§ CHAPTER THREE
The Great Wen—King Alfred’s plaque—churches and markets—Whitechapel—tide mill at Stratford—Epping Forest—medieval woodland management—Ambresbury Banks—pagans and Christians—walking under trees—the Rodings—Greensted church—Battle of Maldon—Margery Allingham—Mersea Island—St Osyth—Harwich—ferries—Felixstowe—another ferry—communities at the edge—Sutton Hoo—disappointment—a final twist
A CIRCLE LINE TUBE from King’s Cross to Cannon Street in the Monday-morning rush hour; an ascent from the bowels of the earth by escalator into a grey morning; the beating capitalist heart of the City of London: a million people dashing for work, coffee and fag in hand; taxi horns blaring. Sirens wailing, shouts emanating, high in the sky, from the scaffolding of some new henge being erected to venerate the god Sterling. Visitors to the Smoke, William Cobbett’s Great Wen, Emerson’s Babylon-on-Thames, have, for hundreds of years, been dazzled and appalled by the value that Londoners place on time. Turnstiles once stood at either end of Waterloo Bridge, and two hundred years ago the press of carriages along some of the city’s narrow streets was as much a frustration as cars and buses are today. I don’t doubt that in Roman Londinium pompous merchants and magistrates complained about the same things. In Bede’s day, which is to say the first third of the eighth century, London was the ‘chief city of the East Saxons and an emporium for many nations who came to it by land and by sea’.
I crossed the pulsing waters of the River Thames by Southwark Bridge in the company of a thousand others. I was looking for a giant somewhat younger than Bede but much older than Adam Smith: King Alfred of Wessex, who ‘restored’ London in the 880s after the Viking wars. To be sure, the Dark Ages are not easy to detect on the surface of the capital. Even below ground it is a strangely obscure period in London’s history. When archaeologists excavate here, ‘decontaminating’ the footings of future skyscraping, god-touching pillars of enterprise, they constantly encounter the marvels of the Roman city, but find much less evidence of Bede’s great emporium. The layers above imperial Londinium lie feet deep in so-called ‘dark earth’, abundant evidence of the housebuilding and horticultural expertise of its East Saxon citizens; but there is little, even in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, that bears witness to the arrival of a bishop here in 604 or of thriving trade and public buildings. That is partly because the settlements of the post-Roman period, generally constructed of light, organic materials—wood and wattle, daub and thatch—are almost impossible to detect unless they are seen in plan, and large-scale plan at that (a lesson learned from Philip Barker’s work at Wroxeter). Modern open-area excavation in rural landscapes has proved that extensive settlements existed and thrived in the post-Roman centuries. In London archaeologists rarely get the chance to open sufficiently large holes: much is seen (or not seen) in section. Even so, two hundred years after the end of the Roman empire there was probably no single functioning town in Britain; not in the sense that we understand towns, with their commercial, judicial and civic functions, their crowds and public spaces. No, not even in the Square Mile. On the Strand, one suspects, there was a wic26—Lundenwic—where traders from all the nations of the North Sea and Channel coast came to show their wares and barter information. There may have been royal halls here, built, like their counterparts at Wroxeter and Birdoswald, on the half-buried stone footings of a forum or bath house. But London, the medieval town, was a project of Alfred and his successors. And he did not build north of the river, but south, establishing a burgh at Southwark on the riverbank where Shakespeare’s Globe would one day rise. He leased the other side to the ealdormen of the Mercians so that they might share the burden of reconstruction. There is a plaque to commemorate his vision, somewhere between Southwark Cathedral and the bridge. But in searching for it, one June morning, I had to admit defeat. Even so, it’s an appropriate place to start a walk: a couple of streets away, on the other side of Borough High Street, lies the site of the old Tabard Inn, the tavern whence Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims set out on their storytelling venture to the shrine of Thomas Becket.
I could not indulge in more than half an hour’s pleasant nosing through the alleyways surrounding the cathedral or among the vaulted railway arches beneath which Borough Market, smelly and brash, survives in its unlikely urban niche. It is no coincidence that market place and cathedral precinct are so close that they might as well embrace: church and market, even before Alfred, were twin motors of the Early Medieval economy. Churches, especially those with a notable saint or a set of quality relics, attracted pilgrims and seekers of miracles; and where folk flock there is sure to be an entrepreneur ready to relieve them of their cash (or pigs, chickens, daughters or magic beans). At Southwark that relationship somehow endures with the boot, perhaps, on the other foot.
Time was short (maybe I am still a Londoner at heart) and I had miles to tread: I was bound for a more tangible monument to the Dark Ages, a ritual landscape of the dead at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. In the City the past lies deeply buried, ephemeral and unreachable below the pavement. Somewhere along the way I hoped it would emerge into the light of day, like the Central Line. Somewhere in Essex, perhaps, land of the East Saxons, of cheap blonde jokes and petit-bourgeois bling.
Over London Bridge, then, site of the original river crossing in the Roman period, which offers a view down towards the Tower, marking the south-east corner of Londinium, and the Pool of London. I walked up Gracechurch Street and past the Monument, along Fenchurch Street to Aldgate. Like Southwark (meaning ‘southern work or construction’), the name Aldgate is Old English in origin. The ‘Old Gate’ through the City wall defines a legal and cultural boundary between urban and rural, rich and poor, insider and outsider. The gate is long gone, but the sense of transition from interior to exterior is palpable. This was familiar territory for me: Whitechapel, Shoreditch, Spitalfields, where I excavated for three years in the crypt of Hawksmoor’s epic baroque church disinterring wealthy parishioners from their lead coffins. I passed my driving test here too, on a miserable, snowy winter’s day in 1987. At one time I used to frequent Rosa’s café whose regulars included the East End artists Gilbert and George. Church, synagogue, mosque, temple and chapel claim the attentions and hopes of the faithful. There is a public library, the closing of which, surely, would be the mark of a society suffering terminal apathy. A cluster of markets clings limpet-like to the edge of the city: Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane, Whitechapel itself; and all life is here, for better or worse, richer or poorer, sick or healthy. Britain’s hub is still an emporium for all the nations and, as I walked along Whitechapel Road, a millennia-old thoroughfare, I wondered if the noise and smells, the bustle, the racial and social tensions that hold this extraordinary urban orrery in perpetual, confounding, vibrant equipoise, were not as authentic a Dark Age experience as holding a handful of Anglo-Saxon earth.
