April 06, 2016

Suffolk Norfolk Life Ray Thirkettle

West Norfolk electrician Ray Thirkettle, late of this parish, is really looking forward to the winter.

No, you’re not reading a back copy of SNL by mistake. Six months ago, when Ray was a career electrician at King’s Lynn’s QEH hospital, winter was de-icing the car on a frosty November morning in Heacham.

But since late November, he has been attached to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on South Georgia, a remote island in the south Atlantic, a thousand miles of cold blue water east of the Falklands and about the same north from the icy northern tip of Antarctica. Fully supported by wife of 32 years, Pauline, he has seized this chance to fulfil his lifelong dream. Thirteen months at the cutting edge of science.

Equipped with a spirit of adventure, his OU Science degree and plenty of spare underpants (last time he went down under for BAS he forgot to pack any) his ‘summer’ is now over. The nearest it’s got to Heacham is an occasional boat trip ferrying scientists around a South Atlantic bay (weather permitting); a view of seals… glaciers and penguins (blizzards permitting) and the prospect of snow remaining high up over the mountains.

So why is he looking forward to a long sub-zero winter beginning in March?  Well, believe it or not, he wants some peace and quiet.

Summer in South Georgia is, like Heacham, its busiest time. This year, along with the native penguins, South Georgia pintails, and Pipits (the world’s most southerly songbird) Ray has seen flocks of visiting scientists; natural history film crews; builders renovating the old whaling station of Grytviken; two surprise visitors from Nordelph West Norfolk delivering his New Year copy of the EDP (with a front cover feature about himself in it) and what Ray calls ‘the helicoptering rat people’.

Rat people? Is Ray seeing things? Has something in the daily home-baked bread gone to his head?

No, rat people doesn’t mean some fabulous antipodean hybrid of man and rat. It means the South Georgia Rat Eradication Project which arrived in January in three clattering helicopters, bringing a truck and18 extra people, doubling the number of trucks on the island – to two – and almost doubling its population!

The world’s largest and most ambitious rat eradication attempt – which has since successfully cleared the entire island - headlined BBC news bulletins in January and remains a news item at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30922255

The presence of rats was monitored with traps - known locally as ‘Rat hotels’- and indicator stations containing a knob of peanut butter flavoured wax, which apparently, rats find irresistible.

Serviced by the ‘Shackleton’, 90 tons of a special bait were dropped from hoppers slung underneath their 3 helicopters, requiring 300 drums of fuel in an ecological restoration projected to take at least two months. Rats and mice were unwittingly introduced to the island by sealing and whaling ships as early as the 19th century and have caused devastation to the native bird population.

The most telling indicator of success is a noticeable increase in some bird species. The South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit are now seen in numbers. Petrel and Prion species are expected to follow and the long term hope is that many Albatross species will return to South Georgia to breed.

So one way or another, Ray’s summer escape has been a rat race. He is now looking forward to sharing his winter desert island with just his eight fellow BAS employees and the four resident government officers.

The BAS is there to assess and manage our response to climate change. The retreat of the rugged and mountainous island’s glaciers, for instance, has implications for us all. BAS is also there to pioneer modern sustainable fishing. – the reverse of the island’s previous function as a whaling station ( Grytviken, pictured) pursuing practices Ray judges by modern standards as “revolting”. Whale bones still haunt the area.

The BAS base is self-sustaining, using a state of the art British Hydro-Turbine (pictured) to supply free electricity. Ray spent one inclement summer day, happily indoors, restoring this heart of the island’s community life, when it jammed up with stones washed in from the inlet. His technical expertise in servicing this turbine will be at a premium during the long dark days ahead.

It’s not all work. Jolly Christmas parties at the base were captured in outdoor pictures of glorious snow-capped summer mountains. Not a bad little escape from the Christmas madness. And, whatever the weather – even in summer the boats are often kept in harbour – the views are never less than spectacular. Then there are the informal regattas. An island boat club has been formed!

