Friday, May 27, 2011


Because it has a rail connection to Norwich Cromer is  probably the coastal resort I've frequented most. It's been a while since I visited the 'Gem of the Norfolk Coast', which is situated some twenty-odd miles north of Norwich. A barmy summer of crab sandwiches, swimming and putting on the green, now long gone.

Cromer is also the place where over many years I've read innumerable books while on the beach. These days I have a small tent with me in readiness for the vastly differing weather conditions between  hinterland and coast. 

I'd almost forgotten how relaxing it is to turn the pages accompanied by the  sound of  surf  and waves breaking. As ever there was an fairly stiff off-shore wind from an icy North sea, but the quality of light, bracing air and immensity of space, easily compensated. Geographically, the Norfolk coast is famous for being a place where facing due north there is no land between oneself and the frozen ice of the Arctic. A little too early in the year for a swim in the sea.

At low-tide one begins to sense the prehistory of the coast-line. In fact much of the beach was once part of a prehistoric forest bed which was formed between 780,000 to 450,000 years ago.  Known  as the  geological era of  the Cromerian Stage, during the last ice-age or Pleistocene, the Cromerian Interglacial is the benchmark that all European countries use when studying their own  geological  deposits. 

The fossilized skeleton of a steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) an elephant some 600,00 years old was discovered not far from Cromer,  at West Runton in 1990.

Further along the coast is the site of  Seahenge,  an early man ceremonial ritual site marked by a circle of wood beams with an upturned tree-root at its centre dated  circa 2100 BCE (scroll down to earlier May post for pics of Seahenge).

It's very pleasant on a summer's evening to sit on Cromer Pier with a drink and watch the sun sink into the sea.

Cromer by James Stark (1794-1859) 'Norwich School'

West Runton Elephant
Cromerian Stage
Norwich School


Included among the many books in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne of  an esoteric outlook is a book entitled Polygraphiae by Trithemius (1462 -1516).

The story goes that the young Trithemius studied at the University of Heidelberg where he became acquainted with the magical arts. Taking shelter from a snowstorm at the Benedictine monastery of Spondheim he became a monk, then the Abbot of Spondheim in the following year. In this position he re-installed discipline, repaired and restored the monastery and established one of Europe’s great libraries with over 2,000 manuscripts, including many works on science and philosophy.

Typical of the fate of many Renaissance Hermetic philosophers, Trithemius was often accused of sorcery and wizardry. The Emperor Maximilian I summoned him in 1503 in order to interrogate him on matters of faith, but Trithemius insisted he was a Christian and Humanist. In addition to being an Abbot of a Christian monastery, Trithemius was also a lexicographer, historian, cryptographer, and polymath as well as occultist. His fame as an occultist originates primarily from the infamy of his  Steganographia  which instructs how to conjure and talk to angels. Trithemius was the teacher of  Cornelius von Agrippa and Paracelsus, while the English Hermetic philosopher John Dee was also influenced by him .

In her scholarly work 'The Occult  philosophy of the Elizabethan Age' (1979) Dame Frances Yates noted-

In 1509-10, Agrippa was in Germany, visiting the learned abbot Trithemius, and it was about this time that he wrote the first version of the De occulta philosophia.  The manuscript of this version exists. It is dedicated to Trithemius, who was undoubtedly an important influence on Agrippa's  studies.

In his less controversial work Polygraphiae Trithemius elaborates at length and in detail upon different forms of secret writing, formulas for making codes and methods of encryption and decryption. Modern-day computer security also relies upon sophisticated codes and programmes of encryption and code in order to function without interference or fraud.

With his love of languages along with his interest in the secret, hidden and undiscerned, it’s little surprise that Sir Thomas Browne not only possessed a copy of Polygraphiae pub. Cologne 1571 (S.C. page 30 no. 17) by Trithemius, but is also credited with coining the  word ‘cryptography’ into the English language. The first recorded usage of the word according to the OED occurs  in ‘The Garden of Cyrus' in which Browne alludes to -
‘the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starrie Booke of Heaven'.

