Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Knickers in a rag tree: contemporary votive deposition at a prehistoric monument

Today we took a visit to the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire. With my archaeology head on I should probably have been more interested in the Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monumentality – or even the adjacent Anglo-Saxon cemetery. However, what caught my eye was the evidence for contemporary votive deposition practices. The use of prehistoric sites for modern New Age spiritual processes is not exactly an understudied phenomenon. . has long been associated with neo-Druidism and a range of other modern paganism practices; and rag trees can be found at many prehistoric monuments, such as Avebury. This is also true at the Rollright complex – consisting of an early Neolithic portal dolmen, a later Neolithic stone circle and a Bronze Age standing stone – a rag tree has grown up to the east of the stone circle, a wide range of small votive depositions had taken place on the stones themselves and a modern willow sculpture had also been co-opted as a kind of rag tree.

Two things in particular interested me. First, the ad hoc nature of the rag trees. The notion of tying a rag or strip of cloth to a tree deemed as having some spiritual significance is an old one, and one that has been revived by many followers of the constellation of New Age beliefs and practices that have grown up from the 1970s. What I found particularly intriguing was the range of items that had been used as rags. There were obviously a range of textile rags and ribbons- either torn from larger pieces of fabric or originally intended for wrapping presents or decorating clothes. More striking was the wide range of other items that had been tied to the branches of a tree and the willow sculpture. I noted a torn strip of J-Cloth, bits of bin bag and carrier bag, knotted receipts, a fragment of military uniform – most spectacularly there was even a pair of women’s knickers! This seems to suggest that whilst some people had come to the site with the deliberate intention of tying a rag to the tree, for many others it was an entirely an extemporised decision, using  materials  to hand – whatever could be scraped up out of a car footwell, a handbag or a coat pocket. The decision to tie a rag often seems to have been an improvised action rather than a formally planned one with advanced intentions.  I suspect that there are other issues relating to intentionality at play here – whilst those who plan ahead may have a more coherent sense of the symbolism and meaning (personal and cosmological) behind the act of tying a rag to the tree, those who act on the spur of the moment may have done so for other, perhaps less theorised reasons. There may well have been an element of mimesis and copying an intriguing practice rather than anything more structured.

A second thing I noticed was the distinction between the range of a objects placed on the stone circle and the items placed on the portal dolmen. On both there was wide range of organic and deposits, including flowers, sprigs of mistletoe and berries. However, the only inorganic objects, primarily coins and the occasional other item, such as a small knife, were only found around the dolmen – the key difference here is that whilst there is complete unfettered access to the stone circle, the dolmen is surrounded by an iron fence, which whilst allowing items to be tossed onto the stone, prevent their unauthorised removal (although a padlocked gate in the fence would allow authorised access to the deposits). I wonder whether coins and other objects were sometimes placed on the stones but were quickly removed- I can imagine small change in particular being something that inquisitive children (and impecunious adults) might easily remove.

So in summary – there are some interesting tensions at play in the depositional practices at the Rollrights; the balance between planned and ad hoc deposition, and also the distinction between the retrievability and non-removal of items. The evidence of burning in the centre of the circle and an attempt to either hide it or reinstate the damaged area also raises issues about authorised and un-authorised ritual activity on the site (as a Scheduled Monument the burning of fires at the site is forbidden). It would be interested to carry out a more formal longitudinal study of the practices at the site- I’d like to have a better sense of the distinction between more formalised ritualised practices, such as those carried out by organised pagan groups and more informal and personal individual acts of deposition.

For some more reading about contemporary votive depositional practices have a look at

Foley, R. 2010. Performing health in place: The holy well as a therapeutic assemblage Health & Place 17(2):470-9

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Soul Cake Challenge

Today Issy (no 1 Daughter) and myself did a  little experiment in historical baking. We've been doing some Christmas cooking, but as we had all the spices out we thought we'd try the Soul Cake Technical Challenge. Soul Cakes were small spiced buns traditionally baked to celebrate All Souls Day (Nov 2nd), a feast in the Christian calendar which was also often accompanied by popular dramatic performances, such as forms of mumming and similar forms of folk theatricals. 

