East Coast Gigs

April 4th, 2013

5a Vanduara  and Velocity lr2 copy

April 4th, 2013


November 21st, 2012

Okay.  Let’s talk again about flatlands and another tributary of the Great Ouse.

The River Wissey, featured in the current edition of Anglia Afloat, is even more secret than the Lark (featured in the previous edition), partly because, as a navigation, it never served a significant town. While the Lark navigation reached Bury St Edmunds and that of Little Ouse (the one between the two and coming up in AA shortly) went to Thetford, the Wissey went only to Stoke Ferry, a sizable village with milling and the usual coal habit but hardly ever an economic hub. There was thus never the justification for the expense of locks – though there was some straightening of the river – and apart from the aqueduct which has carried it over the Cut-Off Channel since the latter was built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Wissey remains pretty much pristine. So the late Roger Deakin swam part of it and wrote of it in his book, Waterlog.

A bit busier, certainly proportionate to size, was Reach Lode which is a canal, probably of Roman origin, running from the Cam, another Great Ouse tributary, eastwards to the drier ground of the fen edge. In medieval times, before they built Denver Sluice, tides came much further up the Fenland rivers and the village of Reach at the end of the Lode became a significant trading port with a fair to which small ships clawed their way from beyond these shores.  You wouldn’t think so from the shrunken though still navigable waterway now – have a look at the landscape gallery hereon – but you can read all about it also in the current Anglia Afloat.

But now let’s talk about distant lands for a change.

Back in the ‘60s and’70s, there was a thing called the Hippy Trail. It began as a sort of overland route to enlightenment which wound from north-western Europe to the Bosporus and then through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Nepal, or perhaps just to Goa, depending on how fleshy you wanted your enlightenment to be.  But it gained critical mass and a much greater public profile after the Beatles, post Sergeant Pepper, went to Rishikesh to see the Maharajah in 1968, even if they flew there.

It became a Thing To Do. A few commercial operators had already latched onto the notion, running trips in buses, minibuses and trucks but after the Beatles went east, those operators proliferated, 30 or 40 appearing over the following decade, some of them taking their time over the sights and sites on the way, others merely bashing along to get there in minimum time and at minimum cost.

It all finished in 1979 when the Ayatollah closed Iran but the whole episode has since passed into traveller folklore. I did a trip in 1972 in a Ford Transit minibus carrying 12 passengers and a driver in very close proximity over seven weeks or so. We saw cities, mountains and deserts and had stone throwing, gut rot and sexual assault, all of them to the backing of just three stereo cassettes, and two of those were Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. Like a lot of Trail travellers, I kept a diary but probably unlike most, I made a detailed write-up over the following year (in a dodgy Sydney bedsit but it did have a big harbour view) and although the write-up got shoved into the proverbial drawer, it had a lot that hadn’t made it into the diary, right down to snippets of conversation.

And then a year or two ago, I read a book called Magic Bus by Rory Maclean who had done a forensic re-treading of the Trail, as far as he could in the noughties, anyway,  and I realised that there were no first-hand accounts of any of those organised trips.

And so I’ve done one. I’ve pulled out the screed and have distilled it down to a mere 120,000 words which are now available, at an astonishingly reasonable price, as an ebook on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.  Check out the front cover in the Portrait gallery here.

September 5th, 2012

 Dodge about along the waterways of eastern England, particularly those of the serrated coast of Essex, and you can find bits of history in every creek. Those creeks saw the start and finish of more sail-miles – if that were ever a unit of measurement – than probably anywhere else in the UK, simply by force of numbers of boat movements.

 Smacks, colliers and coasters by the hundred traded to large and small ports by the dozen while barges, flat bottomed and capacious, pushed and poked their way into the narrowest of waterways and remotest of quays. There they would sit on the mud for unloading and loading and then hopefully get away on the next tide although that mud, sucking hard on a barge, sometimes needed some stirring to be made to let go.

 The improbability of some of those endeavours is probably best evident at Beaumont Quay at the west end of the Walton Backwaters. Have a look at the picture on the Landscape Gallery page here or, better still, in the September/October issue of Anglia Afloat.