See also blog entry  - Cryptography and Gaffarel's astrology
Wikipedia entry   - Library of Sir Thomas Browne -  a short introduction and selection of book-titles.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Kronos Quartet

The highlight of this year's  Norfolk and Norwich Arts Festival  for myself was the opportunity to  hear the world-famous string-players, the Kronos quartet. The music festival opened with an unique event, the sound of a solo saxophonist accompanied by no less than 200 amateur saxophone players, of all shapes and sizes, throughout the region. It was an extraordinary sound to hear in the city centre outside the  Forum, and no small feat to assemble the collective players upon a stage and then to  depart in  a caterpillar procession .

Memories of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival stretch far back to the days when it was known as the Triennial Festival and held  once every 3 years, during October. My very earliest memory is that of the composer Benjamin Britten dropping in upon a rehearsal of his 'Cantata Noyes Fludd to thank the singers for their efforts. In fact the NNFT is the oldest and longest -running of all British music Festivals. Other recent  highlights which immediately spring to mind include hearing an electrifying performance of Shostakovich's Ballet suite 'The Bolt' by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Mahler's 9th symphony performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, a Sea-side  choral oratorio  by Ray Davies of the Kinks, a recorder concerto by David Bedford, the viol consort of Fretwork playing a new work by John Tavener, and the legendary 'father of minimalism' Terry Riley perform, among many other happy musical memories of the Festival. Actually, it's the one guaranteed two weeks in the year a Norwich concert-goer can be guaranteed the opportunity to hear  world-artists perform.

The Kronos Quartet have been playing to audiences  for over thirty years now; their ability to casually change genre and style to demonstrate the flexible  texture and expressiveness of the string quartet is simply amazing. I first heard them playing on Philip Glass's experimental song-cycle 'Songs from Liquid Days' (86) and their sensitive accompanying Astor Piazolla upon the bandeleon in 'Five Tango Sensations', (91) is a firm favourite of mine, as is their playing on the Philip Glass soundtrack to the original 'Dracula'  film (2001). 

From American composers such as Glass, Reich and Riley, to Argentinian tango, Indian Raga and Bollywood to Gypsy folk music, the Kronos  have now released over forty  albums,  the programme at  the Theatre Royal Norwich was equally varied. They played a soft poignant piece by Laurie Anderson entitled 'Flow' and a powerful, pulsing, dramatic theme by Clint Mansell from the soundtrack to the Darren Aronfonsky film 'The Fountain'. It didn't exactly help that the Kronos had decided not to play the evening's programme in the sequence advertised, but this was more than made up for in rapport as frontman David Harrington cracked a subtle joke to the audience, (You have your favourite Icelandic composers, this piece is by ours). The Kronos are not shy of using amplification or tape-recording which more often than not enhances their harmony and unity, as was demonstrated in a new work by Steve Reich, WTC 9//11 which used voices recollecting the tragic event. 

The overwhelming sense I apprehended from hearing the Kronos quartet was that they seemed well aware of their legacy. They have distinguished themselves as reinvigorating and reviving the string quartet to a new world-wide audience. As collective musicians they've proved the traditional combination of instruments is infinitely capable of performing rock and pop as well as jazz or modern minimalism, and this comes across in the confidence, technical brilliance and the unity of their playing. No other string quartet  in modern times has achieved as much, and their performance at Norwich was a memorable one, not least for their generous three encores which included the ever-popular  'Flugufrelsarinn'  by Icelander, Sigur Ros.

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.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Hawthorn tree

The coldest winter for 50 years followed by the driest ever March and then the  warmest ever April are strong indicators that it's not  just the weather but the  very climate which is changing. I've lived  near to  a specimen of  Hawthorn tree for over 30 years and its the first time I've ever seen  one flower in April, invariably it flowers later in May.  

While cucumber and strawberry growers are reporting an early bumper crop, due to the warm weather, by far the most concerning weather feature at present is the fact that in the East of England it's not rained for almost 3 months. Without water life on Earth is unsustainable. The present-day weather extremes are ominous indicators of  climate change.