The road is dead straight, pointing towards Roman Colchester like a lodestone: down the Mile End Road and past Queen Mary University; through Bow and past the church with its eponymous bells whose territory marks the birthright of the true Cockney. The church is in a sad way, marooned on a traffic island, the haunt of winos and pigeons, unnoticed by the traffic flowing on either side. Here too is a boundary: between the old, semi-real East End of Pearly kings and queens, pie-and-mash, cor-blimey honky-tonk pianos and the brash, concrete and steel of New Stratford, the Olympic Park, of the latest government attempt to rewrite the apparent inevitables of social and geographic inequality. Not much sign of the Early Medieval here; not, that is, until I negotiated my way off some megalithic tentacled roundabout—evidently erected by gods of a malign disposition—and came out on the towpath of the River Lea Navigation, the canalised, buddleia-and-graffiti fringed orphan of a once-vital waterway. The River Lea used to mark the beginning and end of the Danelaw, that area of Eastern England subdued and rendered tribute to the Viking armies of Alfred’s day and whose limits were sealed by treaty between Alfred and Guthrum. Viking ships sailed all the way up the Lea to Hertford in 894 but were left stranded when the enterprising king of Wessex dammed and drained the river not far from here at Old Ford, the lowest ancient crossing point on the river. Happy to get away from the traffic, I crossed a small bridge where canal and river join at Three Mills. Here, unexpected and little known, is an authentic legacy of Dark Age history. The House Mill is the largest tide mill in the world. The current building is no more than three hundred years old; but the technology belongs to the sixth or seventh century and is distinctly monkish.
Tide mills employ sluices and a pond to trap incoming tidal water inside a dam. At high tide the sluices are shut; when the ebb reaches the level of the base of the mill wheel, another sluice is opened which directs a jet of trapped water at the wheel, which spins like a turbine. The power available to the miller is variable with the phases of moon and sun, but predictable, and the mill can be employed fours hours at a time twice a day in every month of the year regardless of drought or ice, unless the sea freezes. The technology is sophisticated—it’s a delicate engineering balance between structural solidity, hydraulic refinement and the vagaries of nature. A mill overwhelmed by a fifty-year tide or a storm surge is vulnerable to sudden destruction. Over-engineered, it risks losing significant milling power. It amazes me that the medieval River Lea and its tides produced sufficient power for eight or nine mills. But the discovery that such mills were constructed and maintained in Bede’s day, and that they were successfully operated for centuries, is enough to force a mental readjustment in our respect for a culture that had lost (or discarded) the knowledge to make wheel-thrown pottery and forgotten, for a while, the function of coinage. Since tide mills are unknown in the Baltic or Mediterranean, those seas not having much in the way of tides, archaeologists are forced to conclude that the presence of these turbine installations along the Atlantic fringes of Early Medieval Europe is an indigenous innovation. In Ireland, more than thirty early monasteries boasted such wonders. In England, there was a seventh-century tide mill at Ebbsfleet in Kent. Others have been found scattered through France, the Netherlands, Atlantic Spain and Portugal. They are striking evidence of the ability of religious communities to invest in the sort of capital infrastructure and engineering expertise that seeded the regrowth of commercial activity fractured, in the West at least, by the collapse of the centralised Roman command economy. The mill being shut for the day, I stopped for a few minutes and watched the grey river flow through the open sluice gates, playing to a long-established rhythm as old as the hills, and wondered, as I went on my way, how many of London’s natives or visitors know what treasures lie on their doorstep.
Stratford: I stopped for a coffee and a bun in the terminal of the international high- speed railway hub that has, at least superficially, transformed this traditionally liminal, once marshy land into a European nexus. I sat next to some inter-continental commuter, they with their sleek, shiny luggage and 4G phone, oblivious of their identikit surroundings; me with my rucksack, tent and sleeping bag, writing notes in my journal and checking the map to see how I far I had yet to walk that day.
From Stratford town centre I followed the old road to Leytonstone, that uninspiring north-east London villagey township that looks like so many others: a mixture of stable and transient pavement-fronting stores and fast-food shops, council offices, banks, housing association flats, nursery schools and the odd architectural caprice. Plane trees dotted the pavements at intervals, one for every beauty parlour by my reckoning; For Sale signs and removal vans, satellite dishes and ribbons of parked cars are so familiar that their intrusiveness on life is easy to miss. Everyone was speaking on the phone or texting. London is always changing, always staying the same. It could have been Stamford Hill, Neasden, Acton or Kilburn, they are all one—and most of them have Early Medieval names, the hamlets and farms of people trying to get by, just like their modern counterparts.
Leytonstone, and my urban odyssey, ended with a large roundabout (Woden’s hoopla, perhaps? The Devil’s doughnut?) pierced with underpasses. Here was the A12, the modern route to Romford, Colchester and Southend; on the far side Leyton Flats, a large semi-open tract of heath and grassland, woods and ponds (the result of historical gravel extraction), the beginning of the great royal forest of Epping; behind me, the never-ending sprawl of London. For the next day and a half I walked beneath trees.
Epping Forest is owned and managed by the Corporation of London following a Parliamentary Act of 1878 which protected the rights of its verderers to collect wood for fuel, graze their cattle and set their pigs to pannage in the autumn, and which ensures continued public enjoyment of a landscape already ancient when the Norman kings decided to co-opt it for their hunting pleasure.27 The woodsman in me felt like a child in a sweetshop: here were ancient pollarded oaks and hornbeams by the hundred and thousand: trees which had been cut at head height on a regular cycle over centuries to protect their regrowing shoots from browsing cattle and deer. Pollarded trees tend to live longer than their unmanaged counterparts. They produced straight, knot-free poles every fifteen or twenty years for monastic estates and manors across the medieval landscape of south-west Essex and, no doubt, supplied much of the capital’s voracious need for charcoal. I was sorry to see that only very rarely have these traditional management practices been maintained into the present. A managed forest left to its own devices may be picturesque, but its biodiversity declines year on year; and Britain imports tens of thousands of tonnes of poor-quality charcoal annually, when it need not. Chirruping birds can be heard here, to be sure; and butterflies dangle on invisible strings in sunny glades; but there is much dense canopy and little understorey (its presence being a sign of a healthy wood); and the wildlife I saw was largely of the rat and grey squirrel variety.
In the Early Medieval centuries in autumn, winter and springtime, the woods would have been alive not just with furry mammals, birds and insects but with woodwards and sawyers, barkers, turners, colliers and swineherds: the Dark Age agricultural economy, the construction and functioning of settlement, was dependent on the technology and labour of woodsmanship. Although I was thoroughly enjoying my woodland walk, the greenness and the botanical evidence of former management, my senses missed those tangibles that would tap me directly into a Wood Age that lasted from deep prehistory right into the nineteenth century: the sounds of axe, billhook and snuffling pig and the rasp of the turner’s chisel on his pole lathe; the chocolately whiff of a charcoal kiln tended by its collier; the sappy scent of fresh cut greenwood. Nevertheless, I allowed myself to daydream for a while. Today’s residents of Epping Forest still have the right to collect a faggot of dead wood every day; even if there is not much sign of them exercising their privilege. Nor did I see any trace of the cattle whose rights to graze here are enshrined in the Act of 1878.