The Records of Early English Drama (North-East) is a project based at Durham University carrying out a major research project into all forms of early drama, including performances related to All Souls Day. On their blog they've been sharing a lot of information about Souling traditions, and as part of this have been encouraging people to try their hand at making Soul Cakes using an early 17th century receipt. The challenge being that early recipes were often pretty minimalist, and rarely include such minor details as quantities or cooking times. The recipe that was given was one taken from the household book of Lady Elinor Fettiplace (c1570-c1647). She lived for much of her life at Appleton (which although the blog says is in Oxfordshire, is actually in Occupied North Berkshire). 

The actual recipe is as follows:Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, beat your spice & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together & make it in little cakes & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them or fruit.

It is mostly self-evident, although sack was a dry white wine (similar to sherry) and ale barm is the yeast from brewing beer. We tried to follow it as close as possible, the only differences from the receipt used by Lady Fettiplace was that we had no ale barm, only instant yeast, and we had no nutmeg. For the sack we used some sherry (good splash); the flour was white plain flour, the sugar was white caster sugar.

We based our proportions on a soul cake recipe we found on-line, but because this also contained eggs and the ale barm would have also been liquid(ish), we found our initial mix rather stiff, so we loosened it with a little bit of milk. We ended up with something more like a bread dough rather than a cake batter. We left this in a warm place to rise for about 90 minutes. We decorated them with some currents in the shape of a cross and baked them for about 30 minutes at Gas Mark 5. End result, something that resembled slightly dense hot-cross buns. You could taste the spices, but the sack (sherry) didn't bring much to the party to be honest. I think we could probably have used a bit more yeast to make them rise a bit better, but otherwise, not bad at all. Now feeling inspired to investigate the Fettiplace book for more North Berkshire Jacobean recipes. Also might give the some of the online recipes for Soul Cakes although I imagine that as these contain egg, that they will be more 'cakey' than the sweet bread buns we made today.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

From the Pacific to the North Sea: the ‘Melanesification' of the past

Yesterday I was reading Frederik Fahlander’s recent review of Oli Harris and Craig Cipolla’s Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium. It’s a generally positive review of a useful book, but what struck me was a comment he made about the ‘Melanesification of the past inherent in many relational archaeologies’. In this case, he’s referring to the notion of distributed agency as promoted by a lot of the adherents of ANT/Symmetrical approaches which is so current in contemporary thought. This has been very influenced by the work of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, particular his 1998 book Art and Agency which particularly used case studies drawn in particular from Melanesia (roughly including New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji). Fahlander highlighted the problems outlined by Bob Layton in extending a particularly Melanesian ontology about personhood and art to a more general cross-cultural sphere. In many ways this reflects the usual problem with analogical thinking in archaeology about specificity of context and the challenges of extrapolating from anthropological parallels

It also struck me as interesting as for a variety of reasons I’ve recently been reading a lot about the archaeology and anthropology of Oceania – particularly some interesting work by Nicholas Thomas, as well as Kirch’s On the Road of the Winds, and some stuff by the Tongan writer and anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa. It reminded me quite how much archaeologists have used ideas ultimately derived from Oceanic contexts – the notion of prestige good exchange being an obvious example which has its origins in anthropological explorations of processes such as Trobriand kula rings. When I was an undergraduate, social evolutionary models looking at the development of chiefdom were popular amongst those working on Iron Age archaeology – much of it derived from anthropological and archaeological word carried out by scholars such as Timothy Earle on the more ranked societies that belong to eastern Polynesia (Tonga, Hawaii etc).

