News from Norfolk

About the Wheelers: in search of my father’s family

[The following is yet another family history essay. It has no connection with Norfolk, although it does contain a story about a witch. I doubt it will interest anyone other than my close relatives, but I am posting it here in case it might be of use to someone who shares some of my father’s lineage.]

My parents divorced when I was in my early teens. Far from being saddened by this, I was delighted. There must have been a point where the two of them enjoyed each other’s company, but if so, it had taken place long prior to my birth. Trapped in a conflict where neutrality wasn’t an option, I sided with my mother, although we later fell out very badly indeed. 

This is why most of what I ever knew about my father — about his earlier life, his family background, about the sort of person he was — came to me by way of my mother, who by that point was consistently negative about him. 

My mother had previously parted company with the rest of her family, comprising her brother and half-sister, as well as their offspring, over the terms of my maternal grandmother’s will. As this happened when I was still very young, almost everything that I knew about her side of the family also came to me via her own narrative framing. And then when she duly fell out with me, when I was in my 20s, she made it clear that I was no longer a member of the family — that I was not only a disappointment to her, but also to the many generations of my forebears, too.

So it was that when I first dipped a tentative toe into genealogical research last year, the whole project felt disloyal, transgressive — taboo. It has taken me months to get remotely comfortable with it. At times, the emotions it threw up were surprisingly raw. 

Yet at other times, the longer perspectives of historical time brought seemed to encourage a strange sort of healing. If those around me didn’t always understand the value of collecting long and gappy lists of largely unremarkable dead relatives, it’s probably because this healing process wasn’t something they themselves wanted or needed. 

Of all the challenging moments of this journey, though, perhaps the most difficult were those involving my father, who died in 2006. Here was a man I’d last seen at some long-forgotten court hearing over visitation rights and child-support payments — the almost mythical antihero of my early life. I’d tried to banish him from my memory, and had almost succeeded. Now I was going in search of him. 

This is his family story, which is also my family story. 

* * *

My father, Charles Lovelace Wheeler, was born in 1925 in rural Kentucky. “Lovelace” is, by the way, pronounced “Loveless” — in the late nineteenth century, even literate Wheelers were quite capable of spelling it “Lovlis” in family Bibles. He was the eldest of eight children — seven brothers and one sister. His parents were farming people, although I’ve been told that in the depths of the Great Depression, his father also ran the backwoods equivalent of a corner shop. 

His childhood was, I think, spent at Talley’s farm, Hammonville, Hart County. Even now, judging from a cursory visit via Google Maps, the area is very rural — flat land, sufficiently bad that not all of it has even now been cleared, cut through by meandering streams — “creeks”, I guess — and studded with Baptist churches. To this day, Hart County is a “dry” county. There are places with barely-credible names like “Barefoot Hollow”, “International Harvester Road” and “Lion’s Den”. Fort Knox, next to which the US gold reserves used to be housed, is nearby — a testament to the remoteness of the place. 

While naturally rather beautiful, it would be fair to say that Hart County is neither a very wealthy area, nor a very ethnically diverse one. Yet it’s a place in which my father had deep roots. He must have grown up knowing that one local road, “Wheeler Road”, was named after his father’s family, while two others were named for his mother’s Talley lineage. He must have known that his family, both material and paternal, had been amongst the earliest founders of this little community. 

For the sake of simplicity, though, at least for the moment, let us pursue only my father’s direct patrilineal ancestry. First, how did the Wheelers end up in Hart County, Kentucky? 

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The Empty House

“So, how was Suffolk?” 

Chloe was still busy taking off the multiple layers of wool, technical fabrics and reflective gear that enabled her to cycle into central London from her flat in a hipster enclave some way to the east. Mathilde, already seated at the tiny table in a corner of the cramped and somewhat steamy Bloomsbury café, found herself wondering, not for the first time, about her old friend: her ability to manoeuvre in these small spaces without knocking things over, the fact she was still as slim as she had been when they were both at school, the self-confidence underpinning that casual, unabashed imprecision.

“Norfolk, actually” said Mathilde. “North Norfolk. Right up on the coast.”

“Skinny decaf flat white, not too hot, and can I have a gluten-free flapjack, and is there somewhere I could put this?” 

The waitress cradled Chloe’s various belongings in her arms like cherished infants and turned her gaze pointedly to Mathilde.

“Strong latte, please. Thank you.” Mathilde’s coat was hung over the back of her chair. She worried that it was in someone’s way, although it probably wasn’t.

“Sorry, yes, Norfolk,” said Chloe. “I knew that. Rupert’s got family there, right?”

“Dead family. There are whole churchyards up there bursting with them. Unfortunately, the ancestral home was redeveloped — ‘redeveloped’ in the sense of being flogged off, knocked down and made into that ghastly thing that won the RIBA prize, you know the one I mean — so we stayed in a hotel. It was nice enough, even though we were the youngest people there by at least three decades. The breakfasts were enormous, which the boys obviously enjoyed.”

“Oh wow, great!” Chloe’s face, ostentatiously free of makeup, beamed luminous positivity in the general direction of her old friend. “That’s amazing!”