The forest may have been here for a very long time, but it is just as dynamic a landscape as any other. It has migrated over the centuries. It used to be closer, much closer, to the City. As demand for high value land close to London grew in the Medieval period, so bites were taken out of Epping’s southern and western edges. In return, more land further out, to the north and east, was brought into forest stewardship: like Tolkien’s Ents, the woods are on the march, the slowest of armies.
My reverie was dramatically interrupted by the North Circular: the notorious A406 Inner London ring road that many a commuter curses daily. A concrete and steel bridge spanned the dual carriageway in a lazy parabolic arc, the dash of traffic below seen through the grill of the parapet as through prison-cell bars. The forest narrowed here—traffic droned in both ears—as the path followed the slender course of the River Ching squeezed between Chingford (of Norman Tebbit fame) and the appositely named township of Woodford to the east. Another couple of miles brought me to a small café at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge: a cool drink and a snack. Here the heath was sandy and open, picnickers and dog-walkers briefly more common than pigeons and squirrels. After that came Epping Forest proper: nearly two miles across at its widest point and rising eventually to 320 feet above sea level—not exactly Highland, but respectably undulating—the valley of the River Lea, still northbound, sloped away to the west; to the east, running parallel, the more modest River Roding which joins the Thames under the nom de flume Barking Creek and whose acquaintance I would make more closely over the next two days.
Walking under trees for so long induces a sort of dopey contentment in the traveller. Time and distance are distended; trees merge into a green-brown kaleidoscopic backdrop; only the very occasional dog-walker or super-keen runner offers a reminder that the twenty-first century lies within striking distance. Otherwise, I might be unwittingly trapped in a seductive sensory treadmill loop, walking but not moving, victim of my own ambulant fantasy; if I slowed down sufficiently the forest might catch up and overtake me. So much ancient European mythology is predicated on the defenceless becoming lost in the spirit- and baddie-infested woods that one expects at any time to come upon a gingerbread cottage inhabited by cast-off children or lounging, porridge-slurping bears; or the sight of a wolf devouring a poor innocent red-cloaked maiden. In the real world of the forest, nothing is quite so sinister or quite so innocent.
Hidden somewhere in Epping Forest are two Iron Age hill forts whose position along this broad ridge must have been designed to dominate the terrain on both sides and control a key route south towards the Thames—although, oddly, neither lies on the highest point of the ridge. After a certain amount of jungle-bashing I found Loughton camp, a concentric, if not circular set of double ramparts almost completely subsumed by the woods. It seems unlikely that when Loughton and its north-easterly counterpart, Ambresbury Banks, were built, they did not command views on either side—so I suspect that in the Iron Age the woodland was more open than it is today. In the eighteenth century this part of the forest was the hangout of one Dick Turpin, highwayman.
The afternoon was murky, the light poor; and one Iron Age rampart, I find, is much like another. Besides, I was tired. I had crossed London Bridge at eleven in the morning and it was now past five. Epping Forest’s many paths run like braids of a river and it is easy to lose one’s sense of direction; but in the end I managed to find my way out of the trees and into the small village of Debden Green, where I found my camping pitch for the first night on the trail. In keeping with the corporate spirit of the place, the site was owned and run, and very efficiently too, by Newnham Borough Council.
On a mizzly morning I went back into the gloom of the forest, picking a path that seemed to go my way—to the north-east. Hornbeam woodland was still a novelty for me: I am more used to seeing those leaves in hedges. Nor was it the original native species of the forest, for this country naturally belongs to the small-leaved lime or pry, Tilia cordata. It is, or was, a tree much valued by woodsmen for coppicing, since it produces good turning wood and fine charcoal and its fibres were utilised for rope-making and matting. Its flowers make for a very good honey. But there is something splendidly primeval in the muscularity of the hornbeam’s trunks which, with their grey pimpled bark, reminds me of the skin of a gherkin. It is a native only of south-east England, tolerant of the shade of greater trees. The name is pure Old English, beam being a derivation of the Germanic baum, and horn referring to the hardness of the wood—it was traditionally used to make yokes for oxen. The leaves are like a cross between those of the beech and elm, although it is more closely related to alder and hazel. I have a suspicion that the leaves would have been used for winter fodder, as those of elm were.
Trees and woods loomed large in the minds of Early Medieval men and woman. Not only did their daily lives revolve around their arboreal seasons and products; their imaginations were filled with sacred groves, ideas of the tree as gallows or cross, thoughts of ancestral spirits reincarnated, of wisdom, judgement and the World tree, Ygdrassil. Part, at least, of the deliberate transition from wood to stone in church architecture and monumental cross of the seventh and eighth centuries may have been propelled by the Christian church’s deep mistrust of pagan veneration for trees—not just individual species like hazel, yew and rowan; but for trees associated with springs where divination was sought; for sacred groves where unnamed sacrificial rituals might be carried out. Carved wooden images, of which regrettably few survive, carried effigies of spirits or gods. The eighth-century missionary St Boniface felled one such tree, a giant oak, before the appalled gaze of German pagans and proceeded to build a timber oratory with its wood. In the first years of the Augustinian mission to England, attempts were made to burn or destroy pagan shrines, but Pope Gregory performed a spectacular U-turn in his strategic advice to the mission.
I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that people should be no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them… On the day of the dedication or the festivals of the holy martyrs… let them make huts from the branches of trees around the churches which have been converted out of shrines, and let them celebrate the solemnity with religious feasts.28
It was not an entirely successful strategy. Well into the Medieval period churchmen still admonished each other and their congregations for indulging in suspiciously pagan practices, such as holding open-air services in the woods. Yule logs, burials with hazel or yew sprigs, Christmas trees and Maypoles all attest a stubborn attachment to our animist past. Trees and woods are deeply rooted in the European psyche.
Even Epping Forest must end (it does so with a tunnel carrying the M25 motorway beneath its roots). Around coffee time on my second morning abroad in Essex I came upon the long, straight High Street of Epping itself. Here, finally, the London Underground (now in fact an overground railway) runs out. Yes, I could have got here in less than an hour with my Oyster Card. The name Epping is early, as most names ending in –ing are. Ing is Old English for ‘the people of’ or ‘the descendants of’. In Epping’s case the ‘Epp’ refers to the high ground of the wooded ridge; but often the –ing suffix was added to a personal name to indicate a clan or tribal affinity. In the year 600 my children would have been Maxings; and if I was regarded as the progenitor of a successful ruling dynasty (I fantasise), all my offspring’s offspring would claim their descent as Maxings. It’s a nice thought. So were coffee and a bacon roll, especially since the mizzle, now that I had emerged from the greenwood, had turned to rain—wet rain at that. I did not hurry over breakfast.
