The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Another romantic bridge

The 13th century Swarkestone Bridge and Causeway, at almost a mile in length, is the longest stone bridge in England. Some historians think that the stone bridge was constructed to replace an earlier wooden one. At one time a chapel and toll house stood on the causeway but there is little sign of them now.

The structure's 17 arches cross the River Trent flood plain between Swarkestone and Stanton-by-Bridge. It is still a significant route for travellers passing from Derby to Melbourne: believe it or not there is a regular bus service across it!

According to local legend the causeway is the work of two local sisters whose fianc├ęs drowned while trying to cross the flood plain in high water. The horrified sisters saw the men swept away by the river and vowed that no-one else would suffer the same fate. They spent the rest of their lives building and maintaining the causeway and bridge and so were penniless when they died.

Listed Grade I and Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Sea defences

As an island nation Britain faces one of its biggest threats from the sea. Its coastline must be protected from the raw power behind the tides. I've already shown you the flood markers at Blakeney and explained how high some of them are. The 1953 marker was above my head. If I'd been standing on Blakeney Quay on January 31, 1953 I'd have drowned - as did 307 people in the UK and another 2,200 around the rest of the North Sea.

On the night of 5 December 2013 sea levels reached even higher than the killer 1953 tidal surge, but this time, thanks to effective sea defences, weather forecasting and communications, no-one died as a direct result of flooding. Of course, flood defences, by their nature, have to be high enough to keep the water at bay, which can result in some huge, blank concrete walls.

Net mending mural
In Sheringham they've got over the ugly problem by using their sea wall as a canvas for artworks depicting the town's history. There are murals and bronze plaques, paintings and poems about the fishing industry and associated trades, wildlife, brave lifeboat rescues, and the town's part in the war effort of the 1940s. Coupled with a sunny stroll along the Esplanade, it's a great way to spend an hour or so.

In case you can't read the small print on the net mending photo - it explains that when the fishing fleet came home, used nets would be laid out on a nearby hill to dry. Then fishermen's wives and daughters would mend them before the boats put out to sea again.

The top photo is a detail from a bronze depiction of a lifeboat rescue on the night of the 1897 flood tide. Sheringham's first purpose-built lifeboat, the Augusta, was launched in 1838. Back then they were still rowed, of course. The volunteers of the RNLI are very brave men and women!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Fairground rides

A Venetian gondola on the 'scenic railway'
Travelling fairs have been a part of English life for centuries. Back in the 19th century, like many other aspects of life, fairs had the industrial revolution makeover and steam driven rides became one of the attractions.

The Thursford Collection is the world's largest collection of steam powered machines, including farm equipment, showman's engines, mechanical organs, and amazing fairground rides. It's all set in a magical world that looks like Christmas all year long.

Of course, the ornate decoration, intense colours and bright lights are all part of the fairground atmosphere, and Thursford emphasises all of that. It talks about the history of travelling fairs and shows off its selection of wooden pillars and carved swags that were made in the great Victorian showman's workshops in Kings Lynn and Burton on Trent. It discusses the families who ran their fairs around the country throughout the showman's season, starting with the Kings Lynn Mart in February, all the way through to the famous Nottingham Goose Fair in October.

Ned and Jane - our Galloper mounts
Each one was the equivalent of a small village, built from scratch at the start of every halt, and then carefully dismantled and packed away a few days later so the fair could move on. There's a first-hand account by 91-year-old John Farrar of the work involved in setting up a ride called the 'scenic railway' that's still in operation at Thursford. It took three days of hard graft, starting Wednesday, to be ready for a 5pm opening on Friday.


We had a go on the 'scenic railway' which is also known as the Venetian Gondola. It's a switchback ride that goes at a stately pace but rises up and slides down two rolling slopes during each rotation - all the while playing the grand, exciting fairground organ music. We also had a go on the Gallopers - the familiar up and down horse figures of the traditional carousel. My photos do neither of them justice.

I was in my element at Thursford, descended as I am from carnies and circus folk. This was my history. But I suspect anyone with a sense of fun would have loved it. There's lots more to Thursford too - and I'll probably tell you more in later posts.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Watering can

We found this interesting object at Binham Priory during our recent Norfolk jaunt. The pot would originally have tapered up to a narrow neck with a thumb-sized opening. The neck doubled as a handle and it would have been possible to submerge the whole thing in water so that it filled up through the tiny holes in the bottom.

Then, by judicious use of the thumb, a gardener would have been able to transport water to the garden and sprinkle it over whichever plants needed it. Thumb over the neck meant that air pressure held the water in the pot, moving the thumb allowed air in and water out. Isn't that clever?

If you look at a large version of the photo you can probably read the label that says it's late medieval:  1400s to 1500s.

Friday, 11 September 2015

One up, one down

This charming little bijou residence stands on the edge of the public car park in Wells-Next-the-Sea in Norfolk. It is the last remaining 'ostler's cottage' and dates from around 1750.  Wells, like many other places on this coast, was once a significant port, and coaches would have stopped here to bring passengers to catch boats to other towns along the coast. (Most notably the Hull-London trade called in here as a half-way stop.) Ostlers were the guys who looked after the coaching horses.

The house is literally one room upstairs and one room downstairs. Facilities such as water pump, wash house and toilet were out in the back yard. A couple of other houses from the row have been knocked together to make a more modern dwelling, but this one remains unchanged. It is now a 'show home' and it's open to view on a few occasions during the summer season. (It was closed when we went, sorry!) It was last occupied in around 1935.

Listed Grade II.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The fiddler and his dog

Round here they tell a tale of a fiddler and his dog who discovered a tunnel under the Guildhall at Blakeney. Everyone warned him that there might be dangers hidden, but he was determined to explore it, and set off, with his dog, playing a merry tune as he went.

All was well for a while, until the music stopped suddenly, and the dog howled. No-one dared go to see what had happened, and neither the fiddler, nor his dog, were ever seen again!

The tale is commemorated in the village sign, which also has a ship to represent the town's former role as an important port. Village signs in Norfolk frequently offer clues to local history and folklore and some are extremely attractive and complex works in wood or iron.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Blakeney Guildhall

Blakeney, on the north Norfolk coast, used to be a major port, but the harbour has been silting up for centuries and is now little more than a creek. However, some remnants of its once international role can still be seen, including the Guildhall. It never was a guildhall, of course, but is actually the remains of a 15th century merchant's house. It once stood two storeys high and what is now visible was a basement store room.

It has some fine vaulting and there is a chute in the outer wall that once provided an outlet for the privy. It must have been a bit smelly, because the tide never came that far in! (Except occasionally when strong winds and spring tides combined. You can see markers on a nearby wall that show quite how far the tide still comes in from time to time!)

It's now in the care of English Heritage and you can see the outside at any time. Inside is open daily at sensible hours.

There are three more plaques above that - but they were too high up to photograph!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

A romantic bridge


The Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux (the one played by Errol Flynn in the 1939 movie The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) built this bridge for Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century so she could go hunting in nearby woodland when she visited him.  It remains the longest packhorse bridge in England, with 14 of its original 42 arches still to be seen crossing the River Trent on the edge of the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire. 

It's Grade I listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.