Parkgate and Mostyn House School

The village of Parkgate on the north bank of the Dee Estuary presents a beautiful aspect on a sunny day. The continuous quay of what was once a port, before it silted up, gives a fine aspect on the white buildings set against the nature reserve of the estuary itself. On this occasion we saw lapwings, marsh harriers, great egrets, kestrels, and varous ducks and geese.

The most striking building is Mostyn House School, which I’ve photographed before (for example in this post). This time I looked for more detailed shots against a stunning blue sky.

History of Mostyn House School

The building was not always thus, and has an interesting history. The original building was a hotel for 100 years, linked to the success of Parkgate as a holiday resort, when there was had an outdoor lido. The Mostyn Arms Hotel even had a ballroom. In 1855 the hotel was sold to one Edward Price of Tarvin, who moved his school to Parkgate, but the structure was deteriorating.

“I have never seen such a horrible hole in all my life…” was the comment in 1863 when a new owner’s wife, a Mrs Grenfell, first saw it.

By 1899 the building, again according to her husband, was a ‘decrepit, insanitary wreck’. It was pretty well rebuilt over the next ten years to become the building we see today. A fine job they did, but clearly the building is not as old as you might think!

The school closed in 2010 and the building was subsequently converted to apartments. See timeline.

At the National Memorial Arboretum

A sunny day was forecast, so we decided to visit the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. The arboretum is part of the Royal British Legion, dedicated to passing on the baton of remembrance of those who served and suffered in Britain’s wars. We did not have any great expectations, other than for a pleasant day out in the sun at a memorial that is but 20 years old.

What a revelation, we were blown away by the rural setting, the trees and natural areas, and particularly the art works that have been created as part of some of the memorials, evocative of many of the less considered victims of war. Most are connected by tarmac paths. And the dog could go most places.

Here’s a small selection showing favourite images from our walk.

Particularly sobering was the large memorial (top left), containing the (around 16,000) names of all those who have died since 1945, in the many wars that the UK has engaged in over my lifetime. Was this all really necessary?

Yes, the experience does bring home the reality and the futility of war.

We will go again.

Featured image is a detail of the police memorial (bottom left), rotated 90deg.
Looks pretty ordinary until you catch the sunlight at the right angle!

Modes of knowing

In his magnum opus, The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist identifies Henri Bergson as a major contibutor to the understanding of the way we human beings know about the world.

Essentially, there are two modes of knowing, which I will characterise in a word as intuition and rationality. Intuition is to do with direct perception of the world and understanding what is needed; rationality is to do with language and analysis, rationalising about the world. Intuition ‘presences’ in the world; rationality ‘re-presents’ the world in its own terms.

These two modes were well understood by many thinkers of the past. In the early 1900s these included Bergson, William James, Einstein (see featured quote) and other quantum pioneers. In earlier times, for example, the Romantic movement of such as Wordsworth and Coleridge strove to emphasise the continued importance of direct perception in an encroaching world of rationality. The two modes are also well understood in the world of astrology, where the planet Jupiter represents the faculty of direct perception/ intuition, whereas Mercury represents rational/ analytical intelligence.

What neurologist/psychologist/philosopher Iain McGilchrist adds to this picture is the correlation of the intuitive intelligence with the right brain, and of rationality with the left brain – emerging from modern studies in neurology.

Humans evolved with these two different capabilities because they were necessary for survival. For instance, a hunt might have involved analytical planning to get in the right place to hunt, but intuitive perceptions of the dangers posed by other wild animals in the area. We rely on the combination of these two intelligences.

However, contrary to what you might think, there is no symmetry between the two in terms of their function. Intuition grounds us in the real world; rationality theorises about it. Our intelligence is powerful because the two co-operate – intuition suggests an approach; rationality evaluates and proposes the way to go; then intuition confirms – intuition is the Master.