I was not quite done with trees and woods. Heading east now, I quickly found myself back under leafy boughs; and to my delight I passed through a thriving and actively managed coppice-wood of sweet chestnut, its sawtooth leaves shining brilliant grass-green in the rain. The chestnut was an introduction to Britain courtesy of Roman legions who couldn’t live without their polenta or chestnut stuffing. Good for them. The nut is highly nutritious—good marching food—and the wood, which splits easily, is still used for fencing. Looking at my map in the sort of detail that comes from having no other reading material, and being intensely curious about the origins of landscapes, I already had hopes for Essex in the matter of coppicing. I saw how many ‘spring’ names there are scattered across the open farm-and-field countryside of this maligned county. It is true that Essex has many streams, natural springs and ponds; and hundreds of medieval farmsteads were once protected by moats, some of which survive. But ‘spring’ around here often means a coppice-wood—perhaps because of the habit of broadleaved trees to spring back into life once they are cut to stump level. Here are Dolman’s Spring and Round Spring, Long Spring and Kettlebury Spring—each name attached to a small patch of woodland which must in the Medieval period, and probably long before, have been coppiced to produce poles, charcoal, tool handles, barrel staves, fencing and billets for turning. With my fluorescent pen I was able to highlight dozens of them on a single sheet of the Ordnance Survey. Even in such a rich farming land as this, the rural economy spun round the axle of wood and woodsmanship.
Out into the open countryside, then: through the little village of Toot Hill, whose vernacular architecture sets the pattern for the county: white or black clapperboard walls and red ceramic-tiled roofs offset with climbing roses and hollyhocks—charming if the brashness of the in-your-face over-powered four-by-four people wagons didn’t spoil the effect. The rain was becoming more assiduous; leaving the village I picked the wrong path, taking an unwelcome diversion before coming at last upon Greensted-juxta-Ongar and its famous church. Famous, because some time before the Norman Conquest (how much time is debated) a church was built here whose walls were constructed of half-round oak logs set in a horizontal sill-beam, a technique rooted in the Early Medieval period. The beam has been replaced over the centuries—it is a knowing sacrificial damp-course which can be removed and replaced without compromising the wall above—but the logs are still present along the south-west and north-west walls of the nave. Greensted, an example of what is called a ‘palisade church’, is a most impressive and symbolic survival of the Anglo-Saxon period, when the first churches of Columban missionaries were constructed of hewn oak ‘in the Irish manner’, according to Bede, before stone became the material of choice. This place is as much a shrine and site of pilgrimage for the archaeologist or woodsman as it is for Christians seeking the unaffected simplicity of an English village evensong. In the manner of many Essex churches, the tower is clinker-built, clad in wooden boards painted white, with a steeple roofed in wooden shingles; the nave and chancel roofs in orange tiles. The vernacular effect is carried up to three dormer windows. Camera out, I was able to shelter from the rain under a suitably iconic English churchyard tree: a yew, that symbol of death and everlasting life, of sacrifice and longevity.29
At Chipping Ongar, soaked from walking through damp undergrowth and heartily wishing that the rain would give over, I stopped for supplies and more refreshment—tea and cake, fruit, oatcakes and cheese—and paused long enough to be enraptured by a barney between two aggressive men over a parking space, oblivious to onlookers as if they were performing some sort of street theatre. The church in Ongar is flint-walled; inside (out of the rain) is a sublime hammer-beam roof. I circled the small town centre looking for its motte-and-bailey castle and just managed to catch a glimpse through dense undergrowth of a ditch and bank, much neglected.
From the back end of Ongar I dodged around the edges of a couple of fields and a sports ground, cutting downslope across the natural grain of the land until I reached the banks of a small stream. Meadow and arable fields sloped up gently on either side. The waters were fringed with hawthorn, whose creamy blush had passed, and elder, whose champagne blossoms were just beginning to scent the air seductively. Both banks were lined with pollard osier willows, the withies of which were once such an important source of material for baskets, fish-traps, fencing and shelter. The stream was sinuous, slow-moving—sluggish almost, despite the rain. Flag irises abounded. This was the River Roding which, rising at Dunmow twenty miles to the north, emerges into the Thames as Barking Creek. Many, if not most, British rivers have pre-English, Brythonic names. The native predecessor of the Roding is lost; it was renamed for the numerous settlements in this modest valley which carry the moniker of the East Saxon progenitor Hrotha, whose descendants called themselves Hrothingas, or Rodings. There are still eight Roding parishes, very rare survivors of a single contiguous Dark Age landholding, later variously carved up between monasteries, kings and local magnates but still somehow retaining their historical identity through fifteen centuries or so. With no trace of irony, the path that runs along the west bank of the Roding is called the Essex Way.
It is tempting to imagine the entrepreneurial Saxon, sailing across the Frisian Sea from his homeland at the base of the Jutland peninsula, navigating with a small band of warriors up the Thames and along a promising creek until the dwindling draught of the stream brought him and his two or three keels to this small patch of paradise. Tempting, yes; but what we don’t know is whether these early Germanic settlers were invitees or invaders; whether they recolonised a land emptied by plague and civil war (as the British monk Gildas would have us believe); or if they came as a protection squad hired by the local British squire with his eligible daughter—and took it over by marriage rather than by force (or both), as the legends of the Kentish Chronicles suggest. Whatever the means and motives, it turned out to be a good gig. Such petty fiefdoms which historians suppose were forged in the chaos or lassitude of the fifth century merged with, or were subsumed by, larger polities during the sixth century. Many Roding equivalents made up the kingdom of the East Saxons which emerges in the pages of Bede. In Early Medieval Britain kingdoms came in all sizes, from the giants of the so-called heptarchy30—Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia, Sussex, East Anglia, Kent and Essex—down to much more Roding-like entities clinging to independence just long enough to be recorded in a list called the Tribal Hidage: the Arosaetna of the valley of the River Arrow in what is now Worcestershire; the East and West Wixna of the Fens; the unidentified Færpingas (a mere three hundred ‘hides’ or farms) and the Lindisfaran, the people of Lindsey.31
At Fyfield, a couple of miles upstream, drenched in that resigned, slightly warm, can’t-get-any-wetter kind of way that somehow comforts, I saw the river grow wider and deeper, as if its lower reaches were a disguise, a topographical sleight of hand. I found my way to the Black Bull Inn, there being no campsite within reach, and was glad to be able to dry some of my gear, eat a hot meal (like the vehicles hereabouts, the meal was supersized; I wondered what all the other punters had done that day to deserve theirs) and enjoy a pint of beer. The sun came out. I lanced a blistered toe and studied the map for my onward trail. Less than a month later, Fyfield and the Rodings were the object of a latter-day European invasion, the outrageous travelling circus that calls itself the Tour de France. The Tour passed through, wowed the twenty-first-century descendants of Hrotha, and rode on, in all likelihood never to return.