“It was good to get away. Rupert was on the phone a lot, but for once he didn’t get called back to work, so that was something. We went on various excursions — old houses, big houses, that sort of thing. Old churches, too. Sam and Toby insisted on going swimming in the sea, which was nice for Rupert — he had done the same thing when he was little, you see.”

“Incredible! Wow, that must have been really special for all of you!” 

Chloe had hoped, as it happened, to move the conversation swiftly on to more Chloe-centred content — her forthcoming presentation before the parliamentary committee, her training for the triathlon, and of course the granular detail of her never-ending divorce — but there was something in Mathilde’s face that made her pause for a moment. 

“It was special, right? I mean, like you had a good time?”

Mathilde cradled her mug of latte between her long-fingered, rather weathered hands, as if taking part in some sacerdotal rite, and stared vacantly at the smooth taupe surface of the coffee, deciding what to say.

“It must have been so cool to have some time together as a family, right?”

“There was a thing that happened.”

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On Britten’s “Gloriana” at the ENO

It was a great treat to see one of Benjamin Britten’s least-performed operas, Gloriana, at the ENO last night. The production, taking place on one night only, was a special tribute to her late majesty Queen Elizabeth II. 

The tribute was very fitting. Gloriana (op. 53) was composed by Britten in 1952, to a libretto by William Plomer, to serve as part of the late Queen’s coronation festivities. The first public performance took place at the Royal Opera House in front of the youthful Queen, accompanied by members of the royal family and assorted dignitaries including the Queen of Tonga and Jawaharlal Nehru, only six days after the coronation. The sets and costumes had been designed by John Piper. The opera included plenty of Merry Olde England type dancing, trumpets and a sad song notionally played on a lute, plus throngs of humorous fishwives and urchins. It must have been quite a spectacle.

It was also, famously, a failure. When one goes, these days, to read up on Gloriana, failure is the most famous thing about it. The critics, having adored Peter Grimes and fawned over Billy Budd, didn’t much care for Gloriana. Worse still, it came to be regarded as a matter of fact that the Queen and those around her didn’t like the opera either, which was, according to taste, either a token of their innate philistinism or a prickliness about how the monarch was depicted in Plomer’s text — and while there seems to be not the tiniest shred of evidence supporting this belief, when has that ever held people back from taking ill-informed views about the monarchy?

And so it was that Gloriana was consigned to the sad category of Britten’s lesser-known major works. True, it has been revived several times, to considerable success. A second production took place in 1966 at Sadler’s Wells Opera (the ENO’s predecessor); there were further productions in 1992, 1994 and 1999. Finally, in 2013 the Royal Opera House staged a single performance as part of the celebrations of the centenary of Britten’s birth. All the same — it is rare to spot this particular creature in the wild. All the more reason, then, to welcome the chance to see Gloriana on stage, and to judge for ourselves.

Directed by Ruth Knight, the ENO’s Gloriana was announced as a concert staging. In fact, the production turned out to be much less austere than those words imply. Of course, for a single performance, there’s a limit to what can or should be done in terms of costumes, sets, choreography. Still, with the clever use of projections onto a gauze screen, traditional late Tudor costumes and plenty of courtly bows and curtseys, Knight conjures up an atmosphere of shadows, uncertainty and performances that can’t always quite be trusted.

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On William Gale Breene

What follows is unlikely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t at the very least a cousin of mine, and indeed might not be very fascinating in that case, either. 

This has nothing to do with Norfolk, nor is it a ghost story. It’s family history, and not very good family history at that, because it’s more about what I couldn’t find than what I could. To the extent it posits any conclusions, these are entirely speculative and quite possibly incorrect. 

I should add, in case it isn’t obvious, that I’m not an expert on Irish or US history, that this is a casual blog post rather than a substantial and serious piece of research, that I can and will alter it without notice or compunction if new facts come to light, and that while I’m hugely grateful for the generous help and advice I received in the course of putting this all together, the mistakes — and I’m sure there are plenty — remain entirely my own.

The only reason, then, that I’m posting any of this here at all is that, having done the research that underpins what I’ve written, it seemed a bit wasteful not to make this material available in the unlikely event that someone, somewhere, might perhaps be able to derive some benefit from it. 

Finally, I am aware that I have not supplied footnotes. In truth, I do have these, in a working draft, but it is so hard to make them work on WordPress that I gave up. If, for some reason, you’re desperate for a reference, track me down and I’ll do the best I can to help.

Finding William Gale Breene

This is the story of my thrice great grandfather, William Gale Breene (1820-1896).

William Gale Breene’s life was not, as far as I know, any more remarkable than most lives are. All the same, he preoccupies me. In part, this is because he’s a problem for my sporadic attempts at cultivating a family tree. 

On more or less every other side of the family, I can trace my origins back into the early eighteenth century — and in many cases, far earlier than that. But with William Gale Breene, the trail stops dead. I have no idea who his parents were. I don’t even know the name of the town or village where his story started. And yet this was a man who was alive within the lifetimes of two of my own grandparents. He’s not some creature of the distant, mythic past — the world in which he died, at least, was not entirely unlike the one into which I was born. There is so much I cannot discover about him. Yet at the same time, there are points at which his life may well parallel my own. 

