Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wymondham and Wymondham Abbey

The University of East Anglia is famous for its Creative Writing program (no Non-Fiction, alas), and for the writers it has graduated, including Ian McEwan, one of my favorite fiction writers, as well as Kazuo Ishiguro, Tracey Chavalier, and a host of others too long to list. In Autumn and Spring they hold their Literary Festivals, a weekly series of evening talks given by authors. A week ago, before T.C. Boyle took the stage, I was talking to the woman seated next to me about the things Graham and I have done and seen since we've been in Norfolk. "Have you been to Wymondham yet?" No, we haven't. "You must go."

So last Saturday we got out as early as we could, and drove the nine miles south to the town of Wymondham (pronounced Wind-em). We drove into the town center, parked the car across from the market cross, and stepped out into Brigadoon.

The Market Cross at Wymondham

Everywhere we looked was a feast of medieval buildings, Tudor chimneys, half-timbering, and decorative brickwork. At one point in its history, the world began to pass Norfolk by, and the gift of this is in the period buildings and details that remained unchanged. Wymondham has a lively, active town center with people walking up and down the streets, pushing strollers, popping in and out of the shops, sitting on the benches under the market cross, and chatting in groups with their dogs (English dogs are the happiest creatures on earth). The original market cross, built in 1286, was burnt down by Gypsies in 1615, and rebuilt the following year. The building is stilted to protect documents from damp and vermin, and as a deterrent the townspeople followed the tradition of nailing live rats to the market cross by their tails. They stopped this nailing of rats in 1902, when a child was bitten and died of blood-poisoning. There is still a market held here in the square on alternate Saturdays. We are told they do a Dickensian Christmas parade.

Wymondham town center, just to the right of the market cross

Graham and I spent a while walking through the streets radiating from the town center, down to the candy store with its jars of every variety of things I've never seen before, like barley sugar and mint humbugs, pear drops, jelly babies, and Pontrefract cakes. We window shopped, and peeked in the window of one business for sale. We fantasized what a great yarn shop it would make, until we decided we couldn't put shelves up against the half-timbered walls in the main room because the yarn would hide the timbers. We took pictures of Tudor chimneys for Susan, who wanted to see them (more to come, Susan).

We passed the most wonderful pub with timbered walls...

This is the view from lower Market Street, between the needlework shop and the bead shop...

These two photos were taken yesterday in our travels, because even though we didn't set out that way, somehow we ended up in Wymondham again. I love the green tinge to the roof tiles, from mold.

Here you can see the town sign. British towns and villages seem to all have these wonderful town signs that tell you something about the history and industries of the town.

This one celebrates Kett's Rebellion of the summer of 1549. You can see Robert Kett and his pitchfork-toting followers under Kett's Oak (which still stands). Unfortunately things didn't turn out well for Kett, who was hanged from and adorned the walls of Norwich Castle for some time after. At the very top of the sign you see the other thing Wymondham is known for, the Abbey.

What still stands is just a fraction of the original abbey buildings, established in 1107 as a cell of St. Alban's Abbey by William d'Aubigny, Henry I's Chief Butler. The church is open to tourists during the week, staffed by a contingent of retired men and women who enjoy talking about the abbey, and love to point out their "American connection" if they hear a hint of your accent. Reverend Richard Bucke from the abbey traveled to the Colonies, where in 1614 he married Pocahontas to John Rolfe. I got to add to my tea towel collection in the abbey shop. I'm a fool for gift shops.

I've mentioned before that I'm also a fool for Gothic in the original, and this abbey--although it lost most of its outbuildings for reuse of the stone after the dissolution of the monasteries--has retained enough of the Gothic details to make it very interesting.

I am a fool for cemeteries, as well, the older the better, so be prepared for photos of some wonderful old marker stones. I also love the trees of Norfolk, which always seem to be covered with one form of ivy or another. This one looks garlanded.

Here is a video of what is left of one of the old towers...

The inside of the abbey, now used as an Anglican church, is no less wonderful. I was fascinated by the carved angels at the ceilings, the needlepointed hassocks for kneeling--each one different--and the details such as this chandelier:

Think The Arnolfini Marriage

and this incredible altar screen:

We did more exploring that day, but I will leave that for another time. In the meantime, come take a look at my photos from Wymondham and Wymondham Abbey. Graham forgot to bring his camera, so after we exited the church I lent him mine as we wandered around the back and far side of the church. But then I became fascinated with grave markers again, and then the green trunks of the trees, and then...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Morning Walks on the Broad

The Norfolk Broads are a series of rivers and lakes--some more easily navigable than others--that interlace the county of Norfolk. In some areas they are popular boating venues: little villages have marinas with boats for hire, for day tours and weekend rentals. At the docks swans aggressively pan for bread handouts, pushing away the ducks.

Here at the University of East Anglia we are fortunate to be located on the River Yare, with a Broad (lake) in our back yard. Literally. The water brings gulls and ducks to us, and we can sometimes see the white forms of the swans gliding past the openings in the trees that surround the lake. My favorite view is to watch in the afternoon as the sun sets down the length of the east-west Broad, and the gold highlights the white of the gulls as they fly back and forth above the water, flashing among the trees. 

It has been more than thirty years since I've lived near woods and wetlands, and for me they are old friends dearly missed. I can't get enough of them. Here the woods are heavier than I've seen even in the Hudson Valley, and the trees are allowed to grow over city streets, country roads and paths, forming deeply tangled tunnels that we pass under. Overgrown hedges fifteen feet high are trimmed solid, even with the street, dense green walls. Graham has learned to drive slowly through the tree-tunnels when we come upon them, because I sit in the passenger seat and just breathe, "This is so beautiful!" I feel as though we're in an illustration from a fairy tale. Suddenly, the descriptions from all the literature I've read over the last fifty years makes sense. They weren't making that scenery up, it really exists, here, still. The shapes of the trees are convoluted, fantastical.

Our favorite morning walk is to set off across the lawn to the Broad, which has a dirt path surrounding most of it, with a wooden boardwalk where the wetlands are too dampish for a path. It is a favorite spot for walkers, joggers, people with their dogs, and families on weekends.

I am enjoying the progress of autumn, seeing the grasses go to seed, the leaves begin to turn. I love the color of berries against the leaves, the way that ivies completely envelop the trees, the leaves against the chocolate brown dirt, the forms floating on the pond among the duckweed.

I enjoy looking for leaves to bring home, and acorns. I stop to listen to birds, watch butterflies, to look with fascination at a spider-web city built in some tall grasses at the edge of the lake, silvered by dew. Graham has gotten used to me bringing my camera on a walk, that I stop every few feet to take more photographs. While he looks for herons by the nest at the far end of the wetland, I'm caught in the detail of a fungus, or the patterns in wood grain of a fallen tree, the way moss grows on the tree trunks. I'm a detail person. The shapes, the colors, the light and shadow. It's as if I am seeing these things for the first time, and I'm so afraid that when we leave this place that I've come to love so deeply, I will forget some wonderful tiny detail.

Come take a look at my pictures from our walks around the Broad.