Wednesday was a long, hard slog, mostly on tarmac roads and then through chest-high fields of damp, sticky, stinky rape. Overgrown and unused public footpaths, ill-marked and clogged with bramble and nettle, slowed me down. More back lanes; more rain. Huge houses set in green acres, cars the size of sheds—all privilege and privacy—and no one to meet by chance or talk to; no walkers of any kind. I took a guilty bus ride through the sprawl of Chelmsford (at the slightly shabby bus station, bedraggled and tending to my sore feet, I did not feel out of place) and so gained a few necessary miles as I headed east towards estuarine Essex. Yet more back lanes, a moated manor, then a busy A-road with a diamond-tipped squall dead in my face; lines of suburban semis, the southern outskirts of Maldon and endless flat square fields. I found my path between two houses (abandoned children’s plastic buggies and bikes in scrappy front gardens; garage doors open to reveal more junk; cars half-parked on the pavement). More or less beyond caring, I zig-zagged through a farmyard and followed a track past a field of amiable bullocks. Ahead of me the horizon was truncated by the grey-green line of a levée, and beyond that, with a thrill that never diminishes, I caught sight of the masts of what turned out to be two Thames barges lying-to in the estuary of the River Blackwater. I breasted the levée—this was land inundated in the terrible storm of 1953—and came out onto Southey creek, with Northey Island before me connected to the mainland shore by a slim, crescent causeway. On either side, milky water mirrored a still-angry sky, although the rain seemed finally to be easing. Wading birds browsed at the water’s edge. Mudflat and saltmarsh oozed. Behind me a cuckoo called; the nosey bullocks in the field below nudged each other to get a better look at the stranger. Otherwise, it was as if the day, making terms with itself, had come to rest: all was silent and peaceful. The creeks and low islands, the expanse of the sky and the estuary, gave the scene a limitless quality; it was a tone-poem in grey-blue and sea green, from the palette of Turner.
Three weeks before Whitsun, in the year 991, this was the site of a great battle between the armies of King Æthelred II32 and a Norwegian warlord. A cursory note in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts that in this year Ipswich was harried, that Ealdorman Byrhtnoth was slain at Maldon and that it was decided, for the first time, to pay the Danes off with a fabulous treasure amounting to ten thousand pounds. The bulk of an epic poem describing the engagement on this spot has come down to us. A Viking fleet, it seems, had sailed up the Blackwater, then called the River Pant, some ten miles inland from the open waters of the North Sea. The king’s levies tracked its progress and came to meet it two miles south-east of Maldon—then, as now, a settlement of fishers, traders and salters. The Norwegians, under their chief Olaf Trygvasson (King of Norway 995–1000), landed on Northey Island, directly opposite the point where I now sat mesmerised by the timeless and ethereal magic common to those places where land, sea and sky meet in stratified perfection.
With the causeway evidently covered at high tide, Olaf called across the narrow strait—no more than a hundred and fifty paces wide—challenging the English, arrayed on the bank in their battle finery and bristling with spears in the close-press of a shield wall, to ‘send treasure quickly in return for peace’. The ealdorman’s reply was such as to stir the blood of his warriors.
Byrhtnoth lifted up his voice, grasped his shield and shook his supple spear, gave forth words, angry and resolute, and made him answer: ‘Hear you, sea-rover, what this folk say? For tribute they will give you spears, poisoned point and ancient sword…’33
The two armies faced each other, then, with slack water between them just as it seemed now: silent, perhaps, apart from the clank and chink of war-gear—straps, buckles, mail shirts and helmets; or hurling insults at each other, jeering, nerves at breaking strain and eager for battle, the smell of sweat and fear in the air. A warrior called Wulfstan was given the honour of going out to hold the passage single-handed; he it was who felled the first enemy to step onto the causeway as the tide fell, hurling his javelin and raising a cheer on the English side. Olaf then asked Byrhtnoth if he would not let his foes across, to fight in straight and fair battle. The ealdorman’s pride was pricked; he assented as the line of the causeway began to emerge from the ebbing tide clad in seaweed. The enemy did not wait to cross dry shod…
The wolves of slaughter pressed forward, they recked not for the water, that Viking host; west over Pante, over the gleaming water they came with their bucklers, the seamen came to land with their linden shields. There, ready to meet the foe, stood Byrhtnoth and his men. He bade them form the war-hedge with their shields, and hold their ranks stoutly against the foe. The battle was now at hand, and the glory that comes in strife. Now was the time when those who were doomed should fall. Clamour arose; ravens went circling, the eagle greedy for carrion. There was a cry upon earth.
No other Early Medieval battle site has been identified with such precision; and apart from the levée and the draining of the fens the landscape cannot have changed much in the intervening eleven hundred years. It is still a place of small sailing boats, sucking mud, of lapping tides and the snake-rattle of breeze through sedge and reed, the indignant squawk of the oystercatcher and the sham pleading ‘peevit’ of the lapwing. This is an Essex where the East Saxon is still present in spirit. With not a single other living soul in sight, I contemplated the poetic thuggery of Anglo-Saxon warfare against this most unwarlike backdrop, picked up my pack and walked out onto the causeway. Northey Island belongs to the National Trust and you need permission to step on it; but I thought I might at least take to the causeway and cross far enough to look back at the battle site, imagining the slaughter as Byrhtnoth’s ranks began to fail, their leader cut down. The rampaging Vikings took the field and the glory that day.
To the north I could see the spire of a church on the skyline, and Maldon’s nestled houses looking down on its Hythe, a bristle of masts along the upper reaches of the River Chelmer. From behind me, on the island, came the diesel roar of a tractor towing a trailer loaded with hay bales for the bullocks. I stepped off the neck of the causeway to let the farmer pass, we exchanged a wave and he rumbled over the narrow road. I bent to scrutinise my map. Halfway across his tyres splashed through water and I suddenly realised that I had come here not at slack water or at the beginning of the ebb, as I had thought, but a little before spring high tide: the causeway was flooding as I watched. It was time to leg it before, like Olaf’s warband, I became trapped on the island, a desert castaway in a land of tides, mud and lowering sky.