Ray’s previous stint– at Halley station on ice, Antarctica – attracted world-class chefs looking for an adventurous addition to their CV. The food is more prosaic on South Georgia, with each member of the team taking it in turns to cook.

What’s on the menu, I ask- Fish? Seal? King Penguin? Whale? Yeti? Rat?

Not these days. It’s more likely to be the seals eating Ray – either natural inquisitiveness (pictured) or, more recently seal pups needling the hands that weigh them.

But no-one goes to South Georgia for the cuisine. Today (and tomorrow and tomorrow)’s menu is cheese, pizzas, stews, hot pot and (Ray’s speciality) macaroni cheese, courtesy of cooking lessons from Pauline (an excellent cook) prior to his posting.

An ocean of powdered milk too. It takes four days to sail from the Falklands to King Edward Point. A boat too far for the milkman methinks.

The base canteen is running low on syrup and it’s an awfully long way to the shops! Tins of pears are still popular but the same cannot be said for the asparagus soup. There are rumours that gallons were fobbed off on all the summer visitors (who liked it- there’s no accounting for taste) but Ray “couldn’t possibly comment.”

Ah that frontier spirit! Shackleton would have been proud. He is buried on the island, facing the South Pole (see picture) as he requested. “Though there are conspiracy theories,” says Ray mysteriously.

Perhaps he is expecting something dark and ghostly to descend over the expats this winter. It would make a great down-under version of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’. Will they survive? Will they save the planet? I’ll keep you posted.

You can continue to follow Ray’s progress through the entire extended stay (15 months) until his return here

Hanseatic characters of Lynn

Watch a film of the live show Hanseatic Characters  here

Feature published in Norfolk Suffolk Life July 2015

John Brunham, William Sawtrey and Alan of Lynn - Margery Kempe's merchant father, her parish priest and her scribe - will all make their returns as part of the Doin different tour 2016

Four Norfolk notables – a mystic, a merchant (her father), a monk (her scribe) and a martyr (her priest)– will live again in historic settings along Lynn’s mediaeval waterfront this summer, thanks to Lynn theatre company ‘Room at the Hanse’. Gareth Calway, director of the company, writes…

 ‘Hanse’ - from the mediaeval Hanseatic League - means a convoy of ships or people travelling together for safety against pirates and bandits. Lynn has pioneered English participation in the New Hanse since 2005. 2015 is the Year of the Hanse and Hanse the theme of this July’s King’s Lynn Arts Festival. Room at the Hanse - based in rooms at Hanse House and Marriott’s Warehouse - jumped at the chance to mount two Hanse-themed productions at the 2015 Festival fringe.

The Wife of Lynn’s Tale - prefaced by The Scribe’s Prologue and The Merchant’s Prologue - is about Lynn’s visionary Margery Kempe (c1373-1438) writer of the first autobiography in English. It will be staged in the magnificent Lynn Minster, her own church. A Nice Guy: The Burning of William Sawtrey, the first heretic burned for his beliefs in England, plays outdoors in the courtyard of Hanse House, the last remaining Hanseatic building in England.

The Scribe’s Prologue mines the comic possibilities of the mismatch in Margery’s Book of cartoonish autobiography – an illiterate visionary Word with too much Flesh on it for the clerics– with the clerical spin of her amanuensis:  “a woman’s story filtered through a male religious lens.” The amazing discovery in Gdansk this May (2015) of a letter by her son John – which has shown Margery as no fantasist but a reliable narrator of real events – happily supports her over my Scribe’s comic claims to be the real author (and also incidentally consolidates Margery’s status as the main documentary witness of Julian of Norwich’s lifer and character.)

The Merchant (Margery’s father) introduces his Prologue thus-

‘John Brunham of Bishop’s Lynn, deal-broker. Navigating treaties, steering rivals, roping in partners. Exporting and importing whatever the Warehouse of the Wash needs. Five times Mayor, twice MP, alderman, coroner, justice of the peace, chamberlain, royal agent, merchant-statesman, benefactor…

Brunham’s monologue evokes the hustle and bustle - ‘the dance - of the Hanse’ and a glimpse of the man behind the merchant. It reminds us that, beneath the courtiers and kings, knights and wars of our long island story, merchants and mayors made history as they made the nation’s wealth – on a daily basis. Brunham brokered a vital and uneasy peace with Prussia on behalf of Richard II during the Hanseatic trade wars of the 14th century- the politics of port rather than court.