The disturbing thing about left brain rationality, spotted by Bergson and others, is that it does not necessarily see the need for grounded intuition at all. In this extreme case it usurps the role of the right hemisphere, the intuition and the connection with the real world. The map becomes the territory. A world of abstraction is confused for reality itself. This was the theme of McGilchrist’s previous book The Master and His Emissary – the left brain messenger taking over and ignoring the right brain connection with reality.

Looking at today’s world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is essentially what has happened to humanity in the large. Our connection with reality, with planet earth, is being slowly destroyed by the left-brain machinations of politics, capitalism, business, technology, consumerism. It will all end in tears for many people and many species of life; indeed it already has.

Yet we still each have those intuitive right brains and there will always be those who know the way to go, who love nature, the earth, their fellow beings, who fight the good fight against left brain extremism. This is the dance of life, and the peculiar destiny of human beings…

The first traffic jam on Broadway

I’ve owned the book Time and Free Will by French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) since university days – but regretfully never quite got around to fully reading it. It still resides on my bookshelf, awaiting the day… I was also interested in American polymath William James, and did at that time read some of his work, including The Varieties of Religious Experience, which proved quite influential. These philosophers were reverently referred to by other thinkers I was also reading at university, notably Colin Wilson’s then-popular The Outsider. So I was quite interested to come across this story about Bergson in Iain McGilchrist’s seemingly infinitely giving book The Matter with Things.

In 1907 Bergson published the book Creative Evolution, which built on Darwin’s idea of evolution, but rejected ‘natural selection’ as the main means of progress, proposing instead the idea of the life force, or elan vital, which was notably the source of human creativity. It seems that these ideas generated great interest in the US at the time, related as they were to the work of William James, who had died two years previously. Bergson was invited to Manhattan to give six public lectures on ‘Spirituality and Freedom’.

It is said that the lectures were well over-subscribed, and the number of vehicles trying to gain access caused the very first traffic jam on Broadway. This was actually two years before John D.Herz started the first Yellow Cab Company in 1915.

According to an essay by historian Larry McGrath both Sigmund Freud’s 1909 and Bertrand Russell’s 1914 visits to the US met with popular excitement similar to Bergson’s. How different from today, when such major thinkers largely do not meet with such popular acclaim. It appears that it was perhaps the scientists, such as Einstein, who took over the public imagination.

It’s not really my purpose to explore why this might be the case, in this brief post, but I will be coming back to Bergson in a future post, as his ideas are strikingly relevant today.

Featured image of Henri Bergson by unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hailes Abbey

We visited Hailes Abbey last summer. This former Cistercian abbey near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, elected King of the Romans and brother to King Henry III. The abbey soon acquired a relic of the (supposed) Holy Blood of Christ, ensuring that it became a popular place of pilgrimage.

Of course, Hailes Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1539. All that remains today, in a peaceful country location, is romantic grassy ruins – very pleasant to stroll around and admire the Cistercian architecture, and much enjoyed by the dog.

We come across Cistercian ruins all over England. The massive extent of Henry VIII’s Dissolution is really brought home by this Wikipedia entry listing all the English Cistercian Abbeys.

Hailes Abbey is now managed by English Heritage on behalf of the National Trust.

The White Ship

Charles Spencer’s book The White Ship tells the story of the first Norman kings of England, and the shattering effect that one event – the sinking of a ship – had on the course of English history.

Of course, 1066 is the one date burned into the mind of every English child – when the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror effectively turned England into a province of Normandy, and the land of England was shared out between William’s favoured knights.

The job of every king at the time was to produce a male heir. If there was more than one boy, there was often conflict between the brothers. William had three sons, so there were years of conflict after his death in 1087, complicated by the fact that the English Channel split the ‘nation’ or empire.

Eventually William’s youngest son prevailed to become the dominant monarch, King Henry I, of the re-integrated country. After the final battles on the continent that assured his dominance, Henry returned to England from Barfleur in Normandy in late November 1120.

Henry and his wife Matilda had just one son, William Ætheling, and a daughter Matilda. There were also a number of illegitimate sons. Henry left for England early evening, on a favourable tide. William was to follow Henry back later in the evening, on a faster, White Ship, along with many of Henry’s supporters and heroes of the campaign. The story tells how drunkenness and revelry led to the ship running aground on rocks off Barfleur, losing all but one on board.