Maldon was a delight. I enjoyed a coffee and a large slice of cake and eavesdropped on a fascinating conversation about someone’s son home from the wars in ‘the Afghan’. The quayside bustle, the jumble of traditional craft and the sheer three-dimensionality of the town, rising up from the water’s edge in an irresistible organic, muddled palimpsest of ages, restored the spirits, and I went looking for my campsite tired but satisfied.
On the following day I walked along the back lanes of another Essex; the genteel hedgerowed farmland of Margery Allingham’s fictional detective Albert Campion, a mid-twentieth-century parody of Lord Peter Wimsey. At Tolleshunt Major I passed her house, a splendid Georgian street-fronting townhouse. In the perfect, rustic hamlet of Salcott-cum-Virley—a reference to early salt production—I imagined myself in a 1930s mystery set in a vicarage. Missing my path and, perhaps, guilty of dreaming, I stopped in the churchyard for an oatcake and to consult the map. I had come too far: to a dead end, in fact. A small sign said ‘church wharf’; inadvertently I had reached another end of Essex, where the fingers of the small Salcott Channel reach deep inland. I rather liked the idea of a vicar having his own wharf, perhaps supplying complicit villagers with cross-Channel contraband or smuggling detectives out from the clutches of their pursuers.
At any rate, I had to turn back and make a large loop to achieve that day’s target. The Island of Mersea, with the sites of pre-Conquest churches at either end of its five-mile length, can only be reached by another Dark Age causeway still called, as it probably was when built, the Strood. This causeway was constructed in the late seventh century during the reign of King Sæbbi—a saintly monarch—using thousands of oak piles sunk into the mud of the Pyefleet channel. It is now hidden beneath a modern, busy concrete roadway with a narrow footpath alongside. Mersea might, like Maldon, have evoked the spirit of the Saxon seafarer. Instead, it was all blue-rinse teashops and static caravans—but it gave me a chance to get off tarmac roads and walk along its sand-and-shingle beach accompanied by mile after mile of bright-painted beach huts. The rain of the last two days had given way to sunshine and the sea sparkled. Shading my eyes and looking south I could see the monstrous form of Bradwell nuclear power station standing megalithic on the horizon. Bradwell makes no more electricity, having outlived the Magnox reactor that powered its turbines; but they say another will rise in its place. Given the way the world is going, nuclear power doesn’t seem quite so sinister these days as it did in my 1970s youth; not by comparison with environmental meltdown and rumbling Middle-East tribal conflict. Still, it’s hard to like the idea.
In the second half of the third century Bradwell was part of a great late-Roman project: here was built one of the forts of the Saxon Shore—known as Othona—constructed to deter Germanic pirates from harrying the east and south-east coasts of Britain and upsetting its solid citizens. St Cedd, one of four remarkable evangelising Northumbrian brothers and Lindisfarne-trained, founded a church within the walls in 654; it still stands, a reminder not only of the relationship between Roman fort and early church (the fabric contains reused Roman brick and stone), but also of my inevitable inability to get to all the places I would have liked to visit. Some other time, perhaps.
The only way off the east end of Mersea island, as my campsite-manager friend Jane informed me, was to call the ferryman at Brightlingsea on the far side of the River Colne, this being outside of the school holidays when he runs a regular service. So the next morning, at a leisurely ten o’clock, I sat on a shingle beach gulping in sunshine and fresh sea air, with dry clothes and feet, watching the boats go by and waiting for my ferryman to see me back to the mainland. I fell into conversation with two women who, having escaped their husbands by the simple expedient of stealing their campervan, were having a jolly time exploring the coastal villages of the county. Very Margery Allingham. They caught me scribbling in my diary and, thinking I might be an artist (if only), came to see what I was about. That I was a writer actually writing a book seemed to console them, and we spent a very lovely half-hour in chit-chat before I was whisked off the beach and carried over to Brightlingsea to continue my trek.
Inland again, following the south bank of St Osyth creek as far as the village of the same name. St Osyth is said to have been a granddaughter of Penda of Mercia, King Oswald’s slayer. She was forced into a political marriage with King Sighere of the East Saxons but chose, like many royal women of the era, to abdicate, found a monastery and take the veil before being killed during a pirate raid at the end of the seventh century. The priory, refounded in her name after the Conquest, still boasts a gatehouse whose magnificence testifies to the one-time wealth of its canons. More interesting for me was the boatyard that lay below the bridge across the creek. A jumble of mastless barges lay high and almost dry in the mud as if their owners had no intention of them sailing again. All sorts of improvised and bespoke structures adorned these half-earthbound dwellings: small pot-plant gardens; children’s swings on foredecks; miniature corrugated-iron extensions. There were ancient steam-driven cranes and winches; what looked like a conservatory clad in the vernacular style of the local houses with creosoted clapperboard, its windows shimmering in the hot sun; the chimneys of pot-bellied stoves poking through painted decks: all jumble, chaos and individuality, an antidote to the prevailing cult of exclusivity and conformity followed by much of the rest of Essex. A community of perhaps thirty or forty people lives here in attractive, slightly eccentric denial of the over-wealthy, complacent county to whose salty margins they cling.
Leaving the village I had to compete with a main road and roadworks for a few hundred yards. The traffic spat freshly laid gravel at me. A man in a low-slung Corsa didn’t much like sharing the road and shouted abuse at me from his window. It was too hot for such irritations. I found my trail and crossed a prairie expanse of hedgeless fields; for once the paths were well marked, or at least visible, and some of them had been recently trodden. Out of a sea of cabbages three white monsters rose, soaring high into the deep blue sky. Built by a race of giants to tame the heavenly breath of the wind, their blades swished and thrummed through the air in an unstoppable, relentless rhythm and I wondered if some future ambulist, long after their blades had stopped turning, would attribute to them the spirits of ancient ancestors, frozen and trapped for ever like trolls turned to stone with the break of day. I felt a fleeting Don Quixote desire to tilt at these giants, but in the end we tolerated each other’s presence. They got on with the business of making electricity; I headed north-east for Harwich.
Most travellers passing this way know only Parkeston Quay, the unremarkable terminal whence ferries leave for Esbjerg in Denmark or the Hook of Holland. I needed to catch a much more modest ferry that crosses the mouths of the Rivers Stour and Orwell to Felixstowe. The ancient town of Harwich—its Old English name Herewic means ‘army camp’, probably in reference to an Alfredan campaign against the Vikings—is a lively huddle of Georgian houses and pubs on a narrowing peninsula bearing traces of a formerly grander presence in Britain’s naval history with its wharfs, lighthouses, Trinity House and castle. Back at the beginning of the eighteenth century, even before its heyday as an Admiralty dockyard during the Napoleonic wars, Daniel Defoe had much the same reaction to it as I did in the twenty-first. A night’s stay at the Stingray Inn on Church Street convinced me of the natives’ enthusiasm for beer and laughs.