 Meanwhile, out west in the region, quietly sings the Lark, which is the River Lark, a sort of secret place on the Fenland navigation, one of three easterly feeders to the River Great Ouse (four if you count the Cam but that comes in from the south where the bigger river turns north). The Lark, along with the Wissey and the Little Ouse, were once trade routes with traffic on the Lark getting all the way to Bury St Edmunds, if not entirely successfully in terms of shareholder profit.

 The railways stopped all that of course but what was left turned almost seamlessly to leisure and that’s what they do now. If you don’t know the Fenland backwaters, you’ll find a taster – of the River Lark – also in the latest Anglia Afloat.

 And for that matter, if you don’t know the Norfolk Broads, you could get a taster – of the River Yare – in the September issue of Suffolk/Norfolk Life. It’s a watery place, eastern England.

May 20th, 2012

            So if you’re down Cambridge way in June or July and somewhere near the River Cam just downstream from the city, you might want to watch how they do competitive rowing on that narrow waterway. The Bumps – or bumping races – involve crews starting line astern and one and a half lengths apart, each trying to make physical contact with the crew in front while avoiding contact with the crew behind, all of which avoids the oar clashing which would inevitably come with side-by-side racing. It’s all descended from student jolly japes and alcohol has been known to be involved. Read all about it in the latest Anglia Afloat.

Wherein you will also find a progress report on the Baden Powell, the double-ended cockler which was the first boat built in King’s Lynn by Walter Worfolk when he moved to Norfolk (with a sort of poetic inevitability, perhaps) from Yorkshire in 1899. She worked the Wash cockles right up until the 1990s before languishing for a year or two in the mud of the Fisher Fleet from where she was eventually extracted by   True’s Yard museum and associated enthusiasts and moved to a Fenland farm yard where refurbishment began tentatively according to availability of money, materials and expertise. But the whole endeavour could soon accelerate if a funding application is successful.

 And still on matters aquatic, latest progress on restoration work on an upper section of the North Walshamand Dilham will shortly be the subject of a feature in The Countryman. At the beginning of May, the East Anglian Waterways Association www.eawa.co.uk, which for several years has been clearing trees and doing other damage limitation work on various stretches of the canal, organised a 200th anniversary celebration of the granting of the original act of parliament which made the canal possible. That’s just three lifetimes ago which is not long when you say it quickly but it was still before the railways arrived.

 Meanwhile, Cromer last weekend was awash with real ale because it was Folk on The Pier, with the Pavilion Theatre more or less sold out and the new venue – a marquee on North Lodge lawn – having been pretty much full up for most of the time. Miscellaneous strummings were to be heard, too, at various points around the town. And the sun shone. It was said to be the best one yet in a series which goes back 15 years or so.

 And this weekend, it was crabs, lobsters and associated entertainments which have also become a refined science in the form of the third annual Cromer and Sheringham Crab and Lobster Festival – now Crabster in the local vernacular. With celebrity chefs, crab pot making, loads of crafts stands and the World Pier Crabbing Championships, it was so much fun you had to pinch yourself. If you’re quick, you can still get the flavour in the May edition of Suffolk/Norfolk Life.

February 17th, 2012

 A few years ago, when I was writing for the wonderful but sadly now defunct Traditional Boats & Tall Ships (before the publisher lost interest and sold it to an outfit which didn’t have the knack) the then editor, Stephen Swann, originally an Essex boy from Brightlingsea, told me that his first sortie into boats was a teenage lark with a couple of others in which they pulled a long abandoned hull from the mud of an Essex creek and, after countless man-hours – or man-months – eventually got it sailing.

 There are a lot of muddy creeks and abandoned hulls in Essex and such stories are probably not unusual. Another arises, on a slightly bigger scale, in the case of the oyster dredger, Pioneer, which was, and is again, a skillinger, one of those deep sea boats so named because they worked off the Dutch island of Terschelling in “the hardest and cruellest trade that Essex man ever worked”.

 It also was a pretty hard job getting her 69 ft long hull out of the cloying mud near West Mersea. But boys will be boys and three middle-aged boys – with, it has to be said, a fair amount of professional boat building nous between them – did eventually extract her and rebuild her to be sailed, worked and maintained for posterity.