Interestingly there also seems to be a little outbreak of, if not Melanesification, at least Polynesification, in Viking studies. Both Mads Ravn and Neil Price have made a case for using Oceanic parallels to contextualise Viking society. In some senses there are some obvious connections, seafaring, ranked societies with evidence for tran-oceanic expansion driven by something beyond simple population expansion.

In my own reading I’ve found it really interesting taking some of these ideas that have permeated the archaeological literature back to their origin. In most cases it’s clear that the complexity and contingency of things like kula rings get stripped out when the model is transported. Also often, I’m not sure that anthropological parallels are always particularly illuminating when they are reduced to the banal level of ‘ooh look Pacific society exchange systems can be both reciprocal and hierarchical, a bit like Iron Age Britain’. I’ve my found my reading more useful in opening up possibilities rather than providing exact parallels, and also as a useful reminder of the sheer bloody messiness of non-state societies. They can be inconsistent, inchoate and are constantly dynamic. Indeed, it’s this complexity that so often gets lost when analogies are used to used uncritically – and as Matthew Spriggs has pointed out this kind of approach can strip out chronological change and contingency resulting in a kind of denial of history imposed on Oceanic societies. Ironically juicy anthropological parallels end up treated like Prestige Goods, handed around between peers and gaining their importance on the basis of their exotic provenance.

Anyway next week I’m off to London next week to go the British Library Anglo-Saxons: Kingdoms, Art and War exhibition and the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy; I look forward to seeing how a really good understanding of emerging social ranking in Toga can only be developed by drawing parallels with 7th century Mercia.

Fahlander, F. 2018. Oliver J.T. Harris and Craig Cipolla. Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, 238 pp., 32 figs, pbk, ISBN 978-1-138-88871-5). European Journal of Archaeology, 21(4), 640-643.

Hau’ofa, E. 2008. We are the ocean: selected works University of Hawaii Press

Layton, R. 2003. ‘Art and Agency’: A Reassessment. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9: 447–64
Price, N. & Ljungkvist, J 2018 Polynesians of the Atlantic? Precedents, potentials, and pitfalls in Oceanic analogies of the Vikings, Danish Journal of Archaeology

Ravn, M., 2011. Ethnographic analogy from the Pacific: just as analogical as any other analogy. World Archaeology, 43/ 4, 716–725.

Ravn, M., 2018. Roads to complexity: Hawaiians and Vikings compared. Danish Journal of Archaeology

Spriggs, M., 2008. Ethnographic parallels and the denial of history. World Archaeology, 40/4, 538–552

Spriggs, M., 2016. Lapita and the Linearbandkeramik: what can a comparative approach tell us about either? In: L. Amkreutz, et al., eds. Something out of the ordinary? Interpreting diversity in the Early Neolithic Linearbandkeramik and beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 481–504.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Reflections on Remembrance Sunday 2018

Last weekend I went to the Remembrance Sunday memorial events in the centre of York, marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice at the end of World War I. As it was such a key anniversary, there were hundreds, probably thousands of people attending an event that is usually more subdued. I’ve blogged previously about some of my personal emotions about Remembrance Sunday, but I want to hear just briefly reflect on the physical experience of attending a large community ritual event – a little light autoethnography if you will.

My first observation was the capacity for sound to cause affect (in the psychological sense of the word i.e. provoking or causing an emotional response). Obviously, at an event such as this there was music- a military band marching at the head of the parade leading to the memorial gardens and the playing of the Last Post. However, it was the two-minute silence that really struck me as an incredibly potent element of the ceremony. I found the silence of a large crowd in the middle of a large city quite remarkable – indeed, a little unnatural. In particular, it was noticeable how the need for silence changes the physical dynamic of the crowd. The end of conversation means that the people stop interacting with each other – although one or two couples stood close to each other and some parents held children, on the whole there was a noticeable ‘atomisation’ of the crowd. The combination of lack of noise and lack of other forms of interaction resulted in a really peculiar tension between being in a group and being an individual.  The marking of this odd liminal period was also signalled by noise, in this case the firing of a pair of field guns. Having done a little research the 2 minute silence had its origin in Cape Town South Africa in 1918 following a practice that had been used intermittently in churches in town since 1916. Even from the beginning it was marked by noise – the firing of the noon day gun and ending with the playing of the bugle.

