by Barendina Smedley
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 Next to it was the late medieval ex-rectory it had superseded in 1924, and which its design consciously echoed.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.
* * *
It isn’t that our village is indifferent to its history, exactly. It’s more that there are at least two versions of that history, each functional in various ways, that exist at cross purposes to each other.
On one hand, there is the version of village history that is innocently recounted for the tourists, of whom there are many, but also incidentally believed by many of the middle-class, professional, well-educated older people who often retire to the village after lives mostly lived elsewhere, and who then go on to occupy positions of authority within local organisations such as the parish council and many of the local societies.
This particular history is a vision blocked out in Farrow & Ball colours and fully postable on Instagram: all bleached driftwood, endless clear skies and the occasional glint off the surface of the very clean 4x4s parked in the concreted drive. It is a history of timelessness, authenticity yet also of infinite leisure and wealth. The village, apparently, has always been a place of sweet little cottages, faced in uncoursed, unknapped flints and covered with pantiled roofs, pastel hollyhocks flanking the winding lane that leads down to the quay and the water, full of sailing craft bobbing brightly in the clean Norfolk air. Of course there are old things that feature in the vision — the parish church, for instance, which is seen as unproblematically ‘medieval’ (whatever that means) but for many, only significant in ways that are civic and secular. There is no sense that age confers authority or obligation, or that heritage shouldn’t be brushed aside the moment it falls out of fashion.
This history is, indeed, always in danger of collapsing into something that’s more an aesthetic than a narrative. Our village, it appears, is a kind of eternally-valid retreat from time, labour, money-making, effort, failure, flawedness. It’s a trophy village, wherein beautiful, successful people live selfie-ready lives. Like that bogus flint cladding, it’s all finish, no structure. In some cases, it’s a pretty plaster to stick on some very deep, possibly septic psychic wounds. There are few personal backstories so grubby that the ambient middle-classness, the casual extravagance, the purposeless prettiness of our village can’t wash them clean for you, given enough cash and persistence. If there’s a weird hatred of rough-cast render here, it’s perhaps because some associate it with a world of pebble-dash housing they wish to leave behind.
There is, though, a second version of this village history, no less powerful for being quieter, more nuanced, less susceptible to commercial exploitation.
The second version of the village history is the one that circulates among the people whose families have actually lived in the area for generations — sometimes, literally for centuries — as well, it should be said, as among the few incomers who are actually curious about these things, show respect for them, and take the time to learn about them.
The second version of history differs from the first in that it lacks a coherent aesthetic. At times it can look scruffy, messy, distinctly down-market.
It is a history, for instance, that embraces Gray’s Funfair. A funfair has taken place on a part of our village quay — in local parlance, ‘the carnser’ — since at least the late 19th century. For more than 50 years, Grays — a small family business based in Essex — have been providing the funfair.
Gray’s funfair is all that one might hope a traditional funfair would be. It’s vivid, noisy, demotic. It’s all about bright lights, gaudy colours, nostalgic music that can sometimes, when the wind is blowing the right way, be heard echoing across the bleak grey saltmarsh with all the poignancy of ‘Der Leiermann‘ at the end of Schubert’s Winterreise.
The funfair, it must be said, is not much loved by the National Trust, which for historical reasons owns most of the marsh beyond our village and also keeps a fee-paying carpark on the carnser, the proceeds of which it splits with the parish council. Nor is it loved by all tourists, some of whom find it inconvenient. Indeed, there are local residents who don’t like it much, although they are often quiet about this. I suspect, however, that if they were asked, the eventual answer would be that they dislike its vigour, its non-ironic traditional quality, its popularity. They dislike it for all the reasons that ensure that our village, despite being a former port located next to the actual sea, is never allowed a proper fish-and-chip shop. They dislike it precisely because some other people — the wrong kind of people! — like it so much.
In contrast, those who grew up in the village are intensely attached to the funfair — even if they now live in distant cities or even distant countries and only keep up with village gossip via social media. They cherish memories of the way in which its annual irruption into the life of the village enlivened their childhood summers. Some of them, indeed, wax poetic to quite a remarkable degree when it comes to describing the apparently magical way in which the funfair — faced with the puzzle of having to move enormous bits of plant into a smallish village via tiny winding lanes — arrived in the depths of night, so that when morning dawned it appeared to have sprung up out of nothing — and then how, after a few days, it would vanish overnight with equally thrilling mystery.
But these local people also believe, quite explicitly, that age confers authority. They know that their parents and grandparents also enjoyed the funfair on the carnser. Some of them have the photo evidence to prove it. Some have collected paintings, or reproductions of painting, confirming beyond doubt that from the earliest years of the last century onward, people have been enjoying the village funfair. And indeed, artists do seem to have been very struck by the powerful contrast between the austere, harsh life of the saltmarsh, and the gaudy colours and short-lived silliness of the fair. Unlike some, perhaps these artists realised that for local people, our village, far from being a paradise of infinite recreation, was actually in many ways a brutally hard place in which to scratch a living, and hence that these few hours of innocent fun were a much-needed contrast to endless, grinding, often unprofitable, always precarious work.
In any event, local people really do believe that because the funfair existed from the late 19th century onward, it ought to continue to exist. An extraordinary meeting of the parish council on this subject recently attracted up to 60 residents — far more than would fit into the relatively large committee room, so that the crowd spilled outside yet stayed, on a cold January evening, to make their point. Suffice to say that those who turned up got their argument across. To their great credit, the parish council appear to have taken the message on board.
This alternate version of village history, because it depends to a large extent on oral history backed up by family photos and miscellaneous recollections, includes plenty of aspects that challenge the other, more sanitised account.
For one thing, it presents the village as anything but timeless. Local people are perfectly well aware that there has been change for the better, as well as for the worse. There are, for instance, photos that mark the advent of electrification for the fishermen’s cottages on the High Street. These date, I am pretty certain, from the 1960s. Similarly, a long-time resident, now in his mid 90s, recalls that when he came to the village in the 1950s, there were still cottages floored not in high-spec oak laminate, not in shiny waxed pamments, but rather in pounded earth — as their 17th century predecessor might have been. He remembers the airlessness that was necessary to keep the heat in, the contagious diseases treated as unavoidable, the hard-working folk who looked 50 years old but had not yet seen 30 summers. Local people remember these hard lives, too.