Anyway, this is my attempt to tell his story, in which there will be more silences than declarations, several strange digressions, many halting suggestions and few definitive answers.

Making a start

Where do we begin? The first piece of evidence that establishes the existence of William Gale Breene is a slightly unexpected one. In 1845, the American Colonisation Society, reporting on progress made on the purchase of land in Liberia, announced that between 22 October and 31 December 1844, they had received a donation from one W.G. Breene of Dayton Ohio to the value of 50 cents. The movement to send free black Americans to Liberia was opposed by abolitionists, by many black Americans, and even at the time was criticised as being possibly fraudulent, probably racist, and certainly supportive of slavery as an institution. By the 1840s it would have been obvious to most that the effect of supporting ‘repatriation’, as it was called, was anti-abolitionist — clearly so in a politically polarised state such as Ohio. So here we find William Gale Breene spending fifty cents on nailing his political colours firmly to a particularly discreditable mast.

More benign is the next record. Five years later, on 3 September 1849, two children were baptised at the Third Street Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio: William Henry Breene and Martha Jane Breene. Martha Jane, known as Jennie, was to become my twice-great grandmother. The children’s parents were listed as W. G. and Margaret Breene. Their older sibling, Francis M. Breene, had been laid to rest at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton on 20 April 1847, at the age of only three years. 

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The Lammas ghosts

‘It’s going to be a hard winter.’

There are few joys known to the Norfolk-born so profound as the joy of well-informed pessimism. The three of us were standing in the kitchen courtyard, looking ruefully at the hawthorn tree that grows in the centre, at the edge of the old dipping pool. Brian’s face, lean and wizened through a life lived largely in the open air, had a rapt look, mirrored exactly by that of his much younger cousin Benjamin, who was helping that day. 

‘The start of August, and the hawthorn haws gone red already — whoever heard of that?’ 

‘Well, it’s the lack of rain, isn’t it? Or the heat, maybe. It’s brought on the autumn early. The sloes in the hedge are so ripe that they’re falling, and the Michaelmas daisies have been out for weeks now.’ 

Brian and Benjamin listened politely to my contribution, but the little silence that followed was a reminder that although this was my kitchen courtyard, my old parsonage, my land, I was still an outsider, having only lived in the village for a dozen years or so, hence there was a great deal I didn’t know about the place — a great deal I didn’t know about, full stop. 

‘Well, it’s a strange old year, no doubt about that,’ said Brian, gently. ‘Best enjoy the sun while we can.’

Brian and Benjamin were there to help lift the pump out of our well. The pump engineer, who drove up from Norwich, had long ago learned that he needed an extra pair of hands, or maybe more, when dealing with our well, which was much older and deeper than most of the others around here. 

‘It’s near one hundred foot deep, your well’ he would say with gloomy relish. (He was Norfolk-born, too.) ‘Imagine being the poor sod who had to dig it out at the bottom, with someone else at the top hauling up the earth in a basket — that’s how they done it back then. Imagine being all that way down in the dark.’

‘Hope they thought to haul him up again at the end’ opined Benjamin, pleasantly. ‘Hope he ain’t still down there.’ 

‘Fancy goin’ down to have a look then, do you?’

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The Old Man

Literature is invisible history, not yet lived.

It was late, the tawny owls were calling to each other, dark was falling and I knew that I couldn’t see properly.

’Excuse me, can I help you?’ 

With hindsight, though, my manner conveyed no desire to help whoever it was that I had only just glimpsed, indistinctly in the bad light of a tepid May dusk, doing something in the beech wood that flanked our drive. 

The figure straightened up. He was an elderly man, not very tall, with white hair, wearing a loden-green coat of old-fashioned design. For someone so clearly in the wrong, he had a confident manner.

‘You have already helped me.’ His accent suggested continental European origins, overlaid with a very specific kind of English education. ‘Were you more meticulous in carrying out your gardening tasks, I should not have met this little fellow.’ And he held out something on an upraised hand, but in the unhelpful light, I struggled to see what it was. It looked like a beetle of some sort. It was very small.

I was cross at his intrusion, and wished to challenge him. 

At the same time, however, I was keenly aware that I cut a rather odd figure myself. I had only come out of the house to close up the hens. In late May, in our part of Norfolk, the hens won’t go into their coop until half nine at best, sometimes even later. So I had readied myself for bed then come outside in a flannel night dress, an old towelling dressing gown thrown over it, wearing worn-out hence very comfortable bedroom slippers. And then, just as I was about to turn off the main path into the walled garden where the hens lived, I had noticed the man in the beech wood. 

‘You are closing up your hens’ he said simply, as if reading my mind. ‘This is quite reasonable. I too am an early riser. Please forgive my intrusion into your beech wood. These are, I must say, very fine beeches.’

‘I can take very little responsibility for them,’ I said, more out of habit than anything else. I was still unsure as to who this man was or how I was going to deal with him. 