Henry I now had no male heir. The rest of the book details the contortions as he tried to get his daughter Matilda accepted as the next monarch, and the ensuing conflict and anarchy after Henry’s death in 1135, between his nephew, Stephen of Blois, who actually became king of England, and Matilda based on the continent. When Matilda’s son Henry took on the battle, Stephen was eventually forced to concede that this Henry should become the next king, Henry II, who became a dominant monarch in 1154 in the same mold as William and Henry I.

Similar tales have been recorded over the ages – the problems of succession, the intervening of natural disaster or folly. This one has a particular ring about it, at a key point in the history of England, Normandy and associated territories. It is well told by Charles Spencer in this book.

Featured image of the White Ship was produced in 1321, public domain.

Barmouth viaduct

We were out of season in Barmouth, and the railway bridge/viaduct over the Mawddach Estuary was closed for refurbishment work.

The bridge/viaduct was constructed of timber in the 1860s, and is being repaired over 3 years using similar materials, except that concrete is used to protect vulnerable wooden parts from attack by marine worms. In season, passengers and cyclists can cross over, which I recall doing with the children many years ago. It is quite a tourist attraction, and rather photogenic.

Chinon

One of the joys of motorcaravanning is to stay overnight in some small town, often French, sample the atmosphere, perhaps enjoy a local restaurant or visit a tourist attraction. Chinon, on the River Vienne, is one such place.

The town’s raison d’etre is the restored 11C Chateau of Chinon, which became the favoured residence of King Henry II of England and much else. Henry’s tomb lies at nearby Fontevraud.

The castle came under French control in 1205, as it has remained since. In 14C it was used to imprison some of the Knights Templar, in 15C it was used as a residence for French King Charles VII, and in 16C it became a prison, after which decay set in. The restored building is now a fine visitor attraction.

The riverside setting makes for good photographic opportunities.

The heavily tree’d promenade by the Vienne provides for a popular and atmospheric evening walk, to build up an appetite for a meal in the town. The route includes the spectacle of a number of fiercely contested boules matches (featured image).

Click on images to enlarge.

Chinon is well worth a detour, as the old Michelin Green Guides used to say.

Fontevraud, Royal Abbey

The historic Benedictine abbey of Fontevraud lies between Chinon and Saumur, in the area just south of the River Loire. We were lucky, it was an annual French jour de patrimoine, when entry to national museums is free – a great way for a government to encourage interest in local culture and history.

The necropolis

Fontevraud is designated a royal abbey because it was here that Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of the first Plantagenet King Henry II, established in the church a necropolis containing recumbent statues of the dead Plantagenets (from bottom, left to right, then top) Henry II, Eleanor herself set higher than her then-dead husband, their first son Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, and Isabelle, wife of Richard’s brother John. This was intended as a similar idea to the necropolis of French Kings in the church of St Denis in Paris, celebrating the continuity of Plantagenet reign over England/parts of British Isles/Normandy/Aquitaine (the so-called Angevin Empire). The necropolis never really developed after John, then king, ‘lost’ most of the French possessions to the French King Philip in 1204 – an early forced ‘Brexit’ which led to decades of scheming and warfare. The Plantagenets remained kings of England until the death of King Richard III in 1485.

A major feature of this abbey was that it contained both male and female monks/nuns, and was always overseen by a woman. Close links with French royalty ensured its survival until the French Revolution, when the abbeys were dissolved and taken over by the State, and where possible sold off. This was 250 years after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in England.

The abbey at Fontevraud was founded in 1101 by Robert d’Arbrissel, 3 years after founding of the Cistercian movement. This soon developed into a similar chain of monasteries across France, with a few in Spain and England. So controversial was the involvement of women, that  Robert was never canonised by the Catholic Church.

Evraud Tower

The architecture is quite remarkable, as you can see.

