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.


Monday, 21 August 2017

"There is sorrow on the sea": Maritime memorialisation

There is no escaping the sea on Holy Island. From our trenches we could look out across the harbour and beyond towards the Farne Islands; the wind brought in rain from the North Sea and the cries of seabirds and seals was a constant accompaniment to life on the island.

But the sea is not just a constant as a natural phenomenon. It also appears repeatedly in a materialised form in monuments and memorials that are found across the island, particularly in and around the parish church. Not surprisingly, on an island which has produced many sailors, death by drowning was a real threat, and deaths by drowning are recorded on several graves – interestingly several have nice depictions of boats on them. For example, the grave of John Stevenson (d1875) who died in a wreck off nearby Bamburgh has his stone decorated with a fine carving of a typical local fishing boat known as a coble, and the edge of his grave is finished with rope-like cable twist moulding. Imagery of the sea can be found on other, such as the anchor symbol – a not uncommon image on 19th century graves, but a particularly potent image on an island such as this.

But in death, the sea didn’t only take people away; it also brought strangers to Holy Island. One burial plot, placed in a prime position just by the entrance to the churchyard, is the last resting place of nine members of the crew of the SS Holmrook which sank just off the island in 1892 . A now almost unreadable stone also records the burial site of 13 year old Field Flowers who died in the wreck of the Pegasus on his journey back from school in Edinburgh in 1843. 

A particularly noticeable feature of the burial traditions on the island is the importance of recording
if the departed has been involved in the lifeboats that operated from the island. Since the foundation of the lifeboat service, there have been five lifeboat houses which operated from the island (or on the immediately adjacent mainland). Not surprisingly, given the notorious rocks and reefs off the nearby Farne Islands, as well as the rocks on the north side of Holy Island itself, there have been many shipwrecks in the islands’ waters. These included both local vessels, as well as those from further afield. The role of working on the lifeboats, a volunteer role taken by fishermen and other resident seafarers, was incredibly important- and clearly purveyed a sense of corporate identity amongst its membership, which seems to have transcended many other possible social roles on the island. George Kyle who died in 1960 is recorded on his grave as Assistant Motor Mechanic of the Holy Island lifeboat for 29 years – another George Kyle (d. 1912) is noted as having been both Second Coxwain and Coxwain Superintendent of the boat. Even now there are no lifeboats operating from the island anymore, the boards listing the rescues the lifeboat crews from the island had assisted in are still carefully maintained and displayed, just outside the churchyard.

Mercifully, Holy Island never saw any lifeboat disasters such as that at Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1899 which resulted in the deaths of seven lifeboatmen, who are memorialised by an impressive suite of monuments in Aldeburgh churchyard and a brass plaque in the church itself – both laden with maritime and nautical images and symbols.

Central element of burial plot for Aldeburgh
lifeboat men lost in 1899

I’ve spent a lot of time by the coast this summer – in Northumberland, Yorkshire and currently Suffolk. And wherever I’ve visited, the importance of the sea in forming and maintaining a distinctive tradition of memorialisation and commemoration is apparent. The seafaring experience, and its incredible dangers and regular fatalities, is something that seems to have particularly impacted on post-medieval (particularly 19th and 20th century) commemorative practices. The only other employment sectors that I can think off that have been particularly and specifically highlighted in burial practices are the military (obviously) and mining (I’m thinking particularly of the tradition of pit disaster memorials). Even in relatively recent times, there is a strong thread of modern monument making related to seafaring deaths- just close to where I’m writing this in coastal Suffolk, there is a relatively recent memorial plaque to a group of coastguards drowned in a wreck on the coast between Orford and Shingle Street, despite its distance from the coast, there is an RNLI monument at the National Memorial Arboretum, and most powerfully in Hull, a city which lost 6000-8000 men to the North Sea there are a number of recent monuments to these losses, including “The Last Trip” in Zebedee's Yard and for my mind most powerfully, a monument depicting trawlermen in silhouette on St Andrew’s Quay.
I don’t know of any large-scale study of maritime monumentality, but ultimately that the study of these kind of maritime monuments deserves to be resituated, and not just seen as part of the study of burial practices, but as an integral element of industrial archaeology, which should be recording all aspects of the lives and deaths of workers and their families

Lost Trawlermen monument, Hull (C) Creative Commons

Fisherman's memorial altar, Holy Trinity, Hull  three trawlers St Romanus, Ross Cleveland and Kingston Peridot, all lost within a month- also plaque to the crew of the notoriously lost FV Gaul