a marble-lined vault was excavated, with mosaic floor, and with spaces for both Janna and Peter’s coffins. The steps to the vault were closed with an ornate iron gate at ground level. You can see it today, firmly locked shut.

Entrance to the Haagensen Memorial Vault

The vault is still there in good condition below, though. On infrequent occasions, Laceby Parish Council open the vault to visitors, and you can go down and see the finely-carved marble, the mosaics, and the tombs of Peter and Janna themselves.

Entrance to the Haagensen Memorial Vault

Peter died 24 years after Janna, and was himself interred in the vault following a Norwegian-language funeral.* Norway had become fully independent in 1905, but I’m unclear whether Peter had remained consul of either or both countries—or, indeed, had retired from the roles completely.

What happened after Peter’s death, though, is a little unusual. The tomb was by far the largest memorial in Laceby cemetery; indeed, it was almost certainly the largest memorial to one family anywhere in the area. In the 1920s, therefore, it became something of a tourist attraction, with people from Grimsby, Cleethorpes and even further afield in Lincolnshire taking days out to Laceby to view the memorial. A tea room opened in the village to serve the tourist trade, and the Haagensen Memorial became a picture-postcard subject. China replicas were made, and Laceby tradesmen started up weekend jobs peddling them to the tourists, to take home and put on their mantelpieces. For a few years between the wars, the Haagensen Memorial was a local tourist hotspot. Earlier I doubt it could have happened, due to the difficulty of reaching railwayless Laceby, but in the 20s it was easy to take a charabanc tour out to the village to see the sculpture. I’m not sure how long the tourist boom lasted, but I would assume the outbreak of the Second World War put an end to the last dregs of the traffic.

Haagensen Memorial inscription. Not original, according to postcard evidence

Norway and Sweden both still maintain small consulates in Lincolnshire today. Norway’s is in Flour Square, Grimsby, near Lock Hill; Sweden have moved theirs out to Stallingborough.** The Haagensen Memorial is still maintained and preserved by Laceby parish council, but it’s not a tourist attraction any more. Indeed, when I was there yesterday to take these pictures, I was the only person in the entire cemetery. Hence, I suppose, why I’d never heard of it until this year: it’s almost forgotten. Still, let’s remember Peter and Janna Haagensen and their grand tomb. Maybe tonight, their souls will walk abroad.

The historical info in this post was largely gleaned from the official Historic England listing of the memorial.

* I’m going on the information I uncovered. What that means in practice, particularly at the time period we’re talking about, is a bit unclear, but you can assume it means some form of Danish-Norwegian.

** Ironically, the Swedish consulate in Lincolnshire is located on Trondheim Way. Presumably they couldn’t find a street named after a Swedish city.

Pictures from the past (part one)

Some more digital archaeology

I mentioned in Saturday’s post that I’ve recently been pulling data off a hard disk I haven’t touched for more years than I care to think about, and saving the things that are worth saving. The original text of my degree dissertation, for example, which I thought I’d lost, and more than one terrible short story. Photos that are even older, that I’d had scanned in for one reason and another. I thought it might be worth sharing a few bits and pieces here.

First off, this post from May 2006 about local politics was picked to be quoted in The Guardian, for some reason. So, naturally, I saved an image of the clipping.

Me quoted in The Guardian

More people probably skimmed that quote than anything else I’ve ever written on here, at least to date, but I recall it didn’t lead to any noticeable spike in traffic, showing that people just don’t bother to type in URIs they read in newspapers.

Then, among the black and white photos, these pictures of an empty croft on the edge of the village of Calanais, in the Outer Hebrides. It stood in the middle of a tongue of land sticking out into Loch Róg, with nothing but grassland all around it, so you could almost imagine you were in that famous Andrew Wyeth painting. From the fragments of newspapers we found, it had last been lived in some time in the mid-1970s.

