Georgian Interlude

Pockerley Old House

A day of time travelling with grandchildren 9 and 6 years of age, proved a delight for all concerned one day last week. Beamish in Co.Durham has been ‘The Living Museum of the North’ since its foundation in 1970 and now covers some 350 acres. To me it represents all that’s best about the region’s culture; by the people, for the people and of the people. Worth the wait to get in once we’d parked up. A number of visits are required to get any feel for the whole. Today we started off with the 1900’s pit village reassembled on site – church, school, silver band hall, cottages with gardens etc. For me though the latter part of our visit was the most poignant and atmospheric…a time where the seemingly unchanging agricultural world really did start to give way to the Industrial. The 1820’s late Georgian period saw great social, political and economical changes. What they’ve managed to create at the Pockerley site beautifully captures a world where intense manual labour with horse and oxen was giving way to a multitude of iron engines powered by coal and steam.

Pockerley New House

Comfortably situated atop a small hill, Pockerley New House was built in the early 1700’s and sits next to (but is not physically connected with) the Old House next door, which dates from the 1440’s and was originally a pele or bastle in the age of Anglo-Scottish raiding. Along with the extensive farm outbuildings they are the only original buildings on the Beamish estate. The Pockerley was still the centre of a tenant farming operation right up until 1990. The delightful stepped front garden is on three levels – flower & herb, vegetable & orchard – giving way to a patchwork of small fields under ‘rig (ridge) & furrow’ cultivation alongside traditional meadows, partitioned by split oak or thorn hedge and hazel hurdles.

The old house is dark and cool. As a former defensive structure it has massive thick walls, small windows, a cheese press, worn flag floors, large undercroft. The new hall by contrast oozes a modest prosperity. Wonderful lived in feel, mix of best (carpeted parlour) and everyday (large flagged kitchen & entranceway) settles and rag rugs, artifacts and decorations, worn & warm, coal fired kitchen range, lots of small interconnecting rooms, creaking narrow stairs, simple and sufficient…Feels as if the inhabitants had just stepped out and were to be expected home any moment.

Pockerley New House Garden & Orchard looking towards the Waggonway & Joe the Quilter’s Cottage

I imagine that stout political reformer and countryside advocate William Cobbett calling by for lively state of the nation conversation with the tenant farmer which we would later read about in one of his ‘Rural Rides’. His contemporary Thomas Bewick was born and grew up in a similar yeoman farmhouse by the banks of the Tyne at Cherryburn. The great naturalist and printmaker would have been equally at home in such a setting, which he might have come by on one of his many long walks about the north-east. Beamish has a great advantage over the National Trust and country house owners who open their properties to the public in making nearly everything they have on site is as ‘hands on’ and experiential as it can be. The atmosphere created is as charged and realistic as the steam engine we see & hear slicing its determined course through the otherwise peaceful pastoral scene. In contemporary art terms: more of a Turner landscape than Constable is animated before our eyes.

The Pockerley Waggonway allows non stop comings and goings of a prototype mine locomotive, ‘The Steam Elephant’, which has benn reconstructed on site from an original oil painting of 1815. It tears through the rural topography at a steady 5mph, returning at end of day to the 1825 engine shed it shares with a replica of Stephenson’s famous ‘Locomotion No 1’. We queue patiently to ride the rails, peering from the open carriageway at the young volunteer engineers, blackened like medieval imps, taking the revolutionary grease black creature through its steaming piston pushing paces….Only a short run there and back but worth every moment!

We finished today’s ventures into the 1820’s with a visit to the nearby recently opened Joe the Quilter’s Cottage. (The first building to be complete in their £11million lottery funded ‘Remaking Beamish’ project). Joe Hedley, a cottage industry quilt maker whose work was known and admired beyond his native north-east was brutally murdered at home on or about 3rd January 1826. The crime was never solved, despite the public outcry and reward offered by the crown. Joe’s original humble cottage just down the road from us at Warden, by the confluence of the north & south Tyne rivers, was demolished in 1872. But those clever people at Beamish, together with community volunteers, working from an original print of the place and official post murder inventory managed to identify its site and remove the original flagstone floor. The distinctive local sandstone and oak used in building walls and roof frame along with tons of heather for thatching were all sourced in Northumberland. Beamish’s blacksmiths made door locks, hinges and candlesticks. The broadcloth quilts old Joe produced at home were of the highest quality (example pictured) and much sought after by the gentry. Living alone in such a relatively isolated spot the poor man was clearly a vulnerable target for those intent on robbery with extreme violence.

Broads

For someone hefted to the hills it’s a rare treat to set foot in the relative flat lands of Norfolk. But for two days this week I was enhanced by water and big skies; from living in a lighthouse to cruising in a pleasure boat on the Broads. A lovely few days holiday with the extended family opened my eyes to the quiet delights of coast and inland waterways.

The promise of 125 miles of navigable lock free rivers allows most of us untested travellers to confidently set sail on inland waters during the easy months of summer. We hired our motor cruiser for the day, complete with sink, fridge, toilet & overhead retractable covers. Embarking from the boatyards at Potter Heigham we soon joined the sedate River Bure which has been fully navigable since 1685. In the old days the seven rivers that make up the Broads had locks in strategic places and the extensive waterborne trade on wherries and skiffs made this a prosperous rural area. The coming of the railways and better roads, combined with a disasterous flood in 1912 all helped put an end to this phase of industry. Sail boats still ply the waters but now purely for pleasure. Engine gives way to sail on the water road and in pausing our progress we witnessed them skillfully tacking cross the current, bank to bank, to catch the wind. Was put in mind of all those genre paintings of sails under huge skies with complex lighting effects skillfully captured in oil or water colours.