All the same, they are often full of nostalgia for this difficult yet precious past, and also deeply angry about attempts by the incomers to erase it.
* * *
For the 94-odd years that separated its design and its construction from its sordid demolition, a view of the rectory framed visitors’ entry into our village.
John Page’s 1924 Rectory was built when the then-incumbent, the Rev David Lee-Elliot (rector of our village from 1906 to 1915, and then again from 1923 to 1924) decided that the existing rectory was somehow inappropriate for the post-war parish. In short order, he purchased the older rectory, commissioned the ‘new rectory’, and retired from his living. In 1934, he sold the late medieval rectory to Frida Brackley, the elder daughter of the industrialist, philanthropist and erstwhile Egyptologist Sir Robert Mond. In 1943, Lee-Elliot relinquished holy orders. He died, aged 86, on 14 March 1956 at La Tour de Peilz in Switzerland where he had lived for many years, and where he is now buried.
Lee-Elliot was an Anglo-Catholic. This was how he came to know Frida Brackley, who went on to become an important benefactress of the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. His successor, the Rt Rev Mowbray Stephen O’Rourke, rector of our parish 1924-35, was similarly a guardian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. He is buried within the Shrine church, where his tomb depicts him resplendent in the mitre he received as bishop of Accra in Ghana. Even John Page, for his part, was no stranger to Anglo-Catholicism. One of his most important early commissions was the creation of a war memorial at Great Ryburgh that took the form of an elaborate, extremely Anglo-Catholic, hence not universally popular rood screen.
Anglo-Catholicism is a key part of the story of our village that is often excised from the more tourist- and newcomer-facing sort of narrative.
In fact, the late 19th and early 20th century reordering of our parish church — including new church furniture, pulpit, windows, chancel screen, rood beam, re-facing and re-flooring, plus major repairs to failing stonework, so that in fact not a huge amount of the actual medieval or early modern church is still in any way evident — was largely the work of Anglo-Catholic clergymen and parishioners. A new guide to the church was published in the last year or so. It says quite a lot about the possible early history of the church, but shows not the least flicker of curiosity regarding, for instance, the origin of the screen and rood beam, or who paid for them — despite the fact that both these things could have easily been established, by anyone who cared to ask. But to do so — to admit that there was a particular religiosity underlying what happened in our parish a century or so ago, and that it was and remains contentious — would be to detract from the apparent timelessness, the de-clawed, de-natured history of our village. And so it didn’t happen.
When it was built, either in the early 16th century or perhaps even in the late 14th century (in which case the early 16th century work is yet another modernisation), the older rectory in our parish faced, via a small courtyard, immediately onto the main road that leads up from Holt and from Norwich. Whoever and whatever came past — a messenger with news of the king’s newest wife or of the defeat of the Spanish Armada — the parson would have learned the news first, unless of course it came in by sea, which is also possible. The enclosure acts of the 1830s, however, occasioned a major change. The old road — then called Holgate Way — was re-routed much closer to the church, perhaps closing up a larger piece of once-common land, leaving the rector, or his patron, free to create the tiniest of gentleman’s parks in the bijou little beech-wood that now stands in front of the older rectory. Just as, within his large and rambling house, the Regency rector had managed to retreat from the (basically public) hall into the (entirely private) rector’s study, so too could the rectory retreat from the high road into its own, genteel, increasingly privatised sphere.
And this is why the position of the newer rectory mattered so much. Once more, it was right there on the high road. It could not be missed. Anyone passing into the village could immediately see — assuming that they had the tiniest bit of architectural or historical nous — that our village was a place where the parsonage, and hence the established church, was organically, inescapably central. This tall, confident building asserted both its connections to the village around it, but also its primacy and its relevance. And in the way that this gesture harkened back to the late medieval church, it was also, in some very real sense, an Anglo-Catholic gesture.
Since 2017, our village’s newest rectory has been located in the 2010-vintage holiday cottage previously known as Puddleducks, on a little drive just south of the New Road, and our rectors are much more evangelical in orientation.
* * *
When he was called upon to design a new rectory for his own village, John Page was only a relatively young man. It must surely have been his first major commission.
Page was, at the time, working for the architectural firm of Holtom & Page. Edward Gibbs Holtom, who had founded the firm, was in practice from about 1900 to 1930. Holtom’s best-known work is probably Stratford-upon-Avon Public Library, Henley Street, funded by the Carnegie Trust. This is an early 16th century timber-framed house, partly restored by Holtom, but also with additional work by him from 1903-05. Holtom also designed two blocks (Nos. 57-60) on Bard’s Walk, with half-timbered gables in 1901-02. This was the practice in which John Page found himself, once it had moved to Norfolk — one focused on marrying old with new, working in a local idiom and with the surrounding buildings, showing tact and sensitivity. And this is what Page himself would do in our village.
On one hand, compared with the older rectory that his new building would replace, Page’s structure was, by the standards of 1924, relatively modern. It included, for instance, a cutting-edge garage, an integral heating system with a little boiler house all of its own, and — as a contrast with the rambling warren of 18th century service rooms in the older rectory — a trim little kitchen, larder and services, suitable to be operated by a single maid. The new rectory must have been a cheaper place to run by far than the late medieval one was — more practical, more stripped-down and manageable. This is why the comparison between the two is, or rather was, such a poignant and compelling piece of social history.
Yet at the same time, the newer rectory’s design spoke powerfully of its own specific history and context. The newer rectory had tall chimneys, echoing those of the older rectory. In deference to its predecessor’s high-pitched roof, it also had a tall, handsome roof, visible far across the nearby downs. Both buildings were covered, at least where they would most obviously be seen, in rough-cast render — a traditional, practical material with a long history of use along the north Norfolk coast. The leaded windows of the newer rectory were exactly those of the facing elevation of the Old Rectory.
Finally, instead of facing the main road up from Holt, the newer rectory sat at a 90-degree angle to the road, allowing it to half-face its senior colleague, as if the two were set in a sort of eternal conversation with each other. For those with any sensitivity to such things, the two buildings were less independent entities than two expressions of an identical impulse, articulated at different occasions in slightly different tones. This, I think, is why, when she lived at the Old Rectory, Frida Brackley would not allow any fencing or hedging to exist between them — something well-remembered by local people. And this is why, living in the Old Rectory, I never put in any fencing either, until the Church of England insisted on it at the time of the sale of the New Rectory in 2016.
