Monday, May 16, 2011

King's Lynn

Custom House and statue of George Vancouver

The historic Norfolk market-town of King's Lynn is well worth visiting. King’s Lynn Custom house  (above) was built in 1683 by Henry Bell  and modeled upon Dutch architecture which occupied the site previously. In fact, the influence of  the Dutch  permeates the cultural history of Norfolk. Evidence of the Dutch influence in trade, migration and immigration and even dialect can be found in the place names, family surnames and architecture of  Norfolk including King's Lynn. 

The architecture of King's Lynn's  historic quarter affords a generous insight into its  medieval past and hints of  voyages  of  trade, exploration and  pilgrimage made by its citizens. Situated forty miles due west from Norwich at the mouth of the River Ouse and  the Wash estuary,  sheltered  from the North Sea yet within easy sailing distance to the coast-line of  Scandinavia, North Germany,  Flanders and the Baltic, King's Lynn's  location meant that it became a busy and prosperous  sea-port during the Middle Ages.  Inland it's geographical position to the Midlands and Norfolk meant that it also exported large quantities of  British produce including wool and pottery.

Such was Lynn's sea-trading importance that it was once a member of the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League, a confederation of sea-ports radiating around the  Baltic Sea, traded in commodities such as  amber, resins, furs,  rye and wheat. Individual Hanseatic ports had their own representative merchant  warehouses.  There was a Hanseatic representative  in the English cities of Boston, Bristol, Hull, Ipswich, Norwich, Great Yarmouth and York. However, the only surviving example of a Hanseatic warehouse in England can be found standing close to the harbour at King's Lynn.

Nikolaus Pevsner, author of the authoritative guide to the architecture of England,  was  an admirer  of King's Lynn. Pevsner stated that the walk from the Tuesday Market Place to the River by the Customs House was one of the finest in the world. Near the market-place is the medieval Guildhall. Like Norwich's medieval Guildhall its facade has a chequer-pattern design, a symbolic reminder that it was once where revenues were collected, payments placed upon  a table of the same chequer pattern, like a Chess-board. In Britain, the Minister for finance is known as  the Chancellor of the Exchequer,  a  title which retains a  remnant of the  money-collecting tradition.

The church of Saint Margaret’s has some remarkable, ornately-carved pews known as misericords, (folding chairs which flip upwards as in cinemas). They were made for monks to support them standing during long church services and date from circa 1370.

Also in King’s Lynn there’s the  Red Mount, a  peculiar 15th century chapel   described by the architect  Nikolaus Pevsner as 'one of the most perfect buildings ever built' and 'unique'. In a flat landscape it was a prominent land-mark and  stop-over point for  religious pilgrims en route to the holy shrine of Walsingham.

King's Lynn's most famous pilgrim  of the Middle Ages was  Margery Kempe. The daughter of a Lynn mayor, Margery Kempe (c.1373 -1440) was a remarkable woman. In addition to bearing fourteen children when married, she  embarked upon pilgrimages throughout England and Europe to Aachen, Venice, Rome, Spain, Norway,  and even made pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 1414. A dramatic enactment of Kempe's recorded visit to Julian of Norwich was recently realised by a UEA drama group in their re-construction of their medieval mystery play Mary's Step's.

Margery Kempe's religious mysticism  was portrayed as all accounts of her agree, with  emotional, volatile and fervent  piety, not untypical of much religious sentiment of the Middle Ages. Although she was unable to read or write Margery Kempe dictated her life's events to produce one of the earliest European autobiographies and an informative travelog of the age.

King’s Lynn was also  the birth-place of George Vancouver (1757- 1798). A statue of  the sea-port's  most famous citizen was erected nearby the Custom House. Vancouver was an officer in the British  Royal Navy who explored and charted North America's northwestern  Pacific  Coast, including the coast of Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands and  even the southwest coast of Australia.

It's also in King's Lynn ( in a museum adjacent to the Bus-Station ) that  an important  prehistoric artifact is now on display. It's the so-called 'Seahenge', a timber circle with an upturned tree root at its centre, which was first detected during an exception low-tide in 1998. It's estimated that Seahenge was constructed in the twenty-first century BCE,  over 4000 years ago during the early Bronze Age in Britain.  Like its more famous Stonehenge, the wooden circle of tree-trunks were most probably constructed for religious and  ritual purposes.

                             Seahenge at  Holme-next-the-sea, 1998.

An artist's impression of how Seahenge may have looked 4000 years ago.


kevin andrew said...

Never been to King's Lynn but now I shall definitely make a point of visiting it. Thank you for an excellent and informative post. Never knew about 'Seahenge' lol! The upturned tree root in the centre is very interesting, what it may have symbolised etc to those Bronze Age people.

Hydriotaphia said...

Kev, I agonised, procrastinated, and delayed posting this one for well over 2 weeks, utterly blocked off with blogging so your feed-back makes my King's Lynn tourism promotion druggery well worth the effort.

What the upturned tree root symbolized is indeed worth dwelling on, some kind of axis mundi focus, a la Jung perhaps.

I too must frankly confess that I've always travelled south and east throughout the main-land continent of sanity, but have barely ever dared to set foot far west of Norwich (other than Wales) ! Go visit Lynn, it's an easy summer's day's excursion ! (I'm still at Saint J's on Fri's and Sat's).

-E- said...

cool. i may just check it on my tour in a few weeks. thanks for the info!

Hydriotaphia said...

E - let me know if your upcoming tour takes you to Norwich !