After the Revolution Napoleon decreed that the buildings be converted into a prison containing prison workshops. Even the abbey church was adapted to contain first 3 then 5 storeys. The experience of this prison is well described in exhibits at the abbey. The prison was only closed in 1963.

In the meantime, restoration work was recreating the essence of the original abbey. The kitchen/ Evraud Tower was rather imaginatively restored early on. Today, most traces of the adaptation of the abbey buildings to serve as a prison have been removed.

As well as being a tourist attraction in their own right, the abbey buildings now serve as a cultural centre for Western France, with many events and exhibitions.

Today Fontevraud looks magnificent. It provides a great day out to immerse yourself in this aspect of French/English history.

Featured image shows tombs of Henry and Eleanor.

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell is on my mind, having just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the last of her award-winning trilogy on his life.

Born around 1485, of humble origins in London, Cromwell rose to become an MP, then in 1524 an advisor to Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, right hand man of King Henry VIII. Somehow Cromwell survived the fall of Wolsey in 1529, when King Henry blamed Wolsey for the failure to get the pope to agree with annulling his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had not produced a son and heir.

In 1530 the King appointed Cromwell to the Privy Council and over the following years gave him many other titles, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal and Great Chamberlain. Thomas Cromwell became the second most powerful man in England, second to King Henry of course, but always resented by the traditional aristocracy. He always had jealous enemies.

In 1532 the supremacy of the king over the church in England was confirmed, the Lord Chancellor and anti-protestant Sir Thomas More resigned and was subsequently executed. The marriage to Catherine was annulled at Dunstable Priory, delegitimising her daughter Mary as heir. Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533. All was orchestrated by Cromwell. In 1534 he was formally confirmed as first minister (compare today’s prime minister).

In 1536 came the act for the suppression of the lesser monasteries, Cromwell’s scheme to seize the wealth and lands of the monasteries, which provoked rebellion in the north of England with first the Lincolnshire Rising and followed by the Pilgrimage of Grace. These rebellions were seen off by Henry and those loyal. Those responsible were first persuaded to delay and later pursued and executed.

Anne Boleyn had not agreed with the religious changes, there were rumours of affairs, and she had also not produced a male heir. Cromwell was instrumental in her trial, fall and execution and the annulment of this marriage, delegitimising her daughter Elizabeth as heir. Henry married Jane Seymour.

Queen Jane died in 1537, after the birth of her son Edward, the longed-for male heir.

In 1538 the religious reform extended to the larger monasteries, which were invited to surrender, a process completed by 1540. Those that resisted, such as Richard Whiting at Glastonbury, were executed. The wealth and lands went to the King and his favoured lords. But the king resisted further religious reform.

Also in 1540 Cromwell had succeeded in arranging a ‘political’ marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves, which was never consummated as neither party seemed to regard the other with any favour. But political winds were changing on the continent and it is believed that Henry blamed Cromwell for this alliance and the failure to extricate him from the marriage. Conservative forces briefed against Cromwell and the king allowed him to be arrested, tried and executed by July. At the same time, Anne agreed to annulment of the marriage and Henry married Catherine Howard.

Ten years was all it took for the once-humble Thomas Cromwell to dissolve the great monasteries of England and be instrumental in the king undertaking his second, third and fourth marriages, and for others to follow through with the fifth. Whatever we think of his dissolution of the monasteries, he seems not to have deserved the fate of beheading eloquently described by Hilary Mantel.

In fact Mantel’s books tell the whole story of Cromwell’s period in power, from the imagined perspective of the man himself. The whole trilogy is a tour de force, requiring great stamina for a complete reading, but very rewarding.

At the end of the day, Thomas Cromwell was a mere pawn on the European chessboard, in the game being played out by the English, French and Holy Roman kings/emperor, the Protestants and the popes of the Roman Catholic Church. He was dispensable when no longer convenient for his master.

King Henry VIII was a monster ego, who manipulated all to his own perceived personal advantage. We have not a jot of sympathy for him. Just beware today’s monster egos that seek similar over-arching power.

Featured image: Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein

Hilary Mantel trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light

Are we insane?