Semper eadem, eh?
* * *
Local councils are underfunded. This is why they struggle to provide important things such as libraries, youth centres, support groups for people facing addiction issues or domestic abuse, solutions for rough sleeping and homelessness. But it’s also probably the reason why they under-perform when it comes to archaeology, preserving wildlife and wild landscapes, or indeed conserving the historic built environment.
Ignorance is one helluva drug. But with a chaser of laziness, followed on by a quick shot of regulatory capture, it all gets very messy very fast.
The local council conservation officer who dealt with the case of the newer rectory didn’t realise that the building’s roughcast render was original to the structure, let alone that the use of roughcast render is actually a proper local vernacular building tradition.
But then this is where the narrative of ‘timelessness’ is so pernicious. True, quite a few traditional buildings in my village now sport elevations of the cheapest local building material: naturally-occurring, unworked flints, ‘uncoursed’ — i.e. laid any which way, not all of equal size or in straight lines. On older houses they are, it should be stipulated, used as a structural building material, not as a decorative finish.
But what the planning officer clearly didn’t realise is that most if not all of these buildings, when originally constructed, would have been covered with lime-based render, including roughcast. The render added an additional protective layer, the roughcast radically increasing the overall surface area, hence throwing off more moisture. It also, by the standards of early modern builders, made the structures more attractive. Even the tithe barn attached to our village’s older rectory — the barn being a large, six-bay structure dating to c. 1555 — was once rendered. What a statement it must have made, on the top of it hill, holding so much of the wealth of the local community, its bright-white walls gleaming in the late afternoon sun, visible for miles around, back when the church was proud of its centrality and didn’t seek to hide itself away.
Indeed, the idea that uncoursed, unworked flints look in any way pleasant is entirely an artefact of the early to mid 20th century. There is a reason why most if not all of the ‘important’ houses in the area either are, or were, rendered, at least on the elevation that would be seen most prominently. To suggest that a ‘prestige’ building should have uncoursed flint nodules as part of its makeup is, simply, ignorant. And to suggest that it’s fine to use these, not as a structural material but simply as a decorative finish, is to engage in pastiche that sits very badly with the central logic of modernism.
And yet, it is now part of the local council’s planning orthodoxy that applying some random little panel of uncoursed yet knapped flints makes any building, regardless of any of its other characteristics, look ‘vernacular’ for north Norfolk. Indeed, it would be possible to photocopy an image of some deeply boring yet also award-winning modernist bunker in the Chilterns, photoshop a few flints in place of its white-painted timber cladding, and get planning permission for it, for all the world as if it were a forward-looking exciting addition to the local architectural scene, rather than cynical exploitation of a cowed, credulous planning department that is deeply unsure of itself and that has long since forgotten how to say ‘no’.
A generation or two ago, there was no mystery to any of this. Local people recall, with typical bemusement, decisions to strip the render from walls that had all too clearly been constructed in the firm expectation that their various dark secrets would never be revealed. Messy repairs, never meant to be seen, are now shown off as if they were design features – presumably with the blessing of the district council’s conservation team.
Yet even in 1965, in his influential book ‘The Pattern of English Building’, Alec Clifton-Taylor was able to write the following, with reference specifically to Norfolk:
‘Aesthetically, the rendering and colour-washing of an unfractured flint surface, if decently maintained, can hardly fail to be an improvement.’
Coursed, worked flints, of course, are a different question, but not relevant to every nasty bit of ill-considered garden infill, often if not always aimed at the Airbnb market, granted planning permission in our village over the past few years.
As for the other mistakes the local conservation officer made regarding that newer rectory, it is painful to recount them. He didn’t have the authority to go inside the building (or so he claimed) so was unable or unwilling to report what the estate agents’ particulars from the 2106 sale made obvious: that the building was not only in liveable condition, but that it also contained a wealth of original 1924 features, including door furniture, sanitary-ware, doors and service areas, a completely intact floorplan, and a massive oak staircase leading up from the hall to the main first floor landing — let alone, of course, that boot-scraper.
The newer rectory was, indeed, that rare thing, an almost entirely intact, purpose-built rectory, designed by a local architect, standing next to its late-medieval predecessor, in a close grouping with a Grade II* former rectory, a Grade I church, and a tithe barn, old school house and new parish school buildings all listed Grade II.
There was really only one thing wrong with the rectory. In the 1980s, I think, the Church of England had replaced the original leaded windows — there were only two that escaped — with uPVC modern windows. It would have cost some money to have put these right again, but there was nothing difficult about doing it. Other than that, the house had hardly been altered in any way since the mid 1920s.
When, however, concerned local residents attempted to seek an emergency listing for our 94-year old, architect-built, purpose-designed rectory, we were told — this is an actual quote from an officer of Historic England — that ‘there are a lot of 1920s rectories’, so there was no point in listing our own example. And so it was that Historic England, statutory conservator of such things, to which we all render our tax money as tribute, sounded the death knell on this much-loved, almost century-old building.
This, then, is how places die, and how bad planning and conservation policy conspire with insensitive, incurious property owners to kill them.
* * *
Our simple word ‘place’ is over-freighted. For some, the issue here is the red-faced spectre of Ian Nairn, exuding pub-induced outrage regarding contempt for the genius loci, his unsteady shade followed closely by the brisk shade of Jane Jacobs, articulating in trans-Atlantic tones a preference for the particular and distinctive over the generic and deeply banal option. Or maybe it’s Richard Mabey or Robert McFarlane. Or perhaps the relevant ghost here is Max Sebald, strolling past, aloof and alone, intent on his own distinctive ironies and elegies, his problematic features and hard-to-recover sense of humour. Or perhaps it’s just some random passer-by on a bike, taking photos with her iPhone and posting them somewhere.
In our village, local people are very clear about what destroys a sense of place, and what preserves it. A man from outside the village recently bought the local petrol station — Pye’s garage, built by John Page in the 1920s — and has renovated it. Because his renovation changed the external appearance (yes, more uncoursed flint replacing the original lime-washed render), tidied up the sagging roof line, and otherwise made the building look different, it at first made me very sad. Yet local people love it, because they see it as at least keeping the same building, not destroying it, albeit altering its form. The conversation reminded me of what I had been told about the shrine buildings of Amaterasu at Ise, rebuilt every 20 years, the same ritual repeated for many centuries now, but always in some essential sense the same place. I have learned from this.