Though ruled by the Bishop of Norwich from his palace at Gaywood, Bishop’s Lynn had enjoyed a degree of borough freedom since Lynn-friendly King John gave the town its own ‘Magna Carta’ in 1204 and would eventually gain the rest thanks to Henry VIII, who made it King’s Lynn in 1537.  In Brunham’s time - and Lynn historian Paul Richards’ words - it was “in the premier league of English medieval ports.”

This was the age before exploration and trade opened up the Atlantic West. Norfolk was the heart of England: advanced, densely populated, bristling with impressive churches. The Hanseatic League linked this heart with Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic.

Margery lived on Lynn’s teeming international waterfront, in St Margaret’s parish, a true wife and daughter of the town, her family later tied to Hanseatic Germany by marriage. A mayor’s daughter and a burgess’s wife, Margery was pregnant for pretty much two decades, raising 14 children. She brewed beer (not very successfully) as Lynn wives did and managed a horse-drawn grain mill at Lynn’s hub of Wash waterways and busy sea routes. All this was forty five Norfolk miles from Mother Julian, whom she met and consulted, and who like her followed a visionary path. But Margery was a world apart from the mystic who called her ‘sister.’ She was not supposed to have visions!

She broke all the rules, caught between two church-approved states of womanhood - neither devotedly serving her husband indoors nor following a religious vocation in a convent or cell like Julian. She undertook Hanseatic journeys, and pilgrimages in self-appointed white robes, without the sanction of her confessor, asserting she was ‘directed to do so by God.’  God gave her a freedom wives rarely had.

While honouring the Sacrament of Marriage for twenty years, with saintly impatience, she eventually bought a vow of celibacy from John Kempe, along with his conjugal rights. And, ahead of her time as always, she dictated the first autobiography in English, not letting a little thing like illiteracy get in her way.

Maternal mortality in childbirth was common: her first labour was nearly her last. An unsympathetic priest refused to hear what she thought was a ‘death-bed’ confession and this precipitated visions of flame-mouthed devils - and of a beautiful gentle Jesus.

Unlike Julian’s church-approved ‘showings’ Margery’s visions were rejected by the authorities as ‘deceptions.’ Her direct personal relationship with the Trinity (without a priest present) might have been acceptable if like Julian she had been literate, learned and officially dead to the world (walled up alive and the burial service read over her.)
Instead, she was active, noisy, unorthodox and at odds with the authorities of a church she fervently loved. Despite support from ‘small friars’ like Robert of Caister the Vicar of Sedgeford and Alan of Lynn, who believed her visions and helped her record them, not to mention the parish priest who credited her with miraculously saving her beloved St Margaret’s from the Great Fire of Lynn in 1421, she continually upset fellow parishioners with loud weeping at mass, any mention of Christ’s suffering likely to set her off.

As her scribe whinges - “The whole parish is Mass en masse, cheek-by-blessed howl with you. The Bishop’s at his wits’ end!”

For a married woman and mother of fourteen children to claim the Son and Mother of God had given her a mission and instructions for a holy life was controversial enough. Margery added to it a new Franciscan emphasis on love experienced in a direct relationship with Christ and a highly emotional style of religious expression that riled church, citizens and pilgrims alike.

I suspect Margery’s visions and metaphors were too Earthy for the theological literati, the aristocrats who ran the church. Her Jesus is dishy, purple silk-clad. Her ‘female gaze’ would later see him in every handsome Italian she saw in Rome.

Her prayer for a robin in place of the inscrutable ‘rushing wind’ of God’s third person - which she complained was like a ‘bellows – parallels the heretical wish of contemporary rebels like John Wycliffe for simpler faith and a homely Bible in English.

