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  • Ruins and Follies of East Anglia by Edward Couzens-Lake

    Time to reboot our imaginations

    Perfection has never been a state of mind or matter that I am either familiar or comfortable with.

    Which is probably why, given the chance to visit somewhere like the Taj Mahal, as magnificently wondrous and perfect a building as you will see anywhere, I’d give it no more than a passing glance before casting a more inquisitive eye around me for any imperfections that lay within its sublime shadow.

    It’s probably because I can relate to flaws or foibles more readily than I can the spotless and supreme. Not least because I am a flawed and far from perfect character myself.

    The very concept of excellence intimidates me.

    Wreck of SS Vina. (c. Julian Dowse (geograph.org.uk), Ruins and Follies of East Anglia, Amberley Publishing)

    Give me an interesting ruin every day. If it’s one that lives its life in the shadows, then so much the better. Take, as an example, the shipwreck that lies on a sandbank off the tourist magnet that is the beach at Brancaster on the North Norfolk coast. Assorted shapeless lumps of rusting iron are all that remain of the SS Vina, a handsome coaster with pleasing lines that was built in 1894 at the famous Ramage and Ferguson shipyard in Leith, a working vessel that spent its life crossing the North Sea between the ports of East Anglia and their opposite numbers on the far off Baltic Coast.

    It doesn’t look anything like a ship today. Yet its allure to the curious remains, the sense of mystery that surrounds any shipwreck from the Titanic downwards attracting visitors by the thousand, some of whom have, in years gone by, lost their lives for the sake of wandering around something which, in reality, serves absolutely no purpose at all and has no aesthetic value whatsoever.

    Stonehenge it most definitely isn’t. Yet there have been summer days when I have bestrode the endless sands at Brancaster and seen crowds of people out at the site that would do justice to Wiltshire’s most famous landmark.

    Yet explore it we do, that and other sites that are, in many cases, little more than a memory, a gathering of rocks and rubble, iron, brick and the occasional preserved wall or tower. The romance of what was and the invitation to invest in the imagination as you wander around them. Who, for example, has not surveyed the remains of the SS Vina and visualised, in the process, a deck, a bridge, a wheelhouse and foaming waters left in its wake as it plied its trade between Great Yarmouth and the Baltic ports.

    The imagination is a wonderful thing. And it has inspired many other wonderful things.

    Like East Anglia’s remarkable collection of follies.

    Heacham Water Tower. (c. Nige Nudds, Ruins and Follies of East Anglia, Amberley Publishing)

    These too are, in their own way, buildings that have flaws but only in as much as their character and, on occasion, beauty can be seen as their great undoing. To repeatedly eschew architectural formality in favour of flair and flamboyance was, for me, one of the greatest gifts that the Victorians and Edwardians gave us. Take, for example, Redgate water tower that stands on the high ground in-between Hunstanton and Heacham in Norfolk.  The building is described as having ‘four flat angle pilasters on each side’, a pilaster being, in classic architecture, a technique used to give the appearance of a supporting column with ornamentation at the top and a classical plinth at its base.

    We are, might I remind you at this point, not talking about the look of one of the great buildings in Florence, Rome, Athens or Paris, but a water tower designed and built by Hunstanton Urban District Council in 1912 in order to supply water to the nearby village of Heacham. A building that merely had to be functional but is, appearance wise, anything but and one which richly demonstrates the perceived flaw in an architect who wanted to see grace and beauty in something that was otherwise brutally utilitarian.

    A folly is the consequence of a dreamer’s imagination brought to life. I can only admire and respect the architects and builders for their audacity and refusal to conform.

    Ruins and follies. Two features of our landscape that are fuelled by the imagination.

    Let’s not be forever lost in the artificial world of an LCD screen. Switch it off once in a while and retune your imagination to your own unique settings rather than the uniform way of thinking promoted by modern technology.

    Get out and explore. Lose yourself in some of the magnificent buildings that adorn our landscape.

    And rediscover who you really are in the process…

    Edward Couzens-Lake's book Ruins and Follies of East Anglia is available for purchase now.

  • A149 Landmarks by Edward Couzens-Lake

    An Alternative Road Trip

    Castle Rising Castle, Castle Rising. Twelfth-century medieval fortification once owned by Queen Isabella of France. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    The road trip.

    Romance on the road. You, your car, the open road. A discovery waiting to happen, revelations that lie over the crest of the next hill.

    Jack Kerouac wrote of his own road trip as he travelled across the United States from east to west by bus, car and, when the latter two options weren’t available, via his own well-worn feet.