And yet, when we bought the village’s older rectory in 2011, our instructions to our builders were rather different. Do you remember Mrs Porty from ‘Ivor the Engine’ — in her own words, ‘very rich and extremely silly’? She wanted, famously, to buy the whole railway, and she didn’t want to change anything. Well, that is pretty much exactly the line we took when we turned up in our village. We bought the Old Rectory, which was a bit of ruin — no functioning heat, electricity, water or sewerage — but we didn’t want to change much, either.
And so it was that we got the pump for the ancient, 97-foot deep well going again, organised new electrical wiring but re-used the old Bakelite switches, kept our lead outflows even as we had to replaced, like-for-like, the old copper inflows, re-used the Regency brick-built sewerage and indeed got our roof sarked not with modern miracle products, but rather with larch battens and, at the back, like-for-like, north Norfolk-grown reeds. Our ‘refrigerator’ is the mid 18th century north-facing cold larder. We changed nothing about the floor plan. We had a few of the leaded windows re-made, but didn’t ‘modernise’ any of them. The sole cooking medium in our house is the 1950s Aga, which we sent away to be reconditioned. We spent, of course, quite a lot of money sorting out the dry rot, the asbestos, the wet rot, the general sense of dereliction and neglect. But when floors had to come up or walls had to be replaced, we always tried to put them back again just as they had been.
Not long ago, someone dropped by who had known this house, the Old Rectory, as a child, in the late 1940s, when, as a relative of Frida Brackley, he used to spend long sunny summers here. He was pleased to see that it hadn’t actually changed much at all. This had been a special place for him, yet in 2018 it was still the place he remembered. The magic hadn’t been lost. The sense of place remained. For me, that made it all worthwhile.
The danger of changing places too much, too fast, too thoughtlessly, is that in due course, everything starts to look the same. Nothing is connected by any intelligible narrative, because nothing is built with reference to the things that stand around it or the sort of context it inhabits. This, in part, is what Nairn warned us about when, in the 1950s, he coined the term ‘subtopia’ — the creation of a built environment that is ‘the annhiliation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’, one that cannot decide whether it’s a town or a suburb or the countryside.
Our medium-sized Norfolk village, it sometimes seems to me, is becoming distinctly subtopian. Signs and portents of this spiritual diminution are everywhere: in the expansion and over-smartening up of what used to be familiar old cottages; the ripping out of old gardens in order to replace them with something low-maintenance or no-maintenance; the habit of in-filling (of which more later) changing the flow and density of the village in a totally unconsidered way; and, yes, the introduction of new buildings where the only grudging nod to place or context is the cynical application of a bit of random flint. Of course our village is smarter than it was even a decade ago, property values here continue to rise, and day by day, more of the things that were messy, scruffy, eccentric or simply complicated are vanishing with the blessing of local planners. But it also looks more and more like any prosperous place in England, with its irruptions of trophy architecture, gentrification and obliviousness to its own past. And that, too, is how places die.
* * *
I don’t entirely blame what has happened to our village on the local planners.
These people are underpaid, overstretched, subjected to strange pressures regarding architectural or development firms with which they have to deal with every day — they generally get a very hard time.
And yet, looking back, in the course of writing this, at some of the communications regarding the demolition of the newer rectory during the last months of 2018, it is hard to avoid blaming some of the guilty men and women, who could and should have done better.
Historic England, having supported the demolition of a 94-year old, architect-designed, virtually entirely intact former rectory from the start, had nothing fresh to say — this, despite the fact that SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the 20th Century Society, Save Our Parsonages and the Rectory Society had all lodged their objections to the demolition.
This is the contribution of the district council’s Conservation & Design team:
“C&D have no objection in principle to a contemporary style replacement dwelling on this site and remain of the opinion that the demolition of the New Rectory will not result in harm to the heritage assets in question (the designated [village] Conservation Area, the setting of the Grade II* Old Rectory site and the setting of the Grade I St Nicholas Church). At this stage, for clarity, the New Rectory is not considered to be a designated or non-designated heritage asset. The Council’s adopted Local Listing Criteria was used to assess the New Rectory during the assessment of the previous application, and it was concluded that the building did not merit local listing primarily due to its failure to meet the ‘Architectural Importance’, ‘Age’ and ‘Rarity’ facets of this qualifying assessment.”
Here is, or rather was, the New Rectory:
This, meanwhile, is the ‘contemporary style replacement’:
Yes, it looks like a badly-designed anti-tank bunker, or a petrol station, or perhaps the visitor centre at the site of some notorious war crime. It doesn’t look like a house. The floorplan is curious, in that the bedrooms all face the busy, noisy main road and offer views of a rather ordinary hedge. There isn’t much storage space. It must be one of the very few houses in Blakeney with no fireplace or wood burner — the chimney, such as it is, is pure pastiche. With a flat roof but no conventional ventilation, it will be lucky to avoid profound issues with damp, let alone musty, unwholesome air. And there’s no privacy whatsoever for the larger of the two reception rooms, as half its walls are floor-to-ceiling glass, — no blinds or curtains, of course — with additional large windows on the other side. The main window overlooks the car-park, and at night displays the interior of the living quarters with the distracting clarity of a video screen, free-to-view for anyone unfortunate enough to drive past in a southward direction.
It would actually be more functional as an Airbnb offering than as a private house, where no one family would be subject to its manifest inadequacies for more than a few days. Perhaps there’s a reason for that.
In case you’re wondering, the shit-coloured part of the building is to be constructed in that well-known north Norfolk local building material, rusted corten steel — a material not recommended, even by those who manufacture and market it, for use near the sea. Rusting steel is not exactly the most obviously carbon-friendly form of cladding. The applied skin of flint, however, is apparently going to be uncoursed yet also knapped, the way they do it in Hampshire and, relevant in this case, Buckinghamshire. That, at least, is innovative, even if the expensively-secured effect turns out to look remarkably like crazy-paving.