It is difficult to argue with the suggestion that modern human beings are insane, as we trash the environment, poison our own air and water and our own food supplies, send countless species to extinction, indulge in numerous wars, even drive the global climate towards unpredictable extremes. Steve Taylor‘s 2012 book Back to Sanity addresses this issue. Yes we are insane, but we can get back onto a sane track.

Steve suggests that it was not always so, quoting a number of indigenous leaders and their perception of Europeans, who spread the madness across the globe, for example:

“Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings…”

Chief Luther Standing Bear

Steve suggests that “we suffer from a basic psychological disorder that is the source of our dysfunctional behaviour, both as individuals and as a species.” He coins the term ‘humania’ or ‘ego-madness’ to describe the condition – a malfunctioning of the ego. The essential thesis is that humania is a surface condition, and within we always have access to harmony, sanity and connectedness.

The book is in two parts. Part I examines the psychological dissorder and its effects, how humania gives rise to pathological human behaviours. Part II examines how we can practically transcend this psychological discord, and attain a real state of sanity, which is of course a theme of sages across the ages.

Steve is a psychologist, and his practical suggestions are well founded; many of which you will have come across elsewhere, for example: learning the habit of resting in our own mental space without needing distraction, seeking help to resolve past trauma, learning to dis-identify with thoughts, challenging our own negative scripts, practising service and mindfulness, meditation or meditative activity, periods of quiet.

Steve suggests that our only way forward as a species is for enough people to transcend humania; the alternative is too grim to contemplate, but we see the first intimations in today’s increasingly common extreme climate events.

This is one of now-many books on similar themes, a sure indication that people are beginning to change. Will it be fast enough? Who knows, but that is no reason not to try.

Steve’s book provides good diagnosis and guidance on the most pressing issue of our times.

Avebury

The neolithic remains at Avebury are on an awe-inspiring scale. There were originally three stone circles, the largest having diameter 330 metres, inside the henge – a roughly circular bank with deep internal ditch. The stones are thought to have remained largely intact from around the neolithic period 3-4000BC until the late middle ages, the 14th century, when some of the stones were removed/ buried, presumably due to their pagan associations.

The stones and village of Avebury, ditch in foreground

The stones were cataloged in 16C, removed/buried in 17-18C, and substantially restored in 20C. The village you can see in the background was built in one of the circles.

The site is now maintained by the National Trust, together with the long avenue of standing stones (West Kennet Avenue), connecting the circles to other contemporary remains including the mound at Silbury Hill. The whole is on a vast scale, indicating that this was no primitive society, as we tend to think.

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Saint Richard Whiting

On entering Glastonbury Abbey, one of the first buildings you come to is the charming little St. Patrick’s Chapel. Here is a mural which recalls the last days of the Abbey in 1539.

At the time of the Dissolution programme which began in 1534, Richard Whiting was the gentle and respected bishop of Glastonbury Abbey, the second richest religious institution in England, with around 100 monks. The story is well told by Wikipedia here.

In essence, Whiting was conned in the early years that the programme would only affect smaller institutions. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only remaining abbey in Somerset. On being told to surrender the Abbey, Whiting refused, acting legally correctly. Naturally, the Glastonbury leaders took steps to keep the abbey’s treasures safe. This was then turned round by the church commissioners, and ultimately Thomas Cromwell acting on behalf of King Henry VIII, as evidence of treason. His defiance was simply not acceptable to the all-powerful king. There was no due process. Whiting was convicted in secret, and executed on Glastonbury Tor with two of his team.

The mural shows three gibbets on Glastonbury Tor, where the 3 men were hanged, drawn and quartered. These were savage times, and of course Whiting was not the first religious leader to be so treated.

Whiting is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church which beatified him over 300 years later.

Dissolution

One of the great infamous acts of British history was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries 1536-41. On a recent trip across England we came across three of the great religious houses that were dissolved in this process – those at Glastonbury, Dunstable and Bury St Edmunds. The sheer extent of the ruins and the size of the remaining fragments emphasise the enormity of what happened, in a huge transfer of wealth and power from religious to royal authority. Most of the religious buildings in the abbey complexes were subsequently destroyed. Of course, these are just a small sample from the nearly 900 religious houses involved.

