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Radical Road Trip

Radical Antiquarians on Tour

The Antiquarians’ Road Trip

Plus ca change

Look! There’s Mr Jingle and Mr Pickwick in Stamford,

A town astride the Great North Road,

All tortuous turnpikes and honey stone,

Coaching inns and listed buildings:

‘GOOD STABLING AND LOOSE BOXES’;

And beyond Stamford, heading east?

There’s John Clare revenants walking the roadside,

And channels and rivulets and watercourses,

With high embankments above the roads,

And a cloud filled sky that meets the fields

In a cumulonimbus towering clasp

Across a dark shadowed numinous dreamscape;

But there, leaping out of the flat lands’ fastness,

The vaporous tower of Ely cathedral,

And all around, the oozing of the fens:

Tick Fen; Langwood Fen, Great Fen, ChatterisFen,

Ouse Fen, Mildenhall Fen, Burnt Fen …

And all around, the waters of rivers and dykes,

And a boatyard down below the cathedral,

Constant trains rattling across the freight line rails,

As twilight softness gathers around the streets,

And swifts soar high above the Maltings,

And high above the roof of Oliver Cromwell’s house,

Just as their seventeenth century ancestors did,

When Cromwell strode forth with his righteous bible,

Imagining a New Model Army

That would vanquish Charles Stuart’s Royalists,

While swifts screeched and eavesdropped high above,

And a parliament of rooks observed and noted.

And so, we strode through Ely’s eely dreamscape,

Shapeshifting in the gathering dusk,

To claim food and drink at the Prince Albert;

Then dreaming of the cathedral,

‘The ship of the Fens’, moored with an anchor

Whose foundations rest on clay and sand,

And a water table higher

than that that of the nearby river,

Until the morning’s ganglion of railway lines

And succession of level crossings:

‘That’ll be the Ely north avoider loop at Queen Adelaide. Enables trains to run direct from Norwich to Peterborough, and vice-versa, and for Kings Lynn freight traffic to head to/from the yards at March. Really tight curves. Ely is a junction for five directions.’ (Jon Seagrave)

We drove on past giant fields of barley and wheat,

Right next to equally giant fields of flowering potatoes

(‘Its only bondage was the circling sky’),

Past where the agricultural rioters of 1816

Would have congregated, voicing demands

For a moral economy with fair prices and wages,

Before marching on to Ely and Littleport:

The response was transportation and execution;

And all the while, embankments and water,

And Will Kemp’s actor-ghost Morris-dancing his way,

In a forlorn attempt to prove that he

Was more popular than William Shakespeare,

Until we reach the flint city of Norwich,

To witness the cathedral’s taking of the Eucharist,

And, outside, Robert Kett’s Rebellion of 1549,

Hand to hand combat along cobbled Elm Street,

Betwixt two flint churches at either end,

The Earl of Warwick’s army guarding the Bishop’s Gate,

Right there where the Red Lion now stands,

And there, by the thick girth black poplar,

Just where we stand and gaze and imagine,

The rebels swimming the shallow waters by Cow Tower

(Built to hold hand held cannon and bombards),

To try and outflank the massed armed ranks on the bridge;

We wandered past the proud Kett memorial plaques,

Past the pub called Lollards Pit

(Mutter that you can find God in your own conscience.

You don’t need an archbishop’s hierarchy),

(Lollards: the link between the Peasants’ Revolt,

Kett and co and then the Diggers and Levellers.

Lollards Pit: the place of execution:

The faggots piled high for the burning

Of these religious radicals.),

Then up Kett’s Hill, past Kett’s Bakery,

To Mousehold Heath where at least 10,000 rebels

Camped high above the city, and its authorities,

Both ecclesiastical and secular,

And where their memory lives on, not just

With plaques and ruins and information panels,

But also, with an assertion of commonality

And historic rights of estover,

For here signs tell us to help ourselves to wood,

And timber and fuel from the felled trees:

Robert Kett’s moral economy

And opposition to enclosure lives on

In its quiet, understated manner

Up here, still, on Mousehold Heath.