On the morning of Saturday 7 June I took the passenger ferry from Harwich across the harbour and passed from the kingdom of the East Saxons into the kingdom of the East Angles. There was a strong breeze and showers periodically swept across the harbour mouth. As I sailed into Suffolk the spray in my face was part salty, part fresh, part bilgewater.
Felixstowe, whose inward-facing, unpopulated peninsula lies a mile or so across the estuary, ought to have been named after Felix, the Frankish bishop who came to help King Sigeberht underpin the Christianisation of the East Angles in the 630s. In fact the two are unconnected, the name deriving from the burgh of a thane called Filica by misassociation. The town begins as one rounds the peninsula and faces the North Sea proper: a miles-long sprawl of beaches, promenades, amusement arcades and B&Bs. The old part of Felixstowe, a down-at-heel Edwardian seaside resort now dominated by a vast container port on the banks of the Orwell, has been partly lost to the sea. There is an even older settlement here: the village of Walton, whose church stands on the hill behind the later town. The name denotes ‘farmstead of the native Britons’ in Old English. Off what is now the shore, in the late third century AD, a stone fortress stood, another defence against seaborne raiders34 and mirrored, in the late eighteenth century, by a system of Martello towers. Remnants of the fort at Walton were still visible in the seventeenth century before they were swallowed by the waves. Others survive along the Norfolk coast, in Essex (as at Bradwell), in Kent and Sussex. Several of them fostered early monasteries or churches.
You have to feel sorry for King Sigeberht. His Frankish-sounding name is a reminder that the East Anglian kings looked as much across the water for political support and inspiration as they did to the other kingdoms of the heptarchy. Sigeberht spent time across the Channel as an exile during the reign of King Rædwald (of Sutton Hoo fame), returning to claim the throne in the late 620s. His court, perhaps based at Rendlesham some miles north of here, welcomed not only the scholarly Bishop Felix but also a famous Irish holy man, St Fursa, who established a monastery in the kingdom at Dommoc (possibly Dunwich). The king was so taken with the idea of monastic retreat that, perhaps around 632 (while Mohammed was dying at Mecca) he gave up the kingship and entered a monastery which he had founded. Taking the tonsure became a popular way for reluctant or knackered kings to retire during the later seventh century. The monk’s tonsure is a form of emasculation, a premature alopecia and a sign that one’s testosterone-fuelled warrior inclinations have passed. In Sigeberht’s case it did him little good. Under his successor, King Ecgric, East Anglia was invaded by the armies of Penda, the expansionist Mercian warlord. Bede tells us that the East Anglians were no match for the rapacious Penda. Poor Sigeberht, once a noted warrior, was dragged out of retirement protesting as, perhaps, time-expired sporting champions do when called on one more time by their country, and took to the battlefield under protest, wielding only a staff. Bede recorded grimly that he and King Ecgric were both cut down, their armies ‘slain or scattered by the heathen attacks’.
Today, Felixstowe’s shore is protected by great linear dumps of stone blocks which keep the town’s precious sand from washing away. Unlike the wooden groynes of old on which children used to climb and slip on seaweed and barnacles to peer at crustaceans, their scale is superhuman: they do the beach and the children no favours. Nor does the sad pier, at whose entrance I passed two young women attempting to keep a plastic inflatable ice-cream stand from blowing over in the wind. Even Suffolk’s hardy folk, inured to British seaside weather, had abandoned the Edwardian yellow-and-cream painted wooden promenade shelters in favour of inland tearooms, although I spied a group of indefatigable wet-suited swimmers plying up and down the surf for their daily endorphin fix. Felixstowe ran out, eventually, at the mouth of the River Deben, marked by the tidy bunkers and fairways of a links golf course, and by two Martello towers.
Here the scale was more human. The estuary is only two hundred yards wide—on the other side a red-brick mansion could be half seen, blanketed by oak woodland. In the foreground wooden groynes dipped their toes in the sheltered tideway behind a sand spit; and the blue-green sparkling water was crowded with the small sailing dinghies of a yacht club. A few hundred yards along the riverbank I came to one of those water-margin settlements that was beginning to define, for me, a Saxon coast that is the human equivalent of the foreshore rockpool: a community clinging to its marginal niche, fascinating in its detail and easily neglected in favour of open sea and rich land. Precious, therefore. Here were huddles of clinker-built sheds and workshops, shacks and jetties, beached sea- and rivercraft, populated by transient visitors and the occasional wealthy punter, but above all by a community comfortable in its diversity and shared rejection of societal norms. The crevices between building, boat, slipway, mooring and path were jammed with still lifes: coils of faded rope and rusty cable, crab and lobster creels, fish boxes, crumpled tarpaulins, tins of bright paint, trailers, discarded rigging and fluorescent plastic buoys. I found the visual mosaic irresistible.
It seems that there has always been a ferry here: how else could east-coast communities connect with each other except by water? To the modern traveller, this might seem an inconvenience, a divide; but to a seafaring and riverine people like the native British and their Anglo-Saxon antagonists, water was a thoroughfare uniting and facilitating, an artery of storytelling and trade, kin affiliation and opportunistic exploitation. I sat in the ferry café and enjoyed a coffee and a cherry scone, listening to the conversations of a dozen other diners. I had seen a sloping wooden ramp that looked sufficiently formal to be the ferry jetty, but no sign of a boat or timetable. I asked the woman behind the counter what time the ferry would leave (and if I’d have time for another scone). She smiled and told me it would leave whenever I was ready: all I had to do was go down the ferry ramp to the flag pole, pick from its slot the table-tennis-like bat taped to the end of a stick, and wave it at the other side. If he wasn’t busy, the ferryman would see it and pop over. As indeed he did. Meantime I ate another scone.
An almost exactly similar arrangement must have operated here, and on a thousand other rivers and creeks, over the last two or three millennia. And on the other side? Somewhere among the sandy lowlands of Suffolk, along the north bank of the River Deben, I would find the place where the East Angles buried their mighty kings in ships. I saw no more weatherboard houses on the north side; it was all red-brick, often painted white, blue or pink with orange pantiled roofs; and now that the sun had come out decisively they made a very pretty picture against field, hedgerow and sky. This has not always been a rural idyll; not even in living memory. Seventy-eight years ago, in 1937, the first operational RADAR station was built here, close to the RAF research base at Bawdsey—the manor house I had seen from across the river. The mysterious 360-feet-high tower transmitters, as enigmatic in their day as any megalithic stone circle, were the key to intercepting Luftwaffe bombers during the Battle of Britain and became, in their turn, bombers’ targets. The towers have gone; the tallest creatures in this landscape today are a more familiar sight: Scots pines, long-lived natives perfectly adapted to the sandy heathlands of south-east Suffolk and magnificent on the skyline in their deep green early-summer plumage.