 If you’re quick, you can read all about it in the January/February issue of Anglia Afloat.

 But then in March/April, you can read about two north Norfolk brothers – together with associate trustees on the trust now formed for the purpose – who are rescuing wooden boats for posterity even before they get as far as settling in the mud. The point is that wooden construction with all its (expensive) craftsmanship and its (expensive) ongoing maintenance is pretty much a thing of the past for working boats. So the wooden crab boats and whelkers and most other types have bowed to the wave of soulless but cheaply efficient plastic hulls which now do the work. If it isn’t for the efforts of the likes of this Rescue Wooden Boats trust to restore a few survivors to seaworthy condition – and to taken them and some children and anyone else interested – to sea, all that the future will have is photographs. Check out the photographs here on the landscape page of the sort of thing getting the treatment. Among them are the Liverpool class lifeboat, Lucy Lavers which saw service in north Norfolk at one point although her first job after completion was to join the “Little Ships” in the Dunkirk evacuation. Another is the whelker,  Bessie, which for many years worked from Wells-next-the-Sea until the whelks more or less disappeared in the ’70s. They don’t make them like that any more and they won’t, either.

November 13th, 2011

There is a man in north Norfolk who owns a watermill. It doesn’t have any water but it’s a nice place, in a shallow, verdant valley not far from North Walsham alongside the North Walsham and Dilham canal which was once a part of the Norfolk Broads navigation.

The canal was a 19th century – ie late – product of the rush to canalisation for the shifting of heavy goods at a time when roads weren’t worth the name and the trains had yet to arrive.

Of course, when the trains did arrive, they took all the business and the canals gradually fell into disuse until their 20th century recognition for the great recreational resource that they are. Sadly the North Walsham and Dilham couldn’t be part of that resource because a breach had emptied the upper section in 1912 which is why the mill no longer has water. The lower stretch did carry a few cargoes into the 1930s but much better roads were by then taking business from the railways and canals were well off the pace. This one filled up with weeds and, later, trees.

Laurie Ashton bought his watermill 17 years ago and, being a mechanically minded sort of bloke, gradually got around to refurbishing the wheel and gears still in situ and then rebuilding the tail race. Eventually, and naturally enough, he started to wonder about water and so last year, he bought two and a half miles of the canal, including the dry section upstream, and since then, he and his mate, John, a retired bricklayer, have been rebuilding the lock adjacent to the mill with a view to refilling the canal and getting water back through the wheel. A big project? Sure, but as he says, “It’s like all these things. If you actually look at it and think “Cor, I’ll never do that”, nothing gets done.”

So getting done it is. Read all about it in the November/December issue of Anglia Afloat.

There, you’ll also find the latest instalment of Ancient Anglia Afloat which covers the 19th century – wherries, Black Sails in the Sunset.

Then, back in October, I took the shots for a record of this year’s – the second – Cromer and Sheringham Arts Festival – CASAF. Never heard of it? What? Where have you been? Among the many striking acts was the stuff by Gaia Shaw, print maker and artist. Check out a couple of shots here on the Landscape page, but better still, look at her site: www.gaiashaw.co.uk


Meanwhile, what of Spain?

What indeed – nearly three months ago and still being digested. The highlight of the 1200 mile anti-clockwise perambulation from Madrid west/south-west through the Gredos mountains and then south through Extramadura, was probably Serradilla.

 “This is Serradilla. Why are you here?” said someone early on. And in the overall scheme of things, it was a fair question. This is a village of 2000 or so people with nothing much to distinguish it among a thousand Extremaduran villages, all broadly uniform in nature and texture. It sits at the foot of a ridge in cork oak and cattle country – the dahesa – which is undulating and expansive with outbreaks of rocky hills and low mountains and, in spring, a riot of colour. But then, in late August, after three months of mid-30s C, the flora was two-tone – the deep green of the oaks and the straw colour of everything else – against which villages like Serradilla with their tightly clustered houses, white-walled and red-roofed, stood starkly out.

