I've been away for the weekend, staying in the Ancient House , Clare, Suffolk. This is a Landmark Trust property. The part I was in was probably built in the 15th Century, so it certainly qualifies as an Old House, if not technically Ancient! It's one of the most photographed houses in Suffolk, since it has some wonderful examples of the local craft of 'pargeting'. This is a technique of plaster decoration on the exterior of buildings. The local house building materials in this area were oak (for the timber frames) and clay. Since clay can't be allowed to get wet, it was covered with plaster as a protection against the elements, then people started making patterns in the plaster. Most decorations consist of geometric patterns, which are usually placed in borders within the timber frames, but the richer houseowners had more elaborate designs. Inside the house, in the main parlour, is a fine wood ceiling with subtle leaf patterns at the end of the beams. It was elegant enough that I lay on the floor to try and get a picture, so I hope that comes out. There's a large open fireplace in there as well, so the evening's entertainment consists of feeding logs into the freestanding grate - especially since the temperature kept dropping below zero. In the bathroom and bedroom the original shutter runs remained, so they've made new shutters which slide to and fro, instead of curtains. They work quite well to keep the light out and the heat in, so now I'm wondering if there's anywhere I could fit them in my house.
But the highlight of the building are the slopes in the floors of the bedroom and bathroom. As I mentioned, it's an old house and the timbers have warped and settled over the years which leaves one side of the room about a foot higher than the other side! This is particularly noticeable in the bathroom where you find yourself picking up speed as you head across the floor towards the toilet. In fact I was inspired to poetry (or, more accurately, to parody):
Stride no more, ladies, stride no more
(Men, do your best endeavour.)
One foot on high, and one on low,
The floor is constant never.
Then curse not so, and do not mope,
But be you blithe and bonny,
Slaloming down the bathroom slope
With a hey nonny nonny!
One of the main reasons I went to Suffolk was a long-held desire to see the Sutton Hoo site. I saw a program on the excavation years ago, which I found fascinating, and yes, Time Team is one of my favourite programs. They have a new exhibition hall, opened in the last couple of years, for most of the finds - although the most valuable are in the British Museum - so there's more to see now than a handful of rather featureless mounds. There is a viewing platform with a good map and description of the main ship mound, and the various other burial mounds that are clustered around it. I had a very atmospheric viewing since I was the first one there after opening, and as I stood on the platform it began to snow - horizontally! Once I'd had enough 'atmosphere' I headed back to the restaurant for something warm. The exhibition hall is well laid out, although quite small, so going in the off-season gives you lots more room to look at things. There is a recreation of the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet which I think is the item which makes the find so dramatic - that feeling of looking into the eyes of someone from the past. And a reproduction of the burial chamber as it might have looked when it was laid out - games, cooking pots, textiles, clothes (he took size 7 shoes). The decorative metalwork was gorgeous, and they had a bit of explanation about the different influences. Out of context I would have described it all as generic Celtic, but as well as Celtic, they mentioned Frankish and Byzantine styles, as well as 'Anglo-Saxon' - which at this period appears to be using Celtic type patterns but nearly always made into stylised animals. It would be interesting to read some more about this, but they didn't seem to have a book specifically on this subject.
(Aside: During the winter they have exhbitions of work done by schools that have visited the site. I particularly enjoyed the comment by one keen observer of human nature "The Anglo Saxons went to work, and then they had little parties.")
I finished there about mid-afternoon so decided to go see the sea on this side of England. On the way I went through several picturesquely-named villages, so Harry Potter fans, I can tell you that Snape Welcomes Careful Drivers, which should give you great insight into his character. I ended up in Aldeburgh, since the Landmark Trust have another property there, which I'd considered staying at. It's a Martello tower (currently featured on the Late Availability page at the Landmark Trust site) which is a fortification built during the Napoleonic wars, and I walked along the top of the sea wall to have a look at it. The beach is all pebbles with a sea wall and lots of groynes to keep them from being washed away. The sea was higher than the land in some places, and there was a map showing how the shoreline has changed over the years. This is an area that's in danger of flooding even without the additional threat of global warming. The tower itself was shaped like a clover leaf, entirely built of brick, with very small windows and surrounded by a deep ditch - you even had to walk across a bridge to get in. A very dramatic external appearance, but a very bracing location. I noticed this particularly when I headed back to the town against the wind, which involved me turning around at various intervals so I could wipe my eyes and catch my breath. I would really not want to be there during a gale!
The next day I went to a location I'd never heard of before - Grime's Graves in Norfolk, which is a Neolothic flint mine. The site looks like a collection of moon craters covered in grass on the surface. They have excavated out one shaft so you can actually visit the workings. There's a little portacabin type hut on the top, and on entry you get fitted with a hard hat, then helped onto the metal ladder. (You have to be fairly agile for this visit!) Down about 30 feet is the mine floor about 20 feet across, and there are 7 or 8 grates at ground level which are the entrances to the tunnels. For safety reasons you can't go into the tunnels, but you can squat down and look into them. On a couple you can waddle or crawl along for a few feet before you get to the gratings, and knock your head where the ceiling dips. In other words you feel very like the miners of old. The mines were worked at the same time Stonehenge was being built, and in their way they make more of an impact than that monument. I've always known about Stonehenge and it's there to be seen when you drive past it on the road. It's fenced off now, but even when you could touch it there's not really a human scale to the stones. Down in the mines, you could see the flints they'd been digging up, the walls they'd worked on. Five thousand years didn't seem very far away.
Chatting to the guide afterwards, I made the faux pas of describing the site as being in Suffolk, and covered up the slip by explaining I was from Cornwall, so it was all a bit confused for me up country. He then said there'd been a votive offering found in one of the mines, which they could tell had been a special offering since it contained an axe head of Cornish greenstone. Thus bearing out the old saying that a mine is a hole with a Cornishman down it - or something Cornish anyway!
After this I came a bit nearer modern times with a visit to Bury St Edmunds. I must just pause and say that this has the worst signposting anywhere! I entered the city next to the Sugar Beet factory, and tried following the signs to 'Historic Bury St Edmund and Tourist Information' which led me back to the factory - three times! At this point I gave up and headed for short-term parking which I reasoned had to be close to the centre. Luckily it was, although the town centre wasn't obvious so I ended up following the biggest crowds. The city itself has architecture from all ages, sometimes all in the same street. It has a cathedral to which they've just added a new tower - this must be the only bit of cathedral expansion taking place this century in the UK. The cathedral is next to the old abbey ruins which have the strange appearance of modern sculptures. Originally I imagine the walls were made of flint and clay, but since the plaster has disappeared over the years (see above, in pargeting explanation) the clay has weathered into surreal columns. A little like Death Valley but with more green! One other building worth mentioning is the Abbey Gatehouse, which they had to rebuild after the townspeople ransacked the abbey and kidnapped the abbot in the 14th century. The 'new' tower has its own portcullis, no windows on the town side and arrow slits!