I spent my last night on the trail at a campsite in the cute village of Shottisham (brick cottages, roses, white picket fences and flowery verges; an unfussy inn), kept awake by the noise of children playing and the wailing of the vicar’s peacock from the nearby church. I woke at six-thirty with sunlight streaming through trees and filtering down into the tent. On a glorious blue-skied morning I had the broad, sandy heathland trail to myself. Stands of Scots pines formed the backdrop, scenting the warm air with resin. A cuckoo called. A few miles further north, taking a path off the main road to Woodbridge, I came across the National Trust sign that told me I had found my destination: Sutton Hoo, the burial place of East Anglia’s kings. It is a disappointment, to be sure. Fields full of rank cabbages and pigs gave onto a flattish, grassy field that could not be less evocative of the Dark Ages. Ploughing, drainage and Second World War anti-glider trenches have taken their toll. The River Deben, and Woodbridge across the water, were invisible beyond a line of trees. The only really impressive mound to survive the depredations of time and the archaeologist’s spade is a reconstruction, looking like a giant upturned bucket smoothed over with turf. Otherwise, this unique mortuary landscape of ship burials looks like so many mere tumuli. The signage was poor and the museum would not open for another ninety minutes. As so often on these journeys, I had the place to myself.
To understand the significance of Sutton Hoo, you first have to know the background. In 1938, with war looming and not long after the erection of those first giant RADAR towers, an archaeologist called Basil Brown was invited by Sutton Hoo’s owner, Mrs Edith May Pretty, to investigate her intriguing-looking mounds. Three of them yielded a mix of cremations and an inhumation that seemed to have been contained in a small boat. They had been disturbed, ransacked by treasure hunters, perhaps. In 1939 Mrs Pretty commissioned Brown to open the largest and most elongated of the mounds, then supposedly standing to a height of nine feet. Oddly, despite its size, it had not been disturbed. Mound 1 yielded the most significant Anglo-Saxon treasury that Britain had, or has produced: a kingly burial complete with trappings of immense wealth and power contained in a great ship, ninety feet long, whose planks and rigging had decayed in the acid sandy soil, but whose surviving rivets perfectly mapped the grace and scale of its hull. Those treasures reside at the British Museum, much studied and admired over the decades since. In recent years the identity of the mound’s inmate (no physical human remains were ever retrieved) has been pinned, by general consensus and using the dating evidence from its contents, on King Rædwald (circa 599–624) of the line of Wuffingas. He was not just the greatest of the kings of East Anglia, cited as a Bretwalda in later annals, but also played a significant part in the conversion story told by Bede.35 To his court, probably at Rendlesham a few miles to the north-east, Edwin of Deira fled as a refugee in about 616. Emissaries of Edwin’s rival—and brother-in-law—King Æthelfrith of Northumbria first tried to persuade, then bribe, then threaten Rædwald with destruction if he did not give up his hostage. Rædwald initially refused; then agreed but then, under pressure from his queen, decided to fight Æthelfrith instead, on a point of honour. At a great battle on the River Idle, south-east of the Roman town of Danum (Doncaster), he and Edwin destroyed the Northumbrian overlord and his armies. The rest is history.
Rædwald’s equivocation towards Edwin was matched by his attitude towards Christianity. He was born a pagan; underwent a conversion sponsored by King Æthelberht of Kent, but was said to have kept both Christian and pagan objects in his shrine and, perhaps, to have apostatised on his deathbed. The ship burial is distinctly heathen, a real-life expression of the sentiment so movingly evoked in Beowulf’s funerary rites.
Then the lords of the wind-loving people upon a seaward slope a tomb wrought that was high and broad, to voyagers on the waves clear seen afar; and in ten days they builded the memorial of the brave in war, encompassed with a wall that the fires had left, in such most splendid wise as men of chief wisdom could contrive. In that mound they laid armlets and jewels and all such ornament as erewhile daring-hearted men had taken from the hoard…36
As if to reinforce that tension, among the artefacts retrieved from the burial were a pair of silver spoons, carrying monograms of Sts Peter and Paul, an enamelled bronze cauldron, perhaps of Northumbrian workmanship, in whose base is a remarkable rotating fish; a whetstone sceptre with a stag motif; and the possible remains of animals sacrificed to accompany the dead king on his journey into whatever afterlife he believed in. The iconography on the purse, the famous helmet and the great gold brooch are distinctly pagan.
That Sutton Hoo was the burial ground of the Dark Age East Anglian kings is widely accepted. Even so, I left with a sense not, perhaps, of deflation or anti-climax, but of emptiness. My expectations had been too high, the road too long. I had not been able to read it in its landscape context; it seemed, like a museum exhibit, divorced from its original environment. To bring it to life I had to imagine away a thousand years of change; I must picture those mounds in costume: bristling shields and spears clustered around a totem decked with battle standard, perhaps the skulls of dead enemies hanging there. I had to visualise a funerary feast: warrior companions, a pall of smoke, the smell of cooking meat; the sound of drunken lament.
I came back onto the main road and, crossing the bridge over the River Deben, took to the footpath that ran along its south bank. My thoughts went back to rivers and creeks and their denizens, and to the sea. The English had come by sea; Rædwald’s ship had been dragged from the river up to that place on the hill; these were boat people just as the East Saxons were. Water and land, earth and sky, Christianity and paganism fed the tensions that had brought their kings here. Huge swathes of fenland separated, protected them from their Midland enemies in the north and west. They looked across the water for inspiration and support: to Scandinavia, to Kent and to Francia. They lived at the edge literally and figuratively. As I approached Woodbridge, another of those edgy communities of houseboats, small yachts, barges and assorted shore-bound clutter distracted me. This jumble of cultural treasures speaks louder to me than bare mounds in a field. It is absolutely uncontrived, artless and authentic. But, not for the first time, I had underestimated the potential for the Dark Ages to intrude on the present.
The sparkling, eddying waters of the Deben drew my eye across the river. On a rise, through a gap between trees on the far bank, the flat horizon was pimpled with the distinct shape of a mound, grass-covered, beneath which, in my mind’s eye, lay the soul of Beowulf and his dragon’s treasure.