    If only we souls that hunger for adventure and the opportunity to spend every day driving into the sunset had the time and money for such an extravagance.

    But you don’t have to cross the Atlantic in order to hit the open road and, in doing so, find yourself.

    There are plenty of options to do so in England.

    England is a nation rich in road history. There are journeys to be made here and tales to tell that can be done over a weekend and on a budget.

    You can be your very own Jack Kerouac.

    St Mary's Church, Snettisham. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    Take the Peddars Way in Norfolk for example. It’s a 46-mile-long remnant of an old Roman road that some have suggested was ancient even before their sandalled feet first marched along its route. Then there’s Watling Street, the name given to the route travelled by the ancient Britons between Canterbury and St Albans. Another timeless route is the Icknield Way which links Norfolk to Wiltshire, following, as it does, high ground that includes the chalk escarpment that makes up the Berkshire Downs and Chiltern Hills.

    The sacred journey is as part of us as the air we breathe and countless atoms that make up our curious and ever exploring bodies. We are never still, we can never tarry a while at a given point A when our very being demands that we then seek out points B, C, D and many more beyond that.

    We cannot stand still. To take a journey is in our nature; it is at the core of our very essence.

    There is a romance to travel and a romance for the open road. Walt Whitman wrote of how he would, “…inhale great draughts of space; the east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine” in his poem The Song Of The Open Road.

    He knew. He felt it.

    And so have I. Always.

     

     

    Old Hunstanton Lighthouse and Ruins of St Edmund's Shapel, Hunstanton. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    The open road that beguiled me from an early age is a sinuous one that winds its way along the North Norfolk coast from Kings Lynn to Great Yarmouth. It is only 85 miles long, yet, for me, is one full of magic and wonder; of history ancient and modern and, above all, one that always leaves you wanting just a little bit more. A memorable journey indeed, one that will forever tempt you to keep going, on and on, negotiating its narrow straits, admiring abundant pretty villages and numerous views just so you can carry on turning the page in order to see what comes next.

    To the people that have long lived in the area, it is referred to, simply, as ‘The coast road’ whilst, to the suits and bland planners of Highways, it is referred to as the A149.

    Fetch a map. Let your eyes rest upon the very top of Norfolk, that stretch of coast where, if you travel due north from any of its wide-open beaches, you won’t hit landfall again until the frigid shores of the Arctic appear on the horizon.

    A wintry blast of cold air in the Arctic and one encountered in Norfolk are pretty much the same thing.

    Atop that part of the coast, the A149 wends its not particularly hurried way from one end of the county to another. We’ll travel it in a west to east direction, starting in King’s Lynn, formally Bishop’s Lynn but given the greater and grander title after it was ceded to the King from Bishop and Church in 1537.

    Harbour, Brancaster Staithe. Popular harbour with the sailing fraternity that also sustains a local fishing industry. (c. Nigel Nudds, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    A port that was once a member of the Hanseatic League and comparable, in importance, to Hamburg, Stockholm and Danzig.

    Where can we call upon the way?

    How about an ancient castle that once saw Isabella, the ‘she-wolf’ of France live within its mighty keep. Or via the railway station that once regarded European royal families and heads of state as regular visitors. Failing that, how about the lonely beach where a timber circle, as significant and ancient as Stonehenge was recently exposed and explored or maybe the nondescript meadow that was once home to a Roman fort, one which gives, according to those who know, “unparalleled insights” into the lives of Roman communities in Britain.

    “Unparalleled insights”. And in a nation that boasts of fine Roman settlements towns and cities as London, Bath and Winchester.

    All to be found on this one stretch of road. And all within the first twenty miles or so of its journey.

    You want more?

    Pier, Cromer. Grade II listed seaside pier. (c. Simon Moston, A149 Landmarks, Amberley Publishing)

    A landmark that was bequeathed by the last great ice sheet to cover this country. A church whose mighty 180-foot tower collapsed as the result of some over zealous bell ringing. Another church whose construction was abandoned due to the demands ladelled upon stone masons in the seventeenth century and which wasn’t completed until some 300 years later.

    Or the village that gave its name to one of the most famous cloths in the world, a distant home to the very finest weavers of Flanders came to call their own.

    All of the above. And so much more. A journey that takes the curious traveller through times and places a ’plenty that have made their mark on national or even world history. And all compressed into 85 miles of highway, a journey of discovery that Kerouac would have been proud to make.

    You can’t yet wear its t-shirt. But you can at least read the book. Be like Whitman. Travel this road and make both its east and its west you own.

    Explore. And prepare for delights.

    Edward Couzens-Lake's book A149 Landmarks is available for purchase now.

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