The other observation was the underlying low level disorganisation. People were uncertain where to go, a lot of people couldn’t see well, the march got split into two sections by accident, people were jostling to get a good position and there were clearly moments of uncertainty even amongst the civic party. The periphery of the crowd was also threaded through with individuals who weren’t taking part, trying to work their way through the crowded pavement, cars stopped by the police and children crying. It was a healthy reminder that although when we think of ceremony and ritual in the abstract we tend to envisage a clearly shared script, informed participants and a impeccable organisation. In fact, even with a militarily organised, important high-profile event such as this, there were still ragged edges, awkward moments and confusion.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Citational Practices - some thoughts

I’ve belatedly been reading Colleen Morgan’s great blog post about what she terms ‘citational communities’ – the invisible colleges of academics and researchers and their publications that we cite to support our own published work. A key message of her thoughtful piece is that for many female scholars, there is not only a glass ceiling, but also glass walls which result in their work being undercited and referenced. I suspect that the extent of this varies widely from discipline to discipline with some academic communities being more male dominated than others. The key point though is that citation is essentially a political act, in which we as researchers can align ourselves with or against other scholars or perhaps more perniciously cut scholars entirely out debates by sidelining their work.

I confess my first reaction on reading the article was to think how different her particular field (digital archaeology) is compared with my own (early medieval Britain) – and I was shocked at the practices she was mentioning (people actively not citing rivals or preferentially citing friends). There are many major female scholars in my field of my own, and earlier and younger generations, whose work has been profoundly influential on my own work at a personal level as well as within the wider subject (on a personal level- Tania Dickinson gave me a grounding in Anglo-Saxon archaeology as an UG that I am still grateful for; working on early medieval Northumbria and Wales scholars such as Rosemary Cramp and Nancy Edwards have also ben fundamental to my development as a researcher). I can and do cite these and many other female scholars regularly

However, a key point of Colleen’s blog was also that these kind of biases need not necessarily grow out of explicit or overt prejudices, but also the more structural biases implicit in academia. It made me think about how my own citational practices actually work. Again, my first reaction was that I just cite what is most relevant or appropriate in a particular context. Yet, ion reflection I think it is probably true that I do tend to cite colleagues and friends more often. Partly, this is for practical reasons, I’m often more aware of what they have written and their research output. Like most academics I feel that I’m constantly struggling to keep up with the current literature being churned out even in a small field such as mine; inevitably I tend to be better at reading the work of people who work down the corridor or who are friends outside academia – often because they’ve asked me to read it before publication. Within my world, due to its size, there tends to be a greater collegiality – I can think of very few people working in my world who I do not know personally to a greater or lesser extent. However, even within this world there are clear sub-communities – they are partly based on sub-specialisms, but they are also influenced by other factors, particular geography and generation. Regionally, it is inevitable that people tend to be more aware of the work of those who are in physical proximity. Based in Durham and living in York I tend to have better links and understandings of scholars working in Durham, York and Newcastle than Southampton or Exeter. These kind of regional connections are also particularly important in the development of informal networks of peers when people are early in their careers, particularly during their Phds. For example, when I was doing my PhD in the mid-1990s, there was a distinct cluster of PhD students all working on broadly similar topics (early medieval archaeology in Britain) in what might be termed the ‘Thames valley corridor’ - London, Reading and Oxford. We knew each other’s work and went to the same seminars and conferences – but as, or perhaps, more importantly, was the more informal networking at pubs and parties; I probably spent more time actually talking about my work in the pubs of Oxford and ULU than I did in my own Department. Inevitably, although as a peer group we have now dispersed to universities across the country I still keep a closer eye on the output of my friends than perhaps I do of people I don’t know so well.