A modern day consolation is the wonderful opportunity for photographs offered by the remaining buildings/ fragments.

Glastonbury Abbey
Dunstable Priory, where Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled
Bury St Edmunds Abbey, with modern cathedral tower in background

Gog and Magog – ancient oaks

On a recent visit to Glastonbury we passed by two one-thousand-year-old oaks, in a lane that runs by the appropriately named Old Oaks campsite. These venerable oaks date from the time of the Norman conquests, a time when wolves and bears were still Britain’s top predators. Even the names Gog and Magog are associated with ancient myths and legends (see eg Wikipedia entry).

Gog

Sad to say, although alive when we last saw it, Gog died due to a fire in 2017. How a probably careless act destroyed this ancient being – somehow symbolic of the lack of care many modern people have for nature.

Magog still survives and flourishes, despite the decrepit aspect of parts of its trunk.

Magog, with Gog behind
Hollow in Magog’s trunk

All doomed?

“A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Will Durant

To make up for a significant gap in my scientific/technological education, I once waded through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (abridged version, a mere 1003 pages summarising the original 12 volumes), with significant help from a large Webster’s Dictionary. The ebb and flow of humanity and its civilisations was indeed fascinating. But always there was the question at the back of my mind ‘Why do civilisations fail? This has inspired many historians to produce their own stories and analyses. William Ophuls is familiar with many of these and has produced this short book Immoderate Greatness in which he summarises the conclusions, not the stories.

So why do civilisations fail? Ophuls suggest there are six fundamental reasons:

  1. Ecological exhaustion through systematic exhaustion of the civilisation’s periphery and nature. The money economy tends to become an abstraction disconnected from the real world.
  2. Exponential growth. Essentially the future is valued at a great discount to the present. Decisions are taken for now, not for future generations.
  3. The law of Entropy, disorder tends to increase despite technological advances. Technologies tend to require more energy than they can generate. The natural system based on living processes does not have this problem.
  4. Excessive complexity. Eventually the level of problems created exhausts the capacity of people to manage them.
  5. Moral decay. Glubb identified that civilisations pass through natural ages: pioneers, commerce, affluence, intellect, then decadence. Over a period of around 250 years. In the latter age politics is increasingly corrupt and life unjust with huge wealth discrepancies – with bread and circuses to distract the people.
  6. Practical failure. The previous problems inevitably lead to increasing failure. Inflation,  debasing currency and wars have been the desperate paths historically taken. Reform and revival is possible, but is not the path most taken.

Now we have a global civilisation that has been around for about 250 years. It exhibits many of the symptoms mentioned. Collapse is possible, are we all doomed? Not necessarily.

What is clear is that fundamental change is needed – not least re global warming, catastrophic decline of the natural world, pandemics and global security. All require global cooperation.

The evident reversion of some countries to populism and posturing nationalism are moving in the wrong direction – that of moral decay, privileged elites, bread and circuses. This is the last thing that is needed.

Melchett Mere

The county of Cheshire contains a number of smallish lakes, or meres. Many date back to the glacial period of the last ice age, ‘occupying hollows in the glacial drift surface of the Cheshire Plain’ (see itemised list). The lake in Tatton Park, known as Tatton Mere, is one of these meres of glacial origin.

Tatton Mere, December 2020

Just north west of the top of Tatton Mere lies a smaller lake, named Melchett Mere, but at a noticeably lower elevation. Is this another glacial lake? It seems not. Cheshire also has a history of salt extraction and mining, notably in the area around nearby Northwich and Wincham from the 17th century. Uncontrolled mining activity led to great subsidences of ground and the formation of lakes, such as the notorious Ashton’s and Neumann’s flashes near Wincham.