Our principal destination, where we came ashore, was Ranworth Staithes. Once a centre for maltings and brewing and now a popular port of call for boaters and boats of all descriptions. After a convivial lunch in the pub we walked up to the village church of St Helen on the heave of land which passes for a peak in these parts. My only regret on leaving was not taking the opportunity to climb its tall tower via ancient steps and ladders to take in the view it would offer of the wider wetlands. Never mind. Just viewing close up the outstanding 15th century rood screen and wood panel paintings of saints was reward enough. How this luminous and exquisite example of late medieval art survived the reformation is a miracle in itself.

One of the reasons I chose not to delay our party in ascending the open door to belfry and roof was that I was sleeping for two nights at the top of the lighthouse the family had rented for the week at Winterton by the Sea, so already had my happy fill of heights and views. Lovingly restored by architect wife and publicist husband, this was their idylic country retreat from London along with their two children. A host of magazines featured the building and its location. My bedtime eyrie was 75 steps up. The last two floors being pitched very steeply, requiring all who passed to practice backward descent. The 360 degree view from this ultimate mezzanine, complete with sunken mattress and arty lamps, provided a view to another lighthouse northwards and the suburbs of Great Yarmouth southwards. East, an expanse of grey north sea stretched to the horizon beyond marram grassed dunes (a protected S.S.S.I.) A seemingly endless strip of sandy beach gave way steeply to crashing waves. Further down the coast a line of wind turbines pointed in the direction of Holland. At one point lightning flashes told us of storms over that country. The next night, gathered in our circular viewing platform from 10 – 10.10 pm, we were treated to a firework display over Great Yarmouth. To the west golden stubble cut cornfields, mature trees in hedges, churches, hints of the inland water world of the Broads beyond.

Fascinated to discover the history of evolution that produced these intensively plied rural waterways. Rich religious houses, like Saint Benet’s abbey, whose ruins we passed on the River Bure, were behind exploitation of the land they owned or rented and which consequently brought the Broads we know today into being. Their extensive turbary activity in the middle ages resulted in the removal of some 900 million cubic feet of peat around the seven rivers of the sub region. Combined with gradually rising sea levels this resulted in flooding of the low lying river valleys, leaving inland promontaries in between. All this further further accelerated water borne import/export of agricultural produce, coal, bricks, tiles, timber etc to towns even further inland and increased the importance of Norwich as the regional centre. St Benet’s strikes the eye with its hulk of an 18th century brick windmill dominating the remains of its medieval stone gatehouse.

Masses of masking reeds, isolated ancient oaks, woods of water loving willows and alder masking silted wharves and inlets…I think of the ghost story I will be reading this autumn on tour in Northumberland & Dumfries; ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1951). Inspired by living on a canal longboat just after WW2 and her role in founding the Inland Waterways Association, her beguiling tale really is the most disturbing of fictions, combining on board love triangle with exploration of unchartered waterways. Quite brilliant and chilling. Having this chance to be on the water has given me experience of a dream like setting to play with in my head and project into the reading.

Poppies Plus

One benefit of the County Council upgrading our C Road was that they appear to have re-seeded the verges with wildflower and grass mix. Seeing patches of poppies and harebells at the passing places is a joy. I’m also convinced that poppies are becoming a common sight in cornfields again in recent years, being tolerated or encouraged where once they would have been chemically eliminated. The raising of consciousness about the dead of World War One and the symbolism of this distinctive flower has elevated it from from common weed to timely icon. And that must be a good thing.

Old friend and Demi-paradise associate Richard Sails was our guest last week; a first in arriving on foot from the south bearing a heavy rucksack. He is walking from Land’s End to John’o’Groats and we would be his last stop in England before crossing the border into Scotland. Richard was game enough to play my guerrilla version of croquet round the lawns and do a spot of shooting tin cans off the gateposts with my old BSA Meteor air rifle. He also made himself very useful undertaking a meticulous job prepping the blackcurrants from the garden which I then made into jam. Richard has passed through some of the best of English countryside this summer and his interest in flora and fauna has grown with it. A real pleasure to host and support such a genial, resourceful and determined man on his epic trek. (Richard’s progress can be followed on Facebook)

A small herd of Southridge’s stabilisers has been let loose on cornerhouse field. Apparently there’s danger in letting cattle graze too early on land where hay or silage has been cut and fresh lush pasture pushes through. They can get a type of pneumonia commonly called ‘fog fever’ and the grass everywhere, in field and garden, is profuse in growing during these damp warm days. The bullocks are wary but curious so I converse with them over the wall to gain trust and some come in close enough to lick my hand. I do a spot of pruning and later feed them branches of alder, willow and ash which they curl their tongues around to deftly strip the branches of fresh leaves.

Delighted to discover that pipits (tree or meadow) are most definitely back. There’s a lovely cone of a small nest in the fork of a birch tree in the copse that I’d like to think was to do with them but the book tell me both species nest on or near the ground, so who knows? It’s been a great season for insects in general and butterflies in particular. Lots of tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral and veined whites aflutter round the garden but have also logged ringlet and painted lady. The latter has been present in great numbers this year apparently, having moved up from North Africa through Europe and across the channel into all parts of the country.