Wycliffe’s ‘Lollard’ heresy, rife in Norfolk – did for our fourth Norfolk notable, Margery’s parish priest William Sawtrey, burned as a heretic in 1401.

Sawtrey was England’s first Lollard martyr or the morning star (Lucifer) of the Reformation, depending on your religious politics. He was ‘examined’ for preaching Lollardy by the Bishop Dispenser of the Norwich diocese. After two days, William, recanted only to relapse into the same heresies in London a year later. This time he didn’t recant and was burned at Smithfield.

It’s difficult for us to grasp how terrifying Lollardy was to the English church and king at the time. The Lollard heresy would shape the Protestant one: centuries of blood, fire, inquisition, execution, gunpowder and plot as the Reformation replaced the established Catholic church in England and much of Northern Europe. Europe would wage a 47 year war (the dreadful and misnamed 30 years war) over ‘Lollard’ issues. A Nice Guy, using the delightful Morality play format of the 15th century – borrowing a verse form and some speeches from the contemporary (Norfolk-written?) play the ‘Castle of Perseverance’ – takes a moral perspective. The company’s feelgood trademarks are all here - Norfolk-based musicians and actors; heritage and humour; catchy songs; poetic theatre, proper history. God, Soul, Mind, Flesh, World and the Devil all appear!

Margery – perhaps tainted by association with William - protested her orthodoxy. The point was even such protestation was ‘unwomanly’ by the repressive standards of the time.  Ordered by the archbishop of York to swear not to teach in his diocese, she defended her right to speak her conscience. A brave stand to make a century before Luther – and by a woman.

Mother of English autobiography, pre-feminist, rebel, Lynn has every right to be proud of its under-sung visionary. Six centuries after the fact, we celebrate her life in her beloved St Margaret’s.

for 2016 tour go to  Doin different tour 2016.

(2015 tour was:

The Wife of Lynn’s Tale (with Prologues by the Scribe and John Brunham)  written by Gareth Calway and starring Joanna Swan as Margery Kempe plays Lynn Minster on July 24th 7.30pm. Tickets £9 from Lynn Custom House 01553 763044. Performance approx 90 minutes with interval and bar. A Nice Guy – The Burning of William Sawtrey by Gareth Calway  plays the Hanse House Courtyard on the South Quay, Lynn on the 17th July 4.00pm. Performance 30 minutes. Donations only. www.garethcalway.co.uk, http://www.hansehouse.co.uk, http://www.marriottswarehousetrust.co.uk)

Digging Deep (SHARP in Suffolk Norfolk Life Magazine)

(feature published July 2014)

The origins of The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project can be traced back to a hotel bar overlooking the Bay of Naples. It was here in 1995 that a chance meeting took place between SHARP's founder director, Dr Neil Faulkner, and the owner of the Sedgeford Hall Estate, Professor Bernard Campbell, who mentioned the archaeology found on his estate….

Nineteen seasons later SHARP is one of the largest independent archaeological projects in Britain, and firmly rooted in the local community. It has won awards for its outstanding contribution to education. Half a dozen locals who went on to study archaeology as postgraduates found their futures in the trenches of Sedgeford’s past.

The project was set up with a broad remit – the understanding of human settlement and land usage within the parish. The refusal to narrow focus may be why it has lasted, surviving a shift in archaeology from the micro to the macro. What diggers are now trained to look for is not the individual find but the general picture. One diseased bone is significant: a field full of them tells a story about how a community lived and died.

Since 1996 SHARP has undertaken a wide range of excavation and research projects from an Early Bronze Age crouched burial to a First World War aerodrome.

Beginning with Iron Age and Saxon burials – including murders - in the spooky Boneyard Field, around the Reeddam and St. Mary’s Church, excavations and research have since extended to Chalk Pit Field North, Eaton Roman Villa, the Saggy Horse Field, West Hall, East Hall, Hall Wood, Ladywell Field and even Sedgeford Hall Bowling Green!