On a more positive note, it’s got to be said that as buildings go, the new house actually does express something of the character of its owners, their attitude towards their new village and its inhabitants, the touching degree of trust that they placed in their architect, his claims for himself and his grasp of ‘contemporary style’, or at least of retro-1970s pastiche married to modish and possibly flawed present-day technologies. As such, it’s quite possible that historians of late capitalism and its manifestations will someday find the house absolutely fascinating — assuming, of course that it lasts that long (it’s only got a sixty year ‘design life’, so most of us should outlive it), that its glass and steel continue to be replaced periodically, and that planners don’t allow its demolition when it, in its turn, falls out of fashion.
* * *
Let’s be fair. The New Rectory was only a trivial 94 years old, not an important 100 years old, in which case there would have been a presumption in favour of saving it. So, the lack of six years meant that it was deemed to be of no historic importance. How lucky, then, that the high-profile architect and his pitiable clients got their hands on it when they did. And how lucky that the Diocese of Norwich couldn’t possibly have held on to it for another few years.
Similarly, the architect who created the newer rectory — John Page — was unarguably the most important architect ever produced by our area. He built or worked on about 30, maybe 40 buildings in our village. Our village owes how it looks to his personal taste, his sense of what this place was and how it should look. John Page, alone, is why our village doesn’t look like any of the Burnhams or Morston or Cley or even like Wiveton — let alone like West Runton or Brancaster. But apparently there was nothing in any way architecturally important about the fact that the New Rectory was one of his earliest, most prominent and certainly most significant commissions. He isn’t famous because the planners didn’t take the time to research him, and as they casually demolish more of his buildings, it becomes harder to learn about him, and so the cycle of wilful ignorance and negligence becomes self-reinforcing.
Despite all its loudly-articulated enthusiasm for the concept of a local idiom, the council planning department was happy to condemn any architect who wasn’t nationally important. It embraces applied non-functional finishes — pure pastiche — but also loves 1970s-type modernism, and apparently failed to notice that there was any sort of problem with that. So, well, pals, please don’t choke to death on your own inherent contradictions on the way out.
It could perhaps be argued that the newer rectory wasn’t ‘rare’. It certainly wasn’t the only rectory paid for by a loan from Queen Anne’s Bounty which made a joke, or possibly a tribute, of this by building in a Queen Anne idiom. In this sense, by the standards of 1920s purpose-built rectories, it is relatively mainstream, even pleasingly representative. In passing, it remains unclear why being exceptional, marginal, or indeed arguably unpopular should be a reason to preserve a building, but this allows, for instance, our heritage bodies to privilege anything they consider to be ‘Art Deco’ or ‘Modernist’ above buildings created in, for instance, historicist styles.
Pure bigotry? Of course it is. In a decade or two, when people look back at demolitions like this, they will find the decisions made here as ignorant, perverse and culpable as we all now find last century’s decisions to level Tudor houses for being too squalid and irregular, Georgian terraces for being too boring, or Victorian fantasy architecture because it’s the sort of thing our grandparents might have admired, hence patently without worth.
So let’s review. A building can be demolished because it’s too mainstream. But it can also be demolished because it’s not ordinary enough. What does this mean? Obviously, there is a tiny, narrow window for buildings created c. 1920-1950 where they are necessarily condemned to destruction, unless some random planner comes up with a case to save them. Unless that happens, they are by definition either too odd or too normal.
Also, an architect has to be nationally important, because an architect who isn’t nationally important doesn’t count as ‘important’ at all. At the same time, an architect who is local, who demonstrably studied local architecture, based his own work on it, but who for whatever reason didn’t produce the ‘right’ sort of work — which is to say, in a style that happens to appeal to the prejudices of the planners, which are inevitably an accident of age, education and taste — also doesn’t count.
There is no point in blaming a high-profile architect for wanting to make his mark on a prominent site, or to blame clients who are not very interested in history or architecture or the genius loci for failing to see that what they are doing is both practically foolish and morally wrong. It is, however, possible to blame those tasked with protecting our heritage — Historic England, and the district council planners — for failing to do their job. And if you think I’m being hard on these idiots here, just wait to see what our children and grandchildren are going to have to say about them.
* * *
The New Rectory had a garden that dated back to the 1920s — maybe earlier, because of course the new rectory was built on a little plot carved out of the corner of the Old Rectory’s garden, which is why the two stood so close together.
What was the garden like? Well, it offered plenty of spring blosson and also lovely autumn colour. It included an old fig tree (Brunswick?), a huge contorted rosemary like something drawn by Paul Nash, big sage plants, odd anemones, unusal crocus, a flood of scylla and grape hyacinths, the sort of quirky hybrid snowdrops that are probably worth £200 a time, a variety of old and elegant roses, and, at the right time of year, an infinity of tough old daffodils. It had all the evolved grace, the effortless variety and sense of belonging, that come more easily to older gardens than to recent ones. It was, in short, a lovely place. It had long been enjoyed by local people when it was opened for parish events, just as it was enjoyed by the incumbent clergy and their families.
The new owners, needless to say, casually flattened the garden, with the same dull-eyed obliviousness and sociopathic unpleasantness that marks all the planning decisions made regarding their property. There were some nice youngish fruit trees growing on the lawn — and they felled them. The silvery, fragrant plants that thrived on that sunny south-facing terrace simply vanished under the treads of the demolition machines, presumably unnoticed and unmourned by their new custodians.
In the summer that passed between the demolition of the rectory and the start of work on the new structure, some of the garden fought back. In one last, brave, doomed effort, these once-loved old plants made a reappearance, sending up first tentative new shoots, then eventually a semi-miraculous jumble of colour, interest and persistent vitality. It was, frankly, a joy to see them — redemptive, somehow, like the poppies springing up from the brutalised landscape of the Western Front. Poignantly, there were an awful lot of poppies. But then, when the building work began in November, they were once again flattened, and will now be buried forever under the foundations of that charmless steel-bound bunker. Roe deer, hares and pheasants used to frequent the rectory’s garden. They stay away now.
The only living thing that was spared from the general carnage was an elderly apple tree. I expect it will doubtless die of sadness in a few years’ time, having seen so much pointless destruction, and also having had its root structure compacted on at least two occasions during the course of the building work.
The owners plan to build a paved tennis court where the lawn used to be, and to increase the area dedicated to parking. The house is cunningly designed so that there are no views over the nearby fields, although there are at least two television viewing areas.