He laughed, still holding out the beetle towards me. He was a very merry old man. ‘Well, this is so. The beeches are older than I am, although in a few cases, perhaps not so healthy. Well, rotten wood is also a benevolent patron to my little friend here’ — and then he incanted the insect’s Latin name, which I have now forgotten — ’so this is, perhaps, as it should be. Out of death and decay comes life. Every catastrophe is, for something, an opportunity.’ 

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In search of Sarah Harvie

For those of us who feel compelled to imagine our own familiar places in past times, the release of the 1921 census data was inevitably an exciting day. Yet I doubted the new material would tell me much that I didn’t already know about my home, an old rectory in Blakeney, on the north coast of Norfolk. 

I knew, for example, that the incumbent at the time was the Rev Robert Gordon Roe, a Cambridge-educated, art-loving Anglo-Catholic who was rector from 1915-1923, so assumed that he would be living here with his wife, perhaps a child or two, and some servants. And indeed, so it proved. Two of his servants were members of the Gooch family, a name that looms large in the later history of the house — a pleasingly familiar note. 

Hence a flash of amazement and joyful discovery when I encountered the third of the live-in servants of the Roe family. The census return describes her thus: Sarah Harvie, aged 77 years and 6 months, female, single, born in Antigua in the West Indies — and also, in the language of the census, a ‘negress’. 

In recent years, historical and archaeological research has done much to alert us to the presence of black individuals in England, from at least Roman times to the more recent past. Norfolk is very much part of this story. Famously, a skull recovered from a 10th century burial at North Elmham in Norfolk has been identified as that of a young black woman. 

Blakeney is a coastal village, and until well into the nineteenth century it was still a port of some significance — not out on a limb geographically, as it to some extent is in our own automobile-dependent era, but instead connected by sea with a much wider world. So I have always assumed that there were black people visiting or living in Blakeney from time to time, whether as sailors, artisans, servants, enslaved people or something else entirely. Few records, after all, even where they exist, are as explicit about ethnicity as the is the 1921 census return mentioned above. So while I very much doubt that Sarah Harvie was the first black inhabitant of our village, the fact remains that she is the first about whom I, at least, have any specific information.

What, though, could I discover about Sarah Harvie, an elderly woman who lived in this house a century ago?

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Low Lane: a ghost story

For quite some time, perhaps a year or more, Ada had been in the habit of going for an early morning walk, more or less every day, from her house up towards Harrow Hill. 

The house where she lived with her husband and children was near the church. From there, a track led down to Low Lane, a narrow stretch of road that passed through arable fields before rising up again suddenly, twisting around a curve and crossing the top of Harrow Hill. The path then dropped down again toward a pig farm before rising as it approached another hamlet and then, eventually, the local market town. 

Ada, though, generally walked to the top of the hill before turning around and walking back again. 

The walk took her about forty minutes, all told. 

The route of the walk was, it must be said, very ordinary. The fields were generally drilled with crops like sugar beet, oilseed or winter wheat. The one cottage that lay along the route was a low prefab, clad long ago in brick and inhabited by the elderly widow related to the the local farming family. 

There were only two things that were even potentially interesting about the walk. Although there were two common stories about how Harrow Hill had got its name — either from something to do with agricultural activity, or possibly from the academic backstory of one of the farmer’s ancestors — in fact neither story was accurate. The name was actually based on the Old English ‘hearg’, denoting a spot that had once been a pre-Christian site of worship. These days, though, there was nothing on top of the hill except a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which in practice consisted of some gravel outcrops and a huge amount of bracken. 

The other potentially interesting thing was that the lane was said to be frequented by Old Shuck, the legendary black demon-dog who is a central cliché of East Anglian folklore. In fairness, though, the same is said of pretty much every long stretch of lonely lane anywhere in Norfolk or Suffolk. Certainly Ada didn’t know anyone who had experienced anything notable anywhere on Low Lane. And she had never seen Old Shuck, either. 

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Mistress Moore rides out the storm

“We have enough to do to make up ourselves from present and passed times, and the whole stage of things scarce serveth for our instruction” 

— Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia

Mistress Moore was, or so it has been told to me, vexed beyond measure when the world around her changed in ways that she could, try though she might, neither halt nor hinder.  

Mistress Moore, for instance, was very much of his late majesty’s party, but in time had advertised to her the sad news of his trial and unlawful murder— or martyrdom, as her cousin Colvile soon came to call it — read out by her husband from the London news-sheets. And before that, back in 1643, in the early days of the great rebellion, she had hoped that those of his late majesty’s party might rely, at least, on the port of Lynn, its mayor, burgesses, merchants and the farmers of its fat hinterlands. But she saw the town’s defences overthrown by the earl of Manchester and his 18,000-odd armed men, some of them camped, at least for a while, within sight of her chamber window, alongside her house, standing even now as it did then, near the brink of the river. 

Mistress Moore, though not invariably orthodox in her beliefs, was no lover of radical religion, no Independent nor presbyterian neither. And yet in the church across the river, the tower of which she might also spy from her chamber, the cowed, learned, unhappy minister, who had somehow managed to retain his cure of souls, was no longer allowed to use the Book of Common Prayer, and had been forced to set his communion table down in the nave, where it looked indecorous and offensive, and could no longer order the church bells tolled at funerals.