The Sedgeford Village Survey, involving excavations of local gardens, proved popular with locals presented with Anglo-Saxon and Medieval pottery unearthed from under their own property along with a greater understanding of the history below their feet.
The aerodrome will receive particular focus in this centenary of that fateful August 1914, whose appalling tally of local names on the Sedgeford War Memorial still inspires.

Death has a long and changing history here. SHARP has unearthed evidence of remote pagan burial practices of the Bronze and Iron Ages and a possible Anglo-Saxon chapel with thegn-class burial in the village’s West End.

It is rare until modern times for a holy site once established to be abandoned. But this one was replaced by what became St Mary’s parish church, intriguingly just before the Norman invasion.

You and I might just see an insignificant depression running north-south down ‘Chalkpit’ field. Dr John Jolleys and his SHARP-eyed team see a shallow U-shaped valley formed in the last Ice Age ‘as a result of glaciation and melt water.’ And their instruments recorded ‘four strong magnetic anomalies’.
What were they? Last year’s excavation – two metres down into Middle Anglo-Saxon layers of soil formed as a result of ploughing activity ... thrillingly revealed an Anglo-Saxon oven capable of large-scale cereal production for an estate or a monastery. There were a further two metres of earlier ploughsoils beneath the Middle Anglo-Saxon one, going back to the Late Iron Age and Romano-British period.
And the ghostly hand of the past. “The presence of hand and finger marks on the inner wall of the oven was noted, the … size of the prints (suggesting) it may have been the work of women, or children.”
Our Sedgeford ancestors’ daily work for their daily bread was also evidenced. “… Small pieces of charcoal…A mass of charred grain…found within the fire pit just by the inner border of the stoking shelf. The soil over a wide area outside was noted to be stained with fine carbonised material.”
What would our middle Saxon forebears make of our exhausted modern soil? Dr Jolleys details the contrast. “The preserved plough soil from the Middle Anglo-Saxon period, a layer rich and humic and containing only Ipswich Ware pottery (c 650 -850 CE) …sealed by 1.5m of orange brown sandy colluvium which has accumulated over the last 1200 years. The modern plough soil has a thickness of 0.3m and is much less rich in humus than either the Iron Age or Middle Saxon layers.”
Could you be part of all this ground-breaking work? SHARP secretary Brenda Stibbons enthused "If you have always wanted to work on an archaeological site, this is your opportunity - we welcome people of all ages on the courses.
“The Basic Excavation & Recording Techniques course teaches the theory and practical side of excavation - they will be working on the main site for their practical experience. A campsite, well served with hearty victuals, is provided.

“If people live locally they do not have to camp on site but can travel in each day.

“If you are interested but do not fancy digging, you can join one of SHARP’s week or day courses which run throughout the excavation season 6th July – 15th August”.

A variety of courses cover the theoretical and practical aspects of archaeology. This year Archaeology of WW1, Church Archaeology, Landscape, Archaeology of Human Remains and Archaeometallaurgy. There are also day courses – like Anglo Saxon cookery- and also Dig for a Day.

It’s not all work. The annual tradition of Norfolk-based entertainment and scrumptious mediaeval banquet will be provided this year by Room at the Gin’s theatrical production of Margery Kempe of Lynn (on July 30) and returning folk band the Fried Pirates.
Director of SHARP since 2007 Mr Gary Rossin sums up, “The project’s founding objective was to research and explore human settlement and land usage within the parish of Sedgeford. The main focus of its nineteen years has been the Middle to Late Anglo-Saxon period. There are important pieces of the jigsaw yet unfound, not to mention the picture on the box!
“In 2014, we’ll be revisiting glimpses of a mediaeval landscape, including a manor house itself, moving backwards and forwards from our continuing Saxon focus.
“And, on the centenary of World War 1, we will also revisit our research at the nearby First World War aerodrome, along with the militiarised landscape of the local area. The Roman farm under Hall Field will have to wait until 2015 as it has sugar beet in it this year!”
Details of courses are at http://www.sharp.org.uk/courses.html and general information on www.sharp.co.uk.