There are three ways to get there but the best one, if you don’t mind the dust and potholes, is the unmade road from the general direction of Plasencia to the north-east. It takes you for an hour or two in third and sometimes second gear from the end of the tarmac into the essence of western Spain, The cork oak runs away on either side, the trees 20 or 30 yards apart with poor-soil pasture, occasionally rotated with cereals, underneath, and the re-growable cork bark is still in demand despite being increasingly superseded as a wine stopper by plastic (ten times more environmentally expensive) and aluminium (25 times).

Eventually, the road begins to duck and dive more sharply until, from a final east-west ridge above an escarpment, the dahesa opens up properly, rolling away 25 miles and more to a horizon blurred by the summer heat. And down to the right, at the foot of the slope, and probably missed initially in the face of the bigger view, sits Serradilla.

Why did we stop there? Well, serendipity,  (Serradipity?) though initially for a cold beer. After 40 miles of bad road in nearly as many degrees, the need was for a phlegm cutter as they say in Australia in similar circumstances. But in one of the two bars visible on arrival, both (because over two days, we got to use both) littered as these places are with a sprinkling of sugar packets, tooth picks and dropped tapas, we saw a poster for the Grandes Festejos Tourinos  beginning the following day.

 Bullfighting, eh?  Love it or loathe it, this would be part of the essence and at grass roots, too. We found a place to stay.

 Except that it wasn’t really bullfighting – or even cow fighting – so much as torment before slaughter, and all cattle are eventually slaughtered. There were no picas nor banderillas nor swords; no weakening of the beast by bloody reduction until it stood still enough for the final, hopefully precise, thrust as can be seen during festivals all around the south and west and interminably on TV during the season.

First of all, Serradilla doesn’t have a bullring. They use the village square, covering its paving with earth, blocking the four corner exits with high metal barricades and lining its sides with stands of seating above frames of vertical bars between which tormenting lads and lasses can retreat as the beast gets near. Most barely emerge from that cover, and anyway, on the first day – our only day – most of them watched with reflexes shot through by a 7.00 am finish after a night of street dancing to a show-band on a truck trailer stage complete with digital backdrop. As the band’s opening medley (at 12.30 am – it’s cooler then) had incongruously reached “It’s Not Unusual” sung in barely accented English, the Jones boy’s neatly bearded face smiled out briefly, eight feet high, from behind the guitars and horns. It was after the medley, as the band regrouped and middle-aged couples who had pulled some nifty salsa moves returned to their tables under the stars, that a gaggle of teenagers overheard us and collectively posed the question. “You are English. This is Serradilla. Why are you here?”

 To which the answer has to be that if any of them had stumbled upon Morris Dancing or Gloucester cheese rolling or Norfolk dwile flonking, they might also have stopped to look.

Except again that bullfighting carries heavier baggage now. A few days later in Cordoba, when we idly asked at the Tourist Information if there was anything happening at the bullring, the lady suddenly became dismissive. It’s partly the culture clash between city and country as Tony Blair found with fox hunting. And yet while the mood in Spain generally might be moving against it, that’s not the case in places like Serradilla where the mood was that of a Texas or Queensland rodeo.

 The Festejo started with a morning for the kids when white-clothed, red neckerchiefed blokes with large, wheelbarrow-style plastic bulls heads chased them screaming around the arena and then Mickey Mouse turned up to lead community singing and throw sweets from the stand. The real action was in the afternoon and evening when first a couple of  big-horned heffers and then two bulls were released in turn from a truck a street or two removed, each to gallop in a sort of one-beast running-of-the-cattle and enter the arena through a gated corner. On its sighting, young men and women scattered to the safety of the metal bars, none of them having run the streets, though an 80-year old was apparently knocked down outside and ended up in Plasencia hospital with a shattered knee – what did he think he was doing?.

 There was a bit of cape work and plenty of shirt work from lads practised in the art of evasion; one jumped right over a charging bull and landed on his feet to applause all round. And then as each animal became exhausted, someone in the adjacent clock tower tolled a bell, a horn ensemble in the stand struck up a tune with terminal overtones and the beast was lassoed, hauled over to the bars where a hand-held captive bolt emerged to dispatch it. And there was no team of horses with jingling bells to remove the carcass as in the rings of Madrid or Seville but an ageing John Deere tractor with front mounted shovel into which the corpse was rolled to be lifted and driven away.