And then, not least, there was the death of her daughter Martha. Mistress Moore had, of course, like any natural mother, loved her daughter. Quite apart from that, though, she had gone to considerable trouble to see one of her husband’s more sympathetic schemes — Martha’s marriage to young Mr Appleton, who was not only a member of Gray’s Inn but of his majesty’s party too — through to completion. 

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Remembering Ralph Lowde

Between the years 1621 and 1639  the rector of Blakeney, a village on the north Norfolk coast, was a youngish yet very learned man named Ralph Lowde. As someone who now lives in the house once occupied by Ralph Lowde, I naturally wished to see what, if anything, four centuries on, I could discover about my predecessor. 

The most informative source for the early life of Ralph Lowde is the register of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. According to the register, Ralph was the son of Edmund Lowde, husbandman, of Aighton; he studied at Whalley School under Mr Browne; he matriculated at Emmanuel College in 1606 under Mr Walbanks, but migrated to Caius in October 1608 with William Branthwaite, Master. He took his BA in 1609/10, his MA in 1613, and the prestigious degree of BD in 1622. Finally, he served as a fellow of Caius from 1615 to 1622. 

What are we to make of this terse recitation of facts? 

Aighton is a hamlet in the parish of Mitton, five miles southwest of Clitheroe in the Ribble Valley. After the mid eighteenth century the area was to become notable as the location of the Jesuit foundation Stonyhurst College, but in the late sixteenth century it cannot have been more than a handful of modest buildings skirting the banks of a fast-flowing river.

To have started at Caius in 1608 at the age of 18, Ralph (sometimes Raphe or Radulphus) Lowde (sometimes Loud, Loude or Lowd) must have been born in about 1590. His father, Edmund, seems to have been a rather ordinary, middling sort of landowner. Dugdale’s Visitation of Lancashire (1664-5) would later record the family as being from Ridding, then Kirkham, and armigerous — the arms were argent, three bugle horns, sable, stringed, or — all of this presumably a play on the word ‘Loud’. But it was only during Ralph’s lifetime that the family entered the ranks of the gentry. 

Ralph spent four years studying at nearby Whalley Grammar School, a two-hour walk from his home. Before the reformation, the Cistercians at Whalley Abbey had offered educational opportunities for local boys. Afterwards, as early as the reign of Edward VI, a grammar school was founded — apparently in the upper room of a gatehouse formerly belonging to the abbey — to fill the gap. So when Ralph studied there, the school would have been at once rather old, yet also very obviously much changed over the previous generation or two. I have yet to find anything about ‘Mr Browne’, Loude’s schoolmaster. And if the school fit into the Whalley Abbey’s old gatehouse, it is hard to see how it could have educated more than a dozen or so pupils at any given time. But somehow in 1606, at the age of 16, Ralph was sent south to take up a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. 

The choice of Emmanuel College, at least, probably tells us something about Ralph’s education.

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A note on Sir Christopher Heydon and the Great Conjunction

Not much is left of one of my very favourite no-longer-extant neighbours, Sir Christopher Heydon of Baconsthorpe and Saxlingham in the county of Norfolk, who was born in 1561 and died at the start of 1623.

Heydon was the son and grandson of Norfolk landowners — the culmination of intermarried lines of ambitious lawyers and local political figures, in that sense not unlike the Townshends of Raynham or the Cokes of Holkham, except that in Sir Christopher’s case, the upward trajectory was due to receive a correction in the very near future.

Heydon studied first at Gresham’s School in Holt, and then at Peterhouse, Cambridge. As someone who lives in the Old Rectory, Blakeney, it’s quite striking to me that while Heydon matriculated at Peterhouse at Easter 1576, both James Calthorpe — another north Norfolk landowner and patron of the living at Blakeney — and James Poynter, soon to serve as the controversial incumbent at Blakeney and Wiveton 1584-1621 — matriculated at Cambridge (Trinity Hall and Corpus Christi, respectively) the year before, in Easter 1575. Cambridge wasn’t a big place then, so it’s hard to imagine these young men with their north Norfolk connections wouldn’t have known each other.

Heydon’s university education was presumably intended to equip him further to advance his family’s status in local and national politics, but for some reason, after he took his degree in 1578/9 at the age of 18, it’s reported that he ‘travelled widely on the continent’. Once he returned, he attempted a parliamentary career. It was not an immediate success. In 1586, he stood for the Norfolk county seat against another local gentleman and lost. His father Sir William Heydon, who must have been pretty influential at this point, somehow convinced the privy council to call a fresh poll, in which Heydon was duly elected. Unfortunately the House of Commons then embarked on a dispute with the privy council about its right to overturn electoral results, quashing the second poll result. In 1588, when there was another election, Heydon managed to win properly on the first try — but made little impact on the national scene, remaining more interested in travelling across continental Europe, where restless Englishmen could play out the era’s great doctrinal tensions in actual battlefield engagements. This seems to have suited Heydon, whose zeal for reformed religion was consistent throughout his life.