Finally, for decades there were a few pretty, undemanding evergreen shrubs planted near the boundary with the Old Rectory. One of them had the most attractive red foliage in autumn and winter. I wish I had struck cuttings, but it never occurred to me that the local council, who make occasional claims for the value of the natural world, would allow these to be torn up. Yet one day recently they had simply been ripped up and thrown aside, so that now anyone who wants to stare through from our land to the new rectory’s successor building has quite a remarkably clear path to do so. In the leanest part of the year, when the land shows off its bare bones and the snowdrops have only just broken the earth, there is nothing to separate our two separate worlds of experience and meaning except a new, incredibly environmentally unfriendly wire fence.
All the principle rooms at the older rectory overlook the site of the newer rectory. When built, the new structure will be visible from our drive, from our lawn, indeed from our actual front door. We really can’t get away from it unless we move away from our village, which we have no intention of doing.
Instead, we shall have to learn a new sort of life, working around this raw, festering, suppurating, stinkingly septic wound at the heart of our community. Walking back from the parish church, down its little hill between the ranks of gravestones, we will have a clear view of rusty corten steel. Walking up the road from Wiveton, we will be confronted with the aggressive lines of that cursed bunglow, exuding all the warm convivial charm of a derelict petrol station, and by a bought-by-the-meter, Round Up-soaked, toxic desert where once there was a comfortable garden. Going outside at night to look at shimmering arc thrown by the Milky Way across the north Norfolk sky, our view will be dimmed by the light from those enormous expanses of shimmering, bird-murdering glass — although we’ll also presumably have a clear view into those floor-to-ceiling windows, too, especially after dark, so the new owners will have no privacy either.
Worst of all, though, will be the memory of what was there before, and how mellow, generous and unassertively loveable all of it was.
Of course, time softens the edges of everything. There will come a day when I and others can live here with only intermittent awareness of the evil thing that was done to us, to our village. But it is definitely going to take some time, perhaps more than just my own lifetime, during which I plan to do everything I can to ensure that the rectory and its story won’t soon be forgotten.
* * *
John Page’s rectory struck some, it appears, as a very ‘ordinary’ house.
There is possibly yet more bigotry at work here. The idiom in which Page was working at the time was not totally unlike that which animated the Garden Suburb movement, and while many who actually know something about the history of architecture would see this as both interesting and admirable, the sort of people who have their own issues regarding pebble-dashed houses in the suburbs can’t really be expected to have a fair perspective.
The rectory was, in any event, notably well-designed. It worked well as a house, but also as a rectory. The oak staircase in the main hall injected a note of dignity and gravitas. The big drawing room with its Arts & Crafts fire surround offered a useful space for meetings such as those of the parochial church council, but also for music and sociability, as the recollections of those who lived there make very clear. The kitchen was a warm, cosy space with its own little larder and a tiny fenced-in courtyard outside. The rectory’s south-facing first-floor bedrooms took advantage not only of the welcome sunlight, but of the sweeping views across towards Wiveton Down.
Externally, the treatment of the projecting eaves was much prettier than it need have been. Ditto the details around the chimneys.
The district council were quick to insist on the cosmic unimportance of John Page. Yet Page would go on to carry out restoration work at the Grade I listed East Barsham Manor during 1936-38, including basically rebuilding an entire ‘Tudor’ wing, in a way that made quite an impact on its present-day appearance. We have already noted the controversial memorial screen he designed for the parish church at Great Ryburgh. He created our village war memorial, and the two cottages associated with it. Here in Blakeney he also either built or completed important work on Priory House; Highfields; Mansard; White Friars; several of the houses on Coronation Lane; Old Garden Cottage on the quay; several of the barn conversions along the quay; several houses on the Morston / New Roads, and also Pye’s garage, mentioned above.
And it further seems that he built the entertaining little study that forms the gateway into an inner courtyard here at the Old Rectory. Sadly, its details echo those of the now-demolished newer rectory. Well, in the way of these things, losing the New Rectory has made me understand and love my Old Rectory even more than I did before.
In addition, Page was a talented amateur painter — his portait of a local lifeboat hero hangs in our parish church — as well as a formidable member of the community, serving variously as churchwarden, parish council member and chairman of the parish council. When Frida Brackley’s husband, Air Commodore Herbert Brackley DSO DSC died suddenly in Rio de Janiero in 1948, Page helped with the funeral arrangements.
Quite a few of his descendants and relations still live in the area. Not all of them are even now reconciled to the decision to demolish his rectory, which for many in our village was anything but an ‘ordinary’ building.
My bedroom, as it happens, looks directly onto where the rectory so recently stood. When I cannot sleep at night, it is sometimes pleasant to imagine that, if I got up and padded across to my south-east facing window, I could somehow look out and see the ghostly outlines of the rectory — the chimneys, the tall roofline — briefly returned to its nestling garden, to its place in our little world, to its rightful place. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? And I drift briefly in that happiness, and the lines that come to mind are Heaney’s, from The Cure at Troy: ‘The utter, self-revealing / Double-take of feeling’ is what I experience, then, believing for a moment that last year’s catastrophe never happened and that the rectory is where it ought to be. But then when I realise that it’s gone, that I failed to save it, that it will not come back, that our village is a more stupid and ugly place than it was even a few years ago, and it occasionally makes me very sad.
* * *
Let us return, for the final time, to the handsome 1920s boot-scraper, now presumably lying in some rubbish heap somewhere. Who, over 94 years, might have wiped his or her marsh-muddied feet on it? What unquiet shades circle round the excavation where our rectory once stood?
Here are the incumbent clergy who lived in the rectory, from the time at which it was built until the point at which the Church of England decided they no longer wanted it.
1925-1934 – Mowbray O’Rourke, the Anglo-Catholic sometime bishop of Accra whom we met earlier.
1934 – Henry William McGrath. Of this enigmatic figure, Frida Brackley, in her memoir, reported the following:
‘Rev. McGrath […] was an Irishman with meteor-like ability, keen on all sports; a fine ear for music and drama; a good taste in colour; as well as being a teacher, he had a sound practical knowledge of his religion. […] Unfortunately this promising priest, with his invalid wife, had no staying powers and left our parish in unusual circumstances.’
All of which perhaps raises more questions than it answers.
1935-1941 – Edward Kinloch Jones. This graduate of Dulwich College was admitted to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1890. He served as an Army chaplain 1914-1922. He was married to the daughter of another vicar and, with her, adopted two children. He died in 1941 and lies buried in our village.