I picked up a stone as a keepsake

As we descended back towards the city:

‘Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad.’

I’ve now placed it in the backroom fireplace,

Awaiting my whistle on some dark winter night.

The next day saw us in the Norfolk Broads,

Driving past Three Hammer Common,

And the parish of Barton Turf, with a verger,

Who looked as though he were from a Pre-Raphaelite painting;

Discovering fern and nettled footpaths

Behind massive churches distant from any village,

To reach lonely staithes down on the river bank,

And wander close to a causeway on a pilgrimage

To an isolated red brick windmill,

Built upon the site of St Benet’s monastery,

Where a spectral monk sometimes surveys

His haunting ruins and landscape:

A seeming labyrinth of watercourses:

Sails gliding by just above one’s head,

Yachts and wherries making their way

Parallel with our pilgrimage,

Lanyards clangourous in the breeze,

Skylarks ascending, ducks keening,

Osiers and sedges and willow and aspen

All rustling in the gathering wind,

Sunlight glistening on the rippling waters,

An elemental harmony of air, earth and water,

And fire, too.

For where we were standing and musing,

Just in front of the abbey gateway,

Was where abbey documents detailing

Bonded work, were burned by villeins

In the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

Right where we stood.

What happened to them, I wonder,

Out here in this watery world.

Did the words of King Richard the Second

Condemn them to a worse servitude?

Or death?

‘You wretches detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues: rustics you were, and rustics you are still; you will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as we livewe will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful and loyal. Choose now which course to follow.’

By strange and unhappy happenstance, by the way,

Six hundred and forty years ago on this day,

John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered:

‘When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?’

The next day saw us homeward-bound -

But antiquarian detours were necessary:

Wymondham, first, and this proud plaque:

‘Seeking a fairer society in Norfolk,

Robert Kett, supported by his brother William,

led a rebellion of more than 15,00 people in 1549.

The rising was crushed and over 3,000 died.

On 7th December 1549 Robert was hanged for treason

at Norwich Castle and William from Wymondham Abbey’s

west tower. This plaque was erected in 1999 to remember

the man and his struggle for a more just society in Norfolk.’

Chastened by the image of William,

Dangling, broken-necked, from a rope

Attached to the Abbey’s soaring high west tower,

We made our final East Anglian call at Bury St Edmunds.

Yet another abbey. Yet another memorial.

This time about Magna Carta; placed there in 1847.

‘THE 25 BARONS APPOINTED

TO ENFORCE THE OBSERVANCE OF MAGNA CHARTA

AT BURY St EDMUNDS NOV 20th A.D. 1214’

A detailed list follows;

And, on an adjacent wall, another memorial

To signify Victorian admiration

For this precursor to Runnymede in 1215;

In Gothic rhyming couplets too …

‘WHERE THE RUDE BUTTRESS TOTTERS TO ITS FALL,

AND IVY MANTLES O’ER THE CRUMBLING WALL …’

Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 And All That

Came along some eighty years later;

Here are a few salient points

from their subversive 1930 classic:

‘1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason – (except the Common People)

2. That everyone should be free – (except the Common People)

3. That everything should be of the same weight and measure

throughout the Realm – (except the Common People)

4. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special group of other Barons who would understand …

Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone –

(except the Common People).’

Well, we had to get home and live like common people,

And so, we called in, as everyone,

apart from barons, do,

At a motor way service station;

This one was on the M6, newly opened near Rugby,

And there I read in the Morning Star

(Bought in the Co-op in Wymondham)

Of a strike at the Weetabix factory in Kettering,

Over pay for working unsocial hours …

Plus ca change …

We still seek that elusive moral economy …

The barons are doing okay though.

Plus ca change.

Radical antiquarians on tour.

(Stuart Butler)

AA [Antiquarians Association]

RAC [Radical Antiquarians Collective]










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