Empty house, Calanais

Empty house, Calanais

Empty house, Calanais

When I was in the Outer Hebrides, doing archaeological things, it was standard practice to carry two cameras: one loaded with black and white film, for print, and one loaded with colour slide film, so you could lecture people. These photos are from the same trip as the empty house. The first I think shows the Ullapool ferry approaching Stornoway somewhere on the east coast of Lewis; the others are another random evening around Calanais, probably with a large supply of stubby bottles of beer. I think the croft you can see in the middle picture is the same one as in the set above.

Ferry approaching Stornoway

Around Calanais

The Calanais I stones

Some of the colour photos on that trip have never been scanned in and I think I’ve hardly even looked at them; these ones were scanned by someone I was briefly seeing, years ago, who had access to a film scanner, and scanned as many as would fit onto one CD. You never know, maybe I’ll dig the others out one day. There will probably be a few more of these posts to come, too.

Sailing away

A visit to an iconic place

A trip away last weekend, to what is arguably one of the most iconic sites in British, or at least Anglo-Saxon, archaeology. It’s been famous since the 1930s, there have been TV series made about it, and it has shaped the way we see Anglo-Saxon Britain ever since. The site I’m talking about is: Sutton Hoo.

Sutton Hoo

Given that Sutton Hoo is only a few miles outside Ipswich, I met up with regular correspondant Sarah from Ipswich and her husband and dog. Sarah is almost as fascinated by archaeology as I am, which is probably a good thing because at first sight there isn’t much to see at Sutton Hoo itself. The “royal burial ground”, the field where all the famous archaeology was found, is a particularly lumpy and humpy fallow field, covered in long grass with a scattering of gorse and broom bushes, and with a stark, narrow viewing tower watching over it. The famous ship burial, Mound 1, is marked by steel rods where the prow and stern of the ship originally were.

Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

If you’re interested in history, there’s always an awful lot to be gained from visiting a site in person, not just reading about it. Archaeological literature, particularly the older sort, tends to focus very much on the confines of sites themselves without considering their wider perspective in the landscape. I hadn’t realised, for example, just how high up the burial site is above the river. When you think of a ship burial, you tend to assume it would be close to a riverbank. Sutton Hoo does overlook a river, but it’s quite a long way from it: about half a mile away and, more importantly, about a hundred feet up. In modern times a wood has grown up, but when it was built the burial mounds would have been a commanding sight from a ship on the river. One of the mounds has been reconstructed to roughly its original height, to give visitors some idea of how it might have looked within a decade or two of construction.

View of Woodbridge and the River Deben from Sutton Hoo

Mound 2 sits in the long grass

In the nearby National Trust museum, they are unequivocal that the king buried in the ship burial was Raedwald of East Anglia. This is something we will never know for certain, whatever techniques of analysis we manage to develop in the future. The chances are it was likely Raedwald, or his son Eorpwald, or with an outside chance his other son Sigebehrt. We’ll never really know, but we do know that, whoever it was, he was left-handed.

Watching from the viewing tower

The new viewing tower, built from galvanised steel, gives an excellent bird’s eye view of the site. I couldn’t resist spending a few minutes taking photos of the scene so I could stitch it together into a panorama-collage, to give you some idea of what the whole place looks like. The view a seagull would have got, maybe, the day that Raedwald-or-whoever was interred in his warship under a great mound of bare earth.

The cemetery

No person would have seen it that way at the time, of course; very few until this year, in fact. And now we can.

Do we get a better idea of Sutton Hoo by visiting these mounds, instead of going to London and seeing the artefacts in the British Museum? I think we do. This was an important place, one which has to some degree survived when many other similar important places have been lost to us forever. It might have changed significantly in the last 1,500 years, but nevertheless, you can’t understand the site, you can’t feel its relationship with the sea, with the river, with the surrounding landscape, unless you have actually been there and seen it. It might be a field of grassy lumps, but it is definitely worth the trip.