A Bronze Age Time Capsule and Haunting Seaside Abbeys

This is a transcript of episode 21 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Dan Cruickshank and Emily Gee as we continue our journey through the history of loss and destruction in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Welcome to Irreplaceable, a History of England in 100 Places.  I'm your new host, Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian based at the University of Roehampton and I'm here to steer you through the next 50 of Historic England's 100 most important locations in England, as nominated by you and selected by ten expert category judges.

Previously Emma Barnett and our expert judges have revealed the Music & Literature, Travel & Tourism, Homes & Gardens, Sport & Leisure and Science & Discovery locations that have shaped us as a nation. They discussed how sites of great achievement in the worlds of science, music and literature have affected us.  Now we're going to look at how places which have suffered destruction and loss have also left their mark.  Today I'm beginning Season Two with our Loss and Destruction category.

In these episodes, we explore the ten most striking examples of places that have been lost or destroyed or those that have been witness to loss and destruction.  Often they are places where the structures that remain are ruins, or may no longer exist physically, but their loss is etched in memory, where the legacy and resonance of loss is palpable.  Some of these places have witnessed terrible losses of life and remain emotive for many, but they are among the battle scars that make England the country it is today and in the words of our judge for this category, Professor Mary Beard, it is important for us as humans to remember and memorialise tragedy.

To take a journey through these locations I'm joined by historian Dan Cruickshank and Historic England's Emily Gee.  Welcome to the studio. How has it been, Dan looking through these and thinking about loss and destruction?

Dan Cruickshank:
I've been battling, I suppose, to save buildings for 40 years so I often see the world of architecture through what is not there. And also I'm aware that often those things which are not there now can be there again. You know, we have a great record actually, in Europe certainly, of recreating things which the loss of which was appalling, intolerable.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Emily, this must speak to the heart of what Historic England is about, this theme?

Emily Gee:
That's right. It's obviously made me think a lot about the work that we do every day. Thinking about what's significant, what are the most important we need to look after and how we continue to live with them.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Okay, so let's move on to our first location to be selected by our judge for this category, Mary Beard, and that's the Bronze Age settlement in Peterborough known as Must Farm. Professor Beard said, "This is one of the greatest recent testimonies to the ability of archaeology to recover the lost past and the past we learned suffered its own catastrophes." Three thousand years ago, a settlement of timber round houses raised on stilts above the marshy ground of the Fens was destroyed in a fire. The remains of the round houses with all the contents still inside fell into the water-logged ground and were preserved. In 1999, a local archaeologist was walking along the edge of the former fenland river at the town of Whittlesey and noticed a series of sticks poking through the edge of the working quarry here.  On closer inspection, and after a little digging, eight Bronze Age log boats were discovered, followed by the round houses themselves. Having been excavated, they offer us an incredible insight into everyday life in the Bronze Age, three thousand years ago. Emily, tell me about this settlement and what happened to it?

Emily Gee:
Well what's so remarkable about Must Farm is that the level of preservation just tells us so much detail about Bronze Age life that was happening at this site. It seems that the settlement itself was built on a platform on stilts over the river channel and around that was a palisade, or a wooden platform. It seems that the buildings were round timber structures on stilts with a springy wattle floor, panelling and roofs made from a mix of thatch, clay and turf. It seems that the platform caught fire and that meant that the whole thing collapsed into the water. We think that some of the buildings when they collapsed were really very new.  The entire place collapsed…there's something of Pompeii about it because it seems from the evidence that archaeologists have found spoons and bowls just there, as if people were fleeing in terror from this extraordinary event that was taking place. It captures so much about the detail of Bronze Age life and is a really, really remarkable discovery.

Dan Cruickshank:
That's why it's intriguing isn't it? Because it's…not just the ancientness but the drama of the destruction and it's incredibly humble. It is this lost world isn't it, of ordinariness. It's not a monument, not a tomb, not a grave, not a stone circle but ordinary homes for ordinary people. The detail of stuff there that's emerged is sensational isn't it?

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes, what sort of objects were found?

Emily Gee:
Well, huge numbers of things. Ceramics, we have well preserved pots from large vessels and tiny little cups that were stacked inside themselves. There are beads here which hint at sophisticated trading routes with the continent. We also have some of the best examples of Bronze Age textiles surviving on this site. We know, amazingly, what people were eating. There was a rubbish pile that shows the diet here was wild boar, red deer and pike and there are charred remains of cereal grains found still within the bowl, with a spoon that someone must have been eating.

Dan Cruickshank:
Interesting the trading routes. I mean how much information does one have, can we extract from the beads? I wonder where - I mean these are the ancient tracks through Britain going to the continent, things being brought across…

Suzannah Lipscomb:
That's right and it hints at that world of trade and rich fabrics. And it is that moment of a fire, but also the buildings going into a waterlogged fen so that they survived. I mean, it's an amazing combination. It gives us an incredible insight into how people lived and the detail of what they were eating- the sort of rich diet they had gives us such insight. We know that the site was excavated in a pretty laborious process and actually is still going on- there are thousands of pieces of wood that have been recovered and are awaiting analysis. So who knows what we've got yet to discover about our bronze age ancestors.