 Torment for entertainment? Certainly. Heartless? Maybe. But cattle farming is necessarily heartless because in the end they’re all dead and rarely of old age. And compare those energetic exits with the mortal fear apparent in the abattoir paddock or on its ramps and walkways where death has a smell and no casual audience. Serradilla’s way was certainly no worse.

 Even so, one day was enough for us because with no gorings to spark things up, a certain boredom set in. The following morning, we headed south across the  dahesa.  George streamed his phone through the radio: “Gimme Shelter” which – and the intro in particular – fitted the landscape.

August 14th, 2011

In the current issue of Anglia Afloat, you will find a feature covering matters maritime in 17th century East Anglia. There was a bit of carnage about in those days, what with the Dutch wars, pirates, privateers and the weather, all of which sent many a fine ship, and plenty of not-so-fine ships, to the bottom.

Mind you, it wasn’t much better in the 18th – only the wars were different – and there was smuggling, too, as you can read when the next issue comes out at the end of August. Engines, when they were invented in the 19th, simplified navigation somewhat though they did make the wars more spectacular.

One boat which didn’t sink – though she did have an auxiliary engine and her adventures happened in the 20th century –  was the Lady of Lynn, a yacht built in 1977 as almost the last craft by the Worfolk boat building dynasty of King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Commissioned in by pathologist, Dick Huntsman, she was immediately sailed to Newfoundland where he had taken a new job, returning a few years later to serve as a holiday boat until she was taken across The Pond again, this time by Dick’s son, Tim and crew but by the southerly route and eventually through the Panama canal, Tim now owning the boat and being based in Vancouver. Again, the current issue of Anglia Afloat has the story.

And then if you like a bit of Heath Robinson mechanics, check out the current issue of The Countryman wherein you will read about Gunton water-powered sawmill, now restored and working – if only for exhibition – on the fourth Sunday of each month from April to September. A finer combination of wheels and belts you won’t find outside a threshing yard, and even then these belts and drums are bigger.

And then have a quick look at the Portrait Gallery on this site and a couple of shots from the pre-launch a couple of weeks ago of the second COAST Arts Festival which will be happening in Cromer and Sheringham from October 22nd to 29th;  music, drama, film, poetry, prose and loads of exhibitioning artists – in fact a proper cornucopia of matters arty right through, as you can see, to art in a basket, all in all a package to postpone winter.  

Meanwhile, I would refer you to the first entry in this blog which related to a snowy excursion to northern Spain in February last year. Well, seeing that we did cold on that trip and then wet on the Isle of Skye last October, we’re now going to complete the set with hot – fly to Madrid and then do a slow, anti-clockwise, 10-day perambulation to the west and south and back to Madrid. Can we take the heat? After an hour on the beach at Cromer today, no probs.  


May 2nd, 2011


Meanwhile, at sea, though not very far off Norfolk, there has been a big find of seed mussels – mussels half grown and just right for moving to lays – areas of leased and managed sea-bed – where they can grow on and be dredged up by the tonne when they’re ready. It was good news for the Wash fleet which works on shellfish – cockles and mussels  (and shrimps) – but for whom the mid- and even late-winter can be a quiet time with boats and crews (with mortgages) laid up through weather if not slow markets. This find, of an estimated 22,000 tonnes with about a third of it accessible (ie not in an area governed by environmental concerns about dredging) has given work for a couple of months collecting the seed to replenish the Wash lays. Some seed was even sold to Germany whose own boats couldn’t dredge it themselves because it was too close in. Read all about it in my piece in next week’s Fishing News, though if  you are not a subscriber, you’ll need to find a big newsagent’s shop, and probably in or near a port, to locate a copy. There’s one shot on the portrait gallery page. I’ll put up one or two more shortly.

Mind you, back in the days of sail, boats from all sorts of countries, not least this one, were driven in close by adverse winds and came to grief on this low coast or, more particularly, the shoals that proliferate. The winter attition rate was often horrendous, what with hundreds, literally, of ships off this coast, many of them colliers hauling coal down from Tyneside to the southern citiese each day. Thus, eventualy, sprang up the beach companies, groups of men who stood ready on the beach to mount a rescue or rather a salvage because that’s where the money was. If they saved a few lives, all well and good, but money – and big money – was the prime mover and companies would fight each other to get to a wreck first. You can read more about them in my piece on Suffolk/Norfolk Life this month. 