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A Very Kind House

When he was six years old Frank was sent, along with his baby sister, to live with his aunt Leonora. Auntie Lili, as he was encouraged to call this formidable person, was not actually his aunt at all, but a sort of cousin so distant that even Mr Landsberg — tutor to Auntie Lili’s sons, and by far the most brilliant person Frank had ever met — had been unable to explain the exact connection. But his summary — ‘Lady Lili is a very kind woman’ — was surely correct.

Lady Lili and her husband the Colonel kept a flat in London, just off Sloane Street, but the house where Frank stayed, and where Auntie Lili lived most of the time too, was a place in Norfolk called Friary Farm. 

Friary Farm had, indeed, once been a farmhouse, but since Aunti Lili had got to work on it — helped by an urbane, harmlessly flirtatious London architect and an army of local craftsmen — the warren of heavily-timbered, low-slung rooms, punctuated by inconvenient beams and surprising doors, had somehow transformed itself into a handsome, well-appointed, intensely charming yet also comfortable minor country house. ‘Well, this is what a sense of style will do,’ observed Mr Landsberg. Then he added, ‘money helps too, of course’. 

Friary Farm was also extensively haunted. No one in Auntie Lili’s family or retinue was remotely troubled by this. Nor, it has to be said, once he’d got used to them, did Frank mind the ghosts either. Frank had known a great deal of change and upheaval in his short life, so much so that the admixture of a ghostly element into his daily routine hardly registered. Indeed, he soon learned from Auntie Lili’s sons to blame any missing sock or jersey on the phantom hound that roamed the long gallery at the top of the stairs, or to salute the old soldier who used to pace up and down in the old kitchen but at its former floor level, so that he seemed to walk knee-deep among the tiles, or to point out to Auntie Lili, who liked to be kept informed about them, the shadowy tonsured friars who could often be seen down at the end of the meadow near the big barn, going about their conventual duties in the indistinct, sweet-scented, late summer dusk.

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The Visitor

The visitor was neither tall nor short, old nor young, nor remarkable in any other way, except for the curious fact that he was wearing some sort of distinctive, possibly religious dress that the woman who had opened the door to him tried in vain to identify. And throughout, he was scrupulously polite.

‘But this isn’t the rectory any more,’ she protested. ‘You want the new rectory, I mean the one they use now, on the other side of the road. Look, come out, I’ll show you the right way.’

But the visitor was having none of it. ‘No, no, my dear, I know perfectly well where I am, thank you. This is the right house.’

‘Or maybe you want the Old Rectory?’ she persisted, a note of doubt entering her voice. ‘It’s the next turning on the left. Behind the trees.’ She could not remember what kind of trees they were.

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Killing places

bootscraper

This is an iron boot-scraper. For the better part of a century, it stood outside the front door of a Church of England rectory in a Norfolk village perched on the cusp of the eastern England, a liminal place where a vastness of greyish-lavender salt marsh softens the edges of the North Sea.

The rectory sat on a hill above the rest of the village. Next to it was the late medieval ex-rectory it had superseded in 1924, and which its design consciously echoed. Across the way and slightly to the north, on the highest ground in the village, was the parish church, a 13th century building altered by major rebuilding campaigns in the 15th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Nearby were the old schoolhouse and the newer, early 19th century parish school with modest 20th century additions. Another neighbour was a house called Highfields, an ordinary Victorian farmhouse that had been enlarged and re-ordered in the 1930s by the same architect who built the rectory — a local man named John Page, who lived in or near the village for nearly all his long life. John Page had also worked on the older rectory, just as he would go on to work on many, perhaps even dozens of other houses and buildings in the village.

Anyone traveling to the village either from the nearby market town of Holt, or indeed from the fine cathedral city of Norwich, necessarily passed between these buildings. The rectory was, more or less, the southern-most building in the village. As such, its tall chimneys, sloping tiled roof and distinctive 1920s Queen Anne roofline provided visitors with their first impression of the place they were about to experience.

In 2016, however, the rector decided that the rectory in which she and her children had lived, apparently happily, for a few years was no longer required. The diocese agreed. In 2017, the ex-rectory was sold to private owners for £1m. After local objections that went all the way to the High Court, the necessary planning permissions were obtained.

And so it happened that a year ago today — 21 January 2019, at 3.14 in the afternoon — a lone hydraulic excavator tore down the central tall chimney of the rectory. As holes were smashed into the distinctive 1920s Queen Anne roof, throwing its red sand faced Hartshill rooftiles everywhere, a strangely sweet, fresh smell settled over the area. It was the resin, suddenly released from all those 1920s softwood battens, making contact with the sharp damp air of a winter evening on the north Norfolk coast.

The smell persisted for days. It was actually very pleasant, as long as one tried to forget the act of senseless, irreparable violence that had created it.

demolition
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Two Oaks, Kelling: the case for saving an ‘unremarkable’ interwar house

Two Oaks, Kelling

At present, the modest, interwar building shown above — Two Oaks, in the village of Kelling, Norfolk — is threatened with demolition. The planning application requesting demolition is here, on the website of North Norfolk District Council.

