I had expected somewhere deep, dripping, lost; the kind of woolpit children could wander into and never come back, green. The reality was more prosaic: a wedding venue, well-tended countryside, barbed wire and new fences. Yet it lives in my memory: the hulks of flint rising in the deep copse, a mile from the nearest road; bedding down and finding the tree that had seemed such a haven in daylight mysteriously threatening, its roots among the ancient dead; the cracked and battered once-were-walls unexpectedly welcoming, a kind of second-best to home. Something deep, lived-in, in the softness of the night, the clouds barely visible as they shift and wink the starlight above the turning earth, the benign, tamed, townless country, the subtle working of roots, leaves and knapped flints beneath a soft wind. This is why Wild Sleeping is so powerful: like a dream, it lives on in the memory, returns to repeat itself.
What I wasn’t expecting was the 2am synthbleep of the reception, resounding over the Suffolk fields: //let’s get this party started/I lost my phone and my keys on the dancefloor/forget you, forget you too//. I couldn’t work out where the sound was coming from, and stumbled through a pheasant covert and across a rutted field, half awake, never to return….
To England’s bellow-shaped northern lump,a great Anglia hip of North and South Folk almost falling into Netherland and sea.
Norwich, proud capital of the region, dripping with arty doings and fine buildings. St Peter Mancroft, proud success story of the Norman makeover, jammed with proud civic mercantile goodies.
St Gregory’s church a heartbreaker, with its swaggering St George wall painting and quiet fading woodwork, converted into an arts centre by someone with a real feel for the random, fragile poetry of these places — more medieval churches should loosen up and go this way.
The St Andrew’s Street/Elm Hill/Suckling Hall area an almost-too-good-to-be -true medieval heartland such that London has lost/Tombland has been a desert since de Losinga cut it in two in the 1090s/at St Julian’s shrine supporters of the Canarys made yellow and green genuflections, twin tribes of Anglia and Anglo-Catholic intertwining.
Then south, to a deep land I’ve long been allured by on the map, miles from anywhere of any size, scattered villages a litany of saints. Elmham minster just teeth of jutting flint in a copse a mile from the nearest lane, amid a landscape tilled and husbanded and looked after with quiet attention since at least the C9: I kip there in a bivvy bag, trees with their roots in the Saxon dead, the silent walls and comfort, until it gets cold and damp and I repair to the car.
By 7am I’m at Thornham Parva, a second shut-eye among the subterrenean winding sheets of Suffolk farmers, dawn sun hitting my face as I slumber by a church of quiet poetry and awaken to the spectacular Retable, meideval work of art ripped from a Dominican friary and found in a stable-block.
Then west to Lavenham, in a country almost tastelessly perfect, like an overwrought late medieval/C17 designer cake, the town a dripping film-set of mercantile pride, the Guildhall more for warehousing and feasting than faith, in the church, perfectly placed and surely of the Wastell ilk upwardly mobile Springs and their extravagant parclose chantry setting the tone for half a millenium of smug ostentation; then Long Melford, the Clopton and Walsingham-aping Lady chapels places to weep among the dry brown wood, fading tempera and poetic articulations of incarnate ideas. These places have been pleased with themselves in slightly blingtastic way since at least 1400, and at shows; yet the Long Melford chantries strike moments of real poetry.
Among the ancestors in their winding sheets
Me in my bivvy-bag
The threatening comfort of the dark
At its furthest east, England can seem a clean slate, each wave of the past brutally washing away its predecessor in a great flatland flood. Further north and west, England darkens and thickens as Danelaw and Celtia, upland and Commonwealth are added to its mighty pastbroth. In between there is this, a little-toured no-man’s land of blank-but-beguiling towns and forgotten country, bucolic, posessed of a subtle allure. For what these overlooked counties of south-eastern Mercia — Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and thereabouts — lack in drama they make up for in depth-in-time, as if history has left each layer hanging and mingling, suspended in a bucolic medium of past-ness.
Here is Brixworth, mighty mouldering eighth-century barn, built by people skilled at recycling Roman tile but totally useless at putting together arches (or is the ineptness deliberate, an act?), holding within it the godly silence of the dawn. Something still here, something present, in this large high village on the rolling plain, a presence which becomes a quiet, patient insistence in the Lady chapel, with its late C13 double tomb, as the elderly scholarly vicar and his one-or-two-flock depart from Morning Prayer.
Here is Earl’s Barton, suave ungainly witness to a later, more sophisticated Anglo-Saxon, its grey timberpatterns of stone and rough balusters a crossbreed of carpenter’s lathe and Lalibela.
Here is Longthorpe, dense, inspiring painted testimony to a world in which even the local squire lived surrounded by profound, witty, spirited secco walls of bright colour.
Here is Fotheringhay, half-cathedral built and lost, at once Royal and testimony to a deeply human devotion to the spirits of our own pasts, a lost passion for the health of our ancestors’ souls, cracked and mad and bare with its remade tombs and rough photocopied displays, sad and white and great upon the riverside green hill.
Here is Barnack, jammed and busy with mason’s knock-offs: in one corner a pervy triune God penetrates the Virgin with a spiky shaft of light; book, tree and city on the hill witness the incarnative assault among the desert dust-motes; in another the Saxon Christ gazes at us, folded and imperious; in another arcades wittily change centuries, leaving the Saxon tower alone, another rumbunctious brutalist curving and moulding.
It seems godless this place, too busy with itself, too concerned with 1000 years of mason’s knock-offs, until I grip a corbel in the silence, and the world seems to quietly turn around us, and I sense the stone enclosing the air within, and hear the air turning the world without, and for a moment everything is falling in ancient holy stasis.
To the Hills and Holes, an orchid-filled limestone grassland dense enough to get lost in, a wilderness made by the ripping of cathedrals from the ground: everywhere is built from here, and what’s left is made landscape, a grassland-in-miniature.
To Stamford, where the C8, C9 and C10 are still detectable in a suprisingly urban world, a place whose scale and ambition was fixed in the C13 and which has been rebuilt but not replaced in the intervening centuries, a magical gathering of layered and eloquent stone, always rich enough to build and rebuild, never so rich as to demolish and start again.
To Geddington, where Eleanor’s funerary cross is, two days after the Event, draped with emblems of Kate and Wills; this most achingly (tri)angular and elegant of monuments seeming to whisper of princesses, loves and deaths past and present, of impossible romances and royal myths.
To Hardingstone, where the wood by the roundabout next to the ribbon development and the ‘A’ road is graced by another such cross, this one square and Perp prophetic, with its early ogees and panels and lowered arches, a plucked tarmac cobweb from the face of time.