This issue of informal networking (the apr├Ęs conference and Saturday night party) brings us back to the initial point. As I get older, I do less of this; family commitments and work pressures mean I get to less conferences and I’m far more selective in what I do go to (I tend to be more conservative in choice of conference and tend to only go if I’m speaking myself). I get out to the after-research seminar drinks less and haven’t been to a decent party for a long time. Parental responsibilities (and more importantly ‘parental desires’ – being a dad is something I enjoy rather than see as being a duty) tend to fall on women’s shoulders far more extensively than on men’s (this is not a good or inevitable thing, but it is in our society a truth). As a result, it often ends up being harder for women with families to get to conferences or if they do, to stay for the social side of things. The events which I’ve found so important in developing my personal and citational research communities are precisely those which young scholars with families (or indeed young scholars outside academia with limited access to the time/money needed to go to conferences) – due to structural biases in our society this tends to be more of an issue for women than men. If as a middle aged man with a permanent academic post I struggle with engaging with the academic world beyond reading published research, then how hard is it for those earlier in their careers? As someone who worked outside academia until their mid-30s I remember the struggle – and that was before we had children.

So, what can I do? Sticky one, but basic stuff includes ensuring the conferences that I am involved with are more family friendly and be pro-active in ensuring gender parity in panels and line-ups of speakers, try to engage more via things like Twitter, blogs, social media with the work of younger scholars, think about my necessarily selective reading more carefully and try to find time to be a little more adventurous in what I do look at. I like Colleen’s idea of setting up a list of female contemporary archaeologists that can be cited as a way of encouraging us to be more imaginative in our use of citation. We all tend to stick to the well-worn hollow ways of citational traditions we have erode into own personal academic terrain; sometimes it’s good to  get out of these ruts.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Exploring Brookwood Cemetery

A couple of weeks ago, we had an unexpected visit to the great cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. Originally, designed as an overspill cemetery for the corpses piling up in Victorian London, it is perhaps best known for its ‘Necropolis Railway’ that ran straight from London Waterloo to the cemetery itself. What I found most fascinating though was not the earlier phases of the cemetery, but the more recent areas, which contained burial zones dedicated to a complex mix of different religions and ethnicities. As I’ve done a lot of work on early medieval burial, in which the role of ethnicities and religious beliefs are so much at the front of people’s thoughts, it was a useful exercise to see how these aspects of identity were played out in a more contemporary setting.

The first area we explored was the Catholic zone – itself a reminder that Christianity comes in more than one flavour and that certain communities felt the need to spatially differentiate themselves from others (although there was no formal boundary between this area and the burial zones of other traditions). Strikingly, although whilst the individuals within this area were all buried within the same faith tradition, there were other identities being signalled in their burial, particularly ethnicity. There is clearly a significant Italian diaspora community in this part of Surrey - and they were marking themselves out in death. They were doing in this in a number of different ways. First, there was a clear physical clustering of graves with Italian names in a certain part of the Catholic zone. In some cases, particularly in the slightly older burials, Italian was used in the epitaphs, but often most of the text was in English , although often the place of birth was often indicated down to the level of the town or village in which the person had been born in. Another feature, distinctive to these was the use of photographs of the deceased. Such photographs are not a particularly British tradition (although it is starting to become more common), so the consistent use of photographs in this area certainly marked out the occupants as ‘not British’ even if not specifically Italian.

It is tempting to see the declining use of Italian on the graves as an indicator of some level of assimilation by the Italian community. However, in other aspects of the burial tradition of this community there seemed to be in more recent years a very pronounced revival of a very distinctively Italian burial tradition – the construction and use of columbaria. Columbaria are upstanding constructions containing multiple compartments for individual cinerary remains. Anyone who has travelled abroad will have seen these used widely in the Mediterranean, particularly in Italy, often rather resembling banks of marble filing cabinets. Often groups of compartments are dedicated to the use of a specific family. Their use is certainly alien to the English tradition. However, here at Brookwood, columbaria only seem to be start being constructed in the 21st century, where they only seemed to be used by the Italian community. In this sense, the Italian population are seemingly becoming more rather than less Italian in death as time goes by.