North Norfolk District Council has form for allowing the demolition of interwar buildings, including my own village’s New Rectory, an important early work from 1924 by local architect John Page.

I have, needless to say, sent a letter of objection to the NNDC’s Planning Committee, for their consideration, but in the interest of making the relevant case more widely, I reproduce my letter of objection below. (In the version below, I have also provided web links absent from the original document, as not all the enterprises mentioned, while presumably familiar to council members, will be known to the general public.)

___________

15 January 2020

To the Planning Committee of North Norfolk District Council

I write to object to PF/19/2071 — Demolition of detached dwelling and change of use of site to agricultural land.

Two Oaks, Kelling is an extremely attractive house, compact and pleasing in its simple symmetry. It is also richly evocative of the interwar period in which it was constructed, and of the wartime period which it survived intact. As such it should be preserved, renovated and cherished as an important part of the North Norfolk Coast’s built heritage.

North Norfolk sometimes makes much of its links with the Second World War. The Muckleburg Collection, established in 1988, is now visited by thousands each year. Langham Dome has received awards as a successful educational enterprise and tourist attraction. Private initiatives such as the successful Control Tower B&B in North Creake trade on nostalgia for interwar design as much as the desire to experience a site of wartime interest. North Norfolk Railway’s 1940s weekend goes from strength to strength — drawing thousands to the Holt/Sheringham area, offering everything from 1940s jazz to vintage vehicles, it is now one of the largest such events in the UK. At the other end of the spectrum, people from all over the world make private pilgrimages to visit the places where loved ones served, and sometimes died, amongst our Norfolk airfields and along our coast.

Yet those in charge of North Norfolk’s heritage can be casual to the point of negligence when it comes to preserving precious reminders of ‘the greatest generation’ and the world they inhabited. Astonishingly, seriously important 1920s and 1930s buildings — in good condition, often with their internal fixtures and fittings intact, sited prominently in their villages — are still demolished without question or comment.

This is not only grotesque on environmental grounds (the embodied carbon in these buildings means that their demolition is invariably far less ‘green’ than preservation and retrofitting would be) but also on historical ones. A building from the 1920s or 30s is clearly not ‘old’ in the sense that a building from the 1820s or 30s is — but if the younger building isn’t cherished and protected, then it will never have the chance to become old. In a century’s time, our descendants will scratch their heads and wonder why our generation did not fight harder to protect this part of their historical birthright.

Two Oaks may not be ‘remarkable’, in the sense that it is recognisably a normal interwar house, but it is certainly part of Kelling’s history. For some of its time it was apparently the village police house. And for many long decades, it has occupied a prominent position along the busy coast road. Its handsome silhouette is clearly visible, for instance, from Kelling’s War Memorial. And there is something poignant about this. How many troop carriers passed by this house? How many wartime aircraft overflew it? Did Churchill himself drive by on one of his various visits to the area? To anyone who knows or cares about 20th century buildings and happens to drive past Two Oaks today, all these questions are very pertinent. And they may matter even more to those passing by in 100 years, or in 500 years’ time.

There is, after all, a great deal more to North Norfolk’s history than the lazy cliché of flint-built, pantile-roofed fishermen’s cottages. At some level, local government takes account of this. The parish summary for Kelling on the ‘North Norfolk Heritage Explorer’ website expends two long paragraphs on still-extant wartime defensive structures and other built legacies of the Second World War including pillboxes, gun emplacements and anti-aircraft batteries. Increasingly, however, the public understands the history of that war not only through its explicitly military heritage, but also through reminders of the Home Front, civilian experience that underpinned and enabled it.

Two Oaks is very much a part of that Home Front history. In its modest way, it is a monument to Kelling’s wartime experience, and a reminder of that pivotal moment in our region’s history. To demolish Two Oaks is to show contempt, yet again, for the vanishing past, no less significant for being relatively recent.

Please insist on the preservation of Two Oaks, and please reject this planning application.

[Signed etc.]

On May’s Brexit deal

[This article also appears as a guest post at the excellent Paul Burgin’s Mars Hill blog.]

Brexit, even after all these months, is still capable of surprises. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a couple of old friends. They’re both Leave supporters. I’m a Remainer, as was my companion. We had met each other — all four of us, actually — through the student politics of the late 1980s. None of us is shy about expressing a point of view. And yet this dinner, which by rights ought to have ended either with a flaming row or, perhaps worse, with a display of ever-more-icy contempt for each others’ abject wrongness, was — from my point of view, at least — an extremely happy occasion.

It says something sad about today’s politics that I found myself, afterwards, picking apart why this conversation — unlike so many conversations about Brexit, both online and in real life — had been so interesting, constructive and friendly. For one thing, as we had all known each other for so long, it was possible to appeal to a corpus of common assumptions. It probably also helped that, as we all genuinely like each other, none of us immediately assumed, the minute someone said something with which we disagreed, that the speaker was either a monster or an idiot — that there was quite a lot of good faith on show. Indeed, the climate of mutual respect was powerful enough that I found myself thinking, at various points, ‘that’s not the way I see things, but if X sees things that way, maybe it’s worth considering’. Finally, there was a pervasive sense, hard to pin down but expressed at all sorts of points, that it wasn’t worth falling out over this.