1941-1949 – Bertram Martin Maynard. The one bit of evidence surviving from his life is a wartime letter to the Spectator magazine about conscientious objectors and how they wouldn’t save a wounded man, hence don’t deserve high levels of pay.
1949-1953 – Clifford Leofric Purdy ‘Jim’ Bishop. Born in Cley next the Sea in 1908, he was ordained as a priest in 1933; was vicar of St George’s, Camberwell 1941-49; Curate-in-charge, All Saints’, Newington 1944-47; rector of our village from 1949-53; rector, Bishop Wearmouth 1953-62; Hon Canon of Durham 1958-62; Bishop Suffragan of Malmesbury 1962-73; and Canon of Bristol 1962-73. In 1949 he married Ivy Adams. He died in our village on 1 September 1994. A tall, white-haired, grave but friendly man, Jim Bishop worked hard to introduce the ordination of women.
1953-1958 – Douglas John Turner, a talented musician.
1958-1962 – Arthur Frederick Roberts, of whom little is known, by me at any rate.
1962-1974 – Alan Clason Gates. Rector of our village, Morston and Stiffkey. He served as a chaplain in the RAF during the Second World War, and his son, a learned and wholly charming man, still lives in the village today.
1974-1978 – Neil Maguire-Denlegh-Maxwell, OBE, RN.
1978-1989 – David Powys Maurice – rector of the Glaven and Stiffkey Association of Parishes, honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral.
1989-1998 – Nicholas Roger Martin – rector of our village, Cley, Glandford, Letheringsett and Wiveton.
1998-2006 – Philip Geoffery Frank Norwood – rector of our village, Cley, Glandford, Letheringsett and Wiveton; canon of Norwich Cathedral.
2006-2014 – Neil Batcock – a published architectural historian. His ‘Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’, published in 1992, is both a superb piece of scholarship and also an important historical record.
2014-2018 – Elizabeth Ann ‘Libby’ Dady – first female incumbent in the Glaven parishes, who decided in 2016 that the rectory was no longer adequate for her needs, but then decided in 2018 that she no longer wanted to be our rector either. All change!
And there ends the list of incumbents, for now no one else will ever live in the rectory.
But then these are only the incumbent clergy. Rectories, famously, are not entirely private houses. As well as spouses, children and grandchildren, friends and relations, staff and visitors, the rectory would often have echoed with the voices of ordinary local people, there in their role as parishioners. An old lady, now alas no longer living, once told me how, as a young woman, she had visited the rectory to discuss with the rector her forthcoming wedding — and then how, more recently, she had been there to discuss her late husband’s funeral arrangements. There were Easter egg hunts held in the rectory garden, and fetes on the lawn. Parochial church council meetings took place in the sun-washed big drawing room with its views out towards the neighbouring village. This was where parishioners sought, and perhaps even received, everything from advice and instruction to sympathy and consolation. The most important moments in their lives were sometimes marked by visits to this welcoming building.
This rectory had been home to those who lived through the Great War. It stood at the heart of our parish during the Second World War, overflown variously by Luftwaffe and RAF aircraft, experiencing the ebb and flow of the troops garrisoned here. Bombs certainly fell in the garden of the Old Rectory, perhaps even in the garden of its younger sibling. Its clergy saw the changes brought by the wider ownership of automobiles, by the development of the NHS, by electrification and mains water, television and the internet. It saw the end of our village’s days as a working harbour, and its ultimate transformation into a place of second homes, tourism and leisure enterprises. It also saw important developments in the Church of England, including the ordination of women. The clergy who lived in the rectory not only experienced this near-century of change, but helped mediate and contextualise it for their congregation here and in the nearby parishes.
This is why the rectory didn’t just belong to the church, and also part of the reason why the community here was, in general, so anxious to save it. Sadly, however, the Church of England no longer seems to cherish this sort of continuity, the new owners clearly had no idea how much the rectory mattered to local people, Historic England didn’t feel that the rather unusual survival of two rectories standing side by side was important enough to conserve let alone celebrate, and the district council was too supine, incurious and frankly ignorant to look after the best interests of the village and its people.
So if there are any lingering ghosts of those that once inhabited that rectory, or even just a particular energy that had accrued over those 94-odd years, these are all now set loose, awaiting somewhere to settle, a refuge and a home. I wonder whether the new house will be to their taste?
* * *
Change is a necessary feature of life. No one would want our village to remain entirely changeless, artificially suspended in time, with no development or new building.
But at the same time, there is no reason that the creation of new buildings has to entail the destruction of old buildings. Nor is there any reason why new buildings ought to adopt such a contemptuous, angry stance against local architectural traditions.
There have, actually, been some genuinely thoughtful, attractive and welcome new buildings in our village. At one end of the scale, Friary Orchard, built in the walled garden of a Grade II* house, is well-designed, includes some lovely details, is integrally rooted in its setting and radiates a deep understanding of our village and how things look and feel here. But at the other end of the scale, the recent development to the west of the Langham Road — a mix of larger and smaller new housing — is tactful, inoffensive and massed intelligently enough that it doesn’t jar or look out of place.
There has also, it has to be said, been quite a lot of terrible building. Ever since the advent first of the railways and then of the motor car, the village has made much of its living through tourism, second homes and the leisure pursuits associated with them. Some locals hate this, others welcome it as a source of employment and opportunity, but in any event it is a long-standing feature of life here.
In the past decade or so, however, house prices in our part of Norfolk have risen to an occasionally eye-watering extent. The dismissive title ‘Chelsea on Sea’, often applied to a nearby village, is, at least as far as property values go, fully relevant here.
This has had several implications. First, it has made it literally impossible for most young people — people who have grown up here, whose parents and often grandparents and great grandparents have lived in the village sometimes for centuries — to find homes in the village. Most of the smaller cottages were long ago converted to holiday homes; the bigger houses are simply hopelessly out of reach, often selling for £1m or considerably more — something few local people could possibly afford.
So it is that young people are forced to move to nearby towns like Fakenham or Sheringham, meaning that local schools, other local services and even ‘normal’ shops all struggle. Needless to say, this is a subject that brings out passionate responses in local people, and underlies a lot of the tension between ‘real’ village people and ‘incomers’, or more recent arrivals. Local people often feel that the incomers, having wafted into the village, are intent on changing it in ways that reflect limited knowledge of or interest in the village, its history and traditions.