It would be interesting to find out more about how this has come about. One possibility is that as direct links with their overseas origins ebbs away as older generations pass, the younger community feel a need to signal their loyalty to their roots in other ways even if only in death. There are though other issues at play here though I’m sure. I’d be interested to get a better understanding of two factors. Firstly, how far do changes in cemetery regulations at Brookwood influence what is acceptable and permissible? Most cemeteries have very tight regulations about the range and design of burial memorials that are acceptable. Brookwood is a private cemetery, run on a commercial basis, rather than a municipal cemetery or a Church of England graveyard; thus they need to be savvy to attract clients. I can see this resulting in a pressure to allow more experimentation and unorthodoxy in memorial types – it is possible that columbaria only became acceptable within the cemetery relatively recently and that before that, even though the desire was there, people were simply not allowed to build and use such unorthodox (in a British context) memorials. Another hypotheses that would warrant further consideration is the pragmatic issue of the availability of the necessary skills and technologies to construct columbaria. Presumably, traditional UK undertakers in the past only offered a defined and limited range of burial monuments, which did not include columbaria. Potentially, it took some time for there to be enough demand, and presumably access to plans and exempla for commercial undertaking concerns to be able to move beyond simple head and kerbstones to being able to construct more complex memorials.

Both of these explanations are just working hypotheses – it is quite possible that that one, neither or both may be relevant, as well as other alternatives. Pleasingly, as these are contemporary burial traditions rather than archaeological case studies, it should, in theory, be possible to drill down deeper into the choices being made here. As archaeologists we spend a lot of time thinking about agency and the active decisions being made by people to express identities- this is a useful reminder that no matter what people might desire, there are also often pragmatic limitations (procedural, economic and social) that limits what people are actually able to do in practice.

The second area we explored was the substantial Muslim area of the cemetery. This was a real experience, as whilst I’ve seen plenty of non-British cemeteries before, this was a tradition I was not really familiar with. Handily, we got talking with a local man from the Pakistani community was really interested in talking about his religions approaches to burial and was frank about how some decisions were made. I am indebted to him for this time and willingness to report.

However, more widely, the same patterns that could be seen within the Catholic area to differentiate individuals and communities could be seen at play in this area. Groups were particularly differentiating themselves in terms of national origin, which although ultimately subordinate to religious identify was clearly an important structuring principal. Again, language was used as a differentiating strategy – some used just Arabic script, others used English script, and some a combination of the two. The place of birth was also mentioned regularly. In some cases, such as amongst the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot communities, national flags also often appeared on graves.

As with the Italian Catholic burials, the role of family tombs seemed much more apparent than in traditional British cemeteries. This may be a reflection of the differing significance of family groups in burial traditions in their native countries, but I wonder how much being part of an immigrant community may amplify or emphasise the importance of the family as a structuring principal in death and in life.

Obviously, Islamic burials are meant to broadly conform with a number of obligations – although obviously I’m aware there is huge variation here. A common requirement though is that the body should be at right-angles to the direction of Mecca. Interestingly, there was a surprising variety in alignment- sometimes even within the same burial compound or enclosure. The gentleman we were speaking to also said that often the precise choice of alignment might be constrained by pragmatic issues- for example, they were sometimes offset slightly if correct alignment would mean that the grave would intersect with one of the curved cemetery paths or roads. In other cases, the correct alignment might also result in a grave impinging onto a neighbouring plot. We were told that in this case the cemetery management company would charge for both plots in such cases, so sometimes economics came into play to prevent the ideal alignment being used.