Did the conversation change my mind? No, but it probably did help to remind me that conversations about Brexit are not only possible, but perhaps also necessary. Read the rest of this entry »

On Sir Roger Scruton

Were our present government marginally less aimless, abject and impotent, it might almost be possible to believe that the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton to chair the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission — a public body which, according to this Guardian piece, ‘aims to expand on the ways in which the planning system can encourage and incentivise a greater emphasis on design, style and community consent’ — was an amusingly cynical attempt to pick some sort of culture war scrap, just as all of us are coming down off our various Vegangate high horses, if only to distract us from the national howl of puzzled existential despair that is May’s Brexit. As it is, however, it’s probably just a fascinating, entirely avoidable and indeed rather tragic mistake.

The attempted appointment of Toby Young to the board of a new university regulatory body, followed swiftly by his resignation once our ever-helpful Twitter had unearthed his considered views regarding breasts, has set a precedent. Perhaps, as with many precedents set in the course of the development of our unwritten constitution, not everyone wanted this to become a precedent. But that isn’t how unwritten constitutions work, is it? At present, Twitter represents the review body for HMG’s own internal due diligence procedures. Based on that insight, I am by no means certain that Sir Roger’s appointment will end happily, either for the man himself or for those who appointed him — certainly not for the built environment. Twitter, on the other hand, may enjoy it all enormously. Guido Fawkes, Tom Holland, Niall Ferguson, David Icke and, err, Toby Young have already piled in, supporting Sir Roger.

As often happens, the first salvo in this spat is possibly better as tracer-fire than meaningful attack. Is Sir Roger a friend of the deeply unsavoury Viktor Orbán? Read the rest of this entry »

On the Ben Uri Gallery

There is something distinctive and, yes, slightly thrilling about the sound made by an auction house catalogue being pushed awkwardly through the letter-box then falling, cushioned by its soft plastic envelope, onto the worn-out coir matting beneath. And indeed, this morning I was glad to discover a Sotheby’s catalogue arriving in just such a way.

It was only when I extracted the pleasingly bulky softback catalogue from its plastic that I felt a lurch of alarm.

The cover image was, surely, David Bomberg’s great [Woman] At The Window (1919). It’s a work that’s been in the Ben Uri collection since 1920. I last encountered it in the brilliant Bomberg show that took place earlier this year at Pallant House in Chichester, organised in conjunction with the Ben Uri Gallery. Read the rest of this entry »

Old Tom: a ghost story

When I was a little child, not more than four winters old, my mother used to sit up with Parson Poynter, when he was dying, in his chamber upstairs at the parsonage. Sometimes, she would take me with her. This was in the year before the old king died. I mean King James.

My father didn’t like it. He knew what everyone said about Parson Poynter and, more to the point, what everyone was likely to say about a young woman — for my mother was still young then, better-looking than some, and sharp-witted, too — who sat alone with Parson Poynter, in his chamber, even though he was almost dead by then, or at any rate so feeble and diminished in his powers as to be past much mischief. But in any event, my mother, who in many matters would defer to my father, would simply take up her things, grab me by the hand and set off up the hill toward the parsonage, as if my father had said nothing at all.

Be quiet, said my mother. We were in the kitchen. It was a long, low room. Two massive oak beams ran the length of it. On one of the long walls there was a huge brick hearth, surrounded with pots and cooking irons and so forth, with a bread oven in the wall to the right it. The kitchen smelled of smoke, meat, fat, spices, ale, cats and warm bodies. Be quiet. Just sit down and don’t bother Gartreud and for heaven’s sake don’t bother anyone else, either. Just sit down and be quiet.

There was a bench along one of the short walls, near enough to the fire to be very warm, so I sat there. Don’t you worry, little one, said Gartreud, once my mother had gone up the kitchen stairs. Read the rest of this entry »

Incomers: a ghost story

Of course, when an ‘incomer’ arrives from London and moves into the big, old, rambling, tumbledown house sitting deep in its grounds on the landward edge of a Norfolk coastal village, the first thing that local people do is to make sure that she’s fully informed about all her neighbours — in particular, the resident ghosts.

‘Oh yes, Peggy’s round here all the time,’ said the lugubrious handyman who used to look after the house back before we made our offer for it, when the developer was seeking planning permission to turn it into a boutique hotel. ‘Often I’m in the kitchen here’ — to be fair, at the time it was one of the two dry rooms in the house — ‘and I see her looking in at me from across the way’. He gestured vaguely in the direction of an acrid-smelling room across the corridor, all peeling lurid wallpaper and abandoned plastic garden chairs, that used to be the old servants’ parlour. ‘Trouble is, ma’am’ — and here I could see where the conversation was going — ‘Peggy’s been lyin’ in the churchyard twenty-odd years now. But I know it were her, because I see’d her as good as I see you now.’

Perhaps I ought to have shivered, but instead I smiled politely, and turned the conversation back to the return of some keys, because even by then I had learned all there was to know — or so I thought — about the tales that local people tell just to frighten the incomers.

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