But because property prices here are so insanely high, it has also become very normal for any property owner with even quite a modest garden to partition it off, build an ‘executive home’ that more or less fully occupies the entirety of the resulting little plot, and then to sell it for vast amounts of money, as a holiday home of one sort of another. It is very easy to see how this temptation arises. People who have never been at all wealthy suddenly realise that they can make £1m or more just by selling off the garden. Yet while one or two such ventures wouldn’t really alter the nature of the village, over time, this endless infilling is changing the character of the place in a very profound way.
It doesn’t help that some of these houses are deeply cynical, badly-designed and detailed, shoddy pieces of work, created to look very flashy and saleable, with oligarch-opulent chandelier-infested kitchens and marble-lined bathrooms, but not necessarily to function well or to endure very long. The district council, apparently, will agree to the construction of more or less anything as long as it has a bit of that wretched uncoursed, unworked flint somewhere on at least one of its facades. Packed in like expensive sardines, the houses look out straight into each other’s glimmering plate-glass windows, or at each other’s enormous, paved parking areas dressed with each other’s limitless herd of shiny new 4x4s. Virtually none of the houses have gardens, or are built in ways likely to encourage wildlife, or in ways that minimise light pollution. Yet there is apparently no end to this process of infilling. It is quite rare to pop out to the local shop without seeing some new yellow planning notice posted in front of one of the few houses that still has a bit of lawn or greenery. This is all change, but it is hard to argue that it’s for the better.
What the village needs, clearly, is the creation of more houses aimed at young single people and young families — houses that are relatively small and inexpensive but also well-designed, perhaps with some outside space for the children to run around in and on which wildlife might flourish. This is the change that anyone who cares about our village would actually like to see. But while planning permission is still being granted for speculative trophy homes and holiday homes, rather than normal houses for normal people, it is simply never going to happen, if only because while high-profile architects and property developers can afford to lobby the relevant planning officials, the village’s young people certainly can’t. And yes, that’s a pity.
* * *
Finally, it could reasonably be asked why I still care so much about this, one year on — why the demolition of one particular building has left a wound that is still far from closing, let alone healing.
There are, of course, other things in the world that matter much more. There is knife violence blighting lives in London, children being separated from their parents by US immigration officials, more children dying in Idlib purely because they have the misfortune to live in a country still wracked by civil war, Uighars having their organs harvested in Chinese concentration camps … it’s a very long list, these things that matter more than any building. And yet, if one considers these examples, it’s fairly obvious that there isn’t an enormous amount that I can do, at least very directly, about any of them.
Sadly, there wasn’t much I could do to protect one local house, either, but at least it was possible to try, and for a few months here and there, to hope for success.
Yet there’s also another reason, which is that the violence done to a much-loved, harmless old building is symptomatic of something else that’s abroad in the world right now — a kind of angry, sneering rudeness, a habit of treating every argument as all or nothing, a sort of proud, triumphant callousness about the lasting harm done to others by one’s own words or actions. This, too, is hard to fight at a global level. At a personal level, though, when it comes to some outsiders’ desire to destroy a building that mattered a lot to local people, it is possible to push back, at least a bit.
It would, of course, have been wiser, kinder and simply better had the owners of the former rectory found a way to preserve it, gently modernising it to suit their needs — or indeed to build the strange little rusty bungalow of their dreams, set in its charmless apron of gravel, in a less offensive location — rather than using their money and power to impose on our village a building which basically takes all recognised norms of local building and meaning, gathers them up, and then shouts ‘fuck you’ at them.
For what it’s worth, however, the tide is turning. This isn’t because our planners and heritage guardians are becoming more accountable or more competent. They’re as useless as ever. Rather, it’s because the day will come, soon, when the impact of global warming and our current climate emergency can no longer be ignored. At that point, the massive and totally unnecessary release of all that embodied carbon — and a well-built 1920s two-storey brick house really does embody an awful lot of carbon — will simply be regarded as unacceptable in policy terms, perhaps even in terms of architectural professionalism. In 2013, for the first time, the Stirling Prize was awarded not for the creation of an entirely new building, but for work on an existing building. Within a decade or two, the engorged egos of a certain sort of second-rate architect, a certain sort of unsophisticated client, will be expressed through the quality of a retrofit, not for a demolition followed by the erection of some showy, extravagant, probably quite evanescent new-build. Tearing up an old garden, felling healthy trees and paving the countryside will be seen as the affront that it is. All of that will come too late, obviously, for our village’s former rectory, but it will obviously be a change for the better.
Ultimately, people need places. We need their challenges, their surprises, but also their reassurance and continuity. It is good for us to be reminded that we aren’t the only people ever to have lived, that others have been this way before, been happy or sad, constructed buildings and torn down buildings, died yet perhaps not been entirely forgotten. We need beauty and wonder, but also well-worn, comforting ordinariness. We need the imperfection of age as much as we do the short-lived freshness of things that are young and undamaged. The places where people sink roots and thrive reflect all these needs; the places where they feel a dizzying lack of context generally deny them.
And yet a place can be killed. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years, perhaps whole lifetimes, for memories to die away, for distinctiveness to erode into uniformity, for whatever history once held a place together to be forgotten or misunderstood or simply contradicted into nothingness. It takes years to occlude those midnight visions of the house that was once there, and should still be there now. But it happens all the same.
It’s possible that it’s too late, now, to save our village from what is being done to it. Well, I am grateful, at least, that I was here to see the former rectory, to enjoy the sun warming its terrace among all the sage and rosemary and runaway euphorbia, to admire its pretty, clever details. I am glad that the memory of its roofline and its chimneys is still what I think of when I imagine arriving in our village after having been away for a while, and the pleasing masses of the original building is what I still like to dream is there when I fall asleep at night, in a room whose shutters are now kept permanently shut and barred due to the light-pollution emanating from that charmless, pointless shed-like thing next door. I am grateful that I was able to see and photograph that boot-scraper. And who knows, perhaps someday that gratitude will grow stronger than its accompanying feelings of loss, injury, and injustice, and the gratitude and memories will, in themselves, be enough. And perhaps the damage done to my heart through all of this will, eventually, heal.
Not yet, though. Certainly, not today, one year on.
No, not yet.