Dan Cruickshank:
But there is nothing else like this, that's the point: in terms of the amount of stuff, the quality of stuff and the social level it relates to. It's important in European terms, world terms isn't it?

Emily Gee:
Yeah, extraordinary treasure trove…

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And as you say, telling us something about the lives of ordinary people.

Well let's move to our second location. That's Whitby Abbey, a place dear to my heart. It's not far from that picturesque seaside town and you have to imagine a windswept dramatic headland overlooking the sea, all stormy skies and atmosphere.  At the heart of the scene are these beautiful haunting ruins. And Whitby Abbey has an extraordinary history. It was almost lost twice: once at the dissolution of the monasteries and again, under fire in World War One. This is quite a striking example of a monastic ruin.

Dan Cruickshank:
Monastic ruins form the fabric of our daily life, certainly somewhere like London.  We're walking always through the ghosts and remains of the monasteries that once surrounded London and the pattern of their spaces still dictate our street form to a large degree. But you can unpick and get tremendous thrills from them. They're seen as a little highway port into the past…Whitby is a great example.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Whitby is because it has such an amazing history. I remember from doing Anglo Saxon history at University, reading [the works of] Bede about the double monastery that was founded there by Hilda, monks and nuns. But it's had other significance along the way of course as well. That's just the start of its importance. There are connections all along the way to important historical events.

Emily Gee:
That's right and the ruined monastery that we see today was built from the 13th to the 15th century, really a 200 year long programme of re-landscaping the site. But it has, as you say, a much longer history. We think there was a Bronze Age settlement here: a round house has been found not far from the ruins and it had a really important period, as you say, in the Anglo-Saxon period when Rome essentially had collapsed in Britain and this clifftop ruin became part of Northumbria, a powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Dan Cruickshank:
The other thing of course- monastic ruins are terrific, but equally terrific the experience of being in Britain are the towns, like Whitby, which it joins. We are so rich in sensational and once sophisticated small towns like Whitby, with beautiful architecture. Beautiful place and of course in a sense, the ruins are so wonderful because you see them in the context of landscape and nature but also this exquisite, largely 18th century town. Whitby is wonderful isn't it?

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It is a beautiful town and actually I don't know if you've ever been, they now have amazing weekends twice a year, one goth and one steampunk festival.

Dan Cruickshank:
Yes, they build on Bram Stoker like there's no tomorrow. Good luck to them but it [Whitby] didn't get much of a mention does it, in Dracula? He arrives, that's all.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Bram Stoker, wasn't he looking over at Whitby Abbey when he got the inspiration for how to write Dracula?

Dan Cruickshank:
Oh, was he? I know Dracula arrives on this ghost craft, that whisks into Whitby and then the great hound leaps off, which is him…but then Whitby is quite quickly left behind I think in the book.  But nevertheless, obviously the gothic feel of the landscape and the ruins was the inspiration wasn't it?

Emily Gee:
And earlier than that too, we know that during Abbess Hilda's time, the first English poet Caedmon had spent much time here. There has been something of a kind of imaginative special and soulful feel about this clifftop really for centuries, just as you describe.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Caedmon is the earliest recorded poet in English history, it's amazing isn't it?  And he is mentioned by Bede and we know from Bede also about the synod of Whitby, don't we? Emily tell me about that.

Emily Gee:
That's right. Well this was a really important moment in Christian history here.  It took place in 664 and it seems the decision was taken by King Oswiu on behalf of the very large kingdom of Northumberland here at Whitby. It decided on the differing traditions and customs between the Celtic and the Roman churches which were both practising in the area and it's largely around how the Easter calendar is calculated each year. It was Rome that won out. As you said, the Synod of Whitby was documented by the monk Bede which is why we know so much about this really important moment in Christian history.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There are two things I remember about this. One, it's also to do with how you cut a monk's tonsure, which apparently was a very important issue at the time. And that King Oswiu was a follower of the Celtic tradition of Christianity, but his wife was a follower of the Roman tradition and clearly she held the day in this. So, this is a really good question and if you know the answer to this and if we're talking rubbish, please write in on Twitter #100places. But as I understand it, if you've got a tonsured head then there's a sort of direct correlation with the divine, if you think of this in very physical terms.