March 26th, 2011

Ah yes, the blog. Knew there was something I had to do. I’ve been down the river, and for that matter, up the river and across the river , indeed rivers. Take the Alde and the Ore, one and the same thing in different parts and branches, flowing at leisurely pace (like all East Anglian rivers) out of mid-Suffolk.

Two things stand out about it/them these days. One is that the river almost reaches the sea near Aldeburgh but then veers south alongside Orford Ness, the longest sand spit in Europe. Ok, long shore drift is the obvious cause, the pushing of sediments southwards by the rising tide, in this case now for ten miles or so, with the flow finally issuing into the North Sea as if from a loose hosepipe among the rattling shingle of Shingle Street, one of the special places on the whole of the East Anglian coast. 

The other thing concerns Framlingham up at the top of the left hand tributary, which is the Ore, because Framlingham has a huge, 12th century, Norman castle and much of the stone for the castle came from Caen in Normandy. The reason for that is the Normans stuck with their domestic source because there is no limestone in East Anglia and, with ships running back and forth all the time, it was a supply line more easily defended and a source almost as close as the nearest alternative at Barnack in what is now north-west Cambridgeshire. But the thing that stands out is the all the stone went up the river – there were no roads worth the name – and these days, that river at the town is not much more than a ditch. Read all about it in the March/April issue of Anglia Afloat

In there, you’ll also find a bit about what the Romans did for us and what the Vikings did for themselves and to poor old Ealdorman Brythnoth at the battle of Maldon in 991. Brythnoth, sent to confront them, found a few thousand camped on Northey Island in the Blackwater estuary which is connected to the mainland by a causeway. As they came across in a necessarily narrow file, Brythnoth’s troops were cutting them down nicely, at which point they asked to be allowed to cross unmolested so that they could have a fair fight. Brythnoth, with a misplaced sense of fair play, agreed. Bad move. The reduction of him and his troops to cuts of meat obliged King Aethelred to start buying off the invaders with the Danegeld and that went on until well into the next century. Sounds a bit like the European Union, really.    

Meanwhile and much later, down – or rather up –  the River Yare, there was a 19th century attempt to make Norwich a port. It was all politics and commerce when the Port of Great Yarmouth (as in Yare mouth) got greedy with its tolls on cargoes travelling up river. So Norwich tried to by-pass Yarmouth with, among other things, a long canal over the marshes, but it was too contrived and just a bit too late, although it did create the modern port of Lowestoft. Read all about it – if  you’re quick – in the March issue of Suffolk/Norfolk Life and watch out for the Clerk of Words who wrote a pome.  

Watch out too for more on the Yare – it was always a busy river – in the next issue of Anglia Afloat, including the mention of Billy Bluelight who used to run against the pleasure steamers that went from Norwich down to Bramerton in the 1920s and ’30s in a sort of second job to get a bit of loose change from the passengers if he made it. There is a statue of him today at Bramerton and a picture of it on the Portrait Gallery page here. In the same issue, due out at the end of April, you’ll find more about the Normans (whose building of Norwich castle flattened 98 Saxon dwellings and a couple of churches, and we think supermarket development these days is a bit rapacious). The river and its bigger tributary, the Wensum which curls around the city centre, carried French stone to build the castle and cathedral. More recently – relatively speaking, St George’s bridge, the second oldest in the city, was built in 1783 of Portland stone. There’s a picture of it on the Landscape Gallery page, and also one of Cantley Sugar mill a few miles downstream which has been the river’s biggest landmark outside the city since it was built in 1912. Industy isn’t always pretty but this mill looks less than dark and satanic on a crisp winter’s day.

And then there was the Hanseatic League, a trading cartel from northern Germany whose success was based on the development of the Hanse cog, a big step forward in ship design which could carry abour four times as much cargo as most of its predecessors. But it wasn’t that advanced because it still had an outside toilet, of which you will also see a picture on the Portrait Gallery page.