Within the grave, we were told that coffins weren’t used, but in theory a barrier was meant to be placed between the body and the fill of the grave – stone or wood- but again we were told that this was also sometimes not used for reasons of cost. Presumably, this kind of price cutting was particularly easy as it was not visible after the interment itself and would only be known about by a small number of people.

Overall, it was a really thought-provoking visit – a distinct change from the many UK cemeteries and graveyards I’ve visited before. As I noted above archaeologist tend to be very interested in agency and choice in the mortuary process – particularly in the construction of ‘identities’ (whatever we might mean by that). The Brookwood experience has made me think a little more carefully about the constraints and limits that are also in place within any society. When looking at early medieval burials sometimes we tend to think about religious identities replacing ethnic and other identities- Brookwood was a reminder of how intermeshed and overlapping these identities can be in practice (and I didn’t even start to explore the issue of gender distinctions…).

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Iken: A Suffolk Scene

I’ve just come back from a holiday in Suffolk. It’s an area I’ve been to several times and one of the places I always come back to is Iken, an isolated hamlet on the River Alde. Its church, dedicated to St Botolph is almost certainly the location of Botolph’s monastery of Icanho founded in the mid-7th century. But for once, I’m not going to dwell on early medieval archaeology. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the particular tradition of ruralist and agrarian writing that emerged in the 1930s – the best known figures of this movement are people such as HJ Massingham and Adrian Bell. However, the cottage where we were staying had a copy of a book I’d not come across before, Suffolk Scene by Julian Tennyson (great grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson). It was a recent edition of the 1939 original and had a forward by Ronald Blythe, which is usually an imprimatur of good writing. The book itself is very much a period piece and contains paeans of praise to Suffolk wildfowling and contains some lengthy passages of rather awkward, light-hearted anecdotes in phonetic Suffolk accent, which seem a little twee to the modern reader. However, the morning before we went to Iken I lay on the beach and read this rather beautiful passage about the church:
“The loveliest part of the whole river is at Iken, where the church and rectory stand lonely on a little wooded hill at the head of the bay that curves sharply back beneath the bracken and oak trees and steep sandy cliffs. There is something very restful about this place; very old and very friendly; there is no church in England which gives you in quite the same way such a feeling of security and changelessness. Behind it our fields, woods and heaths stretching down to Orford, to the right of it are the marshes and distant sea. A huge expanse of river lies before you when you lean over the graveyard wall; the long, dark pinewood of Blackheath and the bay in the corner where the widegeon gather in thousands on winter nights, seem at least two miles off; but wait till low tide and you will see the whole river fall away and it becomes a flat shining ocean of mud with the channel a thin thread through the middle of it. Whimbrel, curlew, redshank, dunlin, shelduck, mallard all the birds of the river come up to feed around Iken flats and their din sets the tame duck quacking raucously in the decoy at the back of the marshes. The noise of the birds is all that you will hear at Iken, except when the east wind drives across the marsh and lashes at the thatch of the church. When I was a child I decided that here was the place for me to be buried. I have not altered my mind. Everyone wants to lie in his own country: this is mine. I shall feel safe if I have the scream of birds and the moan of wind and the lapping of water all round me, and the lonely woods and marshes that I know so well. How can anyone say what he will feel when he is dead? What I mean is that I shall feel secure in dying”

I didn’t know much about the author at that point beyond the fact that he had been killed in Burma,
far away from the Suffolk he loved, at the age of 30 during the Battle of Arakan in 1945. It was moving then, when we got to Iken, to find his grave in the churchyard. It seems to be a relatively recent monument, unlikely to be more than a decade or so old. It was really rather touching having read his words about the church to discover that he did, as he hoped, end up there, where he must have lain submerged and unmarked in the turf before someone (who? Family? Friends?) placed a stone for him there.
We placed some shells taken from the beach near the mouth of the river on his gravestone and left him to listen to the wind in the trees and the birds on the river.