Dan Cruickshank:
I believe that's the case too. It's the belief that the top of the skull, it's like the third eye and all that. Many traditions originally have the same idea, like you have this ray of energy that goes into your body through the top of your head or out, I believe, I think.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And of course, as someone who works on Henry VIII, I have to talk about the fact that this is also one of the largest Abbeys- one of the last largest Abbeys to be dissolved by Henry. Of course, we know that 800 religious houses were dissolved in four short years. It's extraordinary when you think about it. But Whitby Abbey, we can tell from the Valour Ecclesiasticus which was from 1535 when Cromwell did a survey of the monasteries, that it was worth 437 pounds, 2 shillings and 9 pence, so it was very wealthy and then it was stripped of all its valuables and abandoned. So we've got the dissolution and then we've got the German attack, it's amazing that it survived at all.

Dan Cruickshank:
What happened? Did they take their King's shilling and run? Obviously a lot of the guys just took their pension and went.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
That's right. Just three out of all of the 800 abbeys, three Abbots stood up against it and they were executed. Most people, as you say, took the money which was a good pension and got on with it. And then of course places like Whitby, I mean, just down the road Fountains Abbey was pulled apart and made into another hall, but at Whitby Abbey amazingly the ruins are still there and beautiful. So you can still visit them today and be struck as Stoker was by that dramatic image of the ruins against the skyline.

Dan Cruickshank:
It's interesting isn't it, that the monuments to barbarity of the past become now emblems of romantic beauty.

Emily Gee:
I love the idea that in the 19th century when it was really flourishing as a seaside town, that it became a bit of a tourist attraction at that stage and the idea that people were coming for their fish and chips holiday and then ruined Abbey up there as a wonderful dramatic backdrop to the joy and frivolity down on the seaside below.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So here, the gradual loss of a building has become something of an inspiring icon.

Location number three is a very interesting little village and specifically a monastery within it. The ruins of Greyfriars monastery in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast make a peaceful, beautiful site to visit today but the village's continuous battle with the elements means that it has been dubbed Britain's Atlantis. At its height 800 years ago Dunwich was the tenth largest town in England, an important international port and a seat of power for the Anglo-Saxon Bishops, but it was hit by a series of devastating storms in the late 13th century and has been battered by the North Sea ever since. Much of the village has since crumbled into the sea and coastal erosion continues to change the landscape here. Greyfriars monastery was founded sometime around 1277 and it's always had this close and intense relationship with the landscape and the sea, hasn't it?

Dan Cruickshank:
Yes absolutely, yes.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
What do we know about this, the Friary, the original monastery here?

Emily Gee:
Well not long after its founding on New Year's Eve in 1286 a particularly great storm came and destroyed the original Friary, and so they rebuilt it further inland- by 1289 the whole monastery was there and it's largely escaping the advancing seas. They decided to build it inland and that's where the ruins stand today. It's of course hugely emblematic of the power that man and nature have over buildings and places, and how that manifests in our landscape for centuries.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It's here to the East, now just a strip of land between the sea and the ruin, that the medieval Dunwich, before that a Roman settlement, existed once upon a time. Am I right in thinking that the erosion by the sea is such that they've lost 700 metres over 700 years?  That seems an extraordinary amount.

Dan Cruickshank:
It's strange isn't it? It haunts the imagination, Dunwich. People go there to reflect and to ponder. Yes, the wonder of our nature, the loss of communities. You imagine as you look at the sea, the people who lived there and their lives. It's very interesting actually, isn't it? Very powerful emblem of loss. People flock to Dunwich. It's strange, you flock to a pilgrimage to essentially nothing that's visible. Nothing of this world, but something of the other world...

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes, a place that has sort of moved over already and you're going to witness that.

Dan Cruickshank:
It's fascinating actually, yes.

Emily Gee:
There's a rather lovely thing actually, very evocative way of paying homage to the place: the all-night cycle ride, it's been running for about 20 years going from East London out to Dunwich. You cycle through the night and there are candle lit junctions to guide you on your way and then you arrive in the morning and have a dip in the sea to restore yourself from the journey, but it's a wonderfully evocative route out to the semi-lost place.

Dan Cruickshank:
You listen hard and you hear the church bells, can't you? Somewhere out in the sea…

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Our judge for this category, Mary Beard, noticed the timely reminder of how gradual change can be as destructive as an instantaneous tragedy in the loss of this once major settlement. And this gives us this sense that actually, for today, gradual change in the face of nature is very pertinent. It's something - the challenges we are facing with climate change, we're thinking about how to continue to sustain places in the wake of circumstances like this. It seems very topical as well.

Emily Gee:
Absolutely, and it's interesting about how we use the protection systems.  Obviously, we can't protect ourselves necessarily: we can build defences but the idea of listing as a way of indicating the most precious and significant things that should be focused on or saved if there is coastal erosion, what needs to be moved or what needs to be protected the very most as nature comes in on us.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Okay, on that note I think we'll end this episode here, so thank you, Dan Cruikshank and Emily Gee for joining me. We've got more locations to reveal next time, so don't forget to subscribe on your podcast player then you won't miss it and if you have time to leave a review, I'd really appreciate that too. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb. See you next time on Irreplaceable, The History of England in 100 places.

Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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