Melchett Mere, March 2021

Effects of the salt mining activites, and particularly wild brine pumping, were often felt many miles away. According to the National Trust, Melchett Mere in Tatton Park was formed by a sudden collapse in 1922. The resulting lake was named by Lord Egerton after the then chairman of the extractive company he believed to have been responsible (presumably Henry Mond, 2nd Baron Melchett, who became deputy chairman of ICI in the 1940s).

Subsidence due to brine pumping activities is serious business in Cheshire, as evidence by the existence of the Brine Subsidence Compensation Board. Some of the land in this area is still subsiding. Notably this lies on the proposed route for the HS2 high speed train. I hope those guys know what they’re getting into!

The Fall

Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise after an incident with a serpent and a piece of fruit. I remember it from Sunday School at the local Methodist Chapel. Why did our ancestors place so much emphasis on this story? It comes in Genesis 2, in verse 8, just after the creation of heaven and earth.

And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man…

God creates Adam and then Eve and by the end of Chapter 4 (verse 23), because Eve partook of the fruit of a forbidden tree (it was clearly the woman’s fault):

…the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth…

This was obviously highly significant to the men (well they probably were of that gender) who set down the Old Testament. Why? Well, Steve Taylor’s book The Fall has an answer to this question, not only for the scribes of that era, but also for ourselves and future human beings.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book – first published in 2005 and highly recommended by many reviewers. I guess I sort of thought I knew the story, but it was not with the wonderful vision encompassed by this book. Steve is a psychologist, so his story is imbued with a deep understanding of human psychology, but he has also clearly researched and understood many disciplines to produce a work of this scope. This is a history of the fall and a vision of our potential return to paradise.

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The Fight for The Fens

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Read More »

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

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My Fens

I grew up in the city of Lincoln, and was aware that much of the surrounding county of Lincolnshire was flat. And I sort of knew about The Fens, the drained area of farmland around and between the huge estuaries of the Humber and the Wash, that comprised much of the county – ‘the sticks’ we townies used to call it. The Fens also extend down to Cambridgeshire, as shown in this rough map.

Rough Map of The Fens

My family was involved in The Fens. My father worked as a designer of pumps. Now why was there such a company in Lincoln? For drainage. Uncle Bob managed drainage in The Fens. Uncle Charles worked in the engineering teams ensuring continued flow in the drainage waterways, which passed through much of the surrounding farmland, draining water into the River Witham which ran down to Boston. My great grandma lived in Bardney, where we went for walks around yet more drainage channels. My country family, with their broad flat accents, seemed to live in a different world away from the city.

There was even the Sincil Drain running past the Lincoln City football ground, where I went every Saturday. The ground is known as Sincil Bank.

Yet despite all this, and cycling around much of the countryside, I never learned much about the history and geography of the area. My technical education was more oriented to learning about the new and upcoming technologies rather than all this old stuff, and history and geography were soon dropped in favour of maths and science.

So then I went to university at Cambridge, to discover that I was still in an area of flat fields, which were also fens. I even got an evening bar job serving at a country pub in Fen Ditton, and great fun it was too.

I cycled to Cambridge from Lincoln, to move my bicycle from one place to the other. It was flat most of the way. You might think that made the riding easy; on the contrary, strong winds coming across flat fens meant a rather more extended journey than anticipated. I stopped for a rest at Crowland Abbey near Spalding, not realising what a significant place it was in the area’s history. Why was there a large abbey in the middle of this flat farmland?

Cambridge was even more fen country than Lincoln. Regular fog in winter, bitter cold when the east wind blew across from the Urals. This would have been a hard environment before the coming of the cities and farms. In fact, The Fens would have been one big bog.

While I was at Cambridge, my father’s pump company was taken over by another one in Bedford, which lay not far from the southern edge of The Fens. They moved to Bedford, but hadn’t quite escaped The Fens.

After I married we moved west, to Cheshire, and I forgot about my origins in The Fens, until I was given a book telling the history of this area, which is quite fascinating, as I will describe in a future post.

Featured image shows the channelled River Nene, near where it runs into The Wash at Sutton Bridge (2020).
The rough